UK Heritage

A Civil War Tour of Liverpool

(The original version of this article appeared in 'Crossfire' the magazine of the ACWRT (UK) No.68 as 'The Liverpool Tour')

 

By Jeremy Edwards and Peter Burrows

 

The Civil War history of Liverpool, and the sites that can be visited to provide some background to that history are well-known to ACWRT (UK) members. But relatively few people from the other side of the pond know of this wealth of heritage. Here then, is an American's reaction to uncovering so much Civil War history in the North of England.

 

For an ACW Merseyside Trail Map by Len Ellison click here

 


There was a cold wind blowing off the Mersey as we checked into our hotel, which we established was built for the Earl of Derby: a strange Victorian folly, set in the bleak stretches of the estuary. We stared out over the Wirral from our bedroom windows at a watery sunset at the giant forms of wind generators that emphasized emptiness and desolation.

 

One might understand why a racing enthusiast could be drawn to the Mersey beaches, but why did those Southern gentlemen from the balmier climes of the Carolinas choose to remain when, the cause lost, many of their compatriots made some adjustments and sought a satisfactory life in Brazil.

 

It was an intrepid band of 10, including representatives from Ireland and America, who ventured out to see the sights of Liverpool under the guidance of our local historian and Vice President, Jerry Williams.

 

Jerry, as our leading member in Liverpool, was able to show us parts of the city that we would not otherwise see. We were able to visit the house of Fraser Trenholm, run by their manager and partner Charles Prioleau, now the home of Liverpool University. We were given access to rooms now used as offices that showed the staircase and design typical of South Carolina, the palmetto motif strongly evident in the recently restored plaster work of the ceilings. It was amusing to note that the house was built a few inches higher than any of the others in the Victorian Square. One of the first cases of an American building bigger and better?

 

Fraser Trenholm were agents with offices in Charleston and Liverpool, and were responsible for commissioning the building of ships for the Confederacy during the war. The British were officially neutral but there was a great deal of intrigue undertaken to get ships built and manned, even though they could not be armed. Much work was done on scrutinizing the fine print of the Neutrality Acts by another Confederate agent, James Bulloch and the solicitor F.S. Hull (whose house we visited in Rodney Street) to find a way through its constraints. Ships would be built under quite different names to the ones they eventually sailed under. The Alabama, famous as Vessel 290, was sailed out as the Enrica and armed in the Azores.

 

Allerton Hall, a country house rented by Prioleau during the war, is now a restaurant and we took lunch there. Here the Confederate flag was raised after the first battle of Manassas and it was here that Raphael Semmes spent much of his time away from the prying eyes of the Union spies who reported to the US consul in Liverpool, Thomas Dudley.

 

John Le Carré could have made much of the intrigue that took place around the Liverpool docks, as Confederate agents sought to build ships and to avoid the British commitment to neutrality.

 

It was at 10 Rumford Place that the offices of Fraser Trenholm were situated, (one of our members Fred O'Brien has designed plaques for each of the offices commemorating the American Civil War) giving easy access to ensure comings and goings would not be seen by the likes of the detective William Passmore. Dudley despaired of the city as a hotbed of Confederate sympathizers, observing that more Confederate flags flew in the city than in Richmond, VA. One of his agents, Passmore, famously reported that in July 1862: "Met the sailors, 30 in number, walking down Canning Street playing 'Dixie' on a comopean fife and concertina".

 

We visited the spot and, the street being empty, could imagine the sailors appearing from round the corner as though the intervening years had simply not happened. This is a part of Liverpool still undeveloped, having survived World War II and the horrific developments of the 1960s, and the ghosts remain, the trip bringing to life so much of the espionage and counter espionage that took place during the American Civil War.

 

Bulloch spent most of the war and many years after as a resident of Liverpool, and we were able to visit his grave. He never made it back to his beloved Confederate states since many of his kind had to wait until it was safe to return after indulging in espionage- style activities. It was also interesting to learn that he was related to Theodore Roosevelt, who spent time with him when he visited the UK as President. But here we encountered the distasteful face of political extremism in our own age, for we learned symbols of the Confederacy on graves, even where they have historical associations, are liable to be vandalized. Flags of individual states can be safely left as bigotry is fortunately linked with ignorance.

