An Honorable Beginning

Today, we are pleased to welcome back guest author Dwight Hughes

United States mail steamer Bienville
United States mail steamer Bienville

April 13, 1861—the broad, brown Mississippi flood tugged at United States mail steamer Bienville as she lay alongside a New Orleans levee preparing to sail the next morning with passengers, mail, and cargo for New York. Rumors were flying that fighting had begun somewhere, and about ten o’clock it became certain that General Beauregard had opened fire upon Fort Sumter in Charleston harbor. Bienville’s Captain James D. Bulloch confronted painful and potentially dangerous dilemmas concerning himself and his command.

Commander James D. Bulloch (left) and half-brother, Shenandoah Sailing Master Irvine S. Bulloch
Commander James D. Bulloch (left) and half-brother, Shenandoah Sailing Master Irvine S. Bulloch

Citizens collected on street corners, at hotels, and public places talking earnestly and gravely. There was no excitement or bravado, neither were there signs of despondency or distrust, recalled Bulloch in his memoirs. He felt, “a tingling of the flesh, a chilliness of the scalp, and a sensation as if each hair was slowly lifting itself on end. It was not fear, because the bravest of the brave are thus affected. It was only the keen consciousness of peril.” A few younger men talked of arming and marching to the frontier without waiting for a call, but the majority spoke and acted, “like men who were conscious that a great crisis had arisen, and they were ready to meet it.”[1]

Some years before, Bulloch had been one of a few Navy lieutenants detailed to the civilian Steam Packet and Mail Service to gain experience in steam. The Mail Service had increased, creating a demand for commanders and offering good positions with higher pay. Meanwhile, slow promotion in the Navy had “sapped the energies and ambition,” had “ceased to inspire,” and was depressing. Bulloch and several others resigned their commissions to remain in the Mail Service.

New Orleans ca. 1862
New Orleans ca. 1862

Like most Southerners, Bulloch hoped for a settlement short of war; he did not feel obligated to give up his occupation and business connections prematurely. “When [my home state of] Georgia seceded I was only a private individual engaged in the ordinary business of life. I had become completely identified with the shipping enterprises of New York…. My personal interests were wholly, and my personal friendships were chiefly, in the North….I had no property of any kind at the South, nor any pecuniary interests whatever in that part of the country.”

However, noted Bulloch, “My heart and my head were with the South.” Now Beauregard had sounded the battle call; there could be no hesitation or delay. He prepared a letter to Judah P. Benjamin, Attorney-General of the new Confederate States, offering his services but explaining that he first must return Bienville to her New York owners. After posting that letter, the captain went on board to hasten preparations for sailing in the morning.

That afternoon two members of the “Board of War” came to the ship with the steamship company agent, and informed Captain Bulloch of their intention to secure Bienville for Confederate service. She would be an excellent acquisition for a fledgling navy with a good supply of officers—most of them former U.S. Navy—but virtually no ships. If the captain would name a price, the governor would pay it. Despite continued urgings, Bulloch insisted that he had no authority to sell the vessel, nor could he make any arrangements for transferring her to the Confederacy. “Finally, they told me that if I did not accept the terms offered, it would probably be necessary to take the ship by force, but they would inform me of the Governor’s decision at a later hour.”

Bulloch’s personal allegiance was well known; the proposals were “made in a very friendly way,” and he did not anticipate violence. “But still I felt that I could neither sell the ship nor give her up without resistance, and it was inexpressibly painful to contemplate the possibility that I might be forced into collision with the Government I was willing and had just offered to serve.”

Later in the afternoon, one of the gentlemen returned and informed Bulloch that the governor was telegraphing the matter to the nascent Confederate government at Montgomery, Alabama, and requesting instructions. The company agent, Mr. John Fox, spent the evening on board. He also was a Southerner and a secessionist, but loyalty to his captain and New York owners prevailed: He agreed that honor would not permit Bienville to be relinquished on any terms.

Bulloch could not fight, but he could run, and he meant to. He ordered the mooring lines shifted so they could be quickly slipped from the deck and directed the engineer to get up steam. The plan was to swing off the levee at the first show of force and “skedaddle” downriver on the good four or five knot spring current. The forts probably would not interfere. “But I felt both grieved and annoyed at the prospect of having to run from my friends, to save the property of those who were constructively my enemies.”

Happily, the necessity for the race did not arise. At about 10 p.m., a message arrived from the governor to the effect that the offer for purchase was still open, but that nothing would be done to prevent departure in the morning. President Davis himself had responded to the governor: “Do not detain the Bienville; we do not wish to interfere in any way with private property.”

“These personal incidents are of no importance in themselves,” recalled Bulloch, “but they may be of some interest as demonstrating the comparatively trivial circumstances which mark the beginning of great events, and they manifest the purpose of the Confederate authorities to act with prudence, and without the heat and passion which commonly mark the conduct of men when driven into revolutionary enterprises.”

