Friday, September 9, 2011

Alabama Claims, Economic Development, and a Possible Thesis Topic

Heather Cox Richardson

Like most other good, red-blooded Americans, I have spent much time lately thinking about the Alabama Claims.

After the Civil War, the American government demanded that the British government pay damages in reparation for the destruction caused to American shipping by warships built for the Confederacy in England. International arbiters threw their weight behind the American argument, and in 1872 Britain paid America $15.5 million to settle the cases.

A paragraph or two on the Alabama Claims shows up in every textbook on the American Civil War, and scholars always refer to them when discussing the foreign policy issues of those dramatic war years. Sometimes we even mention them when we talk about postwar trading patterns, explaining that the burning anger Northerners developed for England during the war encouraged them to look for new trading partners in the Pacific to enable the nation to sever ties with Europe.

But it came to my attention this summer that I had never seen a discussion of what ultimately happened to that $15.5 million. In the references I’ve seen, it simply stops dead when it goes to the United States.

It turns out that’s not at all the way it played out.

I had a conversation this summer with an elderly woman who mentioned that her prominent family’s financial start had come from the lump sum her seafaring great grandfather had received from the U. S. government because he had been “captured by pirates.” This didn’t quite add up, since I couldn’t figure out why the government would reimburse a sea captain for a pirate attack, and because the dates the man lived didn’t coincide with any major pirate activity on the American East Coast, where he sailed. My friend knew the name of his ship, enabling me to chase down what had happened to it. A quick search of on-line newspapers revealed that the “pirate” who had captured and plundered his ship was Rafael Semmes, captain of the C. S. S. Alabama, and the ship had been taken during the Civil War. Her great grandfather received a cut of the Alabama Claims money, and it was enough to enable him to establish a store, hotel, ice cream parlor, and bowling alley in his New England town. To this day, his heirs remain a leading family in the community.

Was it unusual that her family had received enough cash to establish them as prominent citizens in their New England town? I started to poke around a bit, and at the Yarmouth Historical Society discovered the history of Alfred Thomas Small, the master of the Lafayette. Semmes captured this ship on February 23, 1862, and held the captain and crew in chains for several days before sending them back to Boston in another of his prizes. He then burned the Lafayette to the waterline.

On June 10, 1875, Captain Small received a settlement of $6,712.91 from the Alabama Claims, along with $3,391.51 in interest since the taking of his ship, netting the captain a tidy sum of more than $10,000. It was enough to set him up as a local magnate in a thriving seaport. After thirty-five years at sea, Captain Small settled in Yarmouth, Maine, and managed the Yarmouth Manufacturing Company that generated electricity for the town. He quickly became a leading citizen.

Two stories of wealth brought into New England towns through the Alabama Claims do not a pattern make, but they are suggestive. Has anyone ever traced down what happens to reparations claims in general? How do they affect economic development? In the end, who pockets the cash, and what do they do with it? And what about the Alabama Claims in particular? Since the ships taken by Confederate raiders largely came from New England, did the Alabama Claims have a noticeable effect on postwar development in small New England towns?

Seems to me like a thesis begging to be written. Any takers?


Unknown said...

Finding out who these people were and how this macro event influenced their lives and the lives of small communities sounds like a lot of fun. And it's an interesting sort of discontinuity -- a big change brought about by a completely exogenous variable...or is this par for the course, when you're looking at the periphery?

Randall said...

Wonderful topic for someone to pursue. Also shows the leads that can pop up for historians.

Seth Rockman said...

Lindsay Schakenbach, a graduate student at Brown, is working a similar angle on the 1819 Transcontinental Treaty with Spain. The US gov't assumed $5 million in claims against Spain by US merchants. The recipients of those funds ended up being some of the leading New England families at the forefront on early republic industrialization. Schakenbach has an article on this in the September 2011 issue of New England Quarterly