Alabama on the Mersey: The 150th anniversary of a ship that symbolised Liverpool’s ties to the Confederate states
On the morning of Tuesday, July 29th, 1862 the ship soon to be known to the world as the CSS Alabama weighed anchor on the River Mersey and headed out for sea trials. The weather was fine, bunting flapped merrily from the masts and a party of well-dressed Liverpudlian dignitaries and their fashionable wives enjoyed lavish hospitality on deck.
The guests, as well as a naïve Liverpool customs officer, had been assured that the ship would be back at anchor that evening. But at least one observer was not fooled: Thomas Haines Dudley, the United States Consul in the port of Liverpool, had been watching the construction of the vessel in the Laird Brothers yard for months.
One hundred and fifty years since the ship’s launch on that bright summer’s day, this tale of low skullduggery and affairs of state is a maritime anniversary well worth commemorating. In those days control of the sea was akin to air power in a modern conflict and the delivery of this and other vessels from Liverpool’s shipyards threatened to tilt the balance of the American Civil War in favour of the South. It was as if Great Britain was playing the part of Russia in delivering attack helicopters to the Assad regime in Syria.
By the time the Alabama headed out of the Mersey estuary the Civil War had been under way for more than a year. Liverpool, like the north-west of England as a whole, had strong commercial ties with the cotton-producing confederacy and was suffering from the effects of the Yankee-imposed blockade on southern ports.