Charles K Prioleau - Lost for the Cause?
A report of nearly half a century of research by Jerry Williams
My original researches began in the late 1960s when I was working at Cammell Lairds Shipyard. Whilst I there the finding of important documents relating to the construction of the Alabama and also the Laird's Ram's, the Denbigh, Lark, Wren, Albatross and Penguin blockade runners. This contracts book is now in the Williamson Art Gallery in Birkenhead. To help broaden my knowledge of the Merseyside connections with the American Civil War, my wife Irene and l, in the early 1980's undertook a long fly /drive holiday from New York to Charleston and back. On my drive down the coast I called in at the Mariners Museum, Newport News to investigate various documents and the Bulloch model of the CSS Alabama. I then went on to visit the amazing Chris Fonvielle at the Blockade Runners Museum at Wilmington, North Carolina who highlighted the number of Liverpool vessels wrecked off the coast during the civil war period. Chris mentioned that there was an important person I should meet in Charleston, a Dr Charles Peery who was a specialist in Naval High Seas fleets of the war, blockade running and financing. I made contact with Charlie, who was an obstetrician, which might have been handy as Irene was well into her pregnancy at this time! Charlie introduced me to a mass of information and contacts which would "supercharge" my researches for future years. To see an oil painting on his wall of the blockade runner Let Her Rip leaving the Mersey, with Fort Perch Rock on one side and St Hilary's Church, Wallasey on the other was amazing!
A person of major significance to the war whose name kept appearing in various papers, but not well known to many was Charles Kuhn Prioleau and the offices of cotton firm Fraser Trenholm and Company in Liverpool. Confederate Agent James Bulloch has been more prominent in Historian's attention over the years. Prioleau arrived in Liverpool around 1856 as a co partner of the company and resident Manager. Prioleau is seen to be active in Liverpool business circles almost immediately At a 4th July celebration of American Residents in Liverpool at the Adelphi Hotel, on an invitation to Nathaniel Hawthorne the U.S. Consul in Liverpool and famous American Literary figure, C.K. Prioleau is on the organising Committee. Another South Carolinian of note is Allan Stewart Hanckel the son of a Charleston Clergyman. Hanckel was on the Trent when Mason and Slidell were arrested and took the papers from them into .'safekeeping". Hanckel is mentioned as one of the purchasers of the steamer Bermuda which attracted great interest from Union representatives. Hanckel settled in Liverpool after the war, marrying a local girl at West Derby church. They lived in Pexhill for a period of time, which is used by the University of Liverpool for astronomic research. Hanckel is buried in a Liverpool churchyard just down the road from the famous Liverpool thoroughfare of Penny Lane.
Fraser Trenholm and Company owned five sailing ships, the most notable being the Emily St Pierre named after George Trenholm's daughter. This vessel was captured outside Charleston during the war by the Union Navy and made a prize, but the Liverpool Captain William Watson managed to overpower the prize crew and sail the vessel back to Liverpool, to the pleasure of the Liverpool Chamber of Commerce. During the war Prioleau became a naturalised British citizen to be of better use to the Southern war effort. He married his Liverpool- born wife Mary Elizabeth Wright (the Belle of Liverpool Society) in 1860 at Walton Church, Liverpool. Prior to the siege of Fort Sumter, Prioleau sent a Blakely rifled cannon to Charleston. Over the years it has been widely mentioned that this gun fired the opening shot of the war, but this is not the case, as Charlie has always assured me they had been fired from shore batteries.
At the outbreak of the war almost 60%of the South's cotton was coming to Liverpool to feed the Lancashire Mills so the monies held by Fraser Trenholm were significant. During the war the whole banking of the Confederacy in Europe operated from Liverpool. Confederate Agent James Bulloch arrived at the offices in 10 Rumford Place (pictured) with Major Caleb Huse to purchase vessels, arms and ammunition (we received a Grade II English Heritage preservation order on this building in the late 1980's). Bulloch's purchase of the later to be named C.S.S. Alabama, Florida and Lairds Rams are for another story. During the war, a Le Carré -like espionage battle of epic proportions takes place from 10 Rumford Place and round the corner, at Tower Buildings where the Union Consul Thomas Haines Dudley helped by his private detectives conducts operations. In his early times in Liverpool, Prioleau purchases a house in Southbank Road, Aigburth. This building was demolished for a school in the late 1930's; a similar building with a corrugated iron roof was round the corner in Huyton House Road which was demolished about 15 years ago. Prioleau later operated from two addresses in Liverpool, the magnificent 19 Abercrombie Square, still standing and its multitude of South Carolinian devices, including Bonnie Blue Stars, Gasden Palmetto Trees, Crescents, Stars and Magnolia leaves. Secondly, Allerton Hall on the outskirts of Liverpool mentioned extensively in many Civil War publications.
