July 21, 2004

A fascinating character

I am sometimes intrigued by the people who populate the periphery of history. These are people who, while they may have been famous or notorious in their own era, have been relegated to the footnote of history in our time. These are people who may have been very accomplished in their own right, but who are known to us today primarily because of their association with someone who has greater historical gravitas or because they played what is now felt to be a minor role in an important event. Seriously, isn't this a fascinating concept? These "peripherals" led full lives and may have done astonishing things, some of them, yet they are eclipsed by their contemporaries by reason merely of their association. Who remembers the names of any of the men who went with Perry to Japan? Or climbed Everest with Hillary? Or was the second in command to William the Conqueror? Are they any less deserving of our attention?

Well, sometimes you find these peripherals as they put in an appearance in a history or a biography. Sometimes, if you look closely, you can see them in the corner of a book or peeking out from behind the drapes of history, as it were, where the author left them while he or she is writing about someone else.

I just observed one such elusive person. As I mentioned before, I am reading McCullough's biography of Theodore Roosevelt as a child and young man. Teddy was a world stage historical personage. His maternal uncle, James Bulloch, was a pretty compelling figure in his own right.

James Bulloch was born in Roswell, Georgia and grew up in a house that may have been the model for the mansion in Gone with the Wind. He was, in Teddy's own words, a former admiral in the Confederate Navy and the builder of the Alabama:

My mother's two brothers, James Dunwoodie Bulloch and Irvine Bulloch, came to visit us shortly after the close of the war. Both came under assumed names, as they were among the Confederates who were at that time exempted from the amnesty. "Uncle Jimmy" Bulloch was a dear old retired sea-captain, utterly unable to "get on" in the worldly sense of that phrase, as valiant and simple and upright a soul as ever lived, a veritable Colonel Newcome. He was an Admiral in the Confederate navy, and was the builder of the famous Confederate war vessel Alabama.

To leave him at that would not be doing him justice. The building of the Alabama was significant for the Civil War and his accomplishments in doing so may have influenced the future of naval policy under Pres. Teddy.

Captain Bulloch had the Alabama built under the nose of the Union and in contravention of the British law forbidding the building of foreign men of war. He was sent to England to procure a fleet of ships. These had to be built. Naturally, the Union was trying to stop this project and spies were everywhere. The Alabama was built under a different name and Captain Bulloch sailed her out of Liverpool to be refitted as a corsair just ahead of the law. The story of the building and escape can be found here.

During her first months of service alone, the Alabama took Union shipping worth over $400,000. The episode of the Alabama can also be found in a book devoted to the Secret Navy of the CSA.

According to the BBC, the C.S.S. Alabama significantly poisoned English and American relations for years. And no wonder, according to the book I referenced above: "When it was finally unleashed as the CSS Alabama, the Confederate gunship triggered the last great military campaign of the Civil War; a maritime adventure unparalleled in our history; an infamous example of British political treachery; and the largest retribution settlement ever negotiated by an international tribunal: $15,500,000 in gold paid by Britain to the United States."

The Alabama was finally brought to heel in June of 1864 by the USS Kearsage outside of Cherbourg, France. Actually, I went and saw a wonderful small exhibit about this naval battle at the Metropolitan Museum of Art last summer. If you follow the link, you will find images of the paintings by famous artists, such as Manet, of this battle.

So there you have it, James Bulloch was an important civil war figure. He died, by the way, in England as an Englishman, without ever being eligible for a pardon.

But what was the effect of his exploits? I have seen it argued that without Bulloch in Teddy's life, we might never have seen the development of such a critically important strong navy.

The economic impact of the commerce raiders was significant, so much so that historian Philip Van Doren Stern considers James Bulloch's contribution to the Confederacy second only to that of Robert E. Lee. The Alabama and her fellow commerce raiders destroyed many millions of dollars worth of American merchant ships, diverted numerous Union naval ships from the blockade of Confederate harbors, nearly destroyed the American merchant marine (which never again recovered the world dominance it had enjoyed before the Civil War), and inflated American maritime insurance rates to such an extent as to drive more than one New England shipowner into bankruptcy.

The idea of this potential for naval power was early drummed into young Theodore Roosevelt. As he wrote: "From my earliest recollection I have been fed on tales of the sea and of ships. My mother's ... deep interest in the Southern cause and her brother's calling led her to talk to me as a little shaver about ships, ships, ships, and fighting of ships, till they sank into the depths of my soul. And when I first began to think, in any independent and consecutive order ... I began to write a history of the Naval War of 1812."

* * *

It was, indeed, on Roosevelt's watch as President that the United States emerged into the top ranks of the world's naval powers. By 1907, the Atlantic Fleet was comprised of no less than 16 battleships which formed, according to Secretary of the Navy Victor H. Metcalf, "in weight and numbers combined, the most powerful fleet of battle ships under one command in any navy." By 1908, the US stood second among naval powers in the index of capital ships. TR made sure to put his amassed naval power on display when he ordered the global circumnavigation of the Atlantic fleet, often called the Great White Fleet, from December 1908 through February 1909.

So there you have it. My attempt to shed a little light on an otherwise not so common figure.

Finally, I have to admit, I am pretty intrigued by the thought that an important influence in the life of Teddy Roosevelt was a Confederate veteran of the War Between the States. I don't know what to make of it, but I think it's interesting.

Posted by Random Penseur at July 21, 2004 04:54 PM

Very interesting. I have heard of the Kearsage but never realized how devastating its opponents were.

I'd love to see more on these "behind the curtains" figures.

Posted by: Jim at July 22, 2004 07:30 AM

Thanks, Jim. I'm glad you enjoyed this. I'm going to do this from time to time and you have kindly provided the category name for it.

Posted by: RP at July 22, 2004 09:18 AM

It's odd how so many people who contributed greatly to our civilization's history failed to rise to prominence in the public consciousness. Being overshadowed by greatness in another can be a blessing or a curse, depending on the outcome.

Damned good of you to bring attention to them!

Posted by: Mick at July 22, 2004 11:57 AM

Well, what are you waiting for? There's a history waiting to be written!

I'd be interested to read it when it's done, particularly because my own great-grandfather in Prince Edward Island was a sea captain, said to have run Union blockades during the Civil War.

Cheers, MCNS

Posted by: Mark C N Sullivan at July 22, 2004 12:37 PM

Mark, that's really interesting. Did any of his journals or logs make it down to you or anyone else in the family?

Thanks, Mick!

Posted by: RP at July 22, 2004 02:06 PM
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