Cesario on Beeler, 'The Milne Papers: The Papers of Admiral of the Fleet Sir Alexander Milne, Bt., K.C.B. (1806-1896), vol. 2, The Royal Navy and the Outbreak of the American Civil War, 1860-1862'

John Beeler, ed.
Bradley Cesario

John Beeler, ed. The Milne Papers: The Papers of Admiral of the Fleet Sir Alexander Milne, Bt., K.C.B. (1806-1896), vol. 2, The Royal Navy and the Outbreak of the American Civil War, 1860-1862. Publications of the Navy Records Society Series. London: Routledge, 2016. 760 pp. $160.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-4094-4686-6; $54.95 (paper), ISBN 978-1-911423-91-1. 

Reviewed by Bradley Cesario (Angelo State University) Published on H-War (January, 2023) Commissioned by Margaret Sankey (Air University)

Printable Version: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=57069

In this second volume of The Milne Papers, a primary source collection covering the naval and administrative service of Sir Alexander Milne (1806-96), editor John Beeler notes that Milne “never participated in combat during his sixty-year naval career” (p. ix). Yet Milne was not idle during the greatest period of rapid technological change in the Royal Navy’s history; besides commands afloat, he served the Admiralty directly as a Naval Lord for more than fifteen years over four decades. The first Navy Records Society volume of Milne’s career, also edited by Beeler, focused on much of this administrative work (particularly in the context of the Crimean War). The volume discussed in this review examines the first half of Milne’s time as commander in chief of the North America and West Indies station. Though this was a relatively short portion of Milne’s lengthy career, his leadership provided a steady hand during one of the most unsettled periods of the Pax Britannica.

Milne’s correspondence was voluminous, and Beeler’s heroic editing of this second volume can only wrangle a two-year period (February 1860 through January 1862) down to five hundred primary documents over six hundred pages. Although the outbreak of the American Civil War was the largest international event in the region during these years, and the volume’s title indicates a focus on that conflict, the reader will be equally intrigued by the vast number of additional issues that fell under the scope of Milne’s duties. Beeler writes in his introduction that “the Victorian-era Navy operated in support of the liberal state and its agenda,” by which he means that the navy functioned both as “a global maritime constabulary” and as a guarantor of international laissez-faire economics (p. xi). For many foreign observers, the Royal Navy was all they would ever see of the state, and “at times ... the roles of navy officer and diplomat became indistinguishable” (p. xli).

This is clearly demonstrated throughout the second volume of The Milne Papers. The work is divided into four broad chronological parts, since Milne remained in the same official position throughout the period covered. Further background on the documents appears in the extensive introduction, which includes a helpful cross-referenced thematic list of major issues Milne dealt with during his tenure on the station. Much of the collection is dedicated to British responses to the onset of the American Civil War, particularly the Trent affair of November 1861. Other major geopolitical events discussed within are the navy’s response to civil wars in Mexico, Colombia, and Venezuela, and the end of notorious filibuster William Walker’s career (in which the navy played a major role, to Milne’s unease). In the spirit of Pax Britannica, Milne also dealt with attempts to halt the slave trade in Cuba and to preserve the peace among British and foreign fishermen in Newfoundland and Labrador. This second volume is also intended to “illustrate the norm instead of the extraordinary,” and Beeler has chosen documents on many often-overlooked administrative tasks; large selections deal with the salvage and recovery of wrecked ships, the sorting out of chain-of-command issues among the various captains on station, dealings with the major issue of desertion, and medical reports and recommendations for the yellow fever epidemics that swept through the fleet (p. xii). This detailed introduction marks a change from the first volume, which featured shorter and more specific introductory sections dealing with each position held by Milne as he climbed through the navy’s ranks. It will be a matter of personal preference as to which of these two styles is more useful.

Beeler has done an excellent job in selecting and editing Milne’s letters and papers. He has also gone above and beyond in providing context and explanatory footnotes; he concisely explains all nautical terminology, includes specific geographic coordinates for ports and cities, provides a full listing of all British ships on the station, and even calculates the average transit time of Milne’s orders to and from London based on where the admiral was commanding from at the time. However, there are some authorial choices that can make the papers more difficult to use as a resource. A map would be greatly appreciated. Brief biographies of most of Milne’s correspondents are present in the introduction but not in the main text (an unwelcome change from the first volume that leaves readers continually flipping back to the earliest pages). And although Beeler has scoured the archives for material relevant to Milne’s career, including papers sourced from the Duke of Somerset and Viscount Lyons, this second volume appears to draw from a narrower selection of Milne’s own papers at the National Maritime Museum than the first. Little of the extant private or family correspondence is featured; space was an obvious concern, and yet there are documents included (particularly many brief sailing orders) that do not add a great deal of context to the broader story of Milne’s career.

This volume of The Milne Papers is a specialist work. A reasonably thorough knowledge of the Victorian Royal Navy and its international footprint, and perhaps of Milne himself, is a prerequisite for making effective use of the papers. Most readers will focus on topics of interest to their research rather than consulting every page or subheading. Taken together, the papers provide a fascinating look at national security issues of the early 1860s from a unique naval command perspective. The largest single collection of documents deals with the American Civil War, and the British response to US political and military decisions; besides the Trent affair, Milne and his subordinates compiled long reports on the effectiveness of the US blockade, the difficulty of maintaining lines of communication with British consuls in blockaded Confederate ports, and even a feasibility study on the capture of major US ports as war threatened between the two nations. The geopolitics of Central America forms the second largest collection, with the navy’s role in the capture of Walker’s filibusters being a highlight. Those interested in the challenges of a peacetime navy will appreciate the detailed reports on warship groundings and salvage, desertions in both the US and Canada, and especially the ongoing struggle to defeat yellow fever (Milne rotated ships under his command regularly to Halifax throughout the year). With this second volume of The Milne Papers, Beeler has ably demonstrated that the peacetime mid-Victorian navy was often the British government’s only representative across vast areas, with all the pressure and stress that implied—that the Pax Britannica was far busier and more chaotic than prior placid histories have claimed. Researchers studying the American Civil War, Central American geopolitics in the 1860s, antislavery and policing, the lives of the lower deck, or the problems of commanding a fleet in an era of radically changing technology will find much of value here. The third Navy Records Society volume on Milne’s career will be released next year and will also be anticipated with great interest.

Citation: Bradley Cesario. Review of Beeler, John, ed., The Milne Papers: The Papers of Admiral of the Fleet Sir Alexander Milne, Bt., K.C.B. (1806-1896), vol. 2, The Royal Navy and the Outbreak of the American Civil War, 1860-1862. H-War, H-Net Reviews. January, 2023. URL: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=57069

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