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The English Government and Confederate Cruisers

The Illustrated London News, vol. 44, no. 1244, p. 143.

February 13, 1864


On Tuesday was issued a batch of correspondence with the United States' Government in continuation of the despatches presented to Parliament last March. The new documents consist of affidavits and memorials relating to the depredations of the Alabama and the Florida; despatches from Mr. Adams to Earl Russell, quoting each of these as claims for indemnity, and adding them "to others of the same kind which it has been my painful duty to present to your Lordship heretofore;" and of replies from Earl Russell disclaiming all responsibility in regard to the proceedings of the Alabama or of any other Confederate cruiser.

In the course of a despatch dated March 27 last year Earl Russell, describing to Lord Lyons an interview with Mr. Adams, after stating that the American Ambassador had observed that the President might probably find no better resource than the issue of letters of marque, proceeds:--

"I said I would at once suggest a better measure. Mr. Seward had said to Lord Lyons that the crews of privateers had this advantage--that they reaped the whole benefit of the prizes they took, whereas the crews of men-of-war were entitled to only half the value of the prizes they took. Let the President, I said, offer a higher reward for the capture of the Alabama and Oreto to the crews of men-of-war than even the entire value of those vessels. Let him offer double their value as a gratuity, and thus confine his action to officers and men of the United States navy, over whom he could keep a control and who were amenable to the laws which govern an honourable profession. But what could Mr. Adams ask of the British Government? What was his proposal? Mr. Adams said there was one thing which might be easily done. It was supposed the British Government were indifferent to these notorious violations of their own laws. Let them declare their condemnation of all such infractions of law. With respect to the law itself, Mr. Adams said either it was sufficient for the purposes of neutrality, and then, let the British Government enforce it; or it was insufficient, and then let the British Government apply to Parliament to amend it. I said that the Cabinet were of opinion that the law was sufficient, but that legal evidence could not always be procured. That the British Government had done everything in its power to execute the law; but I admitted that the cases of the Alabama and Oreto were a scandal, and, in some degree, a reproach, to our laws. Still, I said, it was my belief that if all the assistance given to the Federals by British subjects and British munitions of war were weighed against similar aid given to the Confederates, the balance would be greatly in favour of the Federals. Mr. Adams totally denied this proposition. But, above all, he said, there is a manifest conspiracy in this country--of which the Confederate loan is an additional proof--to produce a state of exasperation in America, and thus bring on a war with Great Britain with a view to aid the Confederate cause and secure a monopoly of the trade of the Southern States, whose independence these conspirators hope to establish by these illegal and unjust measures. He had worked to the best of his power for peace, but it had become a most difficult task. Mr. Adams fully deserves the character of having always laboured for peace between our two nations; nor, I trust, will his efforts and those of the two Governments fail of success."

In a letter to Mr. Adams, dated the 26th of October last, Earl Russell says:--

"I have had the honour to receive your letter of the 23rd inst. In that letter you inform me that you are instructed to say that the Government of the United States must continue to insist that Great Britain has made itself responsible for the damages which the citizens of the United States sustain by the depredations of the vessel called the Alabama. But towards the conclusion of your letter you state that the Government of the United States are not disposed to act dogmatically or in a spirit of litigation; that they desire to maintain amity as well as peace; that they fully comprehend how unavoidably reciprocal grievances must spring up from the divergence of the policy of the two countries in regard to the present insurrection. You add further on, that the United States frankly confess themselves unwilling to regard the present hour as the most favourable to a calm and candid examination by either party of the facts or the principles involved in cases like the one now in question. With this declaration her Majesty's Government may well be content to wait the time when a calm and candid examination of the facts and principles involved in the case of the Alabama may, in the opinion of the Government of the United States, usefully be undertaken. In the mean time, I must request you to believe that the principle contended for by Her Majesty's Government is not that of commissioning, equipping, and manning vessels in our ports to cruise against either of the belligerent parties, a principle which was so justly and unequivocally condemned by the President of the United States in 1793, as recorded by Mr. Jefferson in his letter to Mr. Hammond on the 18th of May of that year. But the British Government must decline to be responsible for the acts of parties who fit out a seeming merchant-ship, send her to a port or to waters far from the jurisdiction of British Courts, and there commission, equip, and man her as a vessel of war. Her Majesty's Government fear that if an admitted principle were thus made elastic to suit a particular case, th[e] trade of shipbuilding, in which our people excel, and which is to great numbers of them a source of honest livelihood, would be seriously embarassed and impeded. I may add that it appears strange that, notwithstanding the large and powerful naval force possessed by the Government of the United States, no efficient measures have been taken by that Government to capture the Alabama. On our part, I must declare that to perform the duties of neutrality fairly and impartially, and at the same time to maintain the spirit of British law and protect the lawful industry of the Queen's subjects, is the object of her Majesty's Government; and they trust that the Government of the United States will recognise their earnest desire to preserve, in the difficult circumstances of the present time, the relations of amity between the two nations."

On the 29th of the same month Lord Russell informed Mr. Adams that the proceedings of the Alabama at the Cape had been under the consideration of the Government, and the following conclusions had been adopted by them:--

"1. That her Majesty's Government are satisfied by the concurrent testimony of the colonial and naval authorities at the Cape that at the time of capture the Sea Bride was considerably more than three miles distant from the nearest land. 2. That as regards the character of the Alabama, that vessel is entitled to be treated as a ship of war belonging to a belligerent Power, and that neither the Governor nor any other British authority at the Cape was entitled to exercise any jurisdiction over her. 3. That as regards the Tuscaloosa, although her Majesty's Government would have approved the British authorities at the Cape if they had adopted towards that vessel a course different from that which was adopted, yet the question as to the manner in which a vessel under such circumstances should, according to the tenour of her Majesty's orders, be dealt with, was one not altogether free from uncertainty. Nevertheless, instructions will be sent to the British authorities at the Cape for their guidance in the event of a similar case occurring hereafter, and her Majesty's Government hope that under those instructions nothing will for the future happen to admit of a question being raised as to her Majesty's orders having been strictly carried out."

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