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Clyde Built: Blockade Runners, Cruisers and Armoured Rams of the American Civil War

by Eric J. Graham, Birlinn Press, Edinburgh, Scotland, 2006, 238 pages, $34.95.

Eric J. Graham’s Clyde Built provides a unique Scottish perspective on the  American Civil War. In 1860 Scotland’s Clyde River shipyards were famous for their fast steam-powered ships. This book chronicles the efforts of the ships’ builders to capitalize on America’s misfortune by building, selling and operating blockade runners as well as commerce raiders and ironclad warships.

Graham’s book adeptly adds to the story of the blockaded South as portrayed in Dave Horner’s The Blockade Runners, Richard Lester’s Confederate Finance and Purchasing in Great Britain, Stephen Wise’s Lifeline to the Confederacy and the Northern blockading squadrons as described in Robert Browning’s books From Cape Charles to Cape Fear and Success is All That Was Expected. It also provides a personal viewpoint on the impact of English–American diplomacy during the Civil War, complementing Frank Owsley’s classic King Cotton Diplomacy.

Clyde Built chronicles the activities of Scottish shipbuilders from just before the Civil War through its conclusion and aftermath. Relying primarily on Scottish archives and period newspapers, Graham portrays men who are more interested in profits than in the morality of the Southern cause.

Pitted against Scottish business interests were England, with its interest in maintaining neutrality and control of the seas, American abolitionists, Yankee spies and increasingly proficient proponents of the Federal blockade. As the war progressed, builders were forced to develop new technology and adapt their tactics while they worked to expand their profits. Needless to say, success was not always the result.

Graham begins by detailing Confederate agent James Bulloch’s efforts to buy the steamer Fingal, load the vessel with arms and take it to Savannah, Ga. Built in May 1861 by Clyde River builder James and George Thomson, Fingal proved to be an exceptionally fast steamer that established a precedent for future blockade runners.

From 1862-64, Clyde-built steamers played a key role in carrying Southern supplies. At first blockade runners bought whatever ships were available, but within a short time they discerned that specially built shallow-draft high-speed steamers stood a significantly better chance of succeeding in their mission.

Despite the lead times and risk, the Scottish yards were soon dominated by speculative orders from people like Thomas Stirling Begbie, who leveraged his close relationship with John Scott and William Denny & Sons to have ships built, run and sold. In chronicling Begbie’s activities, Graham shows how the vagaries of war drove this speculative business.

The Trent Affair of late 1861 caused Begbie to pull in his horns out of fear that England would intervene and end the potential for profits. As the butcher’s bill rose in 1864 with no clear end in sight and the chance of intervention long gone, Begbie could be found doubling down on his bet for new steamers in hopes of enormous profits. Though many builders were caught overexposed, others made a fortune on the blockade.

Some Clyde builders, not satisfied with making money on merchant ships, also tried building warships. After 1862 these ships stood almost no chance of escaping England’s neutrality proclamations. Still, shrewd builders were willing to take the chance as long as Confederate buyers were willing to provide progress payments sufficient to eliminate the builders’ risk. Though many readers know the story of the Confederate raiders Alabama and Florida, this book also describes the history of failed ships like Pampero, which never got to sea.

There are two related concerns with this otherwise very good book: minor factual errors and the exclusion of footnotes, for fear they would be a “distraction from the narrative.” These two concerns overlap for the serious scholar who might want to fact check or do further research.

That said, Clyde Built is an excellent read that chronicles the critical contributions of the 25,000 Clyde River shipwrights and an estimated 3,000 Scottish crewmen who served the South for the tremendous profits that could be earned. Graham’s book reminds us once again that although some men fought for cause and country, others fought for coin.


Originally published in the May 2007 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here