The Diplomats Who Sank a Fleet
The Confederacy's Undelivered European Fleet and the Union Consular Service
Fall 2001, Vol. 33, No. 3
By Kevin J. Foster
© 2001 Kevin J. Foster
Thomas Haines Dudley, the U.S. consul in Liverpool, had grown desperate. He had failed to stop one Confederate raider, CSS Florida, from departing Liverpool. He had spent months gathering information about a second suspicious vessel, reported to be a warship destined for the Confederates. Not knowing her name, Dudley referred to her by the hull number at the shipyard, No. 290. On May 16, 1862, he reported the launch of the ship to Washington. A month later he reported the trial trip and the expected imminent departure of No. 290. Then Dudley traveled to London to confer personally with Charles Francis Adams, U.S. minister to the Court of St. James. Adams, recognizing the urgency, pressed British Foreign Office Secretary Earl Russell to stop the ship. Russell started the ponderous wheels of government toward resolving the question of the destination and legality of No. 290's building and departure. The British government was on the case.
Dudley provided more information on July 5, including a full description of the ship's appearance along with the news that the construction was being overseen by Capt. [sic] J. D. Bulloch of the Confederate States Navy. British government officers could not act because the evidence was not in the proper form and depended upon anonymous informants. Consul Dudley consulted British attorneys and opened direct communication with the collector of customs in the Port of Liverpool and other officials. They explained the requirements of British domestic law so that the evidence could be presented in acceptable forms. Informants were persuaded to give notarized depositions. U.S. suspicions were presented in a logical, precisely legal form.1 By July 29 sufficient evidence had been presented for the law officers of the Crown to opine that "the vessel, cargo, and stores, may be properly condemned."2
The order to seize the ship was given—just too late. No. 290, for the moment named Enrica, had sailed the day before. Shortly afterward, two supply ships met her in the Azores. She was armed and commissioned CSS Alabama. The raider would go on to sink more U.S. merchant vessels than any other warship before or since. Consul Dudley and Minister Adams had failed, but they had learned valuable lessons.
During the American Civil War, 1861–1865, the Confederate States of America created a modern naval force within a few years. More than sixty armored vessels were begun at home; dozens of gunboats were built, and many more river and commercial craft were modified and armed. A vital component in this military buildup was the willingness of several European nations to sell arms, equipment, and ships to the South. Despite neutrality laws intended to prevent the outfitting of belligerent expeditions and warships, the South enjoyed considerable success in acquiring and arming vessels abroad. Southern efforts did not, however, meet with universal success. The Confederates desired far more vessels than reached their hands. Some of these foreign-built vessels were considered but not purchased; some were built on speculation for potential sale to the South; others were ordered but not delivered. They included ironclads, cruising ships, gunboats, torpedo boats, blockade-runners, and supply ships.
Many factors kept the South from acquiring all of the ships that it was offered—or the vessels it most desired. Inexperienced diplomats, disorganization, widespread European popular opposition to slavery, uncertain credit, weak central economic planning, and competition from other ship buyers all prevented ships from reaching Confederate hands. But the greatest cause of the overall Confederate failure in Europe was the activity of the United States Department of State, particularly the consuls, a small group of dedicated government employees working abroad.
Confederate ship acquisition developed haphazardly. The new national government and individual states sent a bewildering variety of diplomatic, purchasing, propaganda, and military agents to Europe. Often these agents worked at crossed purposes, driving up prices, encouraging petty disputes, and damaging their creditability. This confusion caused difficulties with governments and suppliers alike. Despite initial problems however, by the end of the conflict, many elements of a balanced modern fleet had been acquired, if not actually delivered, to Confederate hands.
The Confederate naval officer in charge of acquisition in Europe was Comdr. James Dunwoody Bulloch. He arrived in Liverpool, England, on June 3, 1861, under orders to procure "six steam propellers" to act as commerce raiders. One million Confederate dollars had been appropriated for this activity, but little of this amount had arrived when Bulloch began his work. Despite financial handicaps he worked quickly. With the assistance of an Anglo-Confederate banking and shipping company, Fraser, Trenholm & Company of Liverpool, Bulloch contracted for the ships that would become CSS Florida and CSS Alabama. They were sailing vessels with auxiliary steam engines, a combination that allowed them to cruise widely for Northern merchant ships. These ships and others to follow soon earned reputations as fearsome commerce destroyers.3
Bulloch's work set the pattern for most further ship purchasing by Confederates. He had to exercise extreme care to avoid violating British domestic law designed to prevent the fitting out of military vessels and expeditions in British territory. In particular, the Foreign Enlistment Act forbade British subjects from "equipping, furnishing, fitting out, or arming, of any ship or vessel, with intent or in order that such ship or vessel shall be employed in the service" of a belligerent. Penalties for violation included punishment of individuals and forfeiture of vessels.4 The law failed, however, in requiring overwhelming legal proof rather than mere suspicion before a vessel could be seized. Once the problem was recognized, the British government was reluctant to change the policy because it would tend to show culpability in allowing Florida and Alabama to escape.5
Bulloch used the loophole by contracting with ordinary British, and later French and Swedish, business houses for ships, acting on behalf of the Confederate government. The vessels were designed as warships but left the building yards with no armament actually fitted. Once at sea under a British merchant captain, the prospective cruiser would be met by another vessel carrying the guns, Confederate naval and marine officers, and a large crew. After transfer, the Confederate captain placed the ship under commission and recruited a crew from among both ships' companies. This process avoided restrictions posed by existing British neutrality law by moving the actual outfitting outside British territory.6
