The Man Who Stopped The Rams

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The British Navy had ironclads of its own; so had the French, but in each navy the principal reliance was still on wooden ships. The British newspapers in March and April of 1862 had carried long stories and much comment about the exploits of the Confederate ironclad Merrimac , or Virginia , and her battle with the Monitor , all of which clearly showed that nothing but ironclads could be used in the line of battle. In London, The Times stated: “It is quite impossible to dissemble the fact that nine-tenths of the British Navy have been rendered comparatively useless.” In the House of Commons some members raised the question of whether the news did not make obsolete certain coastal defenses Britain was building. And John Laird, member from Birkenhead, retired head of the shipyard and father of its two proprietors, said that Britain must have an efficient iron-steam navy, and he hoped the government would turn its attention seriously to the subject.

Dudley, naturally enough, turned his serious attention, as time went on, toward keeping the Lairds from selling the Confederacy an iron-steam navy. He was aided in this by the difficulty of hiding the construction of an ironclad or pretending that the finished product was to be a merchant ship.

Dudley’s reports on the Laird rams were interesting to Washington. On August 30, 1862, he wrote Seward: I have had the shipyard of the Messrs. Lairds at Birkenhead examined. The keel of one of the gunboats for the Confederates has been laid in the same stocks from which the 290 was launched. It is 250 feet long. She is to be built as soon as possible with the utmost dispatch, to be ironclad and in all particulars to be finished in the most substantial manner without regard to expense. A large number of workmen are now employed on her. The keel for the other has not yet been laid but the place in the yard has been selected and the ground and stocks are being prepared preparatory to laying it.

In October Dudley reported again that there had been “no cessation of the work neither night nor day” on the two rams. “The ribs of one are all up,” he said, “and they have commenced to put on the plates.… They are using great precaution to keep us ignorant of their doings. No stranger is admitted into their yard. I shall send for my special detective at London and endeavor at the proper time to get up some evidence and have it lain before the government but I have very little hope that they will do any thing to stop them.”

Later in the month he reported having the yard of William C. Miller & Sons “examined again,” to learn that another gunboat for the Confederacy was being built there. The Miller yard, he reminded Seward, was where the Oreto had been built. In the same dispatch Dudley commented on the diplomatic sensation of the moment—a speech, unauthorized as it turned out, by Chancellor of the Exchequer William Gladstone to the effect that Jefferson Davis had made an army, was making a navy, and had created something still greater, a nation. About the navy, Dudley was particularly sensitive. It would have been nearer the truth, he wrote, if Gladstone had said England, not the South, was constructing the navy.

And this, in fact, was becoming the issue that Lord Palmerston, the Prime Minister, and Lord Russell, his Foreign Secretary, could not escape—and which neither Washington nor its representatives in London or Liverpool had any intention of overlooking. In October, 1862, the Alabama was taking prizes in the North Atlantic, and their captains, crews, and passengers were brought to Liverpool in two vessels the Alabama ’s Captain Semmes released for the purpose. Dudley took depositions from the captains whose ships had been seized. The picture was clear: here was a sea raider built in British yards, equipped with British guns, manned mainly by a British crew. Her officers alone were from the South.

It was true, as an American student of the subject had written a generation earlier, that international law is like a false nose made of wax, to be pushed to one side or the other by whoever was molding it to his fancy. But did Britain, the world’s foremost naval power, the nation most likely to want to deny a future foe the use of neutral shipyards, really want to set this kind of a precedent?

Seward played his own part in bringing this argument home. He discussed with the British ambassador in Washington, Lord Lyons, the American exasperation with the departure of the gunboats from English ports. At the same time he spoke of a bill considered by Congress in the latter half of 1862 and passed in March, 1863. This gave the President power to issue letters of marque so that merchant ships might be made into a militia of the seas, empowered if necessary to make war on British commerce. But there was another hint from Seward to Lyons—followed up by an instruction to Adams in London—that the presidential authority might not be used if the departure of future Alabamas , and more important, of the rams, was prevented.