 

Then on to the St. George's Hall, a stupendous building with all the grandeur and colorful, exuberant confidence so representative of the mid-Victorian age, that was the site of the great Southern Bazaar. There was clearly almost universal support for the Confederate cause in Liverpool and in 1864 all facets of Liverpool society turned out to raise money for the Confederate wounded. The scale of that support and generosity may be gauged by the fact that the £20,000 raised was almost half what it cost to build the Alabama, an enormous sum in today's terms.

 

The Sunday morning gave us the opportunity to make a private visit to the Birkenhead Museum and see a replica of the Alabama. The museum also holds the costing records of the Alabama and a sword purported to belong to Semmes - though unlikely to be his as contemporary accounts state that he threw it into the sea when his ship was sunk.

 

The highlight of the tour was a trip to No. 4 Dock at Lairds, where the ship was built. Lairds was pleased to see us show interest in the work it has done to preserve the dock and there is scope here for the Round Table to provide trail markers for a Dockland Trail that is currently in the planning stage. It was here that we were to see the dock in which Lairds built the Alabama in 1862, and here that the Shenandoah surrendered to HMS Donegal some six months after the ceremonies at Appomattox had taken place. Indeed it was interesting to learn that the Shenandoah kept raiding Union shipping well into June of 1865.

 

These were not the only ships of the Confederacy that Lairds built: apart from the Alabama the most notorious was probably Vessel 268, the Denbigh, which started life before the war as a passenger ferry between Liverpool and Rhyl. It was bought by private interests to become, perhaps, the most famous blockade runner of the war, incurring the wrath of the Union Admiral David Farragut, famously quoted in the Book of Quotations: "Damn the torpedoes - full speed ahead," as the Union fleet sailed into Mobile Bay. Later he said of the Denbigh: "If I capture the Captain of that vessel he will spend the rest of the war in the Tortugas."

 

But the Alabama was the star of the show, especially for those of us who had attended the symposium in Cherbourg two years earlier on the anniversary date of the ship's final battle. It is impossible to exaggerate the extent of the devastation it wrought. The Laird Foundation handbook published for the official opening of No. 4 Dock says in a matter-of-fact way: "The Alabama wreaked such destruction upon the Union Merchant Marine that it did not fully recover for 50 years. Britain was forced to pay $15.5m in compensation to the US government... there was even talk of putting a halfpenny on the price of beer to pay for the claim."

 

Bad enough in the event, but it could have been worse. At the first International Political Tribunal in history, the notorious Charles Sumner, described as "glacially virtuous" by Henry Adams, made an opening claim on behalf of the US government that Canada would do very nicely by way of compensation.

 

A MICROCOSM OF THE CONFEDERACY

 

The facts of the devastation wrought by the Alabama are that during the 657 days of its life, 534 spent at sea, it captured, bonded the cargoes or destroyed 447 Union vessels and 65 Union Merchant ships as well as sinking the USS Hatteras, (above) and the ship took 2,000 prisoners. All of this occurred with no loss of life until its fatal encounter with the USS Kearsage.

 

But the incredible story of the Alabama is also in microcosm the story of how the Confederacy came to lose the war. Semmes described the Alabama as a swan, others have dubbed it the " Shark of the Confederacy" but the more revealing image is of the ship as a white charger of the seas with Semmes as her knight.

 

Any visitor to Liverpool should make a point of taking in the Maritime Museum down by the old docks. There is a wonderful exhibition on slavery that emphasizes the role Liverpool played before the trade was abolished. It also evolves into the further role Liverpool played as a stopover for emigrants to the United States (not to mention the Lusitania).

 

A special treat on the tour was our own investigation in the graveyard of Trinity Church (for Beatles fans, not far from Penny Lane) where we searched for the grave of Alan Stuart Hanckel. We never found it, but if you are wondering why we were doing this, Hanckel was from Charleston SC, and on board the Trent when it was stopped and the Confederate emissaries Mason and Slidell taken by the Union Navy. Hanckel took over and carried their papers from the Confederate government to the UK.

 

He stayed in Liverpool and like many of the Confederate exiles of his time, never returned. His grave, which has since been found, needs some repair and would make another suitable project for the Round Table. Once again, the question came to mind: why would anyone from the South wish to remain in cold and windy Liverpool without a very good reason when Brazil was on offer?

 

We received a great welcome: the hospitality of our northern friends was unsurpassed; all on the trip hope to return to Liverpool some day. I would recommend the "Jerry Williams Liverpool Civil War Tour" to all who ever wish to explore the British involvement in the American Civil War.

 

For an ACW Merseyside Trail Map by Len Ellison click here

 

© ACWRT(UK) 2002