September 5, 1863 – Charles Francis Adams, U.S. minister to Great Britain, threatened war unless the British stopped clandestinely building warships for the Confederacy.
Adams had demanded that the British government investigate allegations that naval warships were being built in British shipyards for Confederate use. This demand specifically referred to ironclads currently under construction in the Laird shipyards at Birkenhead that had become known as the “Laird rams.”
Emperor Napoleon III of France was listed as the rams’ original owner, but U.S. officials claimed the British government secretly knew that Confederate agents owned the ships behind the scenes. The agents arranged for the unarmed rams to be sold to Bravay & Company of Paris, on behalf of “his serene Highness the Pasha of Egypt.” The Pasha would then arm the rams and sell them to the Confederates on the open sea.
Adams and Thomas Dudley, the U.S. consul in Liverpool, had been gathering evidence that the rams truly belonged to the Confederacy since June. They argued that if such activity was taking place, it violated Britain’s avowed neutrality and had to be stopped. Secretary of State William H. Seward had even threatened to declare war on British Canada if evidence surfaced that Britain was aiding the Confederate war effort.
Adams urged British Foreign Secretary Lord John Russell to stop construction on the rams, but Russell replied on the 1st, “Under these circumstances, Her Majesty’s Government cannot interfere in any way with these vessels.” Without Adams’s knowledge, Russell turned around two days later and issued orders detaining the rams at Birkenhead until British officials could investigate the matter further. Russell decided that such a move was necessary to maintain peaceful relations with the U.S., as well as British neutrality.
Adams wrote Russell on the 5th, unaware that Russell had detained the rams. Adams warned that if the rams left the shipyard, “It would be superfluous in me to point out to your Lordship that this is war…” Adams was then informed that the British government had already taken steps to prevent such a thing from happening.
This was hailed in the U.S. as a great diplomatic victory, and although the British government had decided on its own to detain the rams, Adams became a hero in the U.S. for supposedly forcing Britain to back down. This did much to ease tensions between London and Washington, at the same time dealing another damaging blow to Confederate hopes for independence.
Catton, Bruce, The American Heritage Picture History of the Civil War (New York: American Heritage Publishing Co., 1960), p. 260; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 322-23; Donald, David Herbert, Lincoln (Simon & Schuster, Kindle Edition, 2011), Loc 9918-28; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 346, 348; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 404-05; McPherson, James M., Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (Oxford History of the United States Book 6, Oxford University Press, Kindle Edition, 1988), p. 682; McPherson, James M., War on the Waters: The Union and Confederate Navies, 1861-1865 (Littlefield History of the Civil War Era, The University of North Carolina Press, Kindle Edition, 2012), p. 202-03; Time-Life Editors, The Blockade: Runners and Raiders (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 126-27; White, Howard Ray, Bloodstains, An Epic History of the Politics that Produced and Sustained the American Civil War and the Political Reconstruction that Followed (Southernbooks, Kindle Edition, 2012), Q363