Bulloch's careful purchasing system was challenged by Union diplomats. They recognized that the legal loophole could allow entire fleets of vessels to be purchased in Europe. United States Secretary of State William H. Seward coordinated what was to become a worldwide effort aimed at hampering Confederate efforts abroad. Seward sought to prevent recognition of the rebel South as a belligerent or as a nation and to prevent as far as possible foreign trade with the rebellious states. When it suited his purposes he threatened neutrals in various ways. Seward carefully instructed U.S. ambassadors about the course he wished them to take. The ambassadors, particularly the brilliant Charles Francis Adams, U.S. minister in Great Britain, ably communicated the views of the Union administration. Adams presented a case that the British sale of warships to the South was a warlike act against the United States. Seward added veiled mention of the likelihood of Union privateers being unleashed on British ships trading with the rebellious states. Congressional debate about such a law strengthened his case. Adams clearly demanded decisive action to prevent the creation of any more Alabamas or Floridas in British shipyards. Adams also laid the groundwork for later claims against the British empire for damages caused by the building, outfitting, and sale of ships to the Confederacy.7
A third branch of the Union State Department also worked aggressively to halt or hinder Confederate efforts by gathering intelligence about rebel efforts abroad. These were the United States consuls in various cities and seaports around the world. Consuls assisted trade and shipping, collecting fees for their services and submitting regular reports about everyday events as well as shipwrecks, mutinies, and piracy. Many took on new duties in wartime, providing valuable intelligence and other services useful to the Union. Consuls utilized a range of informants that included abolitionists, dockhand thugs, shipyard apprentices, members of the clergy, watermen, dock masters, unemployed mariners, and Lloyd's Register inspectors. Among the most valuable materials gathered were "intercepted letters and papers" given, purchased, and stolen by consuls and their agents. Consuls gathered and collated all sorts of information, including their estimates of the value and trustworthiness of various sources of information in reports to Washington and to each other.8 They usually sent reports containing intelligence information back to Secretary Seward in Washington, who distributed it where needed. Much of the resulting evidence of un-neutral acts was passed on to Minister Adams, who remonstrated with the British government, the most frequent offender.9
Seward's office gathered, collated, and transmitted the information to the military. Some navy commands, such as the North Atlantic Blockading Squadron, printed bulletins for distribution: a blockader off Charleston might know the name and description of a new blockade-runner before it could finish its voyage across the Atlantic. On rare occasions the information transmitted included plans, a sketch, or a photograph of a ship or of a notorious rebel officer.10 This consular intelligence gathering system grew from the efforts of a few individuals, working out of their own pockets, into a government enterprise that employed dozens of agents and required tens of thousands of dollars to finance.11 The consuls kept up a constant barrage of sighting reports, affidavits, vessel descriptions, repeated rumors, and supposition about Confederate activity abroad. While most of these ships did have Southern connections, many did not, and the British government was constantly investigating reports of vessels that proved to have no Confederate connections.12
Timely communication of important intelligence was vital to the war effort. Most communication was by mail, traveling on scheduled steamship routes. This method limited both Union and rebel communications severely, requiring a minimum of about three weeks for a reply across the Atlantic. Mail by steamer allowed regular communication but limited the frequency of trans-Atlantic messages from most points to about two or three times a week, each taking over a week to reach Washington via New York. The letters had then to be read, copied, and passed on to the Navy Department and then to the relevant blockading fleets. Letters to the Confederate leadership in Richmond took longer, going by British steamers by way of Halifax, Havana, Nassau, or Bermuda.
Some consular stations used the telegraph for important messages to speed the process. However, they might be intercepted or copied in route on commercial telegraph services. Coded messages for sensitive information became common. Still, despite its utility, the expense of telegraph communication led the State Department to severely limit its use.13 Consuls also sometimes communicated directly with the Union navy when time was too short for information to be transmitted through Washington. On several occasions Samuel Whiting, the consul in Nassau, sped communications by hiring a swift pilot schooner to carry messages directly to the naval station at Key West.14 Despite the utility of the method, his entreaties to the State Department failed to produce a despatch boat for his use. His successor, Seth C. Hawley, tried harder, securing an estimate for purchase and operation of a small pilot schooner to carry despatches. His efforts were no more successful than his predecessor's, and the department never provided a despatch boat.15
The first success of the Union consular espionage system prevented a small wooden steam gunboat from service with the South. Alexandra was built by William C. Miller of Liverpool as a gift to the Confederacy from Fraser, Trenholm & Company. As such it would have joined a few other Confederate vessels built as contributions to the war effort by citizens and not part of the regular procurement program. Consul Thomas H. Dudley of Liverpool gathered information directly, hired experienced legal counsel, and prepared a case based on his experience of the British legal system gained while trying to prevent the sailing of CSS Florida and CSS Alabama. Minister Adams used Dudley's information to force the British government to bring court proceedings that, while failing to seize the ship, ultimately so delayed Alexandra that the gunboat was never placed in service. The Alexandra case and its resulting newspaper coverage also brought considerable attention to Confederate operations in Great Britain and to the inadequate British neutrality laws. This attention forced the government to take decisive action to enforce neutral behavior upon its citizens during later crises: policy prevailed over law. The loss of the gunboat did little real damage to Confederate plans, but the legal precedent and attention devoted to rebel purchasing permanently hindered Southern procurement in Europe.16
The Confederate agent Bulloch extended his ambitions when he contracted with Birkenhead shipbuilders, Laird and Sons, to construct two turreted ironclad rams. Bulloch based the rams upon the ideas of Capt. Cowper Coles of the Royal Navy, an outspoken British ironclad designer. They were impressive ships displacing 1,423 tons (light) and were 224.5 feet long. Their iron hulls had ram bows supporting two turrets carrying 220-pounder Armstrong guns; lighter guns were mounted on raised forecastles and quarterdecks. Bark sailing rigs gave them range; powerful twin-screw engines combined with ram bows gave them ability to fight the most imposing Union ships.17
