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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
Dudley collected all kinds of water-front news—of the sale of steamers and other vessels to known Confederate agents and sympathizers, along with detailed descriptions of the vessels so that they could be identified by blockading patrols. He sent long lists of cargoes leaving the port, noted the arrival of shipments of cotton in Liverpool, picked up information about how the Confederacy financed its war effort, and recorded how wartime events affected Liverpool’s sympathies.
Dudley did not tell Seward how he got his results. Soon after asking permission to hire his “one or two detectives,” he enclosed a confidential note with one of his dispatches stating: “In my report to the department of the persons in my employ etc. 1 do not give the names or even refer to the men in my employ as detectives. Regarding their engagement with me as confidential in its character, I suppose it not right or proper for me to refer to them.” As time went on, for one reason or another, he revealed the identity of a lew of these men, but the names and specific actions of most of them are unrecorded.
A good deal of the legwork of these detectives was expended in searching out facts related to Dudley’s most important task—the gathering of information about the warships being built in Liverpool lor the Confederates. These are referred to in Union correspondence sometimes as privateers, sometimes as pirates. They were in fact designed to become vessels in the Confederate Navy. They were Dudley’s big game. If he could stop any one of them from sailing, he would do as much as a successful naval commander in an engagement at sea.
Dudley reported his first news of a man-of-war in a dispatch dated January 24, 1862. A screw gunboat named the Oristis , he said, was fitting out at one of the Liverpool dockyards. She was supposed to be intended for an Italian purchaser, but circumstances made him suspect she was really meant for the South. Ten days later he had the name straightened out—it was the Oreto , and she was taking on coal. “They pretend she is built for the Italian government,” Dudley wrote, “but the Italian consul here informs us that he knows nothing about it.” As February wore on, he added new details—that William C. Miller and Son had built the hull, that Fawcett Preston and Company supplied the machinery and seemed in charge of construction, that Fraser, Trenholm & Company had advanced the money, that the vessel would be equal in strength and armaments to the Federal cruiser Tuscarora , the largest Union ship in European waters at the time.
At the beginning of March Dudley reported that the Oreto was signing on a crew. She had not yet been equipped xvith guns; one former employee of Fawcett Preston and Company said her guns were being shipped to Sicily, while another said they were going to Bermuda. The blockade-runner Annie Childs had arrived in the Mersey with the Confederate flag flying at her mast; as she passed, the Oreto dipped her ensign.
And aboard the Annie Childs , Dudley said, was Captain James D. Bulloch of the Confederate Navy, who had been in Liverpool the previous fall and was known to be a purchasing agent for the South. Bulloch, four years younger than the Union consul, was a strenuous patriot, too, and he was to lead Dudley on long and exasperating chases.
“A part of the crew of the steamer Annie Childs has just left my office,” Dudley wrote to Seward on March 22. They had told him—quite inaccurately—that Bulloch would command the Oreto . Dudley complained that the Southern men and their Liverpool agents were kept in ignorance about the ship—“they have managed this business better than anything else they have attempted at this Port.” Bulloch, in his memoirs, admitted being close-mouthed: “I merely practiced such ordinary business prudence and reserve as a man would be likely to follow in the management of his private affairs. I never told any employee more than it was necessary for him to know.”
One reason for Bulloch’s security consciousness was the advice he had received from Liverpool lawyers about the Foreign Enlistment Act. The act, the lawyers told him, forbade Englishmen to “equip, furnish, fit out or arm” any ship with intent that it be employed in the service of a belligerent. It called for forfeiture of the vessels and punishment of the individuals concerned if this prohibition was disobeyed. But it also said that seizure and punishment must be based upon proof of the offense. Bulloch wanted not just one ship but as many as he could get, and so it was his clamlike policy not to tell shipbuilder, carpenter, chandler, or crew just what intentions he had for the vessels until they were well out on the high seas.
This worked like a charm in the case of the Oreto . She left Liverpool on March 26, later to turn up in Nassau, still later to turn up roaming the seas as the Confederate raider Florida , captor of some forty Federal merchant ships. Before the Oreto departed, Minister Adams registered a strong protest at the Foreign Office; still other representations were made before she left Nassau. In each case the British government asked for proof that the vessel was intended for belligerent service.