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HomeNewsThe great escape of a wolf in ship’s clothing

The great escape of a wolf in ship’s clothing

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ON the morning of July 29, 1862 – 160 years ago today – a sleek, handsome ship festooned with colourful bunting set sail out of the Mersey.  

On board, a band played, champagne glasses clinked, and conversation flowed among groups of well-dressed men and women mingling in the sunshine.  

The vessel was called the Enrica and its owner was an affable, extravagantly-whiskered American businessman named James Dunwoody Bulloch. He was taking the ship out on sea trials following its launch two months earlier from the Laird shipyard in Birkenhead, across the Mersey from Liverpool. He had cleverly turned the workaday trip into a pleasure cruise, inviting local bigwigs to join him for a bracing run out into the Irish Sea, a spot of lunch and a convivial afternoon of socialising, returning to Birkenhead in time for supper.  

The invitations were eagerly accepted. But Bulloch’s day out was not what it seemed. Far from being an innocuous jaunt, it was an elaborate subterfuge, a final desperate throw of the dice in an international high-stakes game of cat and mouse. For Bulloch was a clandestine agent of the Confederate States of America, which had broken away from the United States in 1861, starting the American Civil War which had now been raging for more than a year. And the Enrica was no pleasure craft. Bulloch had had the ship built as a commerce raider, designed to prey on US merchant shipping.

Right now, under the guise of the day trip, he was trying to get the vessel out of British waters before the Government, under fierce pressure from Washington, impounded it.  

The sea outing went smoothly and by early afternoon the Enrica, under the temporary command of Captain Matthew Butcher – an English officer recruited by Bulloch – was several miles from the Mersey. At 3pm, the American host ruefully announced to his guests that the outing would have to be curtailed because the shipwas to be kept out all night for further trials. He transferred with them to an accompanying tug and headed back to Birkenhead, while the Enrica slowly faded into the summer haze. It would never return.  

A month later, renamed Alabama and now a fully-armed sloop-of-war, Bulloch’s sea wolf set out on the voyage that would bring it worldwide fame and infamy – a devastating two-year global campaign of destruction against the seaborne trade of the United States. Its depredations and those of other British-supplied gunboats would bring Britain and the US close to war. And after the Alabama was sunk in 1864, Britain had to pay a fortune in compensation to American shipowners.  

The remarkable saga would never have happened but for the guile and ingenuity of Bulloch. The 38-year-old former US Navy officer had arrived in England in June 1861, two months after the outbreak of the civil war. His urgent mission was to buy or build commerce-raiding ships.

He based himself in Liverpool, where the Confederacy funnelled funds to him via a banking house. Soon after, he crossed the Mersey to Birkenhead, where the famous Laird shipyard lay along the waterfront. He asked the firm to build him a lithe, fast cruiser with a steam engine as well as sails to give it extra speed and manoeuvrability. Although the yard was a world leader in iron construction, he specified a wooden-built ship for easy repair.  

Ostensibly, it was just an ordinary commercial contract – the vessel was designated No 290 in the Laird order book, at a cost of £42,500. But while no armaments were included, speculation soon arose about the true purpose of Bulloch’s creation.  

As the 290’s keel was laid, Thomas Dudley, the US Consul in Liverpool, got wind of it. He hired spies to chart the progress of the build and to tail Bulloch, and sent regular reports to Charles Francis Adams, the US Ambassador in London. Adams in turn started bombarding the Foreign Secretary, Lord Russell, with demands for the vessel to be seized.  

However, Bulloch gambled that as long as the ship did not infringe Britain’s neutrality laws, it would be safe.  

It was illegal to arm a vessel in England for a foreign war, or to enlist men to serve in a foreign war. But there was nothing to stop anyone building a ship here, then – after it had sailed outside British jurisdiction – arming it and taking on a crew. This was the narrow legal loophole through which Bulloch hoped to sail.  

