The Alabama claims were brought by the United States against Great Britain for the damage caused by several Confederate warships built in Liverpool during the Civil War, most notably the commerce raiders Alabama and Florida. The British Foreign Enlistment Act of 1819 forbade the construction and outfitting of foreign warships. The Confederates evaded the letter of this law during the early years of the war by various ruses and managed to purchase a number of cruisers. After these vessels were completed, they 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 its ships. The subsequent demands for compensation took the title of the vessel that had done the most damage-Alabama.
Most historians now believe that the raiders’ worst effect was on the U.S. Merchant Marine, which never regained its prewar standing, rather than on the actual course of the war. But at the time many Americans believed that the raiders had indeed lengthened the war.
British and U.S. diplomats worked out the Johnson-Clarendon Convention of 1869, recommending a commission to review the Alabama claims, but this proposal met overwhelming defeat in the Senate, where Charles Sumner, chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, spoke passionately against it. He maintained that the British were accountable not only for private citizens’ losses but for all the costs of the war after Gettysburg, on the grounds that the Confederates were defeated by then except for their maritime operations. He proposed a compensation of $2 billion and recommended the cession of Canada as well.
Diplomacy resumed nevertheless, and in 1871 Secretary of State Hamilton Fish negotiated the Treaty of Washington, calling again for an arbitration panel. This time the proposal was accepted on May 8. The arbitrators met in Geneva in 1871-1872. They dismissed the ‘indirect’ claims for war costs but granted the full amount of private compensation requested, $15 million.
The Reader’s Companion to American History. Eric Foner and John A. Garraty, Editors. Copyright © 1991 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.