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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
The Florida was the first—there were others. Dudley had heard early in March of a vessel being built in the Laird shipyard in Birkenhead, just across the Mersey River from Liverpool. Soon after the Oreto left, he wrote to Seward that the new gunboat was of the same model. “I have reason to believe she is for the Confederate government,” he said. “She lias not yet been launched. No expense is being spared in her construction. Her tonnage is 1,100, her engines to be goo horsepower. 1 will look after her.”
She was launched in May, and in mid-June Dudley wrote that ilie vessel had had a trial trip—“none of the press were invited; no one was admitted on board without a ticket; they were issued only to the persons actively engaged in aiding the Rebellion.” Hc complained that he was finding it more and more difficult to get information about the vessel. 11 he did not yet have a name for the ship, at least he had learned its identifying number, 290, this being the serial number given the vessel in the Laird yard.
Minister Adams told Dudley that there was a better feeling toward the North on the part of the British government and that “they will now do what they can to conciliate us and will stop the fitting out of this ves sel.” Earl Russell wanted Dudley to furnish evidence on No. ayo’s character to the Collector of Customs at Liverpool, but Dudley found this difficult. Hc sent to Seward an exchange of his correspondence with Samuel Price Edwards, the customs collector; he had told Edwards that everything about the ship “shows her to be a war vessel,” and he had given various details, getting in return the curt reply that “the statement made by you is not such as could be acted upon by the Officers of this Revenue unless legally substantiated by evidence.”
At Adams’ suggestion, Dudley employed a solicitor to attempt to present legal proof that the Foreign Enlistment Act was being violated. “I have retained AIr. S(|uarcy of Liverpool, a man of ability in his profession,” Dudley told Seward. “Hc has taken hold of the case with energy and 1 entertain some hopes that we will succeed in preventing (he gunboat from sailing.” Dudley and Syuarcy got allidavits about Xo. ygo, laid them before Collector Edwards, went to London to confer with Adams; but getting binding proof that this vessel was really a warship built for Confederate service was very hard.
“There were men enough who knew about her and understood her character,” wrote Dudley, “but they were not willing to testify, and in a preliminary proceeding like (his it was impossible to obtain process to compel them, indeed no one in a hostile community like Liverpool … would be a willing witness, especially if he resides there and was in any way dependent upon the people of that place for a livelihood.”
Yet success finally seemed at hand. Dudley and Squarey went to London and got from a distinguished lawyer there a written opinion that the Foreign Enlistment Act was being broken and that there was evidence enough to justify detention of Xo. ago. Adams presented this to Lord Russell, who on July 26 passed it along to the Queen s Advocate, who, at precisely that moment, went insane. There was a two-day delay while the papers were passed to other law officers, and on July 2t) these officers ruled that the vessel should be detained. But by now it was too late.
Captain Bulloch saw how things were going, and he acted just in time. Xo. 2()o left Liverpool on July zg for a trial run in the open sea. A tug met her a few hours later to bring back the invited guests; No. 290 cruised down the Welsh coast, managed to dodge U.S.S. Tuscarora , which was eagerly looking for her, and then swung around north of Ireland and went to the Azores. There she met Hulloch’s supply ships, took on guns and supplies and Confederate officers, and then headed out for the open sea as a Confederate sea raider—C.S.S. Alabama , most famous and cHective of all the Confederate cruisers to operate in the 1860’s.
Dudley grew pessimistic, warned that Europeans “are all against us and would rejoice in our downfall,” and told Seward that (he best thing the United States Xavy could do would be to build a large number of ironclads, like the famous Monitor . This, he believed, “would do more at the present time to prevent intervention than diplomacy or anything else.”
This led to the all-important problem: ironclads. The Alabama was, after all, a wooden ship with all of a wooden ship’s limitations. Hut now the Laird yards were laying down something different—ironclad rams, heavily armored, much more seaworthy than America’s monitors or the armored vessels the Confederacy was building at home, ships that would not simply be commerce raiders but which, if finished and delivered, would form a striking lorce too strong for the Federal Navy to handle.
Confederate Navy Secretary Stephen Mallory dreamed that the Laird rams, as they came to be called, would break the blockade, attack the ports of New York and Roston, and force their way into Chesapeake Bay. Confederate agents in Europe were told that “no effort, no sacrifice, must be spared” to secure their delivery. Washington told Attams to stop them “at all haxards as we have no defense against them.”