Published on behalf of Colin Vernall.
151 years ago, on the 10th February 1864 Captain James Carlin (UGD 3/34/14) concerning the building of three ships for blockade running purposes to William Bee & Co, South Carolina, 1864. In his letter February 10th 1864, it is clear that Captain James Carlin went to some lengths to supply ships to beat the Union’s blockade of the Confederacy in the American Civil War. Carlin both looked for builders with which to place orders for ships and to find existing ships to purchase, which would be appropriate to both the speed and capacity required for running the union blockade during the American Civil War. In his role representing the Confederacy Carlin had to maintain the pretence of acting as a private individual. However, it was an open secret in the British shipbuilding trade that Carlin was acting as representative of the Confederacy. A former sea captain, he had become by this time Superintendent of the South Carolina Importing and Exporting Co. (SCIE Co). Along with the Charleston-based Bee Company, the SCIE Co. in effect ran the State’s blockade running exercise.
In a letter to the organisation, Carlin outlines various attempts at securing the services of shipbuilders, investigating and reporting back on costs. He also looked over existing vessels as potential blockade runners, checking their capacity to hold cargos, as well as their speed and manoeuvrability. This involved extensive travel around British shipyards with speculative visits to different yards in the North-East of England; in Stockton on Tees, Middlesbrough, Newcastle and Hartlepool; before commissioning work from Clyde side shipyards. Carlin was promised quotes for two of the ships he required by yards on the Tees: though his letter does not specify which builders these refer to. Furthering his attempts at trying to gain the best ships, built with the newest materials and capable of the best speeds, as well as balancing all this with a concern for cost, he also mentions going to trials of new steel ships at Liverpool. Carlin eventually makes his way to the Clyde, though judging by the tone of his letter, he is at first quite wary of Clyde shipbuilders.
” So I started forthwith for the Clyde, against which place I have been prejudiced since hearing Capt’ Rollins experience.”
At James & George Thomson Shipbuilders on the Clyde, Carlin was offered the right scale, speed and cost of ship, however at seven months the completion time for the work was too long. On enquiring at Denny’s shipbuilders Carlin found that though the company could set to work immediately on building the ship’s hulls, they could not build the engines required. Denny was however able to use connections in the industry to build the appropriate engines. With rising costs of materials and labour, as well as varying specifications for the types of ships on offer, Denny’s estimate was higher than that of Thomson’s. Nevertheless, weighing up his options, considering cost, speed and the need to transport the maximum amount of cargo in as few trips as possible, Carlin sees Denny’s as the best option.
“My most important reason for building with […] Denny is that I can get what we want [with] Thompsons we would be obliged to take what he would give […] I think the difference in price is more than counterbalanced by the difference in time for delivery & in the quality of ships when finished.”
Carlin was convinced that Denny’s proposals represented a speedy delivery of the three ships required; a crucial factor in the context of the Civil War, and that Denny’s company represented the very best of shipbuilding on the Clyde.
Archive Services also hold a number of other documents relating to the building of blockade runners by other Clydeside shipbuilders. These include ledgers itemising the cost of parts and overall construction, illustrating the large scale of investment of capital and labour in the enterprise. For example, the records of William Denny & Brothers Ltd, shipbuilders and marine engineers, include letters offering to build ships to the specifications required for blockade running. A letter related to the SS Caroline, apologises for delays in the completion of some of the work, thanking the client for their ongoing co-operation in the matter (UGD 3/5/31).
The records of Sir James Lumsden of Arden, who became Lord Provost of Glasgow in the year following the end of the American Civil War, show that Sir James was being kept aware of the details of successful blockade running voyages (DC112/C/18/2/5/1-2).
Further correspondence indicates Sir James’ interest in businesses whose principal enterprise was blockade running (DC112/C/28/6), and another item, a receipt showing the future Provost’s investment in another blockade running company, illustrates the fairly open involvement of some of the best known local worthies.
Among Sir James’ documents in Archive Services is a note from Chas. Livingston dated 17 Nov’ 1864 (DC112/C/18/2/1), informing the Councillor of the progress of a blockade runner, the Talisman. The correspondence itemises the ship’s cargo of 389 bales of cotton and its successful passage from Wilmington to Bermuda; Wilmington, North Carolina being the principal Confederate port while Bermuda was used for refuelling blockade runners as well as the blockade beating trade in goods and weaponry.
Another of Sir James’ papers is a prospectus for the Albion Trading Company (UGD112/C/28/6), an enterprise devoted to blockade running. The document includes itemised lists of goods and equipment including Steamers, their tonnage and cost, with figures of up to £276,000 – equivalent to approximately £12 million today – indicating the scale of investment in blockade running, and the implications of its wider economic impact on Clydeside.
Another document of Sir James’ held in Archive Services is a receipt for some shares Sir James purchased for £1,000 pounds, dated 19 August 1864, (UGD112/C/28/7). This represents an acquisition of a thousand shares in the Universal Trading Company, another blockade running company. Sir James’ investment was equivalent to approximately £44,000 today and again indicates the extent to which blockade running represented a major economic incentive to those involved.
Despite the predominantly anti-slavery, pro-Union tenor of British public opinion at the time, the involvement of respected figures in this trade went beyond that of Sir James himself, whose investment in blockade running enterprises was hardly untypical of others at the time. With the transfer of goods in such large quantities, and the potential for worthwhile returns to be earned quickly, the economic impact of the blockade running went well beyond the shipbuilding industry itself.