Unpublished — The International War: Alabama Claims Documentation

This source is not exactly unpublished, but close. It was printed once—long ago—by the U. S. government.

Until recently, it was scarce and mostly unknown. And it is a treasure trove of primary source material for the international and naval arenas of the Civil War.

The Case of Great Britain as laid before the Tribunal of Arbitration, Convened at Geneva under the Provisions of the Treaty Between the United States of America and Her Majesty the Queen of Great Britain, Concluded at Washington, May 8, 1871, Three Volumes (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1872).

“To understand the American Civil War one must go far beyond the military maneuvers, the political disputes, and the social history of the period. The sectional conflict was a major event in international affairs, and its great drama was played out not only on American battlegrounds but in Europe and on four of the world’s five oceans.” So wrote eminent historian Philip Van Doren Stern.[i]

Machinations of Confederate representatives to procure commerce raiders, blockade runners, and sea-going ironclads abroad exacerbated tensions between the United States and Great Britain. The Rebel vessels they sent forth severely threatened the Union war effort. These were among the most strategically impactful and cost-effective campaigns waged by the Confederacy.

Great Britain walked a knife edge of neutrality between American combatants, one of whom employed every stratagem to ensnare them in the dispute while the other insisted they would fight to keep them out. The British had fought Americans twice in the previous eighty years; old enmities smoldered.

In a burgeoning global economy fueled by industrialization and vast trade networks, ancient and thorny arguments resurfaced over the rights and responsibilities of neutral nations in wartime, disturbing echoes of the Revolution and War of 1812. Threats of a third North Atlantic war flew in both directions. The British resisted powerful temptations to intervene and conflict was averted, but bitterness lingered.

In 1869, the United States sued the United Kingdom for damages to merchant vessels by Confederate Navy commerce destroyers built in or succored in British ports and colonies in alleged violation of international law. The actions came to be known as the “Alabama Claims” after the most famous raider.

Seeking to mend fences and resume friendly relations with the newly United States, the British agreed to an unprecedented international tribunal of arbitration meeting in Geneva. The tribunal found Great Britain partially liable (primarily for the CSS Alabama and CSS Shenandoah), awarded damages of $15.5 million, and ended the dispute. This voluntary arbitration established crucial precedents for settling international quarrels and for codifying public international law. Both sides prepared voluminous documentation of their cases, as lawyers are wont to do.

While researching a book on the CSS Shenandoah, I discovered (unfortunately rather late in the process) that The Case of Great Britain contained seemingly every contemporary report, telegram, letter, deposition, map, opinion, communication, etc., high and low, produced on the subjects of—not just the commerce raiders—but all aspects of wartime diplomacy, neutrality, and international law. Most are otherwise unpublished, scattered about in archives and sources, but consolidated much more efficiently here and many would be otherwise difficult to discover.

Commander James D. Bulloch, CSN, wrote: “It is now well known that the Confederate Government made great efforts to organize a naval force abroad during the Civil War, and that a few armed cruisers were got afloat, which destroyed many American ships and well-nigh drove the American commercial flag from the high seas.”[ii]

Bulloch served as chief representative in Europe for the Confederate Navy Department from his headquarters in the pro-Southern shipping and ship-building city of Liverpool, where a contemporary opined that more Confederate flags flew than in Richmond. Reporting directly to Secretary of the Navy Stephen R. Mallory, Bulloch dispatched from England the three most successful commerce raiders—Florida, Alabama, and Shenandoah—causing consternation and inflaming anti-war sentiment in the North.

Bulloch also sent out blockade runners crammed with hundreds of tons of arms and equipment. He organized the unofficial purchase in England of Southern cotton providing the Confederacy with its only source of hard currency. And he arranged for construction of formidable sea-going ironclads—the “Laird rams” and the CSS Stonewall—that might have broken the blockade of Southern ports.

U. S. Minister to Great Britain Charles Francis Adams wrote that Bulloch and his associates were more effectively directing hostile operations than if they had been situated in Richmond. “In other words, so far as the naval branch of warfare is concerned, the real bureau was fixed at Liverpool and not in the United States.” Secretary of State Seward constantly badgered the British under threat of war to curtail these activities.[iii]

Alabama‘s Captain Raphael Semmes stated in his memoir: “The Alabama was the first steamship in the history of the world. . . that was let loose against the commerce of a great commercial people. The destruction which she caused was enormous. She not only alarmed the enemy, but she alarmed all the other nations of the earth which had commerce afloat.”[iv]

The Case of Great Britain delineates the British perspective concerning the actions, rights, responsibilities, and powers surrounding the issues and relations with the United and Confederate States in general. Large appendixes contain supporting correspondences, papers, and affidavits involving everyone from Secretary Seward and the British minister of foreign affairs down to lowly sailors. Other documentation includes The Case of the United States. . ., The Counter Case of Great Britain. . ., and a Portfolio of Maps and Charts with the Case of the United States. . . . These were official U. S. and British government reports.

The multiple, various, and overlapping volumes, appendixes, and parts can be confusing but well worth the effort. I originally worked from battered printed copies of the Case of Great Britain, which are occasionally available from antiquarian dealers. Fortunately, this documentation now is available in digital form, one source being the Internet Archive (https://archive.org/).

These international and naval disputes had tremendous impact on many aspects of the war and were potentially decisive. Anyone interested should peruse this excellent resource.

[i] Philip Van Doren Stern, Introduction to James D. Bulloch, The Secret Service of the Confederate States in Europe or, How the Confederate Cruisers Were Equipped (Reprint, New York, 1959).

[ii] Bulloch, The Secret Service of the Confederate States, 2.

[iii] Adams to Earl Russell, 21 October 1865, The Case of Great Britain as Laid Before the Tribunal of Arbitration Convened at Geneva, 3 vols. (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1872), 1:847.

[iv] Raphael Semmes, Memoirs of Service Afloat During the War Between the States (Baltimore, 1869), iii.

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