This year marks the 150th anniversary of the launch of the Confederate commerce raider Alabama at the Laird
shipyard in Birkenhead. During a 22-month cruise at the height of the American Civil War, the gunboat helped devastate the U.S. merchant fleet, finding worldwide fame and infamy in equal measure.
The saga of the Alabama remains probably the most remarkable of any vessel built at Laird
’s. And the story of how, under its initial name of Enrica, the cruiser was spirited out of the Mersey by the redoubtable Confederate agent James Dunwoody Bulloch reads like an adventure novel.
This narrative of the ship’s escape – using a little dramatic licence – was compiled from various written sources, including Bulloch’s own memoir, The Secret Service of the Confederate States in Europe. It is not an in-depth study, but hopefully gives an interesting outline of events ... Mr Bulloch's Pleasure Cruise:
The Escape of the Alabama, July 29, 1862
OUT on the sun-speckled river, the ship was being prepared for a party. Colourful flags festooned her spars and rigging, a band tuned up on deck and food and champagne were being laid out on tables.
As she lay off Seacombe on the morning of Tuesday July 29, 1862, the Enrica – with her lithe, clean lines and rakish set of masts – looked the perfect vessel for today’s jaunt. It was to be a pleasant cruise down the Mersey, carrying a group of local dignitaries and their ladies into Liverpool Bay before returning in the late afternoon.
Officially, the newly-built ship would be on a trial run, testing her steam engines and seeing how she handled fully laden with coal and stores that had been taken aboard earlier when she was docked at Vittoria Wharf on the Great Float. But the businessman who owned the Enrica – the genial and charming, if rather inscrutable, James Dunwoody Bulloch – had suggested they take advantage of the workaday occasion by turning it into a social get-together.
The proposal by the affable American from the southern state of Georgia delighted his guests. Although his country was torn by civil war – the northern Union states against the rebel southern Confederates – he never let his worries about his divided homeland impinge on his dealings with his English business acquaintances and friends. His gentlemanly bearing and impeccable manners had won over all who met him.
The Enrica’s builders, the Laird
brothers, would be aboard the ship, justly proud of the handsome new creation that had risen from the stocks at their famous Birkenhead yard. Their wives and daughters, bright in summer dresses and bonnets, would accompany them. Bulloch’s wife Harriot would be hostess for the day.
A bracing run downriver, complemented by music, good food and wine and stimulating conversation. What could be more enjoyable or innocent? And what if there was a slight air of mystery about the good ship Enrica, something rather disconcerting in the way her courteous yet taciturn officers kept glancing nervously about them? Surely that was due only to their anxiety to ensure a job well done as they familiarised themselves with the vessel? What other reason could there possibly be?
The answer was only a few hundred yards away on the quayside. Here, anonymous watchers were covertly keeping the Enrica under close scrutiny and occasionally scribbling into notebooks. They were spies in the pay of the United States government. Since the keel of the vessel – number 290 – had been laid at Laird
’s a year earlier, U.S. agents had maintained a constant surveillance, trying to find out all they could about her owner and her intended use. From their furtive questioning of the yard’s workers, they learned that she was supposedly a fast dispatch boat, built along the lines of similar Admiralty vessels.
But the sides of the ship were pierced for guns. And by the time she was launched in May 1862 under the name Enrica, the watchers well knew her true purpose. No amount of bunting or bands could disguise the fact that this was no commercial vessel. In fact, the Enrica was a swift, state-of-the-art, sloop of war, a cruiser built for the Confederacy at Bulloch’s behest. At this moment, there was not so much as a grain of gunpowder aboard her. But, if she was allowed to escape into the open ocean and take on arms, she would be turned into a merciless sea wolf, a commerce raider preying on the merchant ships of the Northern states.
And today’s trip downriver was no innocent outing. Instead, it was a desperate ruse by Bulloch to spirit the Enrica out of British waters under the very noses of the authorities before she could be seized. Whether it would work depended on guile, good fortune and the gullibility of his enemies.
For the U.S. government was determined to stop the ship at all costs and for months had been bombarding ministers in London with protests about her warlike nature. But Bulloch, who had been sent to England soon after the start of the Civil War to acquire ships for the Confederacy, knew his business. So long as he did not infringe the British neutrality laws, he was untouchable … for now, at least.