But the intended use of the rams could not be hidden or misdirected. Due to their ram bows, the ships were dangerous weapons platforms even before guns were mounted. In locations around Europe, Union consuls gathered depositions and other evidence sufficient to prove the rams' connection with the Confederate government. The persistent Liverpool consul, Thomas Haines Dudley, dogged Bulloch, employing private detectives, sympathetic sea captains, knowledgeable attorneys, and Confederate turncoats. He obtained copies of Confederate correspondence and internal Laird documents to gain knowledge of Bulloch's every move. The London consul, Freeman H. Morse, managed to induce a young London mechanic to get a job in the Laird shipyards with a promise of a recommendation to a U.S. shipbuilder. (The boy's mother found out and stopped the spying by threatening to expose him and the U.S. government's role in his activities.) In London, at the Court of St. James, Minister Adams once again ably presented Dudley's evidence and explained the U.S. government's view that release of the ironclad rams might be considered an act of war.18
From Washington, Secretary Seward coordinated the action by mail and telegraph to stop the rams' delivery. Both rams were seized before completion to prevent them from slipping out of the country. Even a last-minute sham sale, ostensibly to a French company for delivery to Egypt, failed to free the two ships for the south. Caught in an awkward gap between domestic law and foreign policy, the British Crown ultimately bought the Laird rams and commissioned them HMS Scorpion and HMS Wivern. Brilliant cooperation between the three main branches of the State Department had prevented two dangerous warships from reaching the Confederate navy.19
The British difficulty in maintaining strict neutrality had its roots in a conflict between two principles of law. Under the precepts of international law, neutral Great Britain had an obligation to prevent the building and outfitting of armed warships for any belligerent in its ports. The critical point was that the wording of the law and accepted international practice to that time prohibited sales of armed vessels only. The tenet of domestic law that held that a defendant is "innocent until proven guilty" allowed secretly built Confederate cruisers to be dispatched from British ports because positive proof of the cruiser's destination was nearly impossible to ascertain and arming took place outside British jurisdiction. Following the commissioning of Florida and Alabama, Great Britain was forced to prevent the departure of other vessels merely on justifiable suspicion that they were violating British domestic law.20
Bulloch was disappointed by the loss of the Laird rams but had already expanded his operations beyond Great Britain. Negotiations with the French government produced a conditional agreement to provide four modern wood and iron composite steam clipper corvettes for long-distance cruising. These screw corvettes would have been the equal of any U.S. Navy cruisers. Further negotiations allowed contracts for two more powerful ironclad rams. These shallow-draft ironclad wooden ships were designed with a brig sailing rig and twin-screw steam auxiliary propulsion. With the screw corvettes they could present a dangerous challenge to the Union navy on the high seas, potentially capable of overwhelming smaller squadrons on individual blockading stations.21
All six ships were contracted through Lucien Arman, a shipbuilder with a seat in the French legislature and strong political connections to the Emperor Louis Napoleon III. They were built in the yards of Arman in Bordeaux and, through engine-builder and fellow legislator M. Voruz, at the yards of Jollett & Babin and Dubigeon Brothers in Nantes. The sale was understood to have been approved by the emperor and permitted by the minister of the navy. The ostensible purpose was to start a steam packet line between San Francisco and Japan and China. The armament was said to enable them to fight off pirate attacks in eastern waters and to allow potential sale to the Japanese or Chinese governments.22
But Consul General John Bigelow in Paris had been preparing to ward off any shipbuilding efforts for the Confederacy in France. He had gathered rumors and credited reports from other consuls that Southern agents had contacted French shipbuilders. But Bigelow had not expected the intelligence windfall that walked into his consular office on September 10, 1863. The man, a disloyal senior shipyard employee named Trémont, offered proof in the form of incriminating documents and assurance that his information would be sufficient to force the arrest of the ships under French law. Called "Mr. X" by Bigelow, Trémont asked for twenty thousand francs, a considerable sum of money, if his material should stop the ships from reaching the Confederates. Trémont delivered twenty-one documents that proved not only that the contract was for the Confederate navy but that it was approved by the French government.23
Bigelow acted quickly. He delivered the documents to U.S. Minister to France William L. Dayton. Dayton and Seward used the same approach taken with Great Britain, namely to present as full a public case as possible proving un-neutral behavior. They also subtly threatened the French adventure to install Maximilian as ruler of Mexico and to delay the lucrative French government tobacco shipment from Virginia. French Foreign Affairs Minister Edouard Drouyn de Lhuys perceived the threat, and the danger of growing Northern sentiment against France, and acted to force his emperor and country back toward a neutral posture. He forced the shipbuilders to sell all six vessels to governments then at peace. Two corvettes were sold to Peru; two corvettes and a ram were sold to Prussia; and one ram was sold to Sweden, or so the French government believed. The wily Arman had sold the ironclad to a Swedish banker, who was to sell it to Denmark. But when the Danes refused the ship, Arman was able to sell it back to the Confederacy. It was delayed so much by storms and an unwilling crew that the ironclad, commissioned CSS Stonewall, never played a part in the war.24
Reports on every likely foreign shipbuilding contract were diligently transmitted to Washington. But by mid-1862, several of the most active consuls had spent small fortunes to pay informers and spies—without reimbursement by the government—and could do no more. Consul M. M. Jackson in Halifax, Nova Scotia, had used his personal funds to hire others to assist him in his intelligence gathering. When funding requirements for intelligence gathering increased beyond his personal means, Jackson sought reimbursement for his expenses in supporting this work. On December 9, 1863, he wrote Secretary Seward:
I have found it necessary to employ persons at different times to procure information in relation to vessels engaged in running the blockade of the Southern ports. The Information thus offered has materially aided my own efforts and investigations and enabled me to communicate to the Department of State facts which have led to several important captures.25
