Saturday, August 3, 2013

Mission Accomplished: Sort of. British Block Sale of Birkenhead Rams

(Library of Congress photo) Gideon Welles wanted the rams being built at the Laird shipyard in Birkenhead in Union hands -- at almost any cost.
(Third of Three Parts)

As the correspondence flowed from London to Washington and back, Navy Secretary Gideon Welles and his assistant Gustavus Fox became increasingly interested in what progress was being made in buying the  “swift privateers” for the Union.  This was an astounding turn of events for a clandestine mission ordered by the secretaries of the Navy and the Treasury to disrupt Confederate shipbuilding  plans to deliver ocean-crossing rams that could sail as commerce raiders like CSS Alabama [built in the Laird shipyard] and be strong enough to wreak havoc on Northern ports and break the blockade of Southern ports.

For the public, including the United States Senate, the mission was still secret.  When Charles Sumner, the Massachusetts abolitionist  who had been viciously attacked on the Senate floor by a cane-wielding South Carolina congressman, wanted to know if the United States was trading in the British arms markets, as John Laird alleged in Parliament. When he took office, Laird resigned his position as head of one of the most innovative shipyards in Europe.

Welles called the statements “destitute of the truth,”  coming from “a mercenary hypocrite without principle or honesty.” For their part, the Confederates “were protesting before high Heaven that they had no concern or interest in the Birkenhead iron-clads.” They waved the legal papers saying the vessels belong to “Mr. Bravay and Co., of Paris, agents for the Pasha of Egypt.”

True, Adrien Bravay’s brother manned an Alexandria office and had bought war materiel and ships for the Egyptian in the past; but the Bravays and James Bulloch, the most innovative Confederate ship-buyer overseas; the Laird yard in Birkenhead; and the Confederate banking house Fraser, Trenholm in Liverpool understood who had the real claim on the rams, despite their new names – El Tousson and El Monassir.

They even had a plan in place if the British seized the rams, a concern of Bulloch’s for months with all the Union spies snooping in the Mersey River’s yards and Paradise Street bars in Liverpool.  Francois Bravay, as a French parliamentarian, would appeal to the emperor whose diplomats would sing a sad chorus in London and Liverpool at how wronged this French company had been.  Didn’t the British understand that a contract was a contract, a sacred trust?

Welles’ letter to Sumner and the Confederate-Laird documents had little bearing on the truth. (1)

Businessman John Murray Forbes during a breakfast meeting with Charles Francis Adams, the American minister of the Court of St. James on April 23 laid out a “general review of the ship-yards of the island, and a description of every suspicious vessel. …I do not know that any anxiety I have is heavier than this.” The British and Scots’ shipyards appeared to be the winners in all these machinations.  As demand went up and supplies were limited, prices rose like Congreve rockets, as Adams predicted and Forbes and William Aspinwall, the businessmen entrusted with $10 million by the Lincoln administration to disrupt Confederate shipbuilding plan acknowledged to Welles in putting the ship-buying program on hold. (2)

Forbes now headed to Germany, ostensibly to recruit volunteers for the Union Army, and Aspinwall crossed the channel to work with Union officials there on Confederate activities with French yards and arms manufacturers and the intentions of Napoleon III’s government in Mexico. They were gone from May into June.

Work at the Laird yard was nearly complete on the first ram by the time they returned to Great Britain. The only hope in keeping the rams out of rebel hands lay in Adams’ protestations having an effect on Lord Palmerston’s government or the government itself acknowledging that Bravay’s claimed ownership was too murky to be allowed to proceed. (3)

In the end, the British government acknowledged that the ownership was too clouded to let the rams leave Liverpool.  Foreign Minister Lord John Russell confessed to the prime minister that it was time for a public investigation  into the ownership of the “Birkenhead rams.” Before that got under way,  the ships were detained at gunpoint. By February 1864, the House of Commons approved their seizures.  Adams diplomatic protestations fueled by Consuls Thomas Haines Dudley’s and Freeman H. Morse’s reports, paid for in large measure, by drawing on the Union deposit at Barclays made by Aspinwall, had paid off.

