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3 Mobile under Blockade Our boats were much injured and all the standing rigging shot away: our hull well peppered. —Capt. John Newland Maffitt, CSA Early on the morning of June 5, 1861, a “very dark, sallow man with black hair and eyes, whiskers down each cheek but shaved clean off his chin” eased out of a Liverpool hotel and cautiously wended his way toward the waterfront. He suspected that his every move was monitored by Union spies, and he was right. One was nearby, in fact, and provided the above less-­ than-­ flattering description . Their intense interest in this slightly seedy-­ looking fellow was more than justified. His name was James D. Bulloch, just arrived as the Confederacy ’s chief foreign agent, charged with contracting and building warships for the South­ ern navy. Bulloch was in his late thirties and had already had a varied and interesting career. Born into a distinguished South­ ern family (Theodore Roosevelt was to be a nephew), he had served fifteen years in the US Navy and was the captain of a civilian mail packet when the Civil War began. Like dozens of other ambitious South­ erners, he had made his way to Montgomery early and was there appointed foreign agent. His uncanny administrative acumen was widely known and appreciated on both sides of the Mason-­ Dixon Line, and no one with a troy ounce of judgment dared underestimate him. “He is the most dangerous man the South have here and fully up to his business ,” the chief Union spymaster in Europe, Henry Sanford, informed his government. “I am disbursing at the rate of $150 a month on this one man which will give you an idea of the importance I attach to his movements.”1 Within a few blocks of leaving his hotel, Bulloch arrived at 10 Rumford Mobile under Blockade 61 Place, the elegant three-­ story brick offices of Fraser, Trenholm and Company, a prominent commercial house. Rather than risk being seen at the handsome Classical Revival main entrance, Bulloch slipped around and came through the back door, but he was observed nonetheless. That he had made his way straight to Fraser, Trenholm was no surprise. The firm was partially owned by a Charleston, South Carolina, family and prided itself on strong South­ ern loyalties . One of its Liverpool principals, Charles K. Prioleau, also happened to be the Confederacy’s de facto British banker, and after he warmly welcomed Bulloch, the two quickly got down to business. “No funds had yet reached them, and they had no advice of remittances on behalf of my mission,” Bul­ loch later recalled. But Prioleau, “perceiving the necessity of prompt action, authorized me to give out such orders as were of pressing importance, and to refer to his firm for the financial arrangements.” Within a matter of weeks, the industrious Bulloch had successfully contracted for two vessels, the Oreto and the 290, soon to become famous as the CSS Florida and the CSS Ala­bama respectively . Both would wreak fearsome havoc upon the Union’s merchant fleet in the months to come, but only the Florida’s bright coppered hull would actually course Ala­ bama state waters, and it is her story that concerns us here.2 Building a warship on English soil intended to harry United States vessels was a decidedly risky proposition, and Bulloch did his best to cloak the endeavor . Besides evading Union scrutiny and interference, he had to remain cognizant of British laws forbidding the construction of vessels for use by belligerent foreign powers. However, if anyone was equal to the challenge, it was Bulloch. When he contracted with the William C. Miller and Sons shipyard for the hull, masts, rigging, boats, and “general sea-­ outfit,” he told them the vessel was to be named the Oreto and was for the Italian government. It is doubtful that the shipyard’s savvy owners and workers truly believed that, but they didn’t care and were simply happy to have interesting work. Considering what Bulloch needed from them, they were clearly the logical choice. Miller had extensive experience as a Royal Navy shipwright and knew about old-­ style vessels from bowsprit to sternpost, which perfectly suited the job at hand. Bulloch’s order called for a wooden vessel because it would have to “carry heavy weights on deck and berth large crews.” Miller already had on hand a scale drawing of a Royal Navy gunboat that with minor adjustments would do for the plans...


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MARC Record
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