Consul John Young in Belfast wrote:
I respectfully suggest that these times require a little outlay not provided for by law—If we were authorized occasionally to employ a private observer at our discretion the outlay would not be much and the benefit might be considerable. From the general public we can learn little, the sympathy seems to be sadly wasted on an accursedly bad cause.26
When he was unsuccessful, Young wrote Seward again the next year:
The only possible plan of knowing what may be going on here would be to pay a secret agent. About (Lb) per annum would do this but you are aware that I have no such fund at my disposal. I think however that I ought to have such a fund and that it would pay itself fifty times over.27
The State Department found a way to meet the need by establishing a budget for secret service work by certain consuls. For instance, William T. Minor, the Federal consul in Havana, Cuba, paid several spies and informers to gather intelligence on Confederate activities. A special account, the "secret service fund," was used to pay for these activities. As an example of the high rate of pay enjoyed by spies, in December 1864 Minor paid three hundred dollars in gold to S. B. Haynes for his services during the past month.28
The Confederates also ordered two groups of steam-powered spar torpedo boats from Great Britain. These included six iron twin-screw torpedo boats built in London and six more large steel torpedo boats built in Liverpool. The London torpedo boats were lightly armored and capable of partial submersion to lower their silhouette. No records have been located documenting the arrival of these vessels in Southern ports, but at least one of the boats was tested on the Thames, and three others were mentioned leaving Great Britain as deck cargo on blockade-runners. Union consuls reported these vessels to Washington and to Ambassador Adams, but they were apparently thought too minor to deserve specific complaint from the Union government. Warnings were passed to the Union navy to be on the lookout for the blockade-runners carrying these boats as deck cargo.29
Bulloch was not the only Confederate naval purchasing agent to seek ships in Europe. Another officer, Lt. James H. North, was dispatched to Europe at the same time as Bulloch with a similar mission. North was sent to France with the vain hope of purchasing or borrowing one of the armored frigates of the Gloire class, the most imposing ironclads built for the French navy. Should that prove impossible, he was to order the building of "one or two war steamers of the most modern and improved description." While his French visit was a bust, ultimately North oversaw the building of the largest Confederate ship laid down during the war. He contracted with James and George Thomson of Glasgow to build a large ironclad frigate. She was to be 270 feet long, carry twenty 60-pounder rifles and eight 18-pounder smooth bores. Five hundred men would be required to crew the mammoth vessel. Union observers easily connected North's ship with the South, and she was sold at a loss to Denmark to prevent seizure.30
Another Confederate agent, George Terry Sinclair, contracted with Thomsons' shipyard to build a composite iron- and wood-hulled steam auxiliary cruiser. She was reportedly built on the model of the Alabama but lengthened and improved. Named Canton while building, this ship was renamed Pampero when launched. The sale was concealed by use of a British subject, shipowner Edward Pembroke of London, who ordered the ship through Glasgow brokers Patrick Henderson and Company. Consul Underwood, with help from Liverpool consul Dudley, obtained damning evidence against the ship. British government actions following the court decision in the Alexandra case prevented delivery, and the ship languished in Glasgow.31
Due to his unique position in public life, another Confederate agent, the famous oceanographer Matthew Fontaine Maury, operated in areas too rarified for Bulloch. While touring Europe, meeting the aristocracy, and receiving awards and honors, Maury was pursuing a hidden agenda of purchasing warships and perfecting a system of submarine mines for Southern harbor defense. He was aided by a network of friends, relatives, and sympathetic associates. One of these was Capt. Marin Jansen, Royal Netherlands Navy, who searched most of the prominent shipyards in Great Britain and France for potential cruisers, ironclads, and gunboats.
The first vessel Jansen found was Japan, an iron brig-rigged propeller built on speculation by William Denny and Sons of Scotland. The ship became CSS Georgia and took nine prizes during a short cruise. With her iron hull foul, and in need of repair, she put into Cherbourg on October 28, 1863. Decommissioned as unfit for a cruiser, Georgia was sold June 1, 1864, for commercial service.32 Another Maury purchase was the second-class screw sloop HMS Victor, built in 1857, which had been declared "defective and worn out beyond economic repair." After some repairs, the sloop was renamed Scylla and slipped to sea. Once outfitted, she became CSS Rappahannock and put into Calais, France, for further repairs. There the ship was detained and prevented from receiving repairs or from recruiting a full crew, which would have blatantly violated French neutrality. Rappahannock continued in Confederate hands, rotting at dock until the end of the war.33
The grandest purchase contemplated by M. F. Maury was a twin-screw, twin-turret ironclad. Maury made arrangements through Jansen with Lucien Arman to build the ironclad at his Bordeaux shipyard. Maury specified that the ship was to have sufficient seaworthiness to cross the Atlantic, a high spread of canvas, less than fifteen feet draft, and a speed of fifteen or sixteen knots. Confederate efforts aimed at diplomatic recognition and obtaining a European loan delayed and ultimately doomed this project. Confederate diplomat John Slidell stipulated that the South could only undertake to order these expensive ships in French shipyards if they would be openly built for the South. Napoleon III did not agree to the stipulation, and the ship was sacrificed to diplomatic expediency and not built.34
Another raider project was the result of a secret Confederate congressional act that created a "volunteer navy" to provide privateer-like commissions to individuals and private vessels built at no cost to the government. The first such company formed, the Virginia Volunteer Navy Company, became the only company to purchase a vessel under the new act. They bought the auxiliary steamship Hawk, which had been built on speculation for sale by Henderson and Colborne of Renfrew, Scotland. Hawk was strongly built of iron, 230 feet long overall, with a lifting screw propeller and bark rig. After the purchase, the steamer was altered considerably to adapt her into a warship. The alterations and its owner, Thomas Sterling Begbie, a known blockade-runner owner, excited the interest of Union agents. They, however, did not provide enough information to justify seizure. Hawk sailed to Bermuda, where the company proved unable to carry their project forward, and she returned to Liverpool unarmed.
