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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Controlling the California Gold Steamers: The Panama Route in the United States Civil War

  • Author(s): Chatelain, Neil P
  • et al.

The United States Civil War was not fought merely on the more famous battlefields of Gettysburg, Vicksburg, Bull Run, and Chickamauga. While armies of hundreds of thousands battled on land, a secret campaign was being waged for control of the financial backing of the United States. Gold transshipped along the Panama route, from San Francisco to Panama to New York, sustained the Union war effort for four years. With a fleet of vessels operating along this route, each capable of transporting over $1 million in bullion, Southern leadership quickly took interest in the Panama route. Confederate Secretary of the Navy Stephen Mallory was keen to intercept these gold shipments, intending to use the captured bullion to both finance Confederate military expenses while simultaneously adding international legitimacy in Europe. What developed was a four-year campaign involving both warships at sea and diplomats across the globe. New concepts such as commerce raiding and small teams of special naval agents merged with older ideas of convoys and privateers to bring forth one of the most important campaigns of the United States Civil War that few are familiar with, but which shaped its outcome as much as the campaigns that raged across America.

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