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Incidents of War - "A Tale of Two Ironclads"

Stephen R. Mallory, Confederate secretary of the navy, had chaired the U. S. Senate’s naval affairs committee during the 1850s. Thus he was well qualified to plan a visionary maritime strategy that would couple modern technology, with cunning.

Mallory believed he had two duties: to protect the Southern coastlines and break the Union naval blockade. By adopting the most advanced architecture, his fewer ships might overpower the mostly wooden Union blockaders. Having long been an advocate of ironclads, Mallory pushed for their construction.

Working with former U.S. Navy officer James D. Bulloch (young Theodore Roosevelt, Jr.’s maternal uncle), Mallory proposed development of two ironclad rams that could operate both as defensive and offensive warships. Mallory looked to British shipyards that had the large-scale facilities to construct them and British seamen to sail the raiders. Bulloch was dispatched to in Liverpool in June 1861, to exploit loopholes in the Foreign Enlistment Act that barred neutral Britain from building belligerent warships.

Although in November 1861, the United States and Britain had rattled sabers during the Trent affair (in which Capt. Charles Wilkes, USN, removed Confederate envoys from a British government mail boat), rational thinkers on both sides of the pond prevailed and war was averted. The ironclad rams, however, presented a graver threat. If the rams could break the blockade, foreign recognition of the Confederacy might follow; failing that, they could attack New York City or Boston, and extort payments from the North. Further the Confederate cover-up of the ships’ ownership involved shadowy foreign figures, including the French Emperor, which made it more difficult to maintain peace with Britain.

The ironclads and the raiders were built supposedly as commercial vessels. The British Admiralty’s view was that it would take action against the vessels only if it could be proven that Confederate agents were the owners and were “fitting out, equipping, and arming” the ships for warlike operations. So, to remain legal, Bulloch connived to have the initial raiders leave port under various guises and sail into international waters to take on guns and ammunition.

The effects of the raiders, whether procured abroad or in the Confederacy was impressive. By January of 1863, the most famous of the raiders, Alabama, had captured or destroyed 10 merchantmen, after only about six months at sea. Despite the efforts of Alabama and other Confederate raiders, however, the Union blockade of the South tightened and no significant resources were diverted to deal with the marauders. So Confederate offensive hopes were still pinned heavily on the rams.

Bulloch had contracted with Laird & Sons shipyard to build several warships, among them the two ironclad rams. Under Lord John Laird’s leadership, the yard had pioneered the construction of iron ships and gunboats. Although only mid-sized ships―230 feet in length with 15-foot drafts―the vessels were state-of-the-art: steam powered with auxiliary sail; screw propellers; ironclad armor; below-the-waterline-rams, fore and aft. Yet their lethality stemmed, not from the rams, but from the two turrets in which rifled cannon would be ensconced, guns able to fire both solid shot and explosive shell to considerable ranges.

Bulloch, however, encountered financial, construction, and political problems, which caused delays that worried him. One cruiser fitting out, Georgia, was seized by the British, and Alabama very nearly met a similar fate, only escaping detention because Bulloch bribed a port official to look the other way. Worried the British government might confiscate the rams while still under construction, Bullock and the Confederacy’s agent in Paris John Slidell wove a silky scheme, involving an accommodating Emperor Louis Napoleon. In early 1863, Bulloch transferred the ownership of the rams to M. Bravay, owner of Bravay and Co., a French brokerage firm and an associate of Napoleon III’s lead shipwright. Bravay claimed, falsely, that he represented the Pasha of Egypt, who was the “straw owner.” Bulloch then managed the construction “from behind the desk” at Bravay’s firm.

Meanwhile, U. S. secret agents were trying to unearth proof of ownership, without which the British would have difficulty taking action. If the agents were mistaken and the Admiralty acted, the British government could face sizeable monetary damages if sued in court.

Yet the ironclads’ case differed from that of the raiders. Both Prime Minister Lord Palmerston and Foreign Secretary Lord John Russell finally perceived that ironclad vessels, featuring revolving turrets and rams provided prima facie evidence of military purpose.

