Our Civil War - Merseyside and the American Civil War
Report by Greg Bayne
Starting off the lectures on the first morning our 50th was Jerry Williams. His lecture delivered in a unique style gave members a flavour of the life and times of the Mersey and the role it played during the American Civil War. Intrigue, espionage and clandestine meetings in smoke filled pubs were all there for us to think about.
Up to 1861, 60% of the South's cotton came through Merseyside to feed the Lancashire mills. Through the offices of Fraser Trenholm & Co, the Confederates set up a base to finance their subsequent ship purchases and banking operations. The main Confederate agent was James Dunwoody Bulloch pictured and faced against him was US Consul Thomas Haines Dudley.
Following the passing of the British Neutrality Act banning the building of armed ships, the Confederacy were forced to commission ships under assumed names and foreign owners. The Oreto (the Florida) and then ship 290 "the Enrica" (the Alabama) were laid down under the noses of US officials working in vain to bring the matter to the British officials. Bulloch barely managed to get the Enrica under sail and away before customs officers finally responded to the US complaints. Sailing to the Azores, evading US warships, she was fitted out by Raphael Semmes and renamed the CSS Alabama. She sailed into history as the South's most successful raider with 65 prizes.
After 20 months at sea, the Alabama needed repairs and landed at Cherbourg. There US officials notified the US Kearsarge docked at Flushing, and the US ship arrived off the coast to await the Alabama's departure. Crowds gathered to see the battle along the cliff edge. The Kearsarge's superior armaments won the day and the Alabama surrendered. Semmes was able to escape by boarding the British ship Deerhound to Southampton.
The CSS Shenandoah, a converted British transport ship, was also bought from Merseyside. Fitted out in Madeira in October 1864, she sailed to Australia and then ravaged the Arctic and North Pacific whaling fleets. Hearing from a neutral ship that the war was over she set sail for Liverpool and surrendered to British authorities on November 5th 1865.
Bulloch also commissioned two ironclad vessels, ships 294 and 295, but the authorities impounded these. They were eventually completed, serving in the Chinese river campaigns as HMS Wyvern and HMS Scorpion.
Jerry then moved on to a series of one-liners to keep the audience on their toes. Ex-Isle of Man packet ships were commissioned to run between Bermuda and the Southern ports. Enterprising captains even accepted shopping lists. One ship captained by William Wilson was captured by the US and during the trip to Philadelphia, Wilson and his crew captured it back!.
Back in Liverpool Charles Prioleau, another southern agent helped to organise the "Great Southern Bazaar" in October 1864. This event held over 5 days raised over £20,000 for the southern cause. A remarkable feat considering the failing fortunes of the Confederacy at this time.
Jerry also said that the paint scheme "battleship grey" also appeared at this time as a direct result of the need for subterfuge on the part of the departing ships.
When the war ended, James Bulloch and his family decided to remain in England, turning down the chance to return to the US under a general pardon. He died in Toxteth in 1901. His gravestone contains the epitaph "American by birth, Englishman by choice".
Many years after the war had ended, the US tried to sue Britain for aiding the Confederacy, but in a series of political maneuverings in the Geneva courts all they managed to gain was a token £3,250,000.
There was no doubt that Liverpool had a major influence in the events of the Civil War. Most of the interest on the British was for fiscal gain, but the heritage and history of those days still exist in Liverpool if you look hard enough.