On July 4, 1862, while the stunned 100,000-man Union Army of the Potomac licked its wounds after defeat in the Seven Days campaign, Confederate agent James Bulloch placed an order with British shipbuilder Laird & Sons for two transoceanic ironclad warships. They were designed to be superior to anything in the United States Navy. After their scheduled availability the following spring and summer, it was hoped that they would lift the Union blockade. They might even raid and destroy commercial and naval ships in Northern ports from Philadelphia to Portsmouth, New Hampshire.
Bulloch, who was a Georgian and uncle to future President Theodore Roosevelt, had good reason to be optimistic. After Union spies learned of their specifications months later, Assistant Union Navy Secretary Gustavus Fox confirmed that his navy had nothing to counter the vessels. Therefore, all the tools of diplomacy and espionage needed to focus on preventing or delaying their delivery.
Although their beaked shaped bows gave the Lairds the appearance of rams, it was not their most important feature. Eventually they would become known as Scorpion class warships, which were armored like the Union Monitor class. Unlike Monitors, however, they were seaworthy enough to reliably cross the Atlantic and give battle upon arrival. With a top speed of about fifteen knots they were more than twice as fast as the original USS Monitor, which battled the even slower CSS Virginia in the famous first battle of ironclads in March 1862. While they drew more water than the Monitors, the Lairds were designed to be shallow-drafted enough to enter, and maneuver in, major Southern ports.
My Civil War Books
To minimize weight their firepower was concentrated in two turrets with two rifled cannons each. The turrets were rotated with a rack-and-pinion series of gears and could be mounted on roller bearings thereby making them easier to rotate than those on Monitors. Their hulls were divided into twelve watertight compartments and had double bottoms, which enabled them to survive punishment in battle.
As the war progressed, Bulloch’s first major problem was paying for them. Ordinary Confederate currency lost value and he had little gold or foreign exchange credits available. Fortunately, he copied one of Navy Secretary Stephen Mallory’s other agents by issuing Confederate cotton certificates. Such certificates permitted holders to exchange them for cotton at eight cents a pound whereas the market price rose as high as $1.90 during the war. The “catch” was that the cotton was located in the Confederacy. But, at eight cents a pound enough Europeans were willing to accept the certificates for payment and gamble that the South would win the war with the result that the certificates might be worth ten to twenty times their face value.
Bulloch’s next problem was that the British became increasingly sensitive to diplomatic complaints from Lincoln’s government, particularly as the fortunes of war turned against the Confederacy after the fall of Vicksburg and defeat at Gettysburg. While the ships were under construction is was imperative that their military capabilities be disguised. Consequently, as with the earlier successful escape of the CSS Alabama, they were not to be equipped with armaments until after leaving British waters. In June 1863 Bulloch took the extra precaution of transferring official ownership to a French trading house named Bravay & Company.
Persistent diplomatic complaints by the United States caused repeated investigations that slowed construction. Nonetheless, the first vessel was nearing completion in September 1863 when Lincoln’s minister in London notified the British Foreign Secretary that if the ship departed, “It would be superfluous for me to point out to your Lordship that this means war.”
The Foreign Secretary made fresh inquires and discovered the ownership transfer to Bravay & Company. When a subordinate erroneously told him there was no French company by that name, the secretary ordered seizure of the Laird ships. The British Navy purchased them the following year, categorizing them as Scorpion class warships. They were put into service in the English Channel. The HMS Wivern, pictured above, lasted the longest and was sold for scrap in 1922.
It is interesting to speculate how the naval war might have changed had the clerk in the Foreign Secretary’s office failed to erroneously report that the French trading firm of Bravay & Company did not exist….Was it an accident?…Was he bribed?…Was he a spy?
The episode above is part of the story told in my new book, The Confederacy at Flood Tide, which will be released in May. It is available now at Amazon for pre-order.