Hobart the Smuggler

For Americans the US civil war was devastating to civilians and soldiers in ways no war since has affected that nation. While later wars have hit other countries harder, for the US 1861-65 was by far the most traumatic conflict in its history. But wars always affect different groups in different ways, and like most wars, the Civil War also offered opportunities: opportunities for profit, for glory, and for some, for the relief of boredom.

Charles Augustus Hobart (1822-1886) was the third son of an aristocrat, the Earl of Buckinghamshire. Like many in his position, he joined the military, starting a career in the Royal Navy in 1835. In this era the British navy had a special cultural status as the heroes of the Napoleonic wars and the defenders of the empire’s vital trade routes. But opportunities for glory were running short for two reasons: the navy’s global supremacy made major battles unlikely, and all of the seas and oceans outside of the polar regions had been mapped. Even the most talented officers could not repeat Captain Cook’s exploits, because Cook and his peers in the eighteenth century had already ‘discovered’ so much.

Hobart pursued his vocation with energy, but ran up against this problem of the lack of opportunities for glory and honor on waves already ruled by his predecessors. What action existed was less dramatic than Trafalgar. It was off the coast of South America that he saw the most action with his country’s navy in the suppression of the slave trade. In his autobiography he related a number of stories about his daring actions in this campaign, but had less sympathy for the slaves he was supposed to be saving.

After fighting slavers, Hobart spent a couple of years serving on the royal yacht. He was an ideal candidate for such service given his aristocratic background; an asset that was less common among sailors than soldiers. Hobart was also learning his trade at a turning point in naval technology of epochal importance: the dawn of the age of steam. He seems to have adapted to this new technology, which was of such central importance to the growth and maintenance of the British Empire, successfully.

However, he was also a difficult subordinate who annoyed many senior officers (and even, on at least one occasion when he played a prank on the yacht’s animals, Queen Victoria herself). By the time he was promoted to Post Captain (the major step in the career of any naval officer – roughly equivalent to tenure among modern American academics) in the early 1860s he was a captain without a ship. There were more captains than ships (or other commands) to go around. He looked around the world to find work for enthusiastic and talented steamship captains and found a job that well suited to his sympathies, skills and wallet: smuggling for the South in the US civil war.

According to his own account, Hobart (operating under the pseudonym ‘Captain Roberts’) was the most successful of all the ambitious young British commanders who set out to get rich off the Civil War. His memoirs describe a noble asymmetrical battle between Union cruisers and cunning smugglers, aided by gallant Confederate batteries on shore. The smugglers themselves could not fight because this would be a violation of neutrality and would probably lead to executions. But they could lead Union ships a merry chase. On many occasions Hobart was almost caught (and indeed, after he retired his successor who took over his ship was intercepted), but he always found a way to evade the Union cruisers.

Hobart’s status within the British navy hierarchy was not affected by his extra-curricular activities in the Civil War; however, it probably didn’t help his chances of getting a formal command. After the excitement of the war was over Hobart found himself without immediate opportunities for action. Being ambitious and energetic, however, he sought them out and found some people who needed a smuggler to fight smugglers who were supplying Cretan rebels: the Ottoman Empire. A new phase in Hobart’s career was about to begin.

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