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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
It would therefore be well [he wrote] for the Department to consider at once what is best to be done in the event of the government here refusing to stop these vessels, a contingency quite probable. … I am doing all I can to strengthen and obtain additional evidence against these vessels but I find it now much more difficult than it was before the trial of the case against the Alexandra . The cry they have got up against me and the spy system which they say I have inaugurated has driven almost all my men away. … Feeling is deep and strong against us and the whole town seems to take sides with those who are building these vessels.
On July 4, 1863, Dudley reported the first ram had actually been launched. He fell to work producing the customary affidavits, putting them before the Liverpool Collector of Customs, sending copies to Adams to lay before Lord Russell and dispatching other copies to Seward. Yonge and Chapman were again called on for testimony. Yonge said that he had seen a set of plans and specifications for the ironclad rams. He had gone to the Laird yard, and in its southerly part under a shed he had seen two ironclad steamers being built. “I believe them to be the same that I saw on the plans and drawings made by the Messrs. Laird and in possession of Captain Bulloch at the office of Fraser, Trenholm & Co. hereinbefore mentioned,” he wrote. “I have not the least doubt about the matter.”
Chapman told of his tour of the Laird yard, of the armor plate and turrets being put on the ships. “Each ram,” he noted, “had a stem made of wrought iron about eight inches thick, projecting about five feet under the water line and obviously intended for the purpose of penetrating and destroying other vessels. The rams in question were of immense strength and could by no possibility be intended for anything but vessels of war.”
Dudley obtained a joint affidavit from William Hayden Russell, an American merchant-ship captain, and Joseph Ellis, a Liverpool shipwright, who said they had been in the Laird yard and had witnessed the launching of the first ram. They had walked alongside the ship before the launching and had seen her armor, her turrets, and her underwater beak. They wrote: “We have no hesitation in saying that the said vessel is an iron clad ram of the most formidable description and cannot be intended for any purpose but that of war.” A boilermaker and a ship caulker swore that Bulloch was often seen in the Laird yard looking after the building of the rams.
Dudley was also at pains to track down and refute reports that the rams were actually destined for the emperor of China, the government of Egypt or Turkey, or for a buyer in France. In fact, Bulloch, fearful that the rams would be seized as the Alexandra had been, had sold the two ships to Bravay & Company of Paris with the understanding that they would be sold back to him after delivery in France. Again he had taken legal advice and had gone to a great deal of trouble to make the transaction one that would withstand legal scrutiny.
But by this time the hue and cry was great, and so were the pressures on the British government. There was news of Vicksburg and Gettysburg; there was Seward’s threat of armed privateers; there were the many embarrassing prizes that the Alabama and Florida had taken at sea. Finally, Dudley and Adams were tirelessly at work, offering affidavits, presenting protests. Early in September the British government was already taking steps to halt the rams, when Adams applied the last diplomatic turn of the screw. In a long note to Russell, he wrote that if the rams escaped, “it would be superfluous in me to point out to your lordship that this is war.”
Russell decided to halt the ships, and the Lairds were ordered not to allow them to make their trial runs. Still Dudley was left in doubt. On September i he told Seward that the first ram had her masts up and was fully rigged, that her machinery was in and her turrets in place. “I see nothing to prevent her going out whenever she chooses.” On September 8 he said he knew of nothing that was being done by the government to stop the rams. The next day he said Adams had informed him by telegram they were to be stopped. But two days later Dudley noted that some Liverpool papers were saying the rams were to be stopped and still others that they were not. The Lairds, he pointed out, were pushing work on the ships with as much speed as possible.
He was worried by the fact that there were many Southern officers in Liverpool. He had visions of a raid and seizure. He had memories of how the Alabama had slipped away. If it could happen anywhere, it could happen in Liverpool.
Not until October 10 could Dudley report victory to Seward. He had learned that Captain Inglefield of Her Majesty’s Ship Majestic had taken custody of the rams in the Mersey. He wrote: The issuing of orders to Captain Inglefield satisfied me that they [the British authorities] were now in earnest. Up to this time I could not say that they were, for although they had assured us the vessels would not be permitted to sail without their being satisfied they were not to be used against the United States, it was very evident from the way they acted about them that it was with reluctance they had given us the notice and that they were still willing to permit them to sail if any decent pretext could be found to justify them. Captain Inglefield is a very energetic officer and will obey his orders. I think I can now say to you with every assurance of its truth that the two rams are stopped.