Perhaps the most ambitious attempt to purchase finished ships involved the eight vessels of the Anglo-Chinese fleet built in Great Britain for China. These warships, called the Lay-Osborne flotilla for the leaders of the enterprise, were not accepted by the emperor of China after arriving in Chinese waters. Half of the fleet returned to Great Britain. Several others put into Bombay, where they were held until arrangements could be finalized for their sale and the payment of the crews.35
There is little surviving direct evidence to connect the Lay-Osborne Anglo-Chinese fleet to the Confederacy. Circumstantial evidence supports that such a purchase was contemplated. CSS Alabama had shadowed the voyage of several ships of the flotilla from South Africa to the Strait of Malacca. The officers of Alabama and the flagship Kwang-Tung had even exchanged social visits in Simon's Bay, South Africa. A senior captain of the fleet had been a ship captain for Fraser, Trenholm & Company, the principal government business agents for the Confederacy in Europe. After the Indian government seized the ships, he returned to London and left immediately in command of the large new blockade-runner Lady Stirling. Despite the lack of contemporary evidence, the prospect of the entire mercenary fleet being sold to the Confederates led to swift action from the American diplomatic services. The British and Indian colonial governments seized the ships to prevent them from being transferred to the rebel navy. Only after the Civil War was over did the British government learn that Confederate agents had been in place in Shanghai and Bombay and that the sale might indeed have been completed. In any case, the Alabama returned to European waters alone.36
The last completed delivery to the Confederacy of a warship was another product of Bulloch's attention to detail. The steam clipper Sea King had been built on the Clyde River in Scotland as a speculation intended for long-distance commerce. Her appearance attracted the attention of Union agents, but on completion Sea King was chartered by the British government to carry troops to New Zealand. Bulloch got word when she returned and traveled to see the ship. Bulloch bought the clipper and once again armed and commissioned a cruiser at sea. Commissioned CSS Shenandoah, the new cruiser worked her way from the Atlantic into the Indian Ocean, refitted in Australia, and cut a swath through the Yankee whaling fleets in the Pacific. Off Alaska, Shenandoah learned in late June 1865 of the defeat of all other Confederate forces and the imprisonment of the Confederate leaders. The armament was dismantled and sent below decks. Shenandoah sailed around the world to Liverpool, where she was turned over on November 5, 1865, to the British government for return to the United States, the last intact Confederate military unit.37
The Confederate government employed myriad business arrangements to export its cotton, tobacco, and naval stores and import goods and supplies of war. Southern leaders were slow to see the value of government control of the blockade-running trade. Over time the oversight became obvious: important cargoes were trapped in bankrupt ships in foreign harbors; private shippers brought in luxury goods in preference to vitally needed military supplies; and the expenses grew astronomically. At first government departments began to purchase blockade-runners to carry in vital supplies, but in time government regulation of the blockade trade was instituted, and massive purchases of shipping began. Extensive contracts with merchant companies and bankers put over one hundred ships into operation carrying government freight. Other ships were held in partnership between the government and private companies.
Starting in early 1864, five prominent companies contracted to each build from four to eight blockade-runners. The government guaranteed the companies' cotton cargoes at a favorable rate until the ships were paid for, at which time they would be transferred to full Confederate ownership. Many of these vessels proved unfit, unlucky, or untimely, and though built or modified for the trade, they never ran into a Confederate port.
Southern efforts to purchase ships and contract for tonnage eventually came under close Union scrutiny, just as had warship building. General instructions from Washington about intelligence-gathering grew more comprehensive as the war progressed to cover these new tasks. In early 1864 a circular instructed consuls to report "any persons who may have given aid to the rebellion by furnishing blockade-runners or munitions of war."38 Although a few of the more active consuls had always reported blockade-running, the new directive led to much more comprehensive reporting of such activities. Much of the intelligence about expected blockade-runners was summarized by the Department of State and sent to the Navy Department, where it was printed and distributed to every unit in the North Atlantic Blockading Squadron. Consuls filed thousands of reports on hundreds of vessels believed to be involved in blockade-running. These were of great value in capturing those that tried to run the blockade and in their condemnation once delivered to a prize court.
Other consular reports concerned supplies provided and assistance rendered to Confederate vessels by neutrals. The consuls in several coal-exporting ports provided regular updates of reports about colliers dispatched to supply blockade-runners and rebel warships. The United States even established new consular posts in coaling ports and entrepôts at Cardiff, Wales, in Brazil, and around the West Indies. These failed to provide information to justify seizures, but examination of the ships' intended destinations did tend to indicate the potential cruising grounds of commerce raiders. Other reports detailed the activities of the boardinghouse owners and agents who recruited crews for Confederate ships. Using the reports, British courts tried and convicted several agents of violations of the Foreign Enlistment Act. Still other reports detail, with great precision, the flags worn by various vessels and who saluted what flag. Details about persons known to be loyal or disloyal are also reported in some despatches.39
Hidden among the many blockade-runners being built to fulfill government contracts were six twin-screw vessels designed for conversion into warships after running the blockade into southern harbors.40 Four of these ships were built by William Denny of Dumbarton under the Confederacy's long-standing relationship with Fraser, Trenholm & Company. These included two 170-foot towboat-gunboats, Ajax and Hercules, designed to guard Wilmington, North Carolina, and assist grounded blockade-runners. Two larger, 250-foot vessels, Adventure and Enterprise, also built by Denny, were designed as cruisers for coastal raids. Two more similar cruisers, Louisa Ann Fanny and Mary Augusta, were built by John and William Dudgeon of Millwall, London, under different financial arrangements.41 The four larger merchant cruisers were to be armed with heavy rifled cannon on pivot mounts and incendiary and explosive artillery rockets for attacks on Northern cities.42
Adventure and Enterprise were completed too late to see service and were sold. Ajax arrived at Nassau late in the war, and after meeting other Confederate vessels, returned to Liverpool, where she was sold. Louisa Ann Fanny was the only one of the four runner-raiders to reach Confederate hands. On the way out to Bermuda she delivered messages and supplies to the ironclad Stonewall. A spy informed the Union consul at Havana that Louisa Ann Fanny was supposed to meet a sailing vessel to receive her armament, probably at Andros Island in the Bahamas. There is, however, no evidence that she was ever armed.43
Union agents and diplomats never discovered solid evidence of the partial Confederate ownership of the six "temporary cruisers" or the many blockade-runners held in partnership. If they had, the ships or their value could have been recovered legally for the United States. The companies that co-owned the ships kept the ownership secret and kept all of the public and private funds invested. The United States recovered nothing from these considerable rebel assets after the war.
The Alabama Claims
The American people continued to be outraged that Great Britain had allowed Confederates to build and outfit warships in its ports. The objections had begun as the warships were being built, with demands that Britain stop these actions and pay reparations for the "private" damages caused by the vessels that they had already allowed to outfit in their ports. The U.S. government demanded a second set of reparations for indirect or "national" injuries caused by prolongation of the war believed to have been caused by British recognition of the South as a belligerent.44
After the war ended, these feelings grew even stronger, and the United States pressed for an international court of arbitration to decide the matter. Secretary Seward wrote Minister Adams:
It seems to the President an incontestable principle, that whatever injury is committed by the subjects of Great Britain upon the citizens of the United States, either within the British dominions or upon the high seas, in expeditions thus proceeding from British ports and posts, ought to be redressed by her Majesty's government, unless they shall be excused from liability upon the ground that the government has made all reasonable efforts to prevent the injury from being inflicted.45
Great Britain disputed the U.S. national and individual claims and in turn made claims against the United States for damage caused by U.S. Navy vessels that sank or captured British ships during the war. Great Britain believed that the United States had expanded the allowable circumstances under which neutral ships and cargoes could be legally captured and had often violated British neutrality. The collective cases came to be called the Alabama claims, after the most successful and famous of the Southern cruisers.
