A Suicidal Game

In Great Britain, two 2,000-ton ironclad warships were under construction in the Laird shipyards at Birkenhead. The U.S. minister to Great Britain, Charles Francis Adams, and the U.S. consul in Liverpool, Thomas H. Dudley, had been investigating whether these so-called “Laird rams” were intended for Confederate use. If so, this would violate Britain’s avowed policy of neutrality, and construction on the ships would have to be stopped.  

Many believed that the warships were being built for the Confederacy, but because this could not be proven, the British could not interfere. The ships, currently unarmed, were contractually being built for Bravay & Company of Paris, which in turn represented “his serene Highness the Pasha of Egypt.” The ships were given Turkish names (El Tousson and El Mounassir) to add further legitimacy to their ownership. U.S. officials believed that the Pasha intended to arm the rams and sell them to the Confederates on the open sea.  

Charles Francis Adams | Image Credit: Wikipedia.org

Adams urged British Foreign Secretary Lord John Russell to order a halt to construction on the rams, but Russell replied from Scotland on September 1 that the ships were legally being built for Bravay, adding, “Under these circumstances, Her Majesty’s Government cannot interfere in any way with these vessels.” But unbeknownst to Adams, Russell was doing some investigating of his own, and his undersecretary wrote to the Treasury that same day:  

“I am directed by Earl Russell to request that you will state to the Lord’s Commissioners of her Majesty’s Treasury that so much suspicion attaches to the iron-clad vessels at Birkenhead, that if sufficient evidence can be obtained to lead to the belief that they are intended for the Confederate States Lord Russell thinks the vessels ought to be detained until further examination can be made.”

On the 3rd, Adams received word from Dudley that the rams were about to be put to sea. Adams again told Russell that they should be detained, and this time Russell agreed. Without Adams’s knowledge, Russell wrote to Prime Minister Lord Palmerston:  

“My dear Palmerston, the conduct of the gentlemen who have contracted for the two iron-clads at Birkenhead is so very suspicious that I have thought it necessary to direct that they should be detained. The Solicitor-General has been consulted, and concurs in the measure as one of policy, though not of strict law. We shall thus test the law and, if we have to pay damages, we have satisfied the opinion which prevails here as well as in America, that that kind of neutral hostility should not be allowed to go on without some attempt to stop it…”  

British Prime Minister Lord Palmerston and Foreign Affairs Secy Lord John Russell

Palmerston approved, and Russell sent a message through his undersecretary to stop the rams “As soon as there is reason to believe that they are actually about to put to sea, and to detain them until further orders.” Russell decided that such a move was necessary to maintain peaceful relations with the U.S., as well as British neutrality.

Adams sent Russell another message urging him to stop the rams, and shortly after he finally received Russell’s message from September 1. Adams wrote in his diary that Russell’s note “affected me deeply. I clearly foresee that a collision must now come out of it. I must not, however, do anything to accelerate it, and yet must maintain the honor of my country with proper spirit. The issue must be properly made up before the world on its merits. The prospect is dark for poor America.”  

Adams was still unaware that Russell was working behind the scenes to do exactly what Adams was urging. The U.S. minister wrote Russell again on the 5th and included a clear warning:  

“My Lord, at this moment, when one of the iron-clad vessels is on the point of departure from this kingdom, on its hostile errand against the United States, I am honored with yours of the 1st instant. I trust I need not express how profound is my regret at the conclusion to which Her Majesty’s Government have arrived. I can regard it no otherwise than as practically opening to the insurgents free liberty in this kingdom to execute a policy of attacking New York, Boston and Portland and of breaking our blockade. It would be superfluous in me to point out to your lordship that this is war.”

Russell responded by directing the charge d’affaires in Washington to notify U.S. Secretary of State William H. Seward that the rams had been detained. Orders were issued prohibiting the ships from leaving the yard “without an ample explanation of their destination and a sustainable reference to the owner or owners for whom they were constructed.” Russell further demanded that the Laird shipyard provide credible evidence that these ships were in no way intended to go to the Confederacy. This extraordinary demand that the shipyard prove its innocence was a clear sign that the British were starting to believe that the U.S. would win the war.  

This was hailed in the U.S. as a great diplomatic victory, even though the British government had decided on its own to detain the rams. Palmerston wrote that it would have been “a suicidal game” for the British to play if the rams had been allowed to go out to sea, but even so, he wrote Russell, “It seems to me that we cannot allow to remain unnoticed his (Adams’s) repeated and I must say somewhat insolent threats of war. We ought I think to say to him, in civil terms, ‘You be damned,’ and I endeavored to express that sentiment to him in measured terms.”  

There would be no further need for either the U.S. or Great Britain to threaten war. The detention of the Laird rams did much to ease tensions between London and Washington, and at the same time dealt another damaging blow to Confederate hopes for independence.


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