Alabama Claims

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The Alabama Claims were a series of demands for damages, sought by the United States government from the British government in 1869, for the attacks upon American merchant ships by the CSS Alabama and similar warships, built secretly in Britain and sold to the Confederate States Navy during the American Civil War.

After international arbitration endorsed the United States position in 1872, Britain settled the matter by paying the United States $15.5 million. It ended the dispute and restored friendly relations through an 1872 treaty with the US. That international arbitration established a precedent, and the case aroused interest in codifying public international law.

Painting of the CSS Alabama

The CSS Alabama

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During the American Civil War, several ships, easily converted to warships, were built in private shipyards in Britain and sold to the Confederacy. The U.S. embassy had strongly complained at the time but the efforts of the British government to stop the sales failed. Armed outside Britain, the ships became commerce raiders (the most famous being the CSS Alabama) and did significant damage to the American merchant marine fleet. Fear of the raiders virtually drove the US merchant fleet off the sea to the extent that it never regained its pre-war dominance.

British political involvement

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The British Prime Minister Lord Palmerston and Foreign Secretary Lord John Russell did not stop the Alabama from putting to sea from the shipyards of John Laird Sons and Company in Birkenhead. The United States Legation in London had explicitly opposed this, and the American Minister to Britain, Charles Francis Adams, charged that the ship was bound for the Confederacy, where it would be used against the United States.

Though both the Prime Minister and Foreign Secretary were thought to favor the Confederacy at the time of Alabama's construction, British public opinion was divided on the issue, and MPs such as Richard Cobden campaigned against it. The subsequent departure of the Alabama proved to be publicly embarrassing, and Palmerston and Russell were later forced to admit that the ship should not have been allowed to depart. The Government had requested advice from the Lord Chief Justice of England and Wales, who ruled that her release did not violate Britain's neutrality, because they were not outfitted with guns at the time that they left British ports.[1]

In the next year, Britain detained two ironclad warships constructed in Birkenhead and destined for the Confederacy. As a result of the uproar over the Alabama, Palmerston instructed the British Admiralty to tender an offer for the purchase of the ships. They had been bought by a go-between, Monsieur Bravay of Paris (who had ordered their construction as intermediary for Confederate principals).

The claims

In what was called the Alabama Claims, in 1869 the United States claimed direct and collateral damage against Great Britain. In the particular case of the "Alabama", the United States claimed that Britain had violated neutrality by allowing five warships to be constructed, especially the "Alabama", knowing that it would eventually enter into naval service with the Confederacy.

Other particulars included the following: In the summer of 1862, the British-built steam warship "Oreto", later renamed the "C.S.S. Florida", was delivered to Nassau in the Bahamas with the secret understanding that it would be later transferred to the Confederate States Navy. British Royal Navy Admiral George Willes Watson (1827-1897) aided the transfer, and Watson's actions were reviewed by the tribunal.[2]

Other warships included the "C.S.S. Shenandoah" and two others.


Senator Charles Sumner, of Massachusetts, the chairman of the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee, originally wanted to ask for $2 billion in damages, or alternatively, the ceding of Canada to the United States. When American Secretary of State William H. Seward negotiated the Alaska Purchase in 1867, he intended it as the first step in a comprehensive plan to gain control of the entire northwest Pacific Coast. Seward was a firm believer in "Manifest Destiny", primarily for its commercial advantages to the United States. Seward expected the West Coast Province of British Columbia to seek annexation to the United States and thought Britain might accept this in exchange for the Alabama claims. Soon other U.S. politicians endorsed annexation, with the goal of annexing British Columbia, the central Canadian Red River Colony (later Manitoba), and eastern Nova Scotia, in exchange for dropping the damage claims.

The idea reached a peak in the spring and summer of 1870, with American expansionists, Canadian separatists, and British anti-imperialists seemingly combining forces. The plan was dropped for several reasons. London continued to stall, American commercial and financial groups pressed Washington for a quick settlement of the dispute in cash, nationalist sentiment in British Columbia favored fealty to the British Empire, Congress became preoccupied with Reconstruction, and most Americans showed little interest in territorial expansion after the long years, expenses and losses of the Civil War.[3][4]

Treaty of Washington

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In 1871, Hamilton Fish, President Ulysses S. Grant's Secretary of State, worked out an agreement with British representative Sir John Rose to create a commission in Washington comprising six members from the British Empire and six members from the United States. Its assignment was to resolve the Alabama claims, refinancing, and other international disputes between Canada and the United States by treaty.[5] On March 8, 1871 the Treaty of Washington was signed at the State Department and the U.S. Senate ratified the treaty on May 24, 1871.[6] In accord with the treaty, an international arbitration tribunal met in Geneva. The treaty included the settlement process for the Alabama Claims, settled disputed Atlantic fisheries and the San Juan Boundary (concerning the Oregon boundary line). Britain and the United States became perpetual allies after the treaty, with Britain having expressed regret over the Alabama damages.[7]

The tribunal

The tribunal was composed of representatives:

Negotiations had taken place in Suitland, Maryland, at the estate of businessman Samuel Taylor Suit. The tribunal session was held in a reception room of the Town Hall in Geneva, Switzerland. This has been named salle de l'Alabama.

The final award of $15,500,000 formed part of the Treaty of Washington and was paid out by Great Britain in 1872. This was balanced against damages of $1,929,819 paid by the United States to Great Britain for illegal Union blockade practices and ceded fishing privileges.[9]


This established the principle of international arbitration, and launched a movement to codify public international law with hopes for finding peaceful solutions to international disputes. The arbitration of the Alabama claims was a precursor to the Hague Convention, the League of Nations, the World Court, and the United Nations.[10]

See also


  1. Hansard. The Foreign Enlistment Act- Question, 27 March 1863.
  2. Kenneth M.. Startup, "'This Small Act of Courtesy:' Admiral Sir George Willes Watson, Trouble, Trials, and Turmoil in Bahama Waters," Journal of the Bahamas Historical Society, Oct 2009, Vol. 31, pp 57-62
  3. Doris W. Dashew, "The Story of an Illusion: The Plan to Trade Alabama Claims for Canada," Civil War History, Dec 1969, Vol. 15 Issue 4, pp 332-348
  4. David E. Shi, "Seward'S Attempt to Annex British Columbia, 1865-1869," Pacific Historical Review, May 1978, Vol. 47 Issue 2, pp 217-238
  5. Smith, Jean Edward (2001). Grant. New York: Simon & Schuster Paperbacks. ISBN 0-684-84927-5. pp. 510, 511.
  6. Smith (2001), 512-514
  7. Smith (2001), 512-515
  8. Evarts congressional biography mentioning case
  9. Thomas A. Bailey, A Diplomatic History of the American People, NY (1958), 6th ed., pp. 388-389.
  10. Cook (1975)


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Further reading

  • "The United States," The Times, 23 September 1873, 8d.

External links