The two businessmen began closing out their affairs in July 1863. They left $4 million in bonds with Barings to cover the bank’s loan at the start of the mission and also to finance Haines and Dudley’s growing network of spies that continued gathering evidence that was the backbone of the Union’s “Alabama Claims” case against Great Britain.  It also went to other agents working the arms market until the war ended.

The other $6 million was packed into three trunks and steamed back across the Atlantic with them aboard the Great Eastern, the world’s largest passenger vessel.  They arrived in New York in the early evening July 12, as news of Union victories at Vicksburg and Gettysburg was arriving. 

After leaving the ship, clearing customs, and gathering his baggage, Aspinwall barely had time to catch a train to his home on the North River.  After sundown, Forbes, his son, and a servant landed on a wharf crowded with a “as bad-looking a lot of roughs as I ever saw.” With the Forbes party were the trunks of bonds.  “We did not know that the great [draft] riot was about breaking out, nor luckily did the gentry around know what a prize lay within their grasp.” An Irish cab driver recognized Forbes from a visit he had paid his regiment and offered the party his services.  “Over the rough, dark streets,” the party made their escape to the safety of the  fashionable Brevoort House.

As for the $6 million in bonds, they eventually were “returned to the Treasury in the original packages, with the seals of the Treasury unbroken.” (4) 

Although Forbes and Aspinwall returned without ships to show for their time, other agents using the money in Barings continued shopping in the European arms and ship markets, still using guises of private investors buying neutral goods or private investors buying war goods for neutral foreign governments.  They talked, bought, and acted like their Confederate counterparts. In the late summer of 1864, an exasperated Judah P. Benjamin, Confederate secretary of State, ordered Henry Hotze in London to print every new case of Northern arms buying that he could find in his pro-Confederate paper’s next edition.

Enlightening as this news was to Southern supporters in Great Britain,  the facts were the United States’ credit was better than the Confederacy’s after Gettysburg and Vicksburg,  its ports were open, and its manufacturing sector having turned to the war effort was running in high gear. Three weeks after the Battle of Hampton Roads, Seward wrote, “We can build our iron clad steamers (like the Merrimack or CSS Virginia) and build them quicker” than the Confederacy could in its few yards or in buying them abroad. As the year was ending, Fox was even more confident than the secretary.  He was ready to take on the Great Powers of Europe.  “In two years we can take the offensive with vessels that will be superior to any England is now building.” They were right but with an asterisk. (5) 

End Notes

(1) Charles Adams, Studies Military and Diplomatic, 1775 – 1865, MacMillan Company, New York, 1911,  Official Records of the War of the Rebellion – Navy, Bulloch to Mallory, March 30, 1863, Ser. 2 , Vol. 2, p. 397.

(2) Charles Francis Adams, Laird Rams (hereafter Adams, Laird), Proceedings of the Massachusetts Historical Society, Vol. 33, Google e-Book,  pp. 191-192.

(3) James D. Bulloch,The Confederate Secret Service in Europe, Vol. 1, Google e-Book, pp. 404-405.

(4) Adams, Laird, p. 195.  John Murray Forbes, Drawing on Letters and Recollections of John Murray Forbes edited by his daughter Sarah Forbes Hughes , Google e-Book,, Vol. 2, pp. 44-49. Gideon Welles, Diary of Gideon Welles, Secretary of the Navy under Lincoln and Johnson with an introduction by John L. Morse Jr., Vol. 1. 1861-March 1864, Boston entries for May 2 and May 19, 1863.

(5) John Bigelow, Retrospections of an Active Life, Vol. 1, Google e-Book, pp. 410-411. Bigelow, Retrospections, Vol. 2, p. 207. “Mr. Laird and Secretary Welles,” New York Times, Aug. 10, 1863.

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