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Coal and Diplomacy in the British Caribbean during the Civil War Kenneth J. Blume The connection between the needs of the American steam navy and American foreign policy has typically been tested for the period ofthe "New Navy," from the 1 88os on, but it is equally valuable to examine the navy's early steam era. The attempts throughout the Civil War to maintain or obtain supplies of coal on various British West Indian islands can serve as a test of coal and diplomacy , British neutrality, Union and Confederate naval provocations, and American foreign policy in general. The initial Union navy was predominantly steam; the massive navy that the Union built and acquired during the war was almost exclusively steam; and throughout the war, individual Union squadrons were generally at least threequarters steam." The impact of steam on blockading was obvious at the time. Secretary of State William H. Seward called the blockade probably the first one which has been attempted in any considerable scale since steam became the chief agent of maritime commerce. ... I think I hazard little in expressing the belief that no maritime power can ever hereafter maintain so effectual a blockade as ours against steam mercantile navigation. . . . [E]ither our blockade must be acknowledged to be sufficient, or it must be held that no lawful blockade can be maintained against contraband traders who enjoy the advantage of steam navigation.2 ' Statistics can be found, for example, in U.S. Navy Department, AnnualReport ofthe Secretary of the Navy (hereafter cited as ARSN and year); and Official Records of the Union and Confederate Navies in the War ofthe Rebellion, 30 vols. (Washington, D.C: GPO, 1 894-1922), ser. ? (hereafter cited as ORN), vol. 6:xvii-xviii, xv-xvi; ibid., vol. 7:xvii-xxi; ibid., vol. i6:xvii-xix; ibid., vol. i7:xvii-xix; ibid., vol. i8:xv-xvi; ibid., vol. 22:xiv-xvi. See also Fletcher Pratt, The Navy, a History: The Story ofa Service in Action (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, Doran, 1938), 424-41; and James Russell Soley, The Blockade and the Cruisers (New York, 1883), 244-50. 1 Seward to Lyons, Aug. 8, 1864, U.S. Department of State, Foreign Relations ofthe United States, 1862 (Washington: GPO, 1861-), 673 (hereafter cited as FRUS). Civil War History, Vol. XLI, No. 2 © 1995 by The Kent State University Press COAL AND DIPLOMACY1 17 As more of the vessels running the blockade were built for that purpose, a larger proportion were steamers. Therefore, the use of steam in the Union's blockading fleet grew as the war progressed. Meanwhile, the North's oceangoing naval forces had to capture or destroy Confederate cruisers. Here, too, steam predominated.3 Only steam could catch steam. By the Civil War, then, steam power was a critical factor in naval planning.4 "I will trade you my two sailing frigates and a sloop for one ofthe new steamers now building," Flag Officer Silas Stringham commented early in the war.5 The practical implications of this reliance on steam were that captains had new worries, especially the notorious unreliability of steam engines and their dependence on a source of energy—coal—that was not free for the asking and available everywhere. A vessel that burned up its coal before reaching its destination was of little use, especially if the destination lacked facilities or supplies for recoaling. During the Civil War, converted tugs and ferries sometimes barely reached their destinations before emptying their bunkers. Steam blockaders could consume excessive coal by hovering outside a Southern harbor and then have insufficient quantities to engage in a real chase. Steam blockade runners occasionally exhausted their coal by coasting from port to port looking for a safe entrance, being forced as a result to return to Nassau to refuel and try again. As Rear Adm. Samuel F. DuPont observed, "Steam ... is the new element in the history of blockades."6 To be sure, American commanders on blockading duty or on the West India stations knew the folly of ignoring their vessels' coal supplies.7 In many instances, coal could be the predominant factor determining a vessel's disposition. Similarly, coal supplies shaped the plans of steam blockade...


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