Prologue Magazine

The Diplomats Who Sank a Fleet, Part 2

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


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.

The Diplomats Who Sank a Fleet, Part 1

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.

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