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A Turner Bugler, 2004

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The Laird Rams.


November and December 1863

From The Missouri Democrat, Monday, November 2, 1863.


Does the Present Seizure Ensure Their Permanent Detention!

[From the London Times, Oct. 13.]

The protracted controversy respecting the iron-clads in the Mersey has at length been put in the way of definite solution. The broad arrow, we are told, has now been marked on one of these steamers, and the suspected vessels, therefore, can only be cleared of the attachment by course of law. In what decision that course may terminate it is not now for us to conjecture. All that is yet certain is that the case will be tried, and the whole question argued on its proper merits. Enough, however, appears to have been established in the recent discussions to make the matter intelligible, and to define the positions occupied by the several parties to the transaction.

The Federal and Confederate States of America are belligerents; we are neutrals. It is urged upon our Government by the Federal representative that these vessels in the Mersey are destined for the Confederate service, and they ought to be stopped. To justify such prohibition, therefore, it would have to be shown that the alleged destination was the real one, and, further, that it was an unlawful destination. The first of these questions is a question of evidence; the next a question of law. Now, as regards the law, it seems to be admitted that neutrals may supply belligerents with munitions of war, ships, included, to any extent, and yet commit no breach of neutrality.  The only conditions to be observed in such dealings are that the neutral merchants should not transgress the limits of customary trade, and should not give to either belligerent an advantage of partiality or favor. Keeping these rules in view, any British subject may sell either guns or ships to either Federal or Confederate customers without offense.

But these admissions presume that the bargains shall be conducted in the ordinary way of trade, and that the goods supplied are for exportation and delivery at the ports of the belligerent purchaser. We sell guns, powder, bayonets and sabres to the Federals, and these commodities are carried across the Atlantic to New York, and there landed for the use of the Federal Government. Similarly, when we sell ships of war, as we often do, to foreign governments, delivery is made of these vessels at the ports of the purchasing state – and Alexandria, Cronstadt or Constantinople, as the case may be; and if it were understood, or could be reasonably assumed, that any vessels built to order of the Confederate Government would be delivered, like so much cargo, at Charleston or Savannah, there to be taken into the Confederate service, the transaction would be perfectly lawful. If the ships left our shores and arrived at the territories of the purchasers unequipped and empty; if they only received upon arrival at such points their equipments, armaments and commissions, and were then despatched from the ports of the belligerent on the work of war, it would be impossible to impeach the part played by the neutral shipbuilder in the proceeding.  His trade would be just as allowable as that of the neutral cannon founder or the neutral sword cutler, nor could any complaint be sustained against the neutral government for permitting such transactions.

But the transactions now in question are not of this character. What is suspected of the iron-clads in the Mersey is that they are designed to follow the Alabama, and to become what the Alabama is known to be. Now the Alabama, though a cruiser in the service of the Confederate Government, was never exported for delivery at a Confederate port. She received her equipment and her commission, and proceeded to act against the enemy without ever having touched Confederate territory at all. If, therefore, these iron-clads were to do the same, one of two things must happen – either we, the neutrals, must have provided them with their equipment, in which case we should be participating in the war; or the belligerent purchases must have done so in our ports, and therefore made our neutral territory the basis of hostile operations. If a ship leaves British waters in a condition to act at once against an enemy, it is clear that those who conduct her are doing just as much as we ourselves could do if we were the belligerents, and not they. It is equally clear that in doing this they are exceeding their rights, and at such proceedings ought not to be allowed. It is not lawful for neutrals to equip a vessel of war against the belligerent; it is not lawful for belligerents to equip a vessel of war from a neutral port. Yet, if these suspected iron-clads are really destined for the Confederate service, and not destined for a Confederate port, how are they to escape the character to which their destination with thus be reduced!

It is competent to any shipbuilder whose proceedings may have fallen under suspicion to say that the suspicion is unfounded, and that his goods have been really bespoken by a lawful and innocent customer; but that plea, if sound, could of course be established so plainly as to preclude any further dispute. It would be also competent to a builder to say that he was building a vessel for a belligerent, but that such was his lawful trade, and that he had no concern with the bargain after delivery to the purchaser. But this plain statement has not, as far as we know, been put forward on behalf of the vessels now suspected, and it is impossible to dismiss from our minds the notorious precedent of the Alabama. In short, assuming that the alleged destination of these iron-clads for the Confederate service can be clearly established, the law applicable to the Alabama would be applicable also to them, and one of two things would be beyond denial – either the Alabama could not have been detained, or the detention of the steamers is justifiable. As a matter of fact, however, we know that the departure of the Alabama was certainly not regarded by any parties in the business as a lawful or unimpeachable proceeding. Those who took her to sea smuggled her out of port on a false pretence. Those who had their eyes upon her and who suspected her errand were only prevented from stopping her by accidental impediments. Had she remained twenty-four hours longer in port she would have been detained, and the dispatch of the vessel, in fact, has never been looked upon as anything but a successful evasion of the law. It concerns us all, however, that the law should not be evaded, and that is why the public has felt the species of satisfaction in the detention of these now famous steamers. Is not for us, nor for anyone, to prejudge the decision of the tribunal before which the case will come. We are only glad to find that this hearing is now secure, and that the suspected vessels will either leave the Mersey with clean bills of lading or not leave at all. We should like to see our shipbuilders standing boldly and openly upon their claims as neutral traders. The trade in question is either right or wrong. If right, there is no reason why government should trouble itself with “anxious inquiries.” If wrong, what is really unlawful should not be left practicable by evasion. As to the expediency or inexpediency of the law as it stands, that is another question altogether. We are now concerned only with what is, not with what ought to be. In due time we shall learn what is the case for the prosecution, and what the case for the defendants. Whether the suspicions which have prevailed in the matter are reasonably entertained, or whether, even in such case, the venture is actually an unlawful venture, are questions to be decided hereafter without prejudice or bias. In the interval we know only this, that certain vessels suspected of a destination like that of the Alabama will not be allowed to slip out as the Alabama did.