The Laird Rams for the Confederacy
Any Civil War enthusiast with even the slightest knowledge of the war is familiar to some degree with the story of the Confederate commerce raider the Alabama. Almost every article written on this most famous of Rebel vessels emphasises the fact that she was constructed here in Britain, on the River Mersey at the Laird shop yards. But all too often, this is the only reference made to the Laird brothers and their somewhat dubious contribution to the cause of Southern independence.
For almost the whole of the war, the offices, wharf's and quays of Merseyside were centres of conspiracy, plot and counter plot as agents from both of the warring factions sought to drastically influence the outcome of a naval war being conducted thousands of miles away. Both sides accomplished their goals to some degree of success. A number of unarmed "merchant men" were launched from British yards only to re-emerge a few weeks later as fully fitted men-of-war after clandestine meetings with supply vessels far out in the Atlantic. Yet as the war progressed, Union officials in this country became more and more proficient in their war of diplomacy, and the frequency of the launching of such ships became less and less common. This is the tale of two such vessels.
In March of 1862, Confederate Naval Captain James Dunwood Bulloch arrived in Liverpool with the tasks of securing the construction of a number of ships to help in the fight against the Union blockade. Bulloch's shopping list was an extensive one, not only did he have orders to build ocean going vessels, but also ones capable of fighting in the shallows of the deltas and rivers that surrounded the Confederacy. Thanks to the futuristic thinking of the Confederate Naval Secretary Stephen Russell Mallory and the almost carte blanche given to him by President Davis, these vessels were to be of a type and size never before encountered in naval warfare.
Following long and secret negotiations between Bulloch and the Laird brothers, it was finally agreed that two vessels were to be constructed and delivered by April 1863, at a cost of £93,750 each. The deal was signed as if between the shipyard and a private merchant, with each of the two ships being ostensibly "merchant men".
Despite the fact that no ordnance was to be fitted to either vessel, while both ships were under construction it must have been painfully obvious to even the most ignorant of bystander what their true purpose was. Constructed side by side, vessels no. 294 and 295, the El Tousson and the El Monassir were of the design now referred to as Monitors. Despite the fact that this type of design was now being used more and more commonly by the Union, these ships were to be of the next generation of iron clad. Designated as "rams", they were designed for both strength and speed. Each had a length of 230 feet, a beam of 42 feet, and a fully loaded draught of 15 feet. The deck was designed to raise a mere 6 feet above the water line. The ship's outer surfaces were teak over iron, finished with armour plate to a depth of 5.5 inches.
For armament, both ships had a pair of revolving turrets, each of which was to house two large bore guns. But the vessel's most ominous features were the protruding massive rams, made of solid iron, which jutted out 7 feet beyond the prow.
The mission for these two leviathans was to be simple yet daring. Operating as a pair with the support of smaller vessels, they were to sail up and down the Southern coastline using their almost impenetrable armour and heavy weapons to hold off attackers while they targeted individual ships with their massive rams. Quite literally, providing they did not stray into deep water, they were set to become the most powerful battle squadron as yet seen on any ocean. Understandably, Federal observers in Birkenhead became more than a little unsettled at the prospect.
As with many engineering projects both then and now, construction ran late. By the start of 1863, it became clear to Bulloch that the ships would not be completed on schedule. Bulloch was also very conscious that US delegates in Britain were becoming more and more vociferous in their objections to Parliament regarding the project. Added to this, an ever growing proportion of British MP's considered that the construction of such vessels in a British shipyard was tantamount to full participation in the war. Just one week after the Battle of Gettysburg, US Ambassador Adams gave a thinly veiled warning that if the vessels were delivered to the Confederates, a state of war would exist between the USA and Britain.
However, Bulloch had anticipated just such a turn of events, and via political manoeuvring in France, attempted to transfer "technical" ownership of the rams to the Egyptian government. While these actions by the Confederates managed to delay the Federals, they ultimately did not stop them. This being due to Napoleon III of France backing down in the face of US threats.
Bulloch's actions very nearly bought enough time. One of the two ships, the El Tousson, had been launched and was being fitted out for sea in Liverpool's Albert Dock, while the finishing touches prior to launch were being made to the El Monassir at Lairds.
A second threat of war finally tipped the scales against the Confederates. On the night of Thursday October 8th 1863, the Royal Navy warship HMS Goshawk dropped anchor near to the El Tousson, while HMS Liverpool did likewise near to the dock still containing the El Monassir. Two days later on October 10th, both vessels were officially impounded by British Customs. So as to prevent a repetition of a similar set of events that had preceded the clandestine sailing of the CSS Alabama when she too had been technically impounded, Royal Navy personnel were put aboard the two iron-clads.
Following their seizure, the British Government tried to placate the Confederates, (just in case the now seemingly inevitable outcome of the war proved to be wrong) by compensating them to the tune of £180,000. Both vessels were turned over to the Royal Navy, but were never used in the role for which they had been designed, and proved to be poor ocean going vessels.
But their construction did lead to a major change in British warship building design, and sparked a string of events that would lead to the emergence of the Dreadnought series of vessels some forty years later.
As for the Confederacy, the loss of the El Tousson and the El Monassir was a great blow. Had they arrived on the American coast, would they have altered the ultimate outcome of the Civil War? Who knows? That question is left for better historians and tacticians than I to answer!
Pvt. Rick Gage, 4th Texas
Hollet D. The Alabama Affair (1993). Sigma Press, Cheshire.
Luraghi R. A History Of The Confederate Navy (1996). Chatham Publishing, London.
The above article first appeared in the ACWS Newsletter, August 1998