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Mystery Ship Was Britain’s Lethal Gift to South: Lewis Lapham

The cover jacket of "A World on Fire: Britain's Crucial Role in the American Civil War" by Amanda Foreman. Source: Random House via Bloomberg

The USS Hatteras was blockading the port of Galveston, Texas, during the Civil War, when a mystery ship appeared.

Giving chase, the Union captain hailed the vessel and attempted to board. The ship opened fire, and, after an intense 45-minute battle, the Hatteras sank.

(To listen to the podcast, click here.)

The raider was the CSS Alabama, commissioned by Confederate agent James Dunwoody Bulloch for the fledgling navy, and built in secret by British shipwrights.

Launched on July 29, 1862, and captained by the brilliant Raphael Semmes, the Alabama quickly became the most famous ship in the world.

She was a 230-foot beauty, with 3 masts, 2 engines and 8 big guns, and she served as a raider, attacking Union ships. By the time the Alabama herself was sunk in a battle with the USS Kearsarge in 1864, she had inflicted significant damage on the Union, sinking 65 vessels with a value of $6 million.

The U.S. government filed claims against Britain for assistance given to the Confederate cause, including the Alabama, and in 1872 collected $15.5 million in damages.

I spoke with Amanda Foreman, author of “A World on Fire: Britain’s Crucial Role in the American Civil War,” on the following topics:

1. Cotton Trade vs. Slavery

2. Britain’s Canada Fears

3. Southern Propagandists

4. CSS Alabama Damage

5. Postwar Reconciliation

To buy this book in North America, click here.

(Lewis Lapham is the founder of Lapham’s Quarterly and the former editor of Harper’s magazine. He hosts “The World in Time” interview series for Bloomberg News.)

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