Clyde Built: Review July 2008

BBC History Magazine: Review July 2008

Almost every aspect of the American Civil War (1861-65) has been covered by historians from every conceivable angle. Eric J. Graham’s meticulous study (subtitled Blockade Runners, Cruisers and Armoured Rams of the American Civil War) breaks new ground by highlighting the significant role that Scottish merchants, shipbuilders, and adventurous individuals played in supporting the Confederacy’s war efforts and, as the Federal government would charge later, prolonging the conflict for at least two years.

The Union navy’s blockade of the Southern Confederacy created a need for real Rhett Butlers to supply the much-needed war munitions as well as basic items for survival. The South looked to Britain to provide the type of steamships that were capable of breaking the blockades and outrunning pursuing Federal vessels. The Clyde-built steamers were the best in the world. It is here that Graham starts his fascinating story of intrigue and high-seas adventure as he highlights the commercial, political, moral, and technical aspects of the activities of the Scots in this dangerous game.

Blockade-running was a high-risk business and not for the fainthearted. However, huge profits were to be made and the risk for many was worth it. Innovations in ship and engine design were needed to maximise speed and efficiency. Graham argues that if a ship could make two successful voyages then the cost of the ship, cargo and crew (mostly Scots) was covered. The author traces the activities of key players such as Thomas Begbie amid the backdrop of diplomatic and political controversies, as well as the activities of emancipation societies.

Graham combines the talents of good solid historical detection with the art of storytelling.

Dr Tony Parker is director, School of American Studies, University of Dundee.

BBC History Magazine