Under the Foreign Enlistment Act, it was illegal to arm a vessel in England for a foreign war, or to recruit men to serve in such a conflict. But there was nothing to stop anyone building a ship here and arming it after it had sailed outside British jurisdiction. Nor was there anything to stop English seafarers being recruited for war service outside UK territorial waters. Though the legal loophole was narrow, Bulloch was determined to sail full steam ahead through it.
Arriving in Liverpool in June 1861, the 38-year-old former U.S. Navy officer and merchant captain had immediately set about his mission. Financed by the Confederate government with a fortune from the cotton wealth of the South, he commissioned his first ship from the William Miller yard in Liverpool. It would later find fame as the commerce raider Florida.
Then in July 1861 he crossed the Mersey to the Birkenhead yard of the Laird
brothers and within days was laying out detailed plans for the vessel he wanted them to build. The ship Bulloch specified at a cost of £47,500 was designed to be the ultimate commerce raider.
Weighing 1,050 tons and 220ft long, with a vast spread of sails and two powerful steam engines, it would be one of the finest and fastest vessels of its type afloat, capable of 13 knots. When under sail alone, the propeller could be hoisted clear of the water and the funnel lowered to reduce drag. There was space amidships for large quantities of coal and spares. A steam condenser would turn seawater into drinking water. And, even though the Lairds were world leaders in iron ships, it would be built of wood for easy repair. In short, the new vessel would be almost self-sufficient, able to roam vast distances across the seas and rarely needing to put into port. All it would require, once safely out of British waters, was guns. But that could be taken care of.
Although the Lairds undoubtedly realised the ship’s true purpose, they and Bulloch maintained the polite fiction that it was just another contract with an individual businessman. The overriding factor was that, so long as the ship was not armed in British waters, the law was not being broken.
So, as his enemies fumed, Bulloch saw his fledgling raider slowly take shape. And if his attention to the new ship was above and beyond the call of duty, there was a good reason. He wanted the vessel to be the best because the Confederate admiralty had promised him that he could take command of it. His heart soared at the thought that soon he would leave behind the shadowy world of subterfuge and intrigue to become a free-ranging warrior of the oceans, fighting for his beloved South.
But as construction got under way, private detectives and Union spies haunted the Birkenhead taverns, pressing shipyard workers for information. Bulloch himself was constantly watched and followed to and from his home in Waterloo, near Crosby, where his wife had now joined him. In Liverpool, the American consul Thomas Dudley compiled his spies’ reports and passed them to the U.S. Ambassador, Charles Francis Adams, in London. Adams in turn laid siege to the Foreign Secretary, Lord John Russell, urging him to impound the ship.
Maddeningly for the Americans, Russell refused to act. In high places, there was much secret sympathy for the Confederacy. But Adams was terrier-like in his determination. There were dark mutterings that the Enrica’s existence was a hostile act against a friendly power and could even lead to war between Britain and the U.S.
Finally, on May 15, the Enrica was launched and hastily transferred to Laird
’s graving dock to be fitted with her engines and other equipment. Beneath his unruffled exterior, Bulloch worked frantically to devise a plan to spirit away his ship. Meanwhile, in an attempt to assuage the U.S. Ambassador, the Customs surveyor in Liverpool, Edward Morgan, was sent over to Birkenhead to inspect the 290.
Unfazed, the Lairds gave him free access to her. They did not attempt to deny the obvious – that the ship was intended to be a vessel of war – but they were less than forthcoming on the question of her ultimate destination. However, finding no armaments or munitions, Morgan could only report back to his superiors that the 290 was breaking no laws. So, for the moment, Bulloch was outwitting Dudley and Adams. But he knew that the North’s political pressure was inexorably tightening the noose around his ship.
Then, early in July, with the fitting-out almost finished, he received a shattering dispatch from his naval chiefs. He was not to command the new commerce raider after all. His talents were too precious for the Confederacy to risk sending him off to war – he must stay in England and continue his mission of acquiring ships. Instead, the Enrica would be given to 52-year-old Captain Raphael Semmes, hero of the Confederate ship Sumter. That April, after a sensational six-month commerce-raiding cruise that had swept 18 U.S. merchantmen from the seas, Semmes had left the Sumter holed up in Gibraltar. But his exploits had now earned him the command of the vessel nearing completion in Birkenhead.