The United States sought settlement of the Alabama claims following the end of the war, but the negotiations were complicated by U.S. national ambitions of expansion. Seward, who had continued as President Andrew Johnson's secretary of state, discussed trading the Alabama claims for British territory in North America. Seward and his successor, Hamilton Fish, mentioned at various times British Columbia, the British West Indian islands, or the whole of Britain's Canadian possessions as potential trades for the Alabama claims.46
In 1868, Reverdy Johnson, Adams's successor as U.S. minister to the Court of St. James, concluded a convention that arranged for arbitration of the individual claims against Great Britain. But the Senate did not ratify the Johnson-Clarendon convention because it dropped from consideration the indirect or national claims involving theoretical prolongation of the war by un-neutral British actions. A fiery speech by Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts stirred up the nation against the convention and called for restitution from Great Britain. Anglo-American tension continued.47
Another attempt to arrange arbitration in 1870 ultimately proved successful. Each country appointed five commissioners to settle all outstanding questions between the United States and Great Britain. The commission settled boundary and fishery rights questions between the United States and Canada and prepared the way for neutral arbitration of the Alabama claims. The resulting Treaty of Washington included British expressions of regret for the depredations of cruisers built there and summed up the commission's conclusions.48
Joint Tribunal of Arbitration
The treaty called for a new system of international arbitration to decide the claims: a Joint Tribunal of Arbitration at Geneva, Switzerland. This became the first example of national governments settling differences by international neutral arbitration. Five arbitrators made up the tribunal: one appointed by each head of state of the United States, Great Britain, the Kingdom of Italy, the Swiss Confederation, and the Empire of Brazil. Previously such matters had been decided by allowing them to be forgotten, settling them by treaty, resorting to war, or arbitration by referral to a single neutral sovereign. The Joint Tribunal of Arbitration met in a room of the town hall of Geneva during 1872. The room had been the site of the 1864 Geneva Convention for aid to the wounded. Known after the arbitration of the Alabama claims as the "Alabama Room," it has since been the site of numerous international arbitrations.49
Secretary of State Hamilton Fish called Charles Francis Adams back from retirement to represent the United States. The information collected by consuls and their agents formed the bulk of the evidence in determining the culpability of the British government in the Alabama claims. The tribunal set aside the indirect claims and completed their work by September 14, 1872. The tribunal found Great Britain to have been negligent in its neutral duties in respect to Florida and Alabama and their tenders and in allowing refitting and augmentation of the crew of Shenandoah in Australia. The tribunal awarded the United States $15.5 million in damages for depredations of the Confederate commerce raiders fitted out with British aid. Great Britain paid the sum on September 13, 1873. The tribunal ruled that none of the British claims against the U.S. government were valid.50
The efforts of Confederate government agents to obtain ships reflects the strengths and weaknesses of the Southern government. That government, founded as a confederacy of independent states, with laissez-faire economic ideals and little experience in direct foreign commerce, proved reluctant to take the steps needed to prevail in war with the United States.
The Southern ship-purchasing program was also plagued by constant Northern espionage, occasional sabotage, and gifted Union diplomatic foes. Systematic intelligence-gathering and persistent diplomacy prevented all but five European-built warships from becoming active southern vessels: at least five ironclads, fourteen cruisers, and several gunboats were stopped. Perhaps a hundred employees of the U.S. Department of State and a similar number of secret agents had obliterated a powerful battle fleet and prevented a potential naval disaster.
Kevin J. Foster is chief of the National Maritime Heritage Program of the National Park Service. He received his M.A. in history from the program in maritime history and underwater archaeology from East Carolina University in Greenville, N.C., and has published several articles on the international aspects of the Civil War at sea.
1. Thomas H. Dudley to William H. Seward, despatches of June 16, 18, 27, and July 9, 18, 22, 25, 1862, in The Case of Great Britain to be Laid Before the Tribunal of Arbitration, Convened at Geneva (1872), Vol. 1, pp. 486–488, 490–496.
2. Wm. Atherton and Roundell Palmer to Earl Russell, July 29, 1862, in The Case of Great Britain, Vol. 1, pp. 445–446.
3. James Dunwoody Bulloch, The Secret Service of the Confederate States in Europe, or How the Confederate Cruisers Were Equipped (1884, reprint 1959), pp. 48–294.
4. Ephraim Douglass Adams, Great Britain and the American Civil War (1900) Vol. 2, p. 116.
5. Bulloch, Confederate Cruisers, pp. 295–375.
6. Rupert C. Jarvis, "The Alabama and the Law," Transactions of the Historic Society of Lancashire and Cheshire, Vol. III, 1959, pp. 181–198.
7. Charles F. Adams to Earl Russell, Oct. 23, 1863, in Thomas Willing Balch, The Alabama Arbitration (1900), pp. 15–21.
8. "To watch the movements of Southern agents who are here purchasing arms and munitions of war and engaged in fitting out vessels for the so-called Southern Confederacy it is necessary to employ one or two seasoned detectives and occasionally to pay money in way of traveling expenses to the men so employed. They are not as a general thing very estimable men but are the only persons we can get to engage in this business, which I am sure you will agree with me is not a very pleasant one." Thomas H. Dudley to William H. Seward, Dec. 11, 1861 (No. 59), Despatches from U.S. Consuls in Liverpool, England, 1790–1906 (National Archives Microfilm Publication M141, roll 20), General Records of the Department of State, Record Group (RG) 59, National Archives at College Park (NACP).
