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History Unplugged Podcast

with Scott Rank

A Union Spy's Mission to Stop the Confederates From Building a Secret Navy in Britain

00:00 36:52
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In 1861, just as the Civil War began, the leaders of the Confederacy soon realized they were outmatched when it came to military might, especially in terms of Naval power. (For example, the U.S. Navy had 42 commissioned ships as of the start of the year—the Confederacy had 1.) And the Northern states had much more industrial might in order to get more ships built. With such a stark advantage, the Union was able to form a naval blockade that could choke the Confederacy militarily, and also economically.

The leaders of the Confederacy realized that the only way to outfit a strong navy was to receive support from aboard—namely, from the still-neutral Great Britain. Neutral though its leaders claimed to be, public sentiment in Britain at the time leaned toward the Confederacy. The Southern leaders dispatched the charming and devious Captain James Bulloch to Liverpool to lead the way to clandestinely acquire a cutting-edge fleet of ships (and weapons) that would break President Lincoln’s blockade of Confederate ports, sink Northern merchant vessels, and drown the U.S. Navy’s mightiest ships at sea. The profits from gunrunning and smuggling cotton—Dixie’s notorious “white gold”—would finance the scheme.

Opposing him was the American consul named Thomas Dudley, a resolute Quaker lawyer and abolitionist. Knowing that the state of the Union was at stake, he was determined to stop Bulloch by any means necessary in a spy-versus-spy game of move and countermove, gambit and sacrifice, intrigue and betrayal. If Dudley failed, Britain would likely ally with the South and imperil a Northern victory.

The battleground for these spy games was the Dickensian port of Liverpool, whose dockyards built more ships each year than the rest of the world combined, whose warehouses stored more cotton than anywhere else on earth, and whose merchant princes, said one observer, were “addicted to Southern proclivities, foreign slave trade, and domestic bribery.”

To tell this story is today’s guest Alexander Rose, author of “The Lion and the Fox: Two Rival Spies and the Secret Plot to Build a Confederate Navy.”
February 21, 2023
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Meet Your Host
Scott Rank is the host of the History Unplugged Podcast and a PhD in history who specialized in the Ottoman Empire and modern Turkey. Before going down the academic route he worked as a journalist in Istanbul. He has written 12 history books on topics ranging from lost Bronze Age civilizations to the Age of Discovery. Some of his books include The Age of Illumination: Science, Technology, and Reason in the Middle Ages and History’s 9 Most Insane Rulers.. Learn more about him by going to
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