During the Civil War, the Confederacy contracted with private ship builders in Liverpool England to refurbish ships for combat. The Alabama was one such ship. Although the British Foreign Enlistment Act of 1819 had forbidden the construction of foreign warships, the American Confederacy was still able to evade the letter of the law and purchase a number of cruisers from Britain. Confederate cruisers destroyed or captured more than 250 American merchant ships and caused the conversion of 700 more to foreign flags. By the end of the war, the U.S. Merchant Marine had lost half of its ships.
The Alabama Claims were brought against Great Britain by the United States for the damage caused by several Confederate warships, including the Alabama and the Florida. Recognizing that the affair might be used against Great Britain in some future conflict British Foreign Minister, the Earl of Clarendon, met with American ambassador Reverdy Johnson, and determined to submit the claims to arbitration.
When the Johnson-Clarendon Convention came before the U.S. Senate, Charles Sumner (1811–1874), chairman of the Committee on Foreign Affairs, opposed it on the ground that British encouragement of the Confederacy had been responsible for prolonging the war for two years, and that this cost should also be assessed against Britain. These "indirect claims," which Sumner did not name, were variously estimated at more than $2 billion, and Sumner implied they might be settled by the cession of Canada to the United States. The British refused to recognize the validity of the indirect claims, and the problem remained unsettled until 1871, when the Alabama claims were referred to an arbitration tribunal by the Treaty of Washington. Meeting in Geneva, the arbitrators excluded the indirect claims, but they awarded the United States $15.5 million for the losses caused by the Confederate vessels.
The Geneva Arbitration was praised by many nations for establishing a precedent for the peaceable settlement of international disputes. Most historians today believe that the raider warships' worst effect, rather than prolonging the course of the American Civil War, was on the U.S. Merchant Marine, which was not able to regain its pre-war standing for many years.
See also: Arbitration, Civil War (Economic Impact of)
Cook, Adrian. The Alabama Claims: American Politics and Anglo-American Relations, 1865–1872. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1975.
Great Historical Documents of America. New York: P.F. Collier & Son, 1910.
Hackett, Frank Warren. Reminiscences of the Geneva Tribunal of Arbitration, 1872, The Alabama Claims. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1911.
McCullough, Robert Hason. The Alabama Claims and the Origin of the American Arbitration Policy. Thesis (M.A.) University of Detroit, 1936.
ALABAMA CLAIMS. American grievances against Great Britain during and just after the Civil War clustered about this generic phrase, but they filled a broad category. Most Northerners regarded Queen Victoria's proclamation of neutrality, giving the South belligerent rights, as hasty and unfriendly. Confederate cruisers, built or armed by Britons, destroyed Northern shipping, drove insurance rates high, and forced many Northern ships under foreign flags. The Confederates raised large sums of money in Great Britain and outfitted blockade runners there.
Early in the war, Secretary of State William H. Seward instructed Minister C. F. Adams to lay the losses caused by the Alabama before the British government, with a demand for redress. In April 1863 British authorities halted the Alexandra when Adams proved it was intended for the Confederacy; in September, they detained two armored rams under construction. One other Confederate ship, the Shenandoah, clearly violated British neutrality laws, but only after refitting at Melbourne. Ultimately, the United States claimed damages totaling $19,021,000.
The United States occasionally repeated its claims but met no response until 1868. The Johnson-Clarendon Convention, signed that year, made no mention of the Alabama damages but provided for a settlement of all Anglo-American claims since 1853. Partly because of the unpopularity of the Andrew Johnson administration, the Senate overwhelmingly defeated the convention (13 April 1869). Senator Charles Sumner seized the opportunity to review the whole case against Great Britain. Not only had the Alabama and other cruisers done heavy damage, he declared, but British moral and material support for the South had doubled the war's duration. Sumner set the total U.S. bill at $2.1 billion, a demand that could be met only by the cession of Canada. Hamilton Fish, who became secretary of state in March 1869, took a saner position, announcing that Britain could satisfy the Alabama Claims with a moderate lump sum, an apology, and a revised definition of maritime international law.
The impasse between the two nations was brief. The two countries soon formed a joint commission to settle the whole nexus of disputes—Canadian fisheries, northwestern boundary, and Alabama Claims. The commission drew up the Treaty of Washington (signed 8 May 1871), which expressed British regret for the escape of the Alabama and other cruisers, established three rules of maritime neutrality, and submitted the Alabama Claims to a board of five arbitrators. On 14 September 1872 this tribunal awarded the United States $15.5 million in gold to meet its direct damages, all indirect claims having been excluded. American opinion accepted the award as adequate.
Cook, Adrian. The "Alabama" Claims. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1975.
Davis, Bancroft. Mr. Fish and the "Alabama" Claims. Manchester, N.H.: Ayer, 1977.