In America, as the fortunes of war ebbed and flowed, Abraham Lincoln’s government became increasingly hostile about Britain supplying the rebel South with ships, which some senators saw as an act of war. There were even suggestions that the US might retaliate by invading Canada.  

However, there was some self-interested sympathy for the Confederacy in Britain’s corridors of power and Lord Russell still refused to act. Despite this, Bulloch knew his luck could not hold, and when the 290 was launched in May 1862 as the Enrica, he hurriedly had her fitted out for sea.    

The US pressure on Russell was now intense. Finally, Ambassador Adams hired a British maritime law expert, Robert Collier QC, to compile a case against the ship. On July 23, Collier produced a definitive document stating that unless the Enrica was seized, the neutrality laws ‘would be a dead letter’. Stung into action at last, Russell sent the paper to the Queen’s Advocate, Sir John Harding, for a decision, which would almost certainly be to detain the ship.  

Bulloch learned from his clandestine sources that the game was nearly up, and started putting together his escape plan. He told the Laird yard that he wanted the Enrica ready for sea trials on Tuesday, July 29.  

In London meanwhile, Russell was waiting for a reply from Harding. But it never came. Unknown to colleagues, Harding had been unwell for weeks with mental problems and had finally suffered a nervous breakdown. Anxious to conceal his condition, his wife had taken him to stay with friends 40 miles away in Reading. The vital papers urging the seizure of the Enrica lay untouched on his desk in London, leaving the whole matter in limbo.  

It was not until the evening of July 28 that the documents were retrieved by two other law officers, the Attorney-General and the Solicitor-General, who studied them through the night.  

By next morning, they had concluded that Russell should order the Enrica to be detained. But, in yet another twist, the Foreign Secretary was out of town and could not be reached. No immediate action was taken. Thus, on July 29, the Enrica was able to ease out into the Mersey.  

After the passengers were taken off, Bulloch wanted the ship to head west into the Atlantic, but it did not have enough crew. Captain Butcher hid the Enrica in Moelfre Bay, Anglesey, until Bulloch arrived next day in a tug with 40 sailors.   

There was just one more card for the wily American to play. He had been warned that a US warship was patrolling the southern Irish Sea to intercept the Enrica. So he told Butcher to go into the Atlantic via the back door – ‘north about’ around the coast of Ulster.  

On August 24, off the Azores – 1,600 miles from the Mersey – another band played aboard the ship. This time, the tune was Dixie’s Land and the flag that flew above her was the ‘stars and bars’ of the Confederacy.  

Although still crewed mainly by Englishmen, the Enrica had been formally commissioned as the Alabama, under the command of Captain Raphael Semmes, an old seadog who was a veteran of commerce raiding.  

The Alabama went on to sink, burn or ransom 66 US ships in a 75,000-mile cruise ranging from the Caribbean to South East Asia before being sunk in battle with the US warship Kearsage off Cherbourg on June 19, 1864.  

In 1872, in an arbitration case that became known as the Alabama Claims, an international tribunal in Geneva awarded the US £3million in gold as compensation for its shipping losses. Britain also outlawed the building of ships for use against friendly powers.  

In one respect, the settlement was a hollow victory for Washington. The Alabama and her cohorts had dealt a deadly blow to the prestige and confidence of the US merchant marine, scaring many ship owners into flying foreign flags of convenience. The biggest beneficiary was Britain, whose trading fleet would enjoy unbridled supremacy for decades. The sea wolf Alabama, now lying 200ft beneath the English Channel, had bitten the US hard.  

James Dunwoody Bulloch carried on dutifully trying to acquire ships for the Southern cause until the civil war ended in 1865 with the defeat of the Confederacy. He stayed on in Liverpool, going into the cotton trade and becoming a naturalised British subject.  

He died in 1901 and is buried in the city’s Toxteth Park Cemetery, where the inscription on his headstone reads: ‘An American by birth, an Englishman by choice.’  

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Michael Yoller
Michael Yoller
Michael Yoller is a maritime history enthusiast.

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