9. Intercepted Confederate documents are now located in multiple record groups, including: Intercepted Letters and Papers, Special Agents Records, Consular Correspondence, Alabama Claims Papers, and Civil War Papers, General Records of the Department of State, RG 59; Alabama Claims Papers, Records of Boundary and Claims Commissions and Arbitrations, RG 76; and Consular Despatches, RG 84. Many have been published in War of the Rebellion: Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies (ORA), series IV; the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Navies in the War of the Rebellion (ORN); the Papers Relating to Foreign Affairs, Accompanying the Annual Message of the President (1862–1865); and several compilations of material related to the Alabama Claims.
10. Such materials are scattered throughout the wartime consular despatches of RG 84. The Thomas Haines Dudley Collection, at the Huntington Library, San Marino, CA, includes photographs, prints, and plans of Confederate vessels. For mention of cartes de visite used by the Union, see M. P. Usina, Blockade Running in Confederate Times (1895) pp. 23–24.
11. "I enclose you a correct Photograph of Laird Rams. The first sketch made was not accurate. The artist made it from memory after seeing the vessel. This one shows her (like one in the Great Float at Birkenhead) just as she lays." Dudley to W. H. Seward, Oct. 3, 1863, Despatches from U.S. Consuls in Liverpool, M141, roll 25, NACP.
12. Many of these turned out to be destined for blockade-running rather than for service as warships. Others were incorrectly reported. See for instance the case of the Hector, found to be building for the Royal Navy. The Case of Great Britain, Vol. 2, pp. 185–186.
13. For example, see M. M. Jackson to W. H. Seward, (telegram) May 20, 1864, and Feb. 27, 1865, Despatches from U.S. Consuls in Halifax, Canada, 1833–1906 (National Archives Microfilm Publication T469, rolls 10 and 11), RG 59, NACP.
14. Samuel Whiting to W. H. Seward, May 19, 1862, Despatches From U.S. Consuls in Nassau, British West Indies, 1821–1906 (National Archives Microfilm Publication T475, roll 10), RG 59, NACP.
15. Epes Sargent to Seth C. Hawley, Mar. 15, 1863, Despatches From U.S. Consuls in Nassau, T475, roll 11.
16. The Attorney General v. Sillem and Others Claiming the Vessel "Alexandra" seized under the Foreign Enlistment Act: Report of the Trial (1863), pp. 5 - xxi; Frank J. Merli, Great Britain and the Confederate Navy, 1861–1865 (1970), pp. 160–177.
17. "Vessel Nos. 294 & 295, Scorpion & Wivern," in Laird Brothers, Estimate Book No. 2, pp. 67 - 74, and Contract Book No. 2, pp. 217, 246, 287, 288, 297 in Cammel-Laird Archives, Birkenhead, England; and Dudley to W. H. Seward, July 4, including description "Laird Ram '296' Launched 4 July, 1863" (No. 104), and Oct. 3, 1863 (No. 162), Despatches from U.S. Consuls in Liverpool, M141, roll 25, RG 59, NACP.
18. "I shall send for my special detective at London endeavor at the proper time to get up some evidence and have it laid before the government." Dudley to W. H. Seward, Oct. 4, 1862, Despatches from U.S. Consuls in Liverpool, M141, roll, 22, NACP; F. H. Morse to W. H. Seward, Sept. 4, 1863 (No. 94), Despatches from U.S. Consuls in London, England, 1790–1906 (National Archives Microfilm Publication T168, roll 32), RG 59, NACP.
19. Merli, Great Britain and the Confederate Navy, pp. 178–121; Richard Lester, "Construction of Confederate Ironclad Rams in Great Britain," Military Collector & Historian 26 (Summer 1974); William W. Wade, "The Man Who Stopped the Rams," American History 14 (April 1963): 18–22, 78–81.
20. Ephraim Douglass Adams, Great Britain and the American Civil War (1924), Vol. 2, pp. 116–151; Frank Lawrence Owsley, King Cotton Diplomacy: Foreign Relations of the Confederate States of America, revised by Harriet Chappell Owsley (2nd ed., 1959), pp. 396–413; Jarvis, "The Alabama and the Law," pp. 181–198.
21. One may speculate that several further ironclad ships completed in Europe at this time, such as Lima Barros (Brazil), Huascar (Peru), Rolf Krake (Denmark), or Arminius (Prussia), may have been intended for the South. However, despite considerable speculation by Union spies and consuls, no definite information has been discovered to tie these or other ironclad building efforts to the Confederacy.
22. Edwin Strong, Thomas Buckley, and Annetta St. Clair, "The Odyssey of the CSS Stonewall," Civil War History 30 (December 1984): 306–323.
23. John Bigelow, France and the Confederate Navy (1888), pp. 1–15.
24. Ibid., pp. 1–189.
25. Jackson to W. H. Seward, Dec. 9, 1863, Despatches from U.S. Consuls in Halifax, T469, roll 10; for a similar report, also see Thomas Savage to W. H. Seward, Mar. 18, 1864 (No. 134), Despatches from U.S. Consuls in Havana, Cuba, 1783–1906 (National Archives Microfilm Publication M899, roll 46), RG 59, NACP.
26. John Young to W. H. Seward, Aug. 20, 1862, Despatches from U.S. Consuls in Belfast, Ireland, 1796–1906 (National Archives Microfilm Publication T368, roll 4), RG 59, NACP.
27. Young to W. H. Seward, Apr. 20, 1864, ibid.
28. William T. Minor to W. H. Seward, Dec. 23, 1864 (No. 10), Despatches from U.S. Consuls in Havana, M899, roll 46.
29. Edwin C. Eastman to W. H. Seward, Sept. 27, 1864, and Sept. 27, 1864, Queenstown Consular Despatches, RG 59, NACP; ORA, ser. 1, 14: 661; ORN, ser. 2, 2: 627–628, 688–689, 790–791.
