The building in British ports of Confederate war vessels like the Alabama and the subsequent controversy and arbitration in relation thereto have been exhaustively studied and discussed from every aspect of legal responsibility, diplomatic relations, and principles of international law. There is no need and no purpose here to review in detail these matters. The purpose is, rather, to consider the development and effect at the time of their occurrence of the principal incidents related to Southern ship-building in British yards. The intention of the British Government is of greater importance in this study than the correctness of its action.

Yet it must first be understood that the whole question of a belligerent's right to procure ships of war or to build them in the ports of neutral nations was, in 1860, still lacking definite application in international law. There were general principles already established that the neutral must not do, nor permit its subjects to do, anything directly in aid of belligerents. The British Foreign Enlistment Act, notification of which had been given in May, 1861, forbade subjects to "be concerned in the equipping, furnishing, fitting out, or arming, of any ship or vessel, with intent or in order that such ship or vessel shall be employed in the service ..." of a belligerent, and provided for punishment of individuals and forfeiture of vessels if this prohibition were disobeyed. But the Act also declared that such punishment, or seizure, would follow on due proof of the offence. Here was the weak point of the Act, for in effect if secrecy were maintained by offenders the proof was available only after the offence had been committed and one of the belligerents injured by the violation of the law. Over twenty years earlier the American Government, seeking to prevent its subjects from committing unneutral acts in connection with the Canadian rebellion of 1837, had realized the weakness of its neutrality laws as they then stood, and by a new law of March 10, 1838, hastily passed and therefore limited to two years' duration, in the expectation of a more perfect law, but intended as a clearer exposition of neutral duty, had given federal officials power to act and seize on suspicion, leaving the proof of guilt or innocence to be determined later. But the British interpretation of her own neutrality laws was that proof was required in advance of seizure - an interpretation wholly in line with the basic principle that a man was innocent until proved guilty, but fatal to that preservation of strict neutrality which Great Britain had so promptly asserted at the beginning of the Civil War[966].

The South wholly lacking a navy or the means to create one, early conceived the idea of using neutral ports for the construction of war vessels. Advice secured from able British lawyers was to the effect that if care were taken to observe the strict letter of the Foreign Enlistment Act, by avoiding warlike equipment, a ship, even though her construction were such as to indicate that she was destined to become a ship of war, might be built by private parties in British yards. The three main points requiring careful observance by the South were concealment of government ownership and destination, no war equipment and no enlistment of crew in British waters.

The principal agent selected by the South to operate on these lines was Captain J.D. Bullock, who asserts in his book descriptive of his work that he never violated British neutrality law and that prevailing legal opinion in England supported him in this view[967]. In March, 1862, the steamer Oreto cleared from Liverpool with a declared destination of "Palermo, the Mediterranean, and Jamaica." She was not heard of until three months later when she was reported to be at Nassau completing her equipment as a Southern war vessel. In June, Adams notified Russell "that a new and still more powerful war-steamer was nearly ready for departure from the port of Liverpool on the same errand[968]." He protested that such ships violated the neutrality of Great Britain and demanded their stoppage and seizure. From June 23 to July 28, when this second ship, "No. 290" (later christened the Alabama) left Liverpool, Adams and the United States consul at Liverpool, Dudley, were busy in securing evidence and in renewing protests to the Government. To each protest Russell replied in but a few lines that the matter had been referred to the proper departments, and it was not until July 26, when there was received from Adams an opinion by an eminent Queen's Counsel, Collier, that the affidavits submitted were conclusive against the "290," that Russell appears to have been seriously concerned. On July 28, the law officers of the Crown were asked for an immediate opinion, and on the thirty-first telegrams were sent to Liverpool and to other ports to stop and further examine the vessel. But the "290" was well away and outside of British waters[969].