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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
These hints produced results in April, when the British government ordered the seizure of the ship Dudley had reported building in the Miller yard—the Alexandra —on the grounds that the Foreign Enlistment Act was about to be violated. Now the question of what the act really meant could be settled in court. And simultaneously Dudley received some solid evidence that looked as though it would be conclusive in court. The evidence came from a Confederate defector—twentynine-year-old Clarence Randolph Yonge.
Yonge had been brought to England by Captain Bulloch as his clerk and had sailed in the Alabama as her paymaster. When the raider stopped in Jamaica early in 1863, Yonge left her in disgrace. According to Confederate accounts, he had been accused of inciting mutiny and had also bigamously married a Jamaican mulatto. He brought his wife to Liverpool and apparently deserted her, at least temporarily. Dudley received papers from her, including letters from Bulloch about the Alabama . On April 1 he brought these to the American legation in London and there found Yonge himself telling his story to Benjamin Moran, Assistant Secretary to Minister Adams.
Dudley, Yonge, and a solicitor went to a hotel together and worked until 11:30 P.M. producing a deposition. It attested that the Lairds had built the Alabama under contract for Bulloch, that nine-tenths of her crew was British, that many crew members were members of the British Naval Reserve receiving government pensions, that the men were paid by Fraser, Trenholm & Company in Liverpool, that the Alabama was armed and coaled from England and permitted to refit and repair in Jamaica, receiving every assistance and courtesy from British officials.
Yonge’s affidavit, Dudley told Seward, was “enough to convict the Lairds, … Fraser, Trenholm & Company … and Captain James D. Bulloch under the Foreign Enlistment Act if there was any disposition on the part of this government to take it up.”
Moran, in his journal, described Yonge as a “man of talent” but “a slippery fellow.” His willingness to embrace the Union cause, the Assistant Secretary noted, “was the result in a measure of empty pockets and partly as a matter of revenge.” “He is a reckless and uncertain kind of man,” wrote Dudley, “quite likely a bad man, but it seems necessary to retain him. I have therefore made a bargain with him to stay. I am to give him six pounds per week while he is here and pay the passage for himself and wife to the States after we are done with him. This is what he received on the Alabama . He is to leave Liverpool and go to one of the towns in the interior. This is done to get him out of the way of the other side.”
Dudley then used the papers he obtained from Yonge’s wife to try to penetrate the enemy camp. His instrument for this was George Temple Chapman, a former Annapolis midshipman from New England who posed as a sympathizer for the Southern cause. Described by Moran as “an impudent fellow,” Chapman took the papers to Fraser, Trenholm & Company as an earnest of his good intentions. He first saw Charles K. Prioleau, the Liverpool resident partner of the firm, and then Captain Bulloch. Whether Chapman won the full confidence of the Southerners or not, he did gain admittance to the Laird shipyard and was conducted on a tour of the rams, providing Dudley with some more naval intelligence which was promptly sent off to Washington.
All this activity reached its first test at the Alexandra trial in London at the end of June. The case justifying the government’s seizure of the vessel was presented by the Crown, but the evidence was all Dudley’s. Dudley sat unhappily in the courtroom watching what he considered a weak presentation of the evidence. His dismay became even deeper when he heard what he described to Seward as “the strange and extraordinary charge given to the jury by the judge,” Sir Jonathan Frederick Pollock, the Chief Baron of the Court of the Exchequer. He told the jury that a shipbuilder had as much right to build a ship and sell it to either belligerent as a maker of gunpowder or muskets or any other warlike implements had to sell these articles in the same way. The law, he said, was not made to protect belligerent powers, but to keep British ports free of the hostile movements of warring nations. He indicated there were no grounds for seizure of the still-unarmed Alexandra . The jury, after the judge’s charge, found in favor of the defendants.
The British government promptly appealed the verdict, continuing to detain the ship. This, at least, was cheering news, but it did not relieve Adams and especially Dudley of their uncertainties about the rams. Less than a week after the end of the trial, Dudley told Seward that the launching of the first ram was imminent.