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Alabama Claims, 1862-1872

The Alabama claims were a diplomatic dispute between the United States and Great Britain that arose out of the U.S. Civil War. The peaceful resolution of these claims 7 years after the war ended set an important precedent for solving serious international disputes through arbitration, and laid the foundation for greatly improved relations between Britain and the United States.

The controversy began when Confederate agents contracted for warships from British boatyards. Disguised as merchant vessels during their construction in order to circumvent British neutrality laws, the craft were actually intended as commerce raiders. The most successful of these cruisers was the Alabama, which was launched on July 29, 1862. It captured 58 Northern merchant ships before it was sunk in June 1864 by a U.S. warship off the coast of France. In addition to the Alabama, other British-built ships in the Confederacy Navy included the Florida, Georgia, Rappahannock, and Shenandoah. Together, they sank more than 150 Northern ships and impelled much of the U.S. merchant marine to adopt foreign registry. The damage to Northern shipping would have been even worse had not fervent protests from the U.S. Government persuaded British and French officials to seize additional ships intended for the Confederacy. Most famously, on September 3, 1863, the British Government impounded two ironclad, steam-driven Laird rams?that Confederate agent James D. Bulloch had surreptitiously arranged to be built at a shipyard in Liverpool.

The United States demanded compensation from Britain for the damage wrought by the British-built, Southern-operated commerce raiders, based upon the argument that the British Government, by aiding the creation of a Confederate Navy, had inadequately followed its neutrality laws. The damages discussed were enormous. Charles Sumner, Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, argued that British aid to the Confederacy had prolonged the Civil War by 2 years, and indirectly cost the United States hundreds of millions, or even billions of dollars (the figure Sumner suggested was $2.125 billion). Some Americans adopted this argument and suggested that Britain should offer Canada to the United States in compensation. Such proposals were not taken seriously by British statesmen, but they convey the passion with which some Americans viewed the issue.

At the conclusion of the Civil War, intense feeling of indignation against Great Britain pervaded the minds of the Government and Congress of the United States, and of the people of those of the States which had devoted themselves to maintaining in arms the integrity of the Union against the hostile efforts of the Southern Confederation.

The Union charged and believed that Great Britain and her Colonies had been the arsenal, the navy-yard, and the treasury of the Confederates. The Union charged and believed that Confederate cruisers, which had depredated largely on Union shipping and maritime commerce, never could have taken and never held the sea, but for the partiality and gross negligence of the Biitish Government. The Union charged and believed that but for the premature recognition of the belligerence of the Confederates by Great Britain, and the direct aid or supplies which were subsequently furnished to them in British ports, the insurrection in the Southern States never would have assumed, or could not have retained, those gigantic proportions, which served to render it so costly of blood and of treasure to the whole Union, and so specially disastrous to the Southern States themselves. The Union charged and believed that, in all this, Great Britain, through her Government, had disregarded the obligations of neutrality imposed on her by the law of nations to such manifest degree as to have afforded to the United States just and ample cause of war.

The United States, through all these events, with William H. Seward, as Secretary of State, and Charles Francis Adams, Minister at London, had not failed to address continual remonstrances to the British Government, demanding reparation for past wrong and the cessation from continuous wrong: which remonstrances did, in fact, at length awaken the British Government to greater vigilance in the discharge of its international duties, but could not induce it to take any step toward reparation so long as Earl Russell [then Lord John Russell], by whose negligence or misjudgment the injuries had happened, remained in charge of the foreign affairs of the Government. That statesman, while, on more than one occasion, expressly admitting the wrong done*to the United States, still persisted, with singular obtuseness or narrowness of mind, in maintaining that the honor of England would not permit her to make any reparation to the United States.

Never, in the history of nations, has an occasion existed where a powerful people, smarting under the consciousness of injury, manifested greater magnanimity than was displayed in that emergency by the United States. The Union had on the sea hundreds of ships of war or of transport; on land hundreds of thousands of veteran soldiers under arms; officers of land and sea, the combatants in a hundred battles: all this vast force of war was in a condition to be launched as a thunderbolt at any enemy; and, in the present case, the possessions of that enemy, whether continental or insular, lay at the Union's very door in tempting helplessness.

But neither the Government and people of the United States, nay, nor their laurel-crowned Generals and Admirals, desired war as a choice, nor would accept it but as a necessity; and they elected to continue to negotiate with Great Britain, and to do what no great European State has ever done under like circumstances, - that is, to disarm absolutely, and make thorough trial of the experiment of generous forbearance before having recourse to the dread extremity of vengeful hostilities against Great Britain.

After years of unsuccessful U.S. diplomatic initiatives, a Joint High Commission meeting in Washington, D.C. during the early part of 1871 arrived at the basis for a settlement. The British Government expressed regret for its contribution to the success of Confederate commerce raiders. This agreement, dated May 8, 1871, and known as the Treaty of Washington, also established an arbitration commission to evaluate the merit of U.S. financial claims on Britain. In addition, the treaty addressed Anglo-American disputes over boundaries and fishing rights. The arbitration commission, which issued its decision in September 1872, rejected American claims for indirect damages, but did order Britain to pay the United States $15.5 million as compensation for the Alabama claims.

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