During the 19th century, Scottish immigrant and Galveston resident Capt. James Sorley was one of the city’s wealthiest and most prominent citizens.
The dark-haired, bearded entrepreneur spent much of his time and wealth helping to improve the city of Galveston and the lives of its residents.
During the Civil War, Sorley served as the collector of customs at Galveston and as a depository for the Confederate States of America. His grand home still stands on Ball Street in Galveston.
Despite his record of service to the community, Sorley is not recognized by a city monument, park, plaque or even a mention in the Texas Historical Association’s Handbook of Texas Online. Is Sorley’s obscurity unintentional or could it be that he preferred that many of his deeds remain unknown?
Is it possible Sorley sought anonymity because of his wartime relationship with a Liverpool, England-based secret agent who was known as the “mastermind of the Confederate Navy?”
James Sorley was born in Edinburgh, Scotland, on Sept. 28, 1820. He was educated in Liverpool, England, and came to the United States at the age of 16, settling in Mobile, Ala. By 1851, Sorley had married and moved to Galveston where he engaged in the cotton factoring business and began his involvement in Galveston business and civic affairs.
During his early years in Galveston, Sorley helped to organize the first branch of the Howard Association in Texas and served as its president for over 30 years. This organization aided indigent victims of Galveston’s frequent outbreaks of yellow fever.
In 1854, Sorley served the city as an alderman, and his business interests soon made him one of the wealthiest men in Texas. But the approaching Civil War was about to thrust Sorley into government service for the Confederacy.
In 1861, Sorley was appointed the first and only collector of customs at Galveston for the Confederate States of America by President Jefferson Davis. Sorley concurrently served as a depository for the Trans-Mississippi Department of the Confederate government.
Sorley’s signature appears on many Confederate bonds that were issued during the war. The proceeds were used to support the Confederate war effort.
Shortly after the Civil War began, the first Union vessel to be seized at Galveston by the Confederacy was the USRC Henry Dodge. Sorley was so prominent in the city that the ship was renamed for his wife, Mary J. Sorley.
The Mary J. Sorley was initially used to supply men and materials to arm the cottonclad vessel Bayou City, which sank the Union vessel USS Harriet Lane during the Battle of Galveston Bay on Jan. 1, 1863.
Later during the war, the Mary J. Sorley was used by the Confederacy as a blockade runner. She was captured by the U.S. Navy off the coast of Galveston en route to Havana with a cargo of cotton on April 4, 1864.
During the Civil War when “Cotton was King,” England and the rest of Europe needed large supplies of this commodity to clothe their people and support their economies. As the largest producer of cotton in the world, the Confederacy hoped these nations would abandon their neutrality and support the war efforts of the South.
Europe wanted the South’s cotton but could not risk angering the United States by purchasing directly from the Confederate states.
When European nations did not abandon their ties with the United States, the Confederacy decided the only way to finance the war effort was to set up a scheme to move cotton from Southern ports past the Union naval blockade to transshipment countries like the Bahamas and Cuba.
After the Confederate blockade runners arrived in the transshipment port, cotton would be offloaded to a foreign vessel for the trip to Europe where it could be sold on the open market.
Profits from the sale of the cotton were then used to acquire warships, blockade runners and to purchase much needed armaments and supplies.
Critical supplies were often transshipped to the Southern states using blockade runners to make the final dash past Union ships into Confederate ports.
The Confederacy had a number of secret agents stationed in Europe to coordinate this clandestine operation.
These agents were needed not only to acquire ships and war materials but also for coordinating the movement and sale of cotton cargos that was the financial lifeblood of this operation.
Georgian James D. Bulloch was the man in charge of this crucial operation which was based in Liverpool, England. During the Civil War, Bulloch acquired 43 warships for the Confederacy, including the famous commerce raiders CSS Florida, CSS Shenandoah and CSS Alabama.
Interestingly, Bulloch was the uncle of future U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt.
In his position as collector of customs, Sorley would have been responsible for entering and clearing all vessels arriving or departing the port of Galveston. Sorley, as a well-known and respected cotton merchant in Galveston, would have been heavily involved in procuring cotton and placing it on ships for transshipment to Liverpool and other European destinations.
Sorley surely would have had knowledge of secret agent Bullock’s operations in Liverpool since he controlled all commerce at the Port of Galveston. In his position as depository, Sorley would have provided monetary support to Bulloch’s secret operation.
As the war came to an end, Galveston was the only port still in Confederate hands and open to Bulloch’s blockade runners and the men must have struggled to support the Confederacy.
Fearing Union reprisals after the Civil War against former Confederate officials, Sorley briefly lived in Liverpool, England. According to the author of the book, “James D. Bullock, Secret Agent and Mastermind of the Confederate Navy,” Sorley met with none other than secret agent Bulloch while in Liverpool.
After the war, Bulloch decided to remain in Liverpool and work as a commissioned merchant with partner Moses Robertson. Soon after their meeting, an advertisement placed by Sorley began appearing in The Galveston Daily News announcing liberal advances on cotton consigned to “my friends,” Bulloch and Robertson.
In 1866, Sorley received a full pardon and amnesty from President Andrew Johnson for his actions on behalf of the Confederacy. Upon his return to Galveston, Sorley again engaged in numerous businesses including cotton factoring, railroads and insurance.
He remained heavily involved in civic affairs including playing a major role in the Chamber of Commerce. Sorley was deeply involved in the burial plans of Texas military heroes Gen. Hugh McLeod, Gen. John Magruder and Gen. Albert Sidney Johnson.
Sorley along with Henry Rosenberg were promoters and organizers of the first railroad in Texas — the Gulf, Colorado and Santa Fe Railroad. At the time of his death in 1895, Sorley was president of the board of trustees of the Island City Protestant Orphans’ Home.
Sorley was a ruling elder in the First Presbyterian Church of Galveston and was a grand commander of the Knights Templar Mason.
Sorley died in Galveston at the age of 75 and is buried in Lakeview Cemetery in Galveston. His passing and funeral were both reported in lengthy articles on the front page of The Daily News. The pallbearers at his funeral included well-known Galvestonians W.L. Moody and George Sealy.
After the war, secret agent Bulloch remained in England and obtained British citizenship because of his fear of prosecution for his wartime activities. He burned any documents that might have connected Sorley and others to his clandestine operations.
Sorley certainly did not keep a low profile after the war but because of his prominence, it is interesting to speculate on why he was not honored by his community in the same manner as many of his peers.
There is not a monument, library, street or park named in honor of Sorley. Not even a plaque honors one of the city’s most notable citizens.
Was it Sorley’s quiet nature or was it his fear of possible Union reprisal for his participation with agent Bulloch’s clandestine Confederate shipbuilding and supply operation that led to a reluctance to be recognized for his accomplishments?
He certainly knew that if he was connected to Bulloch’s operation, which destroyed 130 Union ships, he might never have received a pardon.
What secrets did Sorley take with him to his grave? His modest tombstone is inscribed with only the words: James Sorley.
It seems he remained inscrutable to the end. It appears that his life and legacy will likely remain a mystery to be pondered by Galvestonians.