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The Alabama Claims were a series of claims for damages by the U.S. government against the government of the United Kingdom for the assistance given to the Confederate cause during the American Civil War. After international arbitration endorsed the American position in 1872, Britain settled the matter by paying the United States $15.5 million for damages done by several warships built in Britain and sold to the Confederacy, thus ending the dispute and ensuring friendly relations.

The CSS Alabama

During the American Civil War, several warships that became Confederate commerce raiders (the most famous being the CSS Alabama) were built in the United Kingdom and did significant damage to the American merchant marine.

British political involvement

The British Prime Minister Lord Palmerston and Foreign Secretary Lord John Russell had allowed the Alabama to put to sea from the shipyards of John Laird Sons and Company in Birkenhead, despite the explicit objections of the American Legation in London and charges from the American Minister to Britain Charles Francis Adams that the ship was bound for the Confederacy. Though both the Prime Minister and Foreign Secretary were thought to favor the Confederacy at the time of Alabama's construction, this position was against British public opinion and MPs such as Richard Cobden campaigned against it. The subsequent release 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, despite the opinion of the Lord Chief Justice of England and Wales that her release did not violate neutrality.

Even so, the next year two ironclad warships under construction in Birkenhead and destined for the Confederacy were detained after their completion but before their launch. As a direct consequence of the flap over the Alabama, rather than turn the ships over to Monsieur Bravay of Paris (who had ordered their construction as intermediary for Confederate principals), Palmerston instructed the British Admiralty to tender an offer for the purchase of the ships.

The claims

The United States claimed direct and collateral damage against Britain, the so-called Alabama Claims.

In the particular case of the Alabama the United States claimed that Britain had violated neutrality by allowing the Alabama to be constructed, knowing that it would enter into service with the Confederacy.

There were other particulars as well. In the summer of 1862, the British-built warship Oreto, later renamed the CSS Florida, was delivered to Nassau in the Bahamas with the intention of its being transferred to the Confederate Navy. British Admiral George Willes Watson (1827-1897) aided the transfer, and Watson's actions were considered by the tribunal.[1]


Senator Charles Sumner, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, originally wanted to ask for $2 billion, 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 British Columbia to seek annexation to the United States and thought Britain might accept this in exchange for the Alabama claims. Soon other elements endorsed annexation, their goal was to annex British Columbia, Red River Colony (Manitoba), and Nova Scotia, in exchange for the 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 multiple reasons. London continued to stall, American commercial and financial groups pressed Washington for a quick settlement of the dispute on a cash basis, growing Canadian nationalist sentiment in British Columbia called for staying inside the British Empire, Congress became preoccupied with Reconstruction, and most Americans showed little interest in territorial expansion.[2][3]

Treaty of Washington

In 1871, President Grant's appointed Secretary of State Hamilton Fish, worked out an agreement with British representative Sir John Rose in Washington to create a commission consisting of six members from the British Empire and six members from the United States to resolve the Alabama claims, refinancing, and other international disputes between Canada and the United States by treaty.[4] 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.[5] According to 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.[6]

The tribunal

The tribunal was composed of representatives:

  • Britain: Sir Alexander Cockburn
  • United States: Charles Francis Adams with William Maxwell Evarts serving as counsel[7]
  • Italy: Federico Sclopis
  • Switzerland: Jakob Stämpfli
  • Brazil: Marcos Antônio de Araújo, 2nd Baron of Itajubá.

Negotiations had taken place in Suitland, businessman Samuel Taylor Suit's estate, and the tribunal session took place in a reception room of the Town Hall in Geneva. This is now named salle de l'Alabama.

The final award of $15,500,000 formed part of the Treaty of Washington and was paid out in 1872.


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 thus a precursor to the Hague Convention, the League of Nations, the World Court, and the United Nations.[8]

See also


  1. 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
  2. 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
  3. David E. Shi, "Seward'S Attempt to Annex British Columbia, 1865-1869," Pacific Historical Review, May 1978, Vol. 47 Issue 2, pp 217-238
  4. Smith, Jean Edward (2001). Grant. Rockefeller Center New York, New York: Simon & Schuster Paperbacks. ISBN 0-684-84927-5.pp. 510, 511.
  5. Smith (2001), 512-514
  6. Smith (2001), 512-515
  7. Evarts congressional biography mentioning case
  8. Cook (1975)


  • Adams, E. D. (1924). Great Britain and the American Civil War. New York: Russell & Russell.  (see external links)
  • Balch, T. W. (1900). The Alabama Arbitration. Philadelphia: Allen, Lane & Scott. 
  • Beaman, C. C. (1871). The National and Private Alabama Claims and their Final and Amicable Settlement. Washington: W. H. Moore. , reprinted in the Michigan Historical Reprint Series, ISBN 1-4181-2980-1
  • Bingham, T. (2005). "The Alabama Claims Arbitration". pp. 1. , reprinted in Bingham, T. (2011). Lives of the Law: Selected Essays and Speeches 2000-2010. Oxford: Oxford University Press. pp. 13–40. ISBN 978-0-19-969730-4. 
  • Bowen, C. S. C. (1868). The Alabama Claims and Arbitration Considered from a Legal Point of View. London. 
  • Cook, A. (1975). The Alabama Claims. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press. , the standard scholarly history
  • deKay, T. (2003). The Rebel Raiders: The Warship "Alabama", British Treachery and the American Civil War. London: Pimlico. ISBN 0-7126-6490-4. 

Further reading

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

External links

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