a line engraving published in Harper's Weekly,
The question over ownership of
the 300 ton steamer Alexandra goes to Court.
Ever since Captain James Bulloch, Naval Agent of the
Confederate States, 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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.