By the summer of 1863, Charles Francis Adams, Jr., the American Minister to Great Britain, warned Russell that the “very existence” of the rams constituted a war threat. As Gustavus Fox, Assistant Secretary of the Navy, stated, the U. S. Navy had “no defense against them,” neither monitors nor steam frigates. Moreover, if the British did not halt construction then, what was to prevent 20 more being built?

On September 3rd, after returning from a sojourn in Scotland, Minister Adams learned that one ram had recently completed sea trials and his diplomatic reserve broke. On September 5th he penned his sternest warning to the British government, asserting that Britain was waging war “by stealth and deception,” stating that if the rams escaped to bombard New York or Boston, the United States would retaliate, and ending “It would be superfluous in me to point out to your Lordship that this is war.”

Unbeknownst to Adams, however, in June Russell had begun an investigation of the ownership of the vessels to determine any Confederate connection. The British consul in Egypt met with the Pasha. He dispatched a telegram that was received in London on August 31, 1863, reporting that the Pasha’s ownership had been faked. However, the true owner’s identity, that is Bravay, was still murky and Russell’s legal officers, again, rejected action.

However, Palmerston and Russell agreed that the Confederate charade was dragging the government into “neutral hostility.” The international scene, too, had become complicated: the Union victories at Gettysburg and Vicksburg seemed to turn the tide of war. Moreover, an insurrection in Poland against Russia had stirred domestic sympathies. And then there was Louis Napoleon, with his naval ambitions, imperialist meddling in Mexico and various parts of Europe. Supposedly Russell had been “staggered by confident assertions of French ownership” of the ironclads, which the Lairds had corroborated. This put the Palmerston government, as a whole, at political risk. As Adams wrote, “If it acted, the [British] government must do so on the grounds of prerogative, against public opinion, regardless of the advice of counsel and be prepared to be mulcted by a jury.” So on September 3, when Russell ordered Treasury officials to detain the ironclads, he acted courageously, albeit tardily, in accord with Britain’s “international obligations” to preserve the peace.

As a corollary, Palmerston suggested the Royal Navy buy the rams, as the service was short of ironclads. But when the British naval attaché in Paris met with Bravay, he rejected the offer.

After a few weeks during which time there were peaks and valleys in this Anglo-American dispute, Lord Russell decided that the Lairds could not be trusted. On October 8, he ordered the Royal Navy to seize the rams outright.

This diplomatic contretemps finally came to a whimpering halt in early 1864. Bulloch left for France in one final attempt to convince Napoleon III to prevent the rams from being sold to Britain. The Emperor refused. Thus on February 8, Bulloch sent a letter to Bravay, authorizing him to sell the rams as soon as possible. Several months and much discussion later, the British Admiralty purchased the vessels for £180,000, to the great relief of Charles Francis Adams and the Lincoln administration.

--C. Kay Larson

FootNote: The “Laird Rams” in British Service: The ships were completed for the Royal Navy in mid-1865, and named Scorpion and Wivern. They served for some years in the Channel Fleet, but rapidly changing technology soon rendered them obsolete; by 1870 they were relegated to second line service. Scorpion was sold in 1903 and Wivern in 1922.

C. Kay Larson, an independent scholar based in New York, is the author of Great Necessities: The Life, Times and Writings of Anna Ella Carroll, 1815-1894 and the novel South Under a Prairie Sky: The Journal of Nell Churchill, US Army Nurse & Scout. A member of the board of the New York Military Affairs Symposium, she has contributed to MINERVA: Quarterly Report on Women and the Military, and is a reviewer for the H-CivWar List. She has contributed essays on "Monitor's Brave Fellow," "Women at War," "The Count and the Gymnasts," "A Woman with Flare," and “How Trains Saved the Union,” to The New York Times Disunion blog and is currently working on a revised and expanded edition of her 1995 book ‘Til I Come Marching Home: A Brief History of American Women in World War II. Her most recent contribution to CIC was “War Powers and Emancipation: Anna Ella Carroll vs. Charles Sumner.”

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