Queen Victoria and the Confederate Navy: Union and Confederacy Jockeying For British Support

After the British government, at U.S. insistence, seizes a ship being built for the Confederacy, she authorizes appointment of an attorney to fight that action.

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The only document signed by Victoria relating to the American Civil War that we have ever seen

The Confederacy, lacking its own facilities, needed to rely on the shipyards of Britain to build and outfit ships for their navy. They sent James Dunwoody Bulloch on a mission to buy or build ships...

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Queen Victoria and the Confederate Navy: Union and Confederacy Jockeying For British Support

After the British government, at U.S. insistence, seizes a ship being built for the Confederacy, she authorizes appointment of an attorney to fight that action.

The only document signed by Victoria relating to the American Civil War that we have ever seen

The Confederacy, lacking its own facilities, needed to rely on the shipyards of Britain to build and outfit ships for their navy. They sent James Dunwoody Bulloch on a mission to buy or build ships for the South, but he was constantly undermined by agents of the American consul at Liverpool, Thomas H. Dudley. As 1862 drew to a close, Dudley was convinced that he had discovered yet another Confederate ship being built at Liverpool. The ship Dudley turned his attention to was the Alexandra, a 300 ton screw steamer, which bore very similar lines in design to that of the noted CSS Florida. Fawcett, Preston & Co. had the contract to build the Alexandra, but they subcontracted some of the work to W.C. Miller & Son, who had built the famous ship CSS Alabama. The Alexandra was intended to be a gift to the Confederate government from Fraser, Trenholm & Company, cotton brokers and ship-owners in Liverpool. A relatively small wooden vessel, Alexandra was very strongly built with a steam engine to power her propeller and a three-masted barquentine rig. At 145 feet long, she was smaller than the Florida which was 191 feet long. She was described by Millers as suitable for use as a yacht or mailboat, though in reality she was very suitable for conversion into a gunboat or blockade runner. Launched on March 7, 1863 by Mrs. William Miller, she was named Alexandra after the Princess who would marry the Prince of Wales on March 10. Alexandra was then fitted out in Liverpool’s Toxteth Dock. Three of Dudley’s agents signed sworn statements to the effect that the Alexandra was indeed a new Confederate cruiser, giving Dudley grounds to pressure the U.S. Ambassador in London to act.

Charles Francis Adams had long been a public critic of Britain’s failure to curb their ship building yards for assisting the Southern cause, and he now petitioned the British Foreign Secretary to bring a test case to trial acknowledging that while Britain on one hand needed to protect its legitimate ship building industry, it was obliged to discharge its obligations under the Neutrality Act and International Law and not thus aid a rebel belligerent. The government experts recommended the Alexandra should be seized, saying the ship’s reinforced structure provided enough suspicion and suitable grounds for doing so. In response, with no precedents to guide it, the British Government determined that the Foreign Enlistment Act needed to be tested in court. Lord Russell, the Prime Minister, ordered the ship seized on the sole suspicion that her owners intended to use the Alexandra “against the United States” and as such, the Surveyor of Customs at Liverpool, on the April 5, 1863, ordered that “The King’s Broad arrow [three ritualistic slashes] be marked on one of her masts, and that Alexandra be seized under the Foreign Enlistment Act”. The information filed with the British court charged 12 persons, among them Miller and Preston, “with equipping, with furnishing, with fitting out, and severally attempting and endeavoring, with procuring, and with knowingly aiding and assisting” the violation of that act, and stated that the acts were done in England, “without leave or license of her Majesty”, and that the ship with all its furniture and fittings was forfeited.

Adams was naturally delighted, expressing to everyone who would listen his complete satisfaction. He wrote to Secretary of State William Seward, “I think we may now infer from this act, the British government is really disposed to maintain its neutrality.” Liverpool ship builders were less enamored with their government’s actions, viewing it as a threat to their livelihood and demanded a quick resolution. Until the case could be tested in court, Naval contractors throughout Britain paused, unsure about continuing any work on any contract for the Confederacy.

As reported by “The Jurist” law publication at the time, on June 2, 1863, H.J. Sillim, H.B. Preston, J. Willing, D.W. Thomas, and W.T. Mann made oath claiming through their attorney that they were the the bona fide owners of the Alexandra, and pleaded that “the ship, with her furniture, etc. did not, nor did any or either of them, or any part thereof, become forfeited”. These men were associated with the Fawcett, Preston firm or others that had built or outfitted the Alexandra. But before their attorney could enter his appearance, he had to have royal authorization to act as defense counsel. This is the very document in which that appointment was made, and in fact made the very day the attorney filed the defendants’ oath.

Document signed, London, June 2, 1863 (though stamped as filed June 13), in which the defendants describe themselves as “merchants”, and maintain that they, with others, have an interest in the Alexandra. The Queen responded, “That the Petitioners are desirous of retaining the assistance of George Mellish Esquire, one of Our counsel, and therefore humbly pray that We will be pleased to grant to the Petitioners Our Royal License accordingly. We being graciously pleased to condescend to the Petitioners’ request and accordingly dispense with the said George Mellish, and grant him Our Royal License and permission to be counsel…” Mellish was an English barrister, and later a judge of the Court of Appeal in Chancery, and member of the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council. His mother was a cousin of George Canning, who stood as his godfather. Mellish was the go-to counsel for the Confederacy in England, and had won the case of the CSS Alabama just a few months earlier.

This is the only document signed by Victoria relating to the American Civil War that we have ever seen.

The British Court of the Exchequer opened the trial of the Alexandra at Westminster on June 22. The defendants were charged with violating 96 counts of the Foreign Enlistment Act. The Court required the Crown prove first, the vessel was built for the purpose of being equipped for war; and second, that she was intended at some stage of her construction for the service of the Confederate States. Mellish noted the Crown’s case essentially relied on the evidence of the three spies on Dudley’s pay roll, and he cast doubt on them. The defendants won their case. Fawsett, Preston made an immediate application for the restoration of Alexandra but found the Crown, no longer so sure the Confederacy would win the war, had filed an appeal with the House of Lords. A year went by before this appeal also failed, and the owners settled for damages, accepting the sum of 3,700 Pounds, half their original claim.  The Alexandra never sailed under that name. Released in 1864, she was eventually sold, renamed Mary and operated as a blockade runner. Under her new name, she crossed the Atlantic, stopping in Nova Scotia, Bermuda and Nassau, and the Bahamas. But the Mary was again seized at the latter port in December 1864 and held until May 1865, by which time the Civil War had ended.

Although Dudley lost his case against the Alexandra, he did succeed in alerting the British government to the multitude of Confederate ship building going on in British shipyards. Moreover, the Alexandra case was beneficial to the Federal government in also hardening the British stance against the Confederates. Prime Minister Russell and the British government were soon placing their bets on the Unionists winning the Civil War.

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