Bulloch took the sickening blow with outward calm, though his inner agony must have been intense. However, there was little time for licking his wounds, because his greatest crisis was now at hand. On Saturday, July 26, with the Enrica having already made one satisfactory trial run and all but ready for sea, he learned from ‘a private but most reliable source’ that it would not be safe for the ship to stay in the Mersey another 48 hours. The U.S. pressure on the British authorities to detain the vessel seemed about to pay off.
Bulloch acted with lightning speed. He contacted the Laird
brothers and told them he wished to make another trial run the following Tuesday, with the Enrica loaded, coaled and victualled. They readily agreed. If they had some inkling of what was about to happen, they said nothing. Instead, they accepted his invitation to come along for the trip. Bulloch took into his confidence the man he had hired as temporary captain of the Enrica, Matthew Butcher, an English officer of professionalism and discretion. He told him the ship must be brought out of the docks on the Monday night ready to sail next day, complete with a 30-strong skeleton crew. And it would not be coming back.
But as Bulloch made his frenzied preparations, an astonishing sequence of events in London was bringing the Enrica within a hairsbreadth of being seized. On July 23, Lord Russell had received a legal opinion from Robert Collier QC, a British maritime law expert who had been hired by Adams to press the case for impounding the ship.
This case was partly based on an affidavit by Birkenhead seaman William Passmore, one of the Enrica’s skeleton crew. He claimed Captain Butcher had told him categorically that the vessel would be used by the Confederates to make war against the United States. Collier concluded that the Foreign Enlistment Act was being breached and urged Russell to take action, or the law ‘would be a dead letter’. So the Foreign Secretary ordered Collier’s opinion and a dossier of other Union evidence to be passed to the Government’s chief law officer, the Queen’s Advocate Sir John Harding, for a final decision. It seemed certain Harding would endorse the detention of the Enrica.
There was just one problem. Harding had been unwell for many weeks, plagued by worsening psychiatric problems. He apparently received the documents in two parts, on July 23 and July 26. But he took no action – because he had suffered a mental breakdown. Anxious to conceal his distressing condition, his wife did not tell the Foreign Office. Harding went to stay with friends in Reading, 40 miles from London, and the vital papers lay untouched, leaving Russell and his colleagues to wait in vain for a swift reply. At this most critical juncture, the British government’s pivotal role in the unfolding drama lay in limbo.
It was not until the evening of July 28, the very moment the Enrica was being brought out of the Birkenhead docks, that the documents were retrieved from Harding. Two other law officers, the Attorney-General and the Solicitor-General, studied them throughout the night and by next morning – July 29 – concluded that Lord Russell should order the ship’s seizure. But the Foreign Secretary was out of town and could not be reached until later that day. In any event, no immediate action was taken.
Thus, at 9am on July 29, the Enrica was able to ease out into the Mersey, accompanied by a tug called the Hercules. And Bulloch’s audacious gamble was about to be put to the test. Soon, the vessel was out as far as the Formby lightship, being put through her paces by her crew and guided by an experienced Liverpool pilot, George Bond. On board, Bulloch was the perfect host – genial, courtly, engaging. The conversation hummed, the sun shone.
Luncheon was served and the new ship was toasted in champagne. Mrs Bulloch later served tea. So it was more the pity when at 3pm the American offered his regrets to his guests and announced that it had been decided to keep the ship out all night to continue the trials. But they would not be inconvenienced in the slightest, he assured them. They could return to port in the Hercules and he would accompany them. An hour later, the assembled company and their host transferred to the tug and headed back upriver as the Enrica set off in the opposite direction. As she faded into the summer afternoon haze, she was leaving her birthplace on the Mersey for ever.
The Union spies on the Birkenhead waterfront had been warned by their own clandestine sources that the ship would try to slip the net that day. And when it departed and failed to return, the news was swiftly passed to Dudley in Liverpool, who in turn telegraphed Adams in London. At the same time, Customs officers in Liverpool told the Foreign Office. But the Enrica was not far away. To negotiate the open ocean, the ship needed more crew. So Butcher sailed her just 50 miles to Moelfre Bay on Anglesey, a remote haven where the Enrica would lie up until the second part of Bulloch’s escape plan went into operation.
