Byline: Peter Elson
IF EVER proof was needed of Merseyside's international pre-eminence, you need look no further than the fate of the notorious Confederate commerce raider Alabama.
Built by Laird Bros at Birkenhead,and bought by the Confederates, she played an important part in the American Civil War. The 140thanniversary of the dramatic death of this ship occurred just a few days ago on June 19.
Three quarters ofAlabama's original crew were from Merseyside. In a ferocious 40-minutebattle, she was out- gunned by USS Kearsage,off Cherbourg. Less well- known is that Kearsage's guns were made by Fawcett's the famous Liverpool foundry,based near Duke Street.
Kearsage's captain,John Ancram Winslow,hoped to take Alabama's CaptainRaphael Semmes (coincidentally an old cadet shipmate of his) and his surviving crew, which included 48 Merseyside seamen,but he was thwarted.
To their rescue came The Deerhound, a steam yacht,also built by Laird Bros,in Birkenhead. Deerhound snatched the crew from the English Channel,allowing them to rejoin the Confederate cause. Royal Naval officers presented Semmes with a solid gold ceremonial sword.
Before she sank in that long-ago summer of1864,for 666 days after leaving the Mersey, Alabama sank or destroyed (usually by burning) 67 Union ships,including besting the warship USS Hatteras.However, Semmes never caused one death.
Why did the Southern States turn to Liverpool and Birkenhead for help? After seceding from the North, the Confederate States found their ports blockaded and the vital cotton trade imperilled. Having neither navy nor means to build one, they turned to their major transatlantic customers -Liverpool,its brokers and the Lancashire cotton manufacturing industry.
During the American Civil War,it is said more Confederate flags flew in Lancashire than in Richmond,Virginia, the Confederacy capital.
Alabama was very nearly never built. At the time of the Civil War,Britain passed a Neutrality Act under which no armed vessel could be built for a foreign power.
However,Britain reckoned without the Confederate agent and European naval representative based in Liverpool,James Dunwoody Bulloch,a cousin of the Confederate President,Jefferson Davis. Bulloch found a loophole in the law after consulting a Liverpool solicitor, which allowed Alabama to be constructed without her armament. Technically she was not a warship.
Much of Bulloch's planning and plotting is believed to have been done in the elegant buildings that still line Rumford Place and 19Abercromby Square (now part ofLiverpool University).This was the stupendous home of bankerCharles K Prioleau and the Confederate headquarters. His wife,Mary Elizabeth, whose portrait is painted on the ceiling of their former home,held a Grand Bazaar at St George's Hall, Liverpool, which raised pounds 20,000 for the Southern wounded soldiers'fund.
Union agents,meanwhile, were incensed. They had their Liverpool headquarters at the old Tower Buildings on the Strand and were aware of Alabama's creation across the Mersey.
Meanwhile,Bulloch, under near-constant surveillance by Northern agents,mostly recruited Alabama's crew at the Liver Hotel,South Road, Waterloo. …