Charles M. Allen thought he had one of the least demanding postings in the U.S. diplomatic service. Assigned in 1861 to be U.S. consul in Bermuda, the dark-bearded Allen could look forward to far more pleasant weather than at home and to duty no more onerous than assisting the occasional stranded sailor.
Then war intervened. Allen arrived in St. George, Bermuda, a few months after the attack on Fort Sumter to find himself almost the lone Yankee in a hotbed of pro-Confederate sentiment.
Like most other British colonies, Bermuda sympathized with the South. Issues such as slavery and the legalities of secession made little impression on the 21-square-mile dot in the Atlantic. The colony depended on sea trade, and the outbreak of war in America promised an increasingly prosperous trade with the South.
So it was that Bermuda — along with the Bahamas — became a leading base for ships prepared to run goods past the U.S. Navy vessels blockading Confederate ports. Shipments of military equipment and other manufactured goods arrived from Britain and were transferred at Bermuda’s main port, St. George, to steamers specially designed as blockade runners.
The Confederate armed forces had few factories in which to produce arms, and it sought to augment local production with imported weapons. In a single month in 1863, Bermuda-based blockade runners delivered more than 130,000 rifles and 129 cannons to Southern ports.
Most blockade runners were privately owned, but some were owned by the Confederate government. One of the latter was a 260-ton side-wheeler, Cornubia. Purchased by the Confederate Ordnance Bureau in 1862, it was famous for its speed and for its dramatic escape from Union blockaders on one of its early cruises. In May 1863, Allen grumbled that the Cornubia was making round trips to Wilmington, N.C., “as regularly as the mail steamer to Halifax.”
The number of blockade runners like Cornubia would have been even greater had Wilmington, the nearest Southern port, not been almost 700 miles away.
There was a price to be paid for Bermuda’s wartime boom, and the Bermuda of the 1860s bore little resemblance to the tidy resort of today. A British surgeon wrote in 1864 that the town of St. George “is in a filthy state … the streets filled with abominable odours rendered worse by the mass of shipping in the harbour and the large number of dissipated dirty sailors, etc. who were generally to be seen on shore more or less intoxicated.”
A key, if commonplace, commodity in Bermuda’s flourishing trade with the South was coal, much of it imported from Wales. Blockade runners insisted on clean-burning fuel for their dangerous runs, and they loaded up in Bermuda rather than take chances with smoky soft coal from the Carolinas.
A curious item in the blockade trade was Northern beef. As foodstuffs became scarce in the South, casks of salt beef were shipped from Northern packers to Canada, from where they were shipped to Bermuda for sale to the South. One can only speculate as to the condition of the meat when it reached its final destination.
In time, beef was displaced by luxury goods. Household items could be sold at huge profits in the South, and civilian goods — whiskey, candles, tea, clothing and gourmet food — often took precedence. This situation became so critical that the Confederate government issued an edict in March 1864 that half of all cargo on commercial runners must be devoted to military consignments.
Bermuda’s role in the Confederate supply chain kept Charles Allen busy. He sent descriptions of each likely blockade runner to Washington and even commissioned a local artist to do sketches. He complained to the authorities that blockade runners flaunted their Confederate colors even while in Bermuda’s ports, but his complaints appear to have fallen on deaf ears.
Allen’s counterparts elsewhere in the world would have similar complaints. Although Britain was nominally neutral in the Civil War, it viewed the North as a commercial rival, and the question of slavery was slow to gain recognition as an issue in the war. In Bermuda, the principal newspaper took a decidedly pro-Confederate stance, praising Southern victories and deploring Yankee “atrocities.” The Trent affair, in which a U.S. warship abducted Confederate emissaries from a British vessel, added fuel to pro-Confederate sentiment.
Surrounded by hostile Bermudians, Allen was a very lonely man. He had left his family at home, and this appears to have been a wise move. In July 1862, he wrote to his wife: “I have once been attacked in my office and once knocked down in the street within a few days. The general sentiment is ‘It’s good enough for him, he’s a damned Yankee.’”
In July 1863, a famous Confederate cruiser, the Florida, stopped at St. George for fuel and provisions. As it entered port flying Confederate colors, it exchanged salutes with the British fort ashore. This courtesy appears to have been the only such recognition afforded a Confederate warship, and local authorities later conceded that it had been done in error. The correction afforded little comfort to Allen, however, for the local army garrison sponsored a dinner in honor of the Florida’s John Newland Maffitt, complete with the regimental band.
Gradually, the Union blockade of Southern ports tightened. In 1861, blockade runners averaged nine successful runs before being captured. By 1863, however, about 30 U.S. Navy vessels patrolled the approaches to Wilmington, and the number of successful runs per vessel was down to four. By the spring of 1865, every successful run was offset by a failure.
The boom times were over.
As the tide of war turned, so did the position of the U.S. consul. After being a pariah, he found his services much in demand from hundreds of sailors left high and dry at the end of the war. The Feb. 25, 1865, fall of Fort Fisher, which had defended the approaches to Wilmington, was the final straw. Business in St. George was virtually suspended, Allen wrote, “and had [the Bermudians] known that the islands were to sink in twenty-four hours, there could hardly have been greater consternation.”
With the war over, Allen decided life in Bermuda was not so bad after all. After weighing his options, he sent for his family and took up permanent residence, living in Bermuda until his death there in 1889.
John M. Taylor is the author of numerous books on the Civil War period, including “William Henry Seward: Lincoln’s Right Hand.”