Around 1990, the archives of Fraser Trenholm and Company were found in London. I managed at the time to lobby Gordon Reid, head of the Archives at Museums on Merseyside who purchased the whole collection. This outstanding collection of materials is of particular note. From memory, one item I frequently mention during my lectures is the Jacob Williman letter. Williman is an old friend of Prioleau, and writes to him with a letter that has come through the Union blockade, that he is rather 'down at heel' and could he supply some soap, goatphine pills and a copy of Mother Goose's Melodies! Mother Goose's Melodies is one of the first syndicated nursery rhymes and he is not going to be able to obtain a copy from the office in New York! Later in the war Prioleau is behind, together with the Liverpool Southern Club and notable James Spence, the Great Southern Bazaar at one of Liverpool's most iconic buildings, St Georges Hall. This raises £20,000 for Southern wounded (similar to the Union Sanitary Fairs) in just five days. Mrs Prioleau is described "in all her finery attending the South Carolina stall". Liverpool papers print thousands of words about the event.
After the war and the demise of Fraser Trenholm, Prioleau and the family move to Queens Gate Gardens in Kensington. Prioleau dies here in later years at Browns Hotel. In the mid 1980's Mike Barratt and myself made extensive researches to find the Prioleau's in England and find his address and grave in London. Mike Barratt, through work at the Births/ Marriages and Deaths in Islington found most of the information and checked out London cemeteries, finding the grave at Kensal Green which Mike and I then visited. Also of note was Charles Priestley who has undertaken many breakthrough researches on London and the war. I found the Prioleau's by trawling the telephone directories at Birkenhead Library. We contacted Antoinette Prioleau living near Wantage. Antoinette was able to track down various photos/drawings of Mary Elizabeth, recently finding after a 20 year search the oil painting of Charles K Prioleau.
Over the years extensive contacts with South Carolina also added the formidable information held by Ethel Nepveux on Fraser Trenholm and her important publication "Fraser Trenholm Goes to War". I must also thank Len Ellison for his historical assistance when I have been busy on other matters. Other important contacts, over the years has been Dr Steve Wise at the University of South Carolina and members of the South Carolina History Society.
This is only a very brief summary on C.K. Prioleau. A book is the next project!
Mike Barratt Writes: "Jerry Williams contacted me in 1984 during my period of office as SecretaryTreasurer of the Round Table(1980-95) asking me to trace the burial site of CKP A visit to the BDM offices in Islington got me the death certificate which showed that CKP had died at Brown's Hotel and was reported to the registrar by one of his sons. A letter to several London cemeteries brought a rapid reply from Kensal Green which provided a map, and site number. The grave was found just two rows back from the path which branched off the main drive to the central mausoleum. It will now be further back as they had then started using a strip of the path for new burials. I took photos and sent them to JW. He then sought the present day descendent simply by searching telephone directories, it being an unusual name. Antoinette Prioleau turned out to be the family historian. Full address includes Fawler Paddock, nr Wantage. A visit to Kensington Central Ref. Library located CKP's post-war town residence which, if my memory serves me correctly - it was 25 years ago, was at 47 Queen's Gate Gardens a new terrace, then only partly built. What does serve my memory well was the fact that my cycle suffered a fracture of the front wheel spindle (most rare) just as I left the cemetery and I had to find a taxi willing to transport both me and the bike back to Kew. I believe JW had also visited the grave some years ago during his one of his visits to me and his entry in the London Marathon. I gave some material to Maurice Rigby who is the fount of knowledge of the ordinary crewmen of the 'Alabama'. I have copies of (i) Bulloch's 1869 and (ii) Prioleau's 1863 Naturalisation papers. They list their sponsors, whose names may be possible subscribers to 'The Index'. They are (i) James Spense, John Alexander Sellar, Eugene Henry Perrin and John Richardson Armstrong; (ii) Thomas Haigh JP, John Torr JP, Alfred Castellain JP and James Fernle JP. I also have a copy of CKP's marriage certificate May 3rd 1860. I think that's all - the little grey cells are failing me".