Rogues and Runners: Bermuda and the American Civil War
By Catherine Lynch Deichmann. Hamilton: Bermuda National Trust, 2003; 79 pp., photographs, drawings, prints, bibliographic notes; paper $15.00.
During the American Civil War, a secretive struggle took place in Europe and other foreign lands far removed from the battlefields. While the southern states sought recognition of their aspiring nation—the Confederate States of America—from world powers, the northern states tried to stymie that effort to keep the United States together. Neither side entered the war prepared for major combat: Both sides had to arm themselves by buying huge amounts of armaments and supplies in Europe.
Under British and international law, arms sales were legal and open to belligerents on both sides of the conflict. The United States shipped its purchases directly from Europe, but the Confederacy had to slip its supplies through an ever more stringent northern blockade. Once quiet island anchorages in the Bahamas, Bermuda, and Cuba teemed with ships full of arms and supplies for the South and others loaded with cotton on their way back to Europe as payment. In the process, neutral island ports in the Atlantic and the Caribbean became entangled in the American war.
Bermuda’s ports filled with adventurers seeking to profit from blockade running while Confederate agents bought and dispatched cargoes of arms and military supplies. The United States vigorously protested arms sales to “southern rebels” and, although the arms purchases were legal, tried to stop them. The U.S. consul in Bermuda, Charles Maxwell Allen, kept an eye on blockade running and other rebel activities and reported on South-bound ships and cargoes to the Department of State. Allen sometimes employed spies and informants but kept within the boundaries of the law. His opponents did not: Allen’s letters and records were stolen on two occasions, and, more galling to his loyal Yankee pride, someone chopped down his flag pole on the Fourth of July.
Rogues and Runners: Bermuda and the American Civil War is a well-illustrated book that follows an exhibit of the same name installed at the Bermuda National Trust Museum in 1996. Curated by Michael Jarvis and Catherine Lynch Deichmann with assistance from a team from the Bermuda Archives, the exhibit assembled textual research, works of art, and artifacts not usually seen together from several different Bermuda repositories. Deichmann expanded her research to produce this gem of a historical monograph about the important role played by Bermuda in the American Civil War.
Deichmann’s prose is clear and lively. The illustrations include photographs of prominent Bermudians and visitors, lovely harbor shipping watercolors, and contemporary woodcuts and engravings. A dozen of the luminous and detailed watercolors of Edward James are reproduced in full color, some over two full pages, which alone are worth the price of the book. The book also features two watercolor ship portraits by an unknown artist who had documented blockade runners calling at Cork, Ireland, on their way to the islands off the southern coast.
In the chapter “Sitting on a Powder Keg,” the author recounts the precarious neutrality of Bermuda. Belligerents on both sides cared little for the law, seeking to use the islands as bases for military operations. Despite the complaints of the British island government, a U.S. squadron led by the troublesome Commodore Charles Wilkes blockaded the entrance to St. George’s, Bermuda, for more than a week, boarding and examining every ship entering or leaving the harbor. More often, U.S. ships hovered offshore, waiting to snatch up blockade runners emerging from port, a marginally legal tactic. Southerners, in turn, launched attacks from Bermuda on U.S. ships, such as the Confederate naval guerillas who burned the Union mail-steamer Roanoke in sight of shore in October 1864. The British colonial government monitored both sides to try to maintain strict neutrality, but only the latent threat of the powerful Royal Navy fleet based at Bermuda kept the belligerents from open warfare within British boundaries.
In highlighting the Civil War era, the exhibit and book appropriately leave out other contexts that concern the same places. For instance, a photograph of the Globe Hotel notes that the Confederate purchasing agent Norman Walker rented office space there; that building had briefly served as Bermuda’s “Government House,” the residence and office of the Governor from 1698 to 1700. Today, the exhibit “Rogues and Runners” is housed on the upper floor.
Another Civil War related site in Bermuda is Tucker House, for several years the workplace of Joseph Hayne Rainey, a free African American South Carolinian who, with his wife, escaped forced labor by taking refuge on the island. After the Civil War, Rainey returned to South Carolina and became involved in politics and was elected four times to the U.S. House of Representatives. The house is now a museum about the prominent Tucker family who lived there beginning in 1775.1
As is often the case with reinterpretation, Rogues and Runners has attracted some negative criticism from people who liked the old interpretation of the Globe Hotel and other sites. From the centennial of the Civil War in 1961 until the installation of the current exhibit in 1996, the hotel had been interpreted to the public as the Confederate Museum. Some Americans have called the exhibit an act of “political correctness.” They have failed to recognize, in this reviewer’s opinion, the exhibit’s broader, more useful storyline and effectiveness at explaining the significance of Bermuda within the context of the American Civil War.
In some ways, Rogues and Runners is a local history book, but as the town’s status as a World Heritage Site and an early map of sea routes reproduced in the book make clear, it is local history with international ties. Cultural resource professionals will find it a useful model for historical interpretation of a theme and a place to the public in a way that makes the most of the surviving historic fabric.
Bermuda has a long history as a maritime crossroads, where shipping routes between Europe and the Americas connected. Proximity to America helped promote steady trade between Bermuda and the other British American colonies and encouraged early interchanges of ideas, trade, and technology. At times, this proximity to shipping routes has landed the island of Bermuda a defining role in world events many times greater than its small size. The American Civil War was one of those events. This book tells that story well.
Maritime Heritage Program
National Park Service
1. “Joseph Haynes Rainey,” in Biographical Directory of the United States Congress, http://bioguide.congress.gov/scripts/biodisplay.pl?index=R000016, accessed March 20, 2007.