Marauders of the Sea, Confederate Merchant Raiders During the American Civil War
The question over ownership of the 300 ton steamer Alexandra goes to Court.
Ever since Bulloch had moved into England to facilitate ship building for the South, he had been constantly dogged by the agents of the American consul at Liverpool, Thomas H. Dudley.
As 1862 was drawing to a close, Dudley was convinced that he had found yet another Confederate ship being built at Liverpool in the yards of W.C.Miller and Son, it must be remembered that this yard had built Florida, and in Thomas' mind were guilty by this association.
This ship, Alexandra , was a small 300 ton screw steamer, and bore very distinct lines to that of Florida.
In fact, Bulloch had nothing to do with the commissioning of the construction of this ship, nor anything to do with her, and was unaware of the owner's intentions.
A Charles K. Prioleau had signed the contract to build her at his expense, and his intention was to run the blockade, sail her to Charleston, and make a gift of Alexandra to the Confederate administration.
Three of Dudley’s agents had signed sworn statements to the effect that Alexandra was a new Confererate Cruiser, in turn Dudley harried his US Minister to England, Charles Adams to act.
Adams, had long been a public critic of Britain’s failure to curb their ship building yards assisting the Southern cause, he now petitioned the British Foreign Secretary to bring a test case to trial.
Britain on one hand, needed to protect their legitimate ship building industry, and on the other hand it had to properly discharge its obligations under International Law.
There was conflicting advice emanating from the British Foreign Office personnel, Edwards, the Customs Collector, stated he believed this ship: “ Was intended for the Confederate Government.” and should be officially detained.
But, treasury inspectors thought “ the ship more strongly built than customary in merchant vessels,” but violated no rules, there being no law forbidding the construction of specially reinforced vessels.
Two of Britain’s leading legal minds carried the day, Roundell Palmer and Robert Phillimore both recommended: “ The Alexandra be seized, the ship’s structure providing suitable grounds.”
There were no precedents to guide any legal action on behalf of the British Government, and the Foreign Enlistment Act thus needed to be tested in court.
Lord Russell now acted and ordered “The ship be seized on suspicion that her owners intended to use Alexandra against the United States.”
The Surveyor of Customs at Liverpool, on the 5th. of April 1863 ordered that “ The King’s Broad arrow be marked on one of her masts, and that Alexandra be seized under the Foreign Enlistment Act.”
The Times now got into the act, reporting: “ The ship is a fine tidy looking craft, nicely coppered and copper fastened, projecting an impression of speed, but no gunports or shell room. The engines had not been fitted, but she presents the appearance of a fast schooner-rigged steam yacht.”
Adams was delighted, and expressed his “ lively satisfaction,” to Lord Russell, he also sent off a note to Secretary Seward in the States: “ I think we may now infer from this act that the government is really disposed to maintain its neutrality.”
Liverpool ship builders were not enamoured with their government’s actions, viewing it as a threat to their livelihood, and the government moved the court case to London.
Until this case was tested in court, Naval contractors throughout Britain paused, unsure about continuing to carry out work on any contract for the Confederate South, for four months there was a stalemate, until at last, on the 22nd. of June in 1863, the British Court of the Exchequer opened the trial of the Alexandra, at Westminister, charging Fawcett, Preston and its agents with violating 96 counts of the Foreign Enlistment Act.
The Court told the Crown to prove, first, that the vessel was built for the purpose of being equipped for war, second, that she was intended at some stage of her construction for the service of the Confederate States.
This would appear to be a difficult assignment for the Crown, and as the trial rolled on, so it proved.
Sir Hugh Cairns a gifted attorney and George Mellish, a well known trial lawyer appeared for the defence, the Crown case essentially relied on the evidence of the three spies on Dudley’s pay roll.
Sir Hugh soon demolished any credibility of the evidence submitted by any of these three witnesses, and by the time he had destroyed the last of these, Clarence R. Yonge, who had worked for Bulloch and Semmes, the latter discharging Yonge for embezzlement, the case for the Crown was well and truly lost.
After a three day trial, the Judge, Sir Jonathan Pollack instructed the jury:
“ If you think the object was to build a ship in obedience to an order, and in compliance with a contract, leaving it to those who bought it to make what use they felt fit of it, then it appears to be that the Foreign Enlistment Act has not been in any degree broken.”
The only possible verdict was an acquittal. The chief juror declined to accept a trial transcript, and:“ Without hesitating more than half a minute, returned a verdict against the Crown.”
Fawsett, Preston made an application for the restoration of Alexandra, but the Crown had filed an appeal with the House of Lords.
A year after the ship’s seizure, this appeal failed, and her owners settled for damages, accepting the sum of 3,700 Pounds, although their original claim was for 6,370 Pounds.
Alexandra never sailed under that name , she was sold, renamed Mary, and modified as a blockade runner.
Although Dudley lost his case against Alexandra, he did succeed in alerting the British government to the multitude of Confederate ship building going on in British shipyards.
Two ironclad cruisers only identified at Birkenhead as 294, and 295, but known locally as the Laird Rams, were part of a number of ironclads being constructed for the South in both British and French ship yards.
These ships were capable of attacking, and hopefully for the South, destroying the Union blockading fleet, the last Confederate hope of keeping open Southern ports, so they might receive essential war supplies to maintain the war against the North.
For Britain, if the South lost, these ships and others under construction, loomed as a potential time bomb.
Another potential cruiser, a larger ship, based on the Alabama, was being progressed in the Scottish yard of J. and G. Thomson and Company of Glasgow.
It was the intention of Lieutenant George T. Sinclair to commission her as CSS Pampero.
As she was nearing completion, the American Consul at Glasgow began agitating for her detention.
The British Foreign Secretary, on learning that this ship had yet to apply for a Certificate of Registration, and a Declaration of Nationality, ordered two gunboats alongside her, waiting for someone to make the required disclosure to comply with the Merchant Shipping Act. Nothing happened, so he ordered the Glasgow Collector of Customs on the 10th. of December 1863 to seize the ship, and hold it until the case was brought to court.
This hearing was now delayed until after the war was lost to the South.
In fact Alexandra, acted as the factor in hardening the British stance against the Confederates, it looked as if they might lose, Russell and the British government were placing their bets on the Unionists winning the Civil War.
Under her new name of Mary, after arriving in Halifax, was reported to be seeking out arms, but went off to Nassau, here revenue agents detained the ship, after finding a 12 pound rifled gun, plus cases of shells in a hold. This gun was embossed “Fawsett, Preston and Co.1862.” and had been placed aboard during a stop at Bermuda.
The court at Nassau, took a look at the case against Mary, released the ship, all too late, the war was now over.