30. James & George Thomson to Messrs. W. S. Lindsay & Co., Oct. 29, 1862, CBF Private Letter Book, No. 3, UCS 1/11/1, Glasgow University Archives, Glasgow, Scotland; F. H. Morse to W. H. Seward, May 2, 1863 (No. 46), Despatches from U.S. Consuls in London, T168, roll 31; Dudley to W. H. Seward, Oct. 13 (No. 165), Nov. 16, 1863 (No. 187), Despatches from U.S. Consuls in Liverpool, M141, roll 25; W. L. Underwood, Oct. 15, 1863, Despatches from U.S. Consuls in Glasgow, Scotland, 1801–1906 (National Archives Microfilm Publication T207, roll 7), RG 59, NACP; William E. Geohegan, Thomas W. Green, Capt. R. Steen, RDN, and Frank Merli, "The South's Scottish Sea Monster," American Neptune 29 (January 1969): 5–29; and Merli, Great Britain and the Confederate Navy, pp. 134–147, 150–159.
31. James & George Thomson to Messrs. W. S. Lindsay & Co., July 14, 1862, (George Thomson) CBF Private Letter Book, No. 3, UCS 1/11/1, Glasgow University Archives; Douglas H. Maynard, "The Confederacy's Super 'Alabama,'" Civil War History 5 (March 1959): 80–95; and Merli, Great Britain and the Confederate Navy, pp. 120–126.
32. Merli, Great Britain and the Confederate Navy, pp. 127–133.
33. Deposition of Richard Spendiff, laborer, Sheerness, enclosure within F. H. Morse to W. H. Seward, Dec. 11. 1863 (No. 127), and Samuel H. Chase to F. H. Morse, Dec. 18, 1863 (No. 130), Despatches from U.S. Consuls in London, T 168, roll 32; Warren F. Spencer, The Confederate Navy in Europe (1983), pp. 134–141; and Merli, Great Britain and the Confederate Navy, pp. 218–226.
34. Spencer, Confederate Navy in Europe, pp. 155–160.
35. The Case of Great Britain, Vol. 1, pp. 67–71.
36. "I may mention that there is no doubt that agents of the confederates were on the look-out to purchase the more powerful vessels of the squadron from the Chinese had they been left in their hands, and it is equally certain that the Chinese would have sold those vessels as being unsuited to them." Sir Frederick W.A. Bruce to the Earl of Clarendon, Dec. 9, 1865, in The Case of Great Britain, Vol. 2, p. 819; Frank Merli, "A Missing Chapter in American Civil War Diplomacy: The Confederacy's Chinese Fleet, 1861–1867," in Clark G. Reynolds, Global Crossroads and the American Seas (1988), pp. 181–196.
37. Merli, Great Britain and the Confederate Navy, pp. 226 - 234
38. Young to W. H. Seward, Apr. 20, 1864, Despatches from U.S. Consuls in Belfast, T368, roll 4.
39. Don Higginbotham, "A Raider Refuels: Diplomatic Repercussions," Civil War History 4 (June 1958): 129–141.
40. The idea had been proven by the conversion of the blockade-runners Edith and Atalanta into the gunboats CSS Chickamauga and CSS Tallahassee. They raided northern fishing fleets and coastal shipping even to the doorsteps of New York and Boston harbors.
41. London Times, Jan. 25, 1865, p. 4. Mary Augusta and Louisa Ann Fanny have been confused by earlier researchers with Enterprise and Adventure, the 250-foot twin-screw runner/raiders built by Denny. The vital, overlooked information is the tonnage of 972 mentioned by Bulloch in his letter to Mallory, Sept. 15, 1864, ORN, ser. 2, 2: 721. This tonnage matches the Dudgeon runner/raiders and does not match the tonnage of the ships built by Denny; "Double Screws," Liverpool Telegraph, Jan. 27, 1865.
42. S. R. Mallory to James D. Bulloch, July 30 and Aug. 19, 1864, ORN, ser. 2, 2: 695, 707; Bulloch, Secret Service, pp. 242–243; Bulloch to Mallory, Aug. 29, July 15, Aug. 27, Sept. 1, 15, and 16, 1864, ORN, ser. 2, 2: 686, 712–714, 717–718, 721, 725; Samuel Barron to Mallory, Aug. 10, 1864, ORN, ser. 2, 2: 699–700; Liverpool Underwriters Registry of Iron Ships (1870), p. 243; Colin J. McRae to James A. Seddon, July 4, 1864, ORA, ser. 4, 3: 527–528.
43. Bulloch to Capt. T. J. Page, Feb. 14, 1865, ORN, ser. 1, 3: 737–739; Jackson to Frederick W. Seward, Asst. Secy. of State, Mar. 1, 1864 (No. 165), Despatches from U.S. Consuls in Halifax, T469, roll 10; Thomas Hayter Chase to F. H. Morse, Jan. 20, Feb. 3, 1865, and F. H. Morse to W. H. Seward, Feb. 19, 1865, Despatches from U.S. Consuls in London, T168, roll 35; Minor to W. H. Seward, Mar. 24, 1865, Despatches from U.S. Consuls in Havana, M899, roll 46.
44. Caleb Cushing, The Treaty of Washington: Its Negotiation, Execution and the Discussions Relating Thereto (1873) pp. 15–26.
45. W. H. Seward to Adams, No. 421, Dec. 8, 1862, published in Papers Relating to Foreign Affairs, 1862–63 (1863) part 1, p. 17.
46. Glyndon G. Van Deusen, William Henry Seward: Lincoln's Secretary of State, The Negotiator of the Alaska Purchase (1967) pp. 497–505; Doris W. Dashew, "The Story of an Illusion: The Plan to Trade the Alabama Claims for Canada," Civil War History 15 (December 1969): 332–348.
47. The speech was at the center of a bitter rift between Senator Sumner, chair of the Foreign Relations Committee, and the administration. J.C. Bancroft Davis, Mr. Fish and the Alabama Claims: A Chapter in Diplomatic History (1893), pp. 5–69; Balch, Alabama Arbitration, pp. 39–121; Martin B. Duberman, Charles Francis Adams (1961), pp. 341–342.
48. Duberman, Charles Francis Adams, p. 342.
49. M. W. Zurbuchen, "The History of the Alabama Room," in The Alabama Arbitration, Geneva, 1872 (1988), pp. 59–61.
50. Frank W. Hackett, The Geneva Award Acts (1882), p. v.