The wily American had already arranged for a shipping master to bring some 40 sailors to the Woodside landing stage in Birkenhead the following day. From there, they could quickly be taken to the Enrica by the Hercules. He told the skipper of the tug to have it ready at Woodside at 6am. However, when Bulloch arrived there early next morning, he received a series of shocks. The Hercules was waiting and the seamen had turned up as arranged. But they were accompanied by their wives and girlfriends, who refused to let them go until they received an advance on their men’s wages.
Bulloch realised there was no time to start haggling. He told the sailors and their persistent paramours to all get aboard the Hercules and they would sort out the matter later. A second shock swiftly followed. Without warning, Customs surveyor Morgan swooped on the tug and began searching it from stem to stern. He was responding to a claim by Dudley that the Hercules was carrying arms to the now-vanished Enrica.
However, as Morgan scoured the decks and hold, the only thing he found out of the ordinary was the amount of women on board. There were no munitions. ‘She had no guns, no ammunition, nor anything appertaining thereto,’ he reported. He had no option but to let the Hercules sail. But by now, Bulloch had even more serious worries. Just as he was about to board the tug, a telegram was handed to him from one of his ‘reliable sources’. It warned him that the U.S. warship Tuscarora, then ‘making repairs’ at Southampton, had been ordered out into the Irish Sea to intercept the Enrica.
The aim was to head off the fugitive as she tried to reach the Atlantic through St George’s Channel, the favoured southern route into the open ocean for ships leaving the Mersey. If the unarmed Enrica was caught in international waters, she would be easy prey for the Tuscarora. Her career would be over before it had even begun. So, as the Hercules steamed away from Woodside with her motley human cargo on the morning of July 30, Bulloch knew he had the race of his life on his hands.
At 4pm, the tug reached the Enrica at Moelfre and the sailors and their women were taken aboard. After a hastily-prepared meal and generous helpings of grog, the men were persuaded to sign on and the ladies were sent back to Birkenhead aboard the Hercules, with their precious advances of pay in their purses. It was 2.30am before the Enrica was ready to put to sea. Rain was falling and the weather was squally – certainly no night to be leaving a sheltered bay. But there was no choice.
And now Bulloch pulled his final master stroke. Knowing the normal route south into the Atlantic through St George’s Channel was unsafe, he ordered Butcher to take the Enrica ‘north about’, around the coast of Ulster. Guided by Bond – who knew the waters well – they would reach the open ocean through the back door, out of the clutches of the waiting Tuscarora. The plan worked perfectly. And that evening, off the Giant’s Causeway in Antrim, the ship hove to and Bulloch disembarked with Bond after hailing a passing fishing boat. His work was done and he must return to England. But his heart was with the Enrica as, unarmed and undermanned, buffeted by wave and wind, she ploughed her way into the vastness of the Atlantic.
That same day, July 31, a telegraphed order from Lord Russell to detain the Enrica finally arrived at the Customs headquarters in Liverpool. But the fugitive was long gone. The reasons behind the Foreign Secretary’s delay in sending the seizure instruction have been engulfed in controversy ever since. Was it cock-up or conspiracy?
Russell explained to a furious Adams that because of Harding’s illness, he had needed ‘to call in other parties’ before deciding to detain the ship. But many in U.S. circles frankly doubted the story of the law officer’s mental breakdown. Instead, they suspected that skulduggery by Confederate sympathisers in the Foreign Office had let the cruiser slip through their fingers. Whatever the truth of the matter – and it is hotly debated to this day – the Enrica had made good her escape. And three weeks later, 1,600 miles away in the Azores, another band played aboard the ship.
