Alabama Claims


The claims are significant in international law for furthering the use of arbitration to settle disputes peacefully and for delineating certain responsibilities of neutrals toward belligerents.


The dispute centered on the Confederate cruiser Alabama, built in England and used against the Union as a commerce destroyer, which captured, sank, or burned 68 ships in 22 months before being sunk by the USS Kearsarge off Cherbourg, Fr.


In the midst of pretentious U.S. threats of annexing Canada, Anglo-American misunderstanding was exacerbated after the end of the Civil War by unsettled disputes over Canadian fisheries and the northwestern boundary. A proposed settlement in the Johnson-Clarendon Convention was angrily rejected by the United States.


To avoid further deterioration of Anglo-American relations, a joint high commission was set up, and on May 8, 1871, the parties signed the Treaty of Washington, which, by establishing four separate arbitrations, afforded the most ambitious arbitral undertaking the world had experienced up to that time.


Disguised as merchant vessels during their construction in order to get around 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 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 British 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.


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.