Bombed Out and Liverpool’s Murky Role in the American Civil War.
Above Photo: The bombardment of Fort Sumter in 1861. A canon made in Liverpool fired the first shot of the American Civil War at the start of this bombardment, and Liverpool was the venue for the last official act of the Civil War too.
As well as providing a detailed look at the state of Liverpool in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, my Punk and New Wave memoir, Bombed Out!, also contains many references to the history of Liverpool and its docks.
As I was researching historical aspects of the city for the book, I was astonished to discover just how much of a role Liverpool had played in the American Civil War. The war also gets a mention in Bombed Out!, because I discovered my local pub the Liver, in Waterloo, was a hotbed of Confederacy support and planning.
Even my old school, St Mary’s College in Crosby, is linked to the Civil War as part of it (Claremont House) was originally owned by a wealthy family called the de Costas, who were Liverpool ship owners and Unionist sympathisers during the War. American eagles can still be seen decorating gateposts of the house.
Another Liverpool property with American Civil War links is 19 Abercromby Square, built for Charles K Prioleau in 1863, which has many features showing the original owner was from South Carolina. These include a painting of a palmetto tree & crescent moon, both symbols of the owner’s former State.
Prioleau was senior partner of cotton importers called Fraser, Trenholm & Co. which was the leading Confederate financier in Britain during the war, providing funds to build hugely expensive ships such as the Alabama, Florida and Shenandoah, along with many blockade runners.
Enduring much financial hardship through the loss of cotton, Manchester and the Lancashire cotton towns sided with Lincoln and the Union during the Civil War, but Liverpool’s sympathies lay with the Southern states.
One of the most important Liverpool-based Civil War figures was Commander James Dunwoody Bulloch, originally a sea captain sent to Liverpool by Jefferson Davis at the start of the war. He set up an office in Rumford Place in the city centre, from where the cotton importers Fraser Trenholm also acted as bankers for the Confederacy.
Liverpool had much to lose by the Civil War and it had many friends in the South. When Northern ships blockaded ports in the Southern States of the US, approximately 60% of the Confederate States’ cotton was coming through Liverpool – a trade that was decimated by the blockade. Also, many wealthy people in the city had previously made large amounts of money directly from the Slave Trade, which the Confederates also supported. The Slave Trade had been officially abolished in the UK in 1807, when the last slaving ship left Liverpool, but unofficial links continued.
This might explain why the city was so supportive of the South, but the city, its docks, shipbuilders, and ships’ suppliers also made money out of the war by supplying and trafficking weapons to the South and by ‘secretly’ building formidable and ground (or water)-breaking fighting ships such as the CSS Alabama (below).
James Dunwoody Bulloch was central to these covert arrangements.
Bulloch lived with his wife and children in Wellington Street, Waterloo, which had a railway connection to Liverpool but was remote enough to allow him to test guns on Waterloo beach without arousing suspicion. (Funnily enough both Waterloo train station and Waterloo beach are central to some of the proceedings in Bombed Out!)
It was Bulloch who arranged for ships to be built on the Mersey, which were officially called ‘cruise ships’ being built for wealthy Italians, which were then sent to the Azores for fitting out as warships. All manner of lies and distortions had to be spun by the South’s network of financiers and spies resident in Liverpool because Britain had agreed not to arm the south, and the construction of these ships by Lairds was causing serious diplomatic problems for the country in its dealings with the North.
The Alabama came back to haunt the British government, legally and financially, long after the war ended. It had slipped out of Liverpool, then been refitted and transformed into a devastatingly dangerous raider of Union merchant and naval ships. Its captain, Raphael Semmes, had drunk with Bulloch at the Liver Hotel in Crosby.
Bulloch also arranged for guns, manufactured in Birmingham and elsewhere, to be exported from Liverpool, so the ships could be quickly equipped for battle when they were refitted abroad. Liverpool also supplied most of the crews for these ships.
In 1864, St George’s Hall in Liverpool was the venue for a three-day bazaar held on behalf of the Confederacy – apparently to raise money for ‘the casualties of war’ – which raised £30,000 (equivalent to a couple of million GBP today). The bazaar was organised by Liverpool-born Mary Prioleau who lived with her American husband Charles K Prioleau at the above-mentioned 19 Abercromby Square.
Liverpool traders also bankrolled the war effort of the Confederacy, many going bust after the war ended, when they weren’t paid for the goods they’d supplied on account, or when loans made to what they’d hoped would be the winning side were not repaid.
Strangely, the first hostile act of the American Civil War started with a shot from a canon (or mortar) made in Liverpool, when it was fired at the commencement of the siege of Fort Sumter in Charleston, South Carolina in 1861, and the final act of the war also occurred in Liverpool in April 1865.
The last formal act of the war occurred when Captain Waddell of the CCS Shenandoah walked into Liverpool Town Hall with a letter to present to the Lord Mayor of Liverpool. In it he confirmed he was surrendering his vessel to the British government (not wishing to do so in the US and to risk being arrested for Piracy). He’d also been the last person to ever officially lower the Confederate flag when he’d handed over his ship to the Royal Navy in the River Mersey the previous day.
After the war, James Dunwoody Bulloch remained in Liverpool until his death in 1901.
Shipbuilder John Laird enjoyed mixed fortunes after the Civil War ended. His shipbuilding business continued to do well, and he served as an MP. But as well as the Alabama, Laird had built other ships for the South and this was not forgotten – especially because the United States lodged the ‘Alabama Claim’, a demand for compensation for the loss of ships and cargoes during the war.
The claim was settled by an international tribunal, which ordered Britain to pay the US government £3.5 million.
Regarded by many as a great Victorian industrialist and philanthropist, John Laird was never honoured in the UK, and many believe his involvement in the Alabama affair was the reason for this.
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