At 8:00 a.m., April 14, Bienville sailed for Havana in route to New York flying the United States ensign. As she neared the forts looming on the banks at the Mississippi mouth, everyone came on deck to look. Sentinels stood at ease on the parapets. “The flag at the staff on Fort Jackson bore the familiar red and white stripes, with blue Union in the corner, but the stars representing the States which still remained in the Union had been erased.” The Confederacy had not yet adopted a distinctive flag.

They apparently carried the first report to Havana that hostilities had begun. “There was much excitement there in consequence.” The United States steamer Corwin was in port, and two transports also in route for New York with a dismounted regiment of United States cavalry on board. The troops had been serving on the Texas frontier, and when that State seceded, they had been required to surrender public property and evacuate.

Many officers came on board to learn the news. “The officers of neither army nor navy had been fired with the war-fever at that early date, and all expressed regret at the unhappy turn of affairs. They were nevertheless Northern men, who meant to retain their commissions, and fight it out on that side, and I listened to their comments, but maintained a prudent reserve.”

Bienville sailed for New York, arriving on the evening of April 22. Off the bar they met two outward-bound steamers, standing to the southward, both crowded with troops. One of them hailed in passing, and reported that she was bound for Washington. A large Long Island Sound steamer lay at anchor off the pier head. “She loomed up grandly in the thin mist that lay upon the river. Her lofty tiers of saloons were brilliantly lighted, and she appeared to be swarming with passengers.”

As soon as Bienville berthed, a company managing director came on board, informing Bulloch: “There had been fears that the Confederates would make a sudden dash and seize Washington, and troops were hurrying forward for its protection.” A regiment of United States volunteers had confronted a mob in Baltimore; some lives were lost. The anchored seamer was the Empire State with a regiment from Rhode Island on board. The Government had chartered Bienville to take these troops to Washington, and they must embark as soon as possible.

“Of course, I could not go on that enterprise, and I told the director so,” wrote Bulloch. “Fortunately I was not pressed for reasons.” The directors were friendly; another commander was quietly appointed. Shortly afterwards the company steamers were bought by the United States Government, armed, and sent to blockade Southern ports. “At a later period of the war I recognized the Bienville off the port of Savannah, where she formed a part of Admiral DuPont’s fleet.”

It had been only nine days since Beauregard’s guns opened fire upon Fort Sumter, “but their echoes had already reached the farthest limits of the country. They had lighted a conflagration which spread with electric speed and burned with consuming energy for four years.”

Bulloch reported the next morning to the steamship company office. Having received no reply to his letter from Attorney-General Benjamin, he was unsure how to act, and worried that postal and telegraphic communications between North and South were neither reliable nor confidential. “My embarrassment was happily relieved by finding a letter from Mr. Benjamin awaiting me.” It must have been among the last to come through regular mail. It was brief, but to the point. The Secretary of the Navy desired him to come to Montgomery “without delay.”

Bulloch destroyed the letter at once, and began settling affairs with the company and other matters of business. But, “safety required that I should act without precipitancy.” His return to New York with Bienville apparently had removed any suspicions among the public authorities concerning Bulloch’s loyalty, and, “my friends either thought that I intended at least to remain neutral, or else they were too considerate to ask questions or to suggest doubts.”

For ten disagreeable days, he was detained in the city. Subsequent information indicated that, had Bulloch shown haste in his movements, he would have been arrested. He mentioned to a few personal friends an intention of going to Philadelphia or possibly to Cincinnati, “and in the early days of May I started southward with light luggage, as if for a short journey.”

Thus began a brilliant four years’ service by James Dunwoody Bulloch as primary agent in Great Britain for the Confederate navy. He was forty years old, a former U.S. Navy officer, merchant master, and businessman with extensive experience, formidable organizing talents, and fierce determination. Bulloch’s half-brother, Irvine Stephens Bulloch was sailing master on the CSS Shenandoah. Their sister, Martha, married Theodore Roosevelt, Sr. and bore the future president.

Against persistent Union espionage and intense diplomatic pressure, Bulloch launched the most successful Confederate commerce raiders—Alabama, Florida, and Shenandoah—along with blockade runners crammed with hundreds of tons of arms and equipment. He contracted for two iron-hulled, steam warships—the “Laird rams”—and the ironclad CSS Stonewall. U.S. Minister to Great Britain Charles Francis Adams would write that Bulloch and associates were more effectively directing hostile operations than if they had been in Richmond: “In other words, so far as the naval branch of warfare is concerned, the real bureau was fixed at Liverpool….”[2]

[1] James D. Bulloch, The Secret Service of the Confederate States in Europe; or, How the Confederate Cruisers Were Equipped, 2 vols. (repr., New York: Thomas Yoseloff, 1959), 1:30-39. Ibid for all Bulloch quotes in this article.

[2] Adams to Earl Russell, The Case of Great Britain as Laid Before the Tribunal of Arbitration Convened at Geneva, 3 vols. (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1872), 1:847.

1 Response to An Honorable Beginning

  1. Dwight:

    Great post.

    The early weeks of the Civil War were a confusing time for partisans on both sides. Nobody in the U.S. had ever faced anything like it. Bulloch’s fascinating story exemplifies those times.

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