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The Man Who Stopped The Rams
The Union had failed to prevent the construction of Rebel steam raiders in England. Now the U.S. consul in Liverpool detected a weapon capable of changing the course of the war. But could he prove it to the British?
April 1963 | Volume 14, Issue 3
To watch the movements of the Southern agents I who are here purchasing arms and munitions of war and engaged in fating out vessels for the so-called Southern Confederacy it is necessary to employ one or two 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.”
So wrote Thomas Haines Dudley to Secretary of State William Seward on December 11, 1861, soon after his arrival in Liverpool to serve as United States consul. Dudley spent most of the next four years pursuing this “not very pleasant business.” He employed detectives, he quizzed seamen and water-front workers, he combed newspapers and frequented the Liverpool Exchange—all in the interests of gathering complete and accurate information. He sent it on to Washington and to the United States Minister in London, Charles Francis Adams. His handwritten dispatches, now in the National Archives, went to Washington two and three times a week, full of naval intelligence for the blockading squadrons oft the southern roast and those patrolling off the Bahamas, Cuba, and Bermuda. And the evidence he collected played an essential role in the diplomatic struggle conducted by Seward and Adams to persuade the British government to enforce its neutrality law, the Foreign Enlistment Act, forbidding the supply of war vessels or fighting men to the belligerents. In that struggle, Dudley saw some of his work end in failure. But he also saw it finally crowned with success—a success that had a measure of influence on the outcome of the war.
Dudley was forty-two years old when he arrived in Liverpool-thin, tall, sharp-featured, bearded and mustached. Benjamin Moran, a secretary in the United States legation in London who kneel to record both physical descriptions and waspish comments about his visitors in his journal, was favorably impressed by his first meeting with Dudley. The new consul had “a fine head and remarkably intellectual countenance. His hair is dark brown & wavy and sets oil his high and broad forehead with great effect, at the same time concealing much of it. He is as intelligent as he looks, and talks with great force. … I was much gratified to find him a strenuous patriot. He is modest, refined and able … has a genteel figure and is fully 6 feet high.”
Dudley had been a New Jersey lawyer, a city treasurer of Camden, and a participant in Republican party activities in the state. His appointment as consul was undoubtedly due in part to the fact that he had been an early Lincoln supporter at the 1860 Republican convention.
The Liverpool to which he came in 1961 was the great port of the day—embarkation point for passengers making the transatlantic crossing, port of entry for the cotton that led Lancashire’s textile mills, a shipbuilding center, and a communications link between the Old and New worlds. (Recently it had been the terminus of the first, unsuccessful Atlantic cable.)
As a community Liverpool was less friendly to the Union cause than was official London. Minister Adams and other representatives of the Union lamented the apparent pro-Southern leanings of the British government and many members of Parliament. But the position of the government, proclaimed in May, 1861, was one of neutrality. Britain recogni/ed the South as a belligerent part), but she did not recogni/e an independent Confederate nation nor did she have diplomatie relations with the Confederate government. When a Federal cruiser stopped the British steamer Trent on the high seas ami took off the Southern commissioners James M. Mason and John Slidell, who were coming to Europe to seek recognition, there was talk of war in both Britain and the North. But the outcome of the dispute emphasized British neutrality rather than (he reverse. London showed moderation in pressing its case, and Lincoln, after an interval, ordered the commissioners released. When Mason finally arrived in England, he was received privately by Lord John Russell, the Foreign Secretary, who stressed the unofficial nature of their relations and said that any change in British policy must wait on events.
In commercial Liverpool, however, Confederate purchasing agents were active, and British businessmen were eager to try for the speculative profils of blockade-running or the surer gains of shipbuilding. Soon alter arriving, Dudley wrote: The feeling among the great mass of residents of the place is and has been against the North and in favor of the South. This feeling has been very much intensified by the Trent affair, ft is now deep and bitter. … Some houses [business firms] at this place are openly engaged in aiding the South in sending arms etc. while many others sympathize with and aid them secretly.
A few weeks laier he told Seward: “It is reported that there are at the present time more men employed in the dockyards in building new and fitting out old ships and in the armories and arsenals in the manufacture of munitions of war than there ever was at any time before, not even excepting (he pendancy of the [Crimean] War.”