- The Alabama, British Neutrality, and the American Civil War
All who have studied British reactions to the American Civil War in the last thirty years have had to pay serious attention to Merli's pioneering work, Great Britain and the Confederate Navy, which appeared in 1970. Since then, Merli has teased us with a few articles, many in rather obscure journals, promising even more penetrating analyses on the centrality of the ships being constructed in Liverpool to our understanding of British reactions to the protagonists in the war. But nothing came of the promise. Now, his friend David Fahey has put together, posthumously, much of Merli's writings on the escape of the Alabama in the summer of 1863 and its impact on diplomatic relations among Great Britain, the Union, and the Confederacy.
Merli insists that the historiography of Civil War diplomacy has suffered from the fact that "no one has fully studied the legal dimension of the British response" to the efforts of the Confederacy and its agent, James D. Bulloch, to build a navy on the Mersey (91). Understanding what happened in July 1863, Merli insists, requires careful attention to chronology, or what he calls a "microscopic examination" (46). Only by doing so can we come to the realization that neither Lord Russell, the British Foreign Secretary, or the Prime Minister, Lord Palmerston, was complicit in the ship's escape, and that a large part of the blame rests with American officials who did not prepare their complaints in a form that the British authorities could use to legally seize the ship. On the other hand, before acting Bulloch studied the provision of the Foreign Enlistment Act, and the meaning and reach of British neutrality. Luck smiled on him when he received a tip from an unknown source that the authorities were on the verge of seizing the ship. But as far as Merli is concerned, Bulloch made his own luck. If there is a hero in this story it is Bulloch who Merli describes as "one of America's preeminent naval diplomats"(39). While Merli's analysis is eminently reasonable, it is still haunted by the question that, were the British government so inclined, could it have made a political decision to detain the ship. The U.S. government and its representatives in London and Liverpool thought so.
There are a few pages of sustained analysis where the events of the escape are detailed, the questions of the British government's complicity explored, the limits of British neutrality explained enough to convince the discerning reader that Merli is right. But throughout it all, the demands of chronology that Merli imposes on himself threatens to overwhelm his analysis. It is not that he is unaware of the problem, for he recognizes that it might be "tedious to examine" (64) the details, as he says on more than one occasion. The tedium may be a consequence of Merli's determination —a determination that borders on the obsessive—to expose the [End Page 201] shortcomings of two of the preeminent historians of British reactions to the war, E. D. Adams and Frank Owsley. Their analysis, he insists, is riddled with factual and interpretive errors, the result of sloppy research and a lack of attention to detail, nor do they offer a satisfactory explanation of why Europe failed to come to the aid of the Confederacy, or why, in turn, the Confederacy failed to exploit its advantages. Merli is on a mission to expose these errors and shortcomings, aware that they have been echoed in the works of other historians. For that we should be grateful. But Merli's achievement comes with a price. There is repetition and at times the amount of detail gets the better of analysis. It very well may be that, having worked on the subject for close to thirty years, Merli never completed his magnum opus because once the events leading up to the escape of the ship had been disentangled—no mean feat, mind...