Querypic, commerce raiders, and the American civil war at sea

Playing with querypic can be addictive, as I did when trying to work out how quickly the news of Abraham Lincoln’s assasination spread to Australia, or more accurately the happenstance element of the other things that you find along the way is incredibly addictive, such as this apology for delayed mail at a time when the mail steamers brought the news from overseas:

The detention of the mails this month arose from the incompetency of the Peninsular and Orient steamers to keep to the contract times. The rate of speed from Suez to Galle and King George’s Sound only averaged seven and a half knots per hour. Througout the average speed ofAustralian Steam Navigation Company’s mail steamer was ten and a half knots in unfavourable weather.

Amusement aside, the thing that looking at these old newspapers gives you is the realisation of the extent to which the American civil war was a worldwide sensation with regular reports from the battlefield. This was very much a reported war.

The war is usually represented in history books as an almost exclusively land based war, but reading these reports, it rapidly becomes clear that there was a substantial naval conflict with what the Confederacy styled commerce raiders and other privateers and worse preying on Union shipping. Much in the way that German auxiliary cruisers such as the Kormoran preyed on allied shipping during world war II.

The 1860’s was a time of change in shipping – steamships or sail assisted steamships were becoming the norm. The great shipping lines of the latter half of the nineteenth century were not yet in operation, and a lot of cargo was still carried on sailing ships – after all if the cargo was not time critical sail would do, and on the right route at the right time of year sail could still beat steam.


The other thing to realise is the importance of whaling. Whales provided the oil for oil lamps, making the supply of oil critical in a time when most lighting outside of towns and cities was in from oil lamps. Disrupting whaling would disrupt the supply of lighting oil and hence rural life and industry.

Whaling ships would sail from New England in pursuit of whales – for oil, for baleen. The whalers would sail down to the Southern Ocean or round the Cape of Good Hope up to San Francisco and then up into the sea of Okhotsk.

San Francisco was a small wild whaling port at the time, and because of the lack of an overland route from the east coast almost as isolated as the colonial cities of Australia or New Zealand. Other towns on the west coast of America such as Portland and Seattle were not much more than logging camps and trading posts, meaning much of what went on in the northern Pacific was out of sight from news corrspondents.

And where the whalers went the Confederate privateers pursued them.

The Confederate navy was not based on the American mainland but unofficially and de facto in Liverpool, which was one of the largest ports in England at the time and the main import route for cotton from the southern states to the Lancashire cotton industry. The cotton industry was of critical importance to the south as their main export and earner of foreign currency. The Union however successfully blockaded the Confederate ports, and while some ships did run the blockade the trade was effectively strangled by the blockade.


Unsurprisingly when the southern blockade runners tried to get their cargo out it was to Liverpool, meaning that the Confederate government had a semi official office in the town, and gradually the role of this office changed from organising cotton shipments to acquiring ships, or having ships built and then moved to a friendly port to be commissioned and armed as confederate navy vessels.

Britain, shall we say, while officially neutral had an extremely lax interpretation of neutrality with shipyards in Liverpool and on the Clyde building blockade runners and later commerce raiders for the South.

These commerce raiders were front page news around the world. One of the privateers the Alabama, distinguished herself by sinking a Union vessel in sight of the shore off Cape Town, again something that was front page news at the time. The Alabama then ran for Cherbourg and was sunk nine miles off Cherbourg by a Union vesssel, the Kearsarge.

News of civil war naval engagement in the English Channel was a major sensation in both London and Australia, with graphic accounts of the conflict being published in the press.

Another privateer, the Florida was lying in Brest at the time, and when explosions were heard off of Jersey in fog a few days after the Alabama’s sinking it was assumed wrongly that the Kearsarge had found another victim. In fact neither the Kearsarge or its sister ship found the Florida.

The last of these privateers, the Shenandoah didn’t surrender until November 1865, more than six months after the end of the war, and then it was to a British naval vessel, the captain probably guessing that the British would be more acommodating than the Union navy.

To emphasise the global nature of the conflict, the Shenandoah had previously put in to Melbourne for repairs, something that was a major sensation for the newspapers in Victoria at the time, and consequently her surrender half a world away was most definitely newsworthy.

As well as giving a sense of the history, following the stories through shows how the news was relayed by the first news agencies, picking up and relaying stories from the English press to newspapers in Australia and New Zealand, and shows how the advent of the mail steamer and the telegraph meant that life in Australia ceased to be ‘life on Mars’ but life on somewhere connected to and engaged with the rest of planet Earth.

About dgm

Former IT professional, previously a digital archiving and repository person, ex research psychologist, blogger, twitterer, and amateur classical medieval and nineteenth century historian ...
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2 Responses to Querypic, commerce raiders, and the American civil war at sea

  1. Pingback: Using Welsh Papers online .. | stuff 'n other stuff

  2. Pingback: Burnes Bogatyr and the Pacific | stuff 'n other stuff

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