Theodore Roosevelt's Confederate Uncles

Aug 16, 2013

A popular slogan used to describe the American Civil War is “brother against brother.” The Roosevelt family suffered through this predicament as Theodore Roosevelt’s mother, Martha Bulloch Roosevelt, grew up on a Georgia plantation and maintained her Southern sympathies. Her family owned slaves and several family members fought for the Confederacy; including her brother, Irvine S. Bulloch, and half-brother, James Dunwody Bulloch. Roosevelt’s father, also named Theodore Roosevelt, was a strong supporter of the Union. He was a member of the Union League Club and worked as an Allotment Commissioner during the war, helping soldiers send some of their pay back home to support their families. Like many in his social circle, the elder Roosevelt hired a substitute in order to avoid being conscripted into military service. His family situation, including the potential of meeting his in-laws on the battlefield, likely played a role in this decision.

James Dunwody Bulloch, a ship captain at the outbreak of the war, and Irvine S. Bulloch, a college student, joined the Confederate navy. Irvine began as a midshipman and would serve on several ships during the war, including the Confederacy’s most feared commerce raiders CSS Alabama and CSS Shenandoah. According to family lore, Irvine stoically maintained his gunnery post as Alabama fought a losing battle against USS Kearsarge off the coast of Cherbourg, France, ultimately firing the stricken ship’s final shots. He was one of the survivors to be rescued by a British yacht, Deerhound, which was in the area. Irvine ended the war on board Shenandoah, which fired the last shot of the Civil War over a month after hostilities had officially halted. The ship had been preying on Union whalers in the Bering Sea and only learned of the Confederacy’s defeat in August 1865 from a newspaper onboard a captured whaling ship. The war had been declared over by President Johnson on May 9. Shenandoah surreptitiously returned to Liverpool, England, but hoisted the Confederate flag while entering the port. The Shenandoah’s crew was the final Confederate unit in service and the ship was surrendered to the British government.

James Dunwody Bulloch played a more prominent role in the war as the primary Confederate naval agent in Europe. Based out of Liverpool, James had the difficult task of building a navy for an unrecognized country that had a limited naval tradition and could offer few resources. Constantly opposed by the American ambassador and the American consul at Liverpool, he was able to purchase a ship that ran the Union blockade with the largest cargo of military supplies to ever reach the Confederacy. James secretly made arrangements for the building of two commerce raiders, Alabama and Florida, and converted an existing ship into another, Shenandoah. The three raiders devastated the Union merchant marine and diverted resources from the Union blockade of the South. His activities raised significant animosity in the Union, where Confederate commerce raiders were considered akin to pirates, and created tension between the Union and the United Kingdom, including threats of war.

Due to the nature of their wartime service and doubts about how it would be perceived in the reunified United States, Irvine and James settled in Liverpool after the war. Using the contacts James made during the war, they found success in the cotton trade and were able to live comfortably in their adopted home. Through Martha Bulloch Roosevelt’s stories, her children came to know their uncles as larger-than-life heroes. They would all finally meet in 1869 when the Roosevelts stopped in Liverpool during a tour of Europe. Theodore Roosevelt was impressed with his uncles and would later describe James as the best man he had ever known. Theodore and James developed a close bond which would contribute to both of their literary careers. Theodore consulted with James while writing The Naval War of 1812, particularly during his European honeymoon with Alice Lee Roosevelt. The old sea captain must have provided some real world experience and expertise on sailing ships and naval tactics to his landlubber nephew. Theodore encouraged James to write about his role in the Civil War, and The Secret Service of the Confederate States in Europe was published in 1883. This was a book that only James could write and contributed a great deal to the understanding of an often overlooked aspect of the war. 

Letter from Theodore Roosevelt to Martha Bulloch Roosevelt

Detail. Letter from Theodore Roosevelt to Martha Bulloch Roosevelt, September 14, 1881, MS Am 1834 (1007), Theodore Roosevelt Collection, Houghton Library, Harvard University. Electronic copy sponsored by the Theodore Roosevelt Center at Dickinson State University. For reproduction or publication permission, contact the Theodore Roosevelt Collection, Houghton Library.

James and Irvine spent the rest of their lives in Liverpool. Irvine passed away in 1898 and James in 1901.


McCullough, David G. Mornings on Horseback. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2003. Print.

Foster, Kevin J. “Shenandoah.” Encyclopedia of the Confederacy. Ed. Richard N. Current. Vol. 3. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1993. Print.

Merli, Frank J. “Bulloch, James Dunwoody.” Encyclopedia of the Confederacy. Ed. Richard N. Current. Vol. 1. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1993. Print.

Watts, Gordon. “Alabama.” Encyclopedia of the Confederacy. Ed. Richard N. Current. Vol. 1. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1993. Print.

Posted by Grant Carlson on Aug 16, 2013 in History  |  Permalink  |  Comments (0)  |  Share this post

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