This time, the tune was Dixie’s Land and the flag that flew above her was the Stars and Bars of the Confederacy. She was now fully armed with cannon, powder, shot and shell and no longer was she the Enrica. Although she was still crewed mainly by Englishmen, she had been officially commissioned as the Confederate States warship Alabama – a name that was to ring around the world during the next 22 months. Soon after, the newly-christened commerce raider started out on the cruise that was to make her one of the most famous ships in History
Among those watching her set sail was Bulloch, who had brought Captain Semmes and his officers out from England on another vessel. As Bulloch left the Alabama at midnight on Sunday, August 24, a comet flared across the heavens. ‘Banishing every sentiment but hope, I predicted a glorious cruise for the dashing craft and her gallant commander,’ he later wrote.
Back in England, Bulloch stoically continued his search for ships. The Lairds later built him two powerful ramboats which might have wreaked havoc with the Union naval blockade had they made it across the Atlantic. But there would be no more Enrica-style escapes. In October 1863, with the Confederacy by now losing the war, the British government impounded the rams.
Then on Sunday, June 19, 1864 – after sinking, burning or ransoming 66 U.S. ships in a 75,000-mile cruise ranging from the Caribbean to South East Asia – the Alabama sailed out of Cherbourg to meet her destiny. In a dramatic setpiece duel with the Union warship Kearsarge, she was sent to the bottom of the English Channel, killing 21 of her crew. But Semmes and 127 others survived, some wounded. Semmes himself was plucked from the water under the noses of his Union enemies by a privately-owned British pleasure yacht, the Deerhound, which took him to freedom in Southampton. Like the Alabama, the Deerhound was built at Laird
When the Civil War ended in 1865, Bulloch stayed on in England, becoming a naturalised British subject. Settling in Liverpool, he made a living in the cotton trade and died in January 1901, respected and missed by many. The clandestine naval hero of the Confederacy is buried in Toxteth Park Cemetery, where his headstone reads: ‘An American by birth, an Englishman by choice.’ Semmes returned to the U.S. and made his home in Mobile, Alabama. His exploits enshrined him as a legend of the Southern cause. He died in August 1877 and today his statue stands in Mobile, with the inscription: ‘Patriot, Statesman, Scholar and Christian Gentleman.’ A suburb of the city is also named after him.
The legacy of the Alabama was far-reaching. In 1870, with America still bitterly resentful over the depredations of the commerce raiders, Britain acted unilaterally to ensure such an episode would never happen again, by strengthening the Foreign Enlistment Act. Previously, it had been prohibited only to arm a ship in Britain for a foreign war. Now it became illegal even to build a vessel here with the intention of it being used against a friendly power. The loophole through which the Enrica had sailed was closed.
The following year, Britain and the U.S. signed the Treaty of Washington, which embodied the principles of the revised Foreign Enlistment Act in preventing the building of commerce raiders. It also imposed strict observance of neutrality on the two nations and barred belligerent vessels from using neutral ports as a base for operations. While the British government maintained that it had acted legally over the Alabama affair, it expressed regret at what had happened and made clear it wanted to repair relations with America.
The treaty paved the way for the U.S. to seek compensation from Britain for the losses it had suffered. And in 1872, in a landmark arbitration case that became known as the Alabama Claims, an international tribunal in Geneva awarded America £3million in gold. It was a stupendous sum, but possibly a price worth paying. For on Britain’s European doorstep, the situation was volatile. A newly-unified Germany had crushed France, while Russia was remilitarising the Black Sea. No one knew what entanglements or conflicts might lie ahead, but a stricter neutrality agreement with the U.S. would allay fears in at least one direction.
So Britannia was officially contrite and chastened. But in one respect, the settlement was a hollow victory for Washington. For the Alabama and her cohorts had destroyed the confidence and prestige of the U.S. merchant marine.
In all, Confederate cruisers had sunk 257 Union ships and forced hundreds more to take refuge in ports all over the globe, where they lay rotting for months or years. Insurance rates had soared to ruinous proportions. And, in a desperate attempt to avoid capture and destruction, some 700 Northern shipowners had transferred their vessels to foreign registries – an ignominious ‘flight from the flag’.
Thus the American trading fleet, already in slow decline before the Civil War, was holed below the waterline. And, with bitter irony, the biggest beneficiary was Britain – whose merchant ships were left free over the following decades to enjoy unbridled supremacy of the oceans.
The Alabama, the sea wolf born in Birkenhead, lay deep in her Channel grave. But her fangs were biting still.