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THE FLIGHT FROM THE FLAG: THE AMERICAN GOVERNMENT, THE BRITISH CARIBBEAN, ANDTHE AMERICANMERCHANTMARINE, 1861-1865 KennethJ. Blume The Civil War is often viewed as a critical era for America's foreign merchant fleet. During those four years, American-flag foreign tonnage declined by more than one-half. Some two hundred vessels, over one hundred thousand tons, were burned, sunk, or scuttled because of the Confederate cruisers and privateers. But another one thousand vessels, between eight hundred thousand and and nine hundred thousand tons, were sold to foreign owners—predominantly British—to gain use ofa neutral flag. Traditionally, historians have attributed this "flight from the flag" to the work of the Confederate raiders and cruisers.1 However, an examination ofUnion actions regarding shipping to the British Caribbean reveals the importance ofgovernment policy in fostering that "flight." Contemporaries, sensed the impact of the Confederate cruisers and raiders on the merchant marine. Secretary of State William Seward railed 1 The standard work on the subject remains George W. Dalzell, The Flightfrom the Flag: The Continuing Effect of the Civil War Upon the American Carrying Trade (Chapel Hill: Univ. ofNorth Carolina Press, 1940), especially 249-57. For other exponents ofthe "Confederate Raiders" thesis, see also Richard C. McKay, South Street: A Maritime History ofNew York (New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1934; rpt. Riverside, Conn.: 7 Cs Press, 1969), 423; and Archibald C. Denison, America's Maritime History (New York: G. E Putnam's Sons, 1944), 103. Other historians have suggested a multiplicity of reasons for the decline of the fleet. See, for example, Lawrence C. Allin, "The Civil War and the Period of Decline: 1861-1913," in America's Maritime Legacy: A History of the U.S . Merchant Marine and Shipbuilding Industry since Cohnial Times, ed. Robert A. Kilmarx (Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 1979), 66-67; K. Jack Bauer, "The Golden Age," in America's Maritime Legacy, 59; Ralph D. Paine, The Old Merchant Marine: A Chronicle ofAmerican Ships and Sailors (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1921), 176-78; Willis J. Abbott, The Story of Our Merchant Marine (New York: Dodd, Mead, 1919), 85-86; Paul Maxwell Zeis, American Shipping Policy (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1939), 11-12; Allan Nevins, Sail On: The Story ofthe American Merchant Marine (n.p., United States Lines, 1946), 45; and James M. Civil War History, Vol. XXXII, No. 1, ©1986 by The Kent State University Press THE AMERICAN MERCHANT MARINE45 against the "pirates," as Northern leaders called Southern vessels and crews, "who are engaged in destroying our commerce."2 Numerous petitions from potential Confederate privateers bore witness to the intent of the Confederate government.3 Northern naval commanders knew that Southern cruisers were masters ofdisguise in donning false flags, especially naval ensigns, to avoid detection. But despite the desperate efforts ofthe navy to protect Yankee ships, no type of Northern shipping was exempt from the Southern threat, and no route was completely safe. Routes to the Caribbean—highways for such booty as mail, raw materials, manufactured goods, and bullion—were special targets. Even so mighty a force as the hastily concocted Northern navy had to be stretched thin to patrol the area. Consular reports regularly drew the State Department's attention to what was happening: to the continuing changes ofship registry and declining number of American merchantmen in port; to the rising freight and insurance rates for Union shippers; to the pervading fear of capture that kept Union shippers offthe seas; and to the absolute need for protection by the United States Navy.4 Contemporary statistics clearly demonstrated the flight from the flag that was underway. The situation atTurks Island was a good case in point. By the end of the third quarter of 1863, thirty-five American vessels had switched registry. Indeed, there were as many transfers from January to May as there had been during the entire preceding two Morris, Our Maritime Heritage: Maritime Developments andTheir Impact onAmerican Life (Washington, D.C: University Press of America, 1979), 195-97. Regardless of the motivations (some honorable) ofshipowners who switched flags during the war, American law prohibited the repatriation ofsuch vessels, and so the tonnage was lost forever to the American flag. Also working against the...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1533-6271
Print ISSN
0009-8078
Pages
pp. 44-55
Launched on MUSE
2012-01-04
Open Access
No
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