Forgotten history of Southampton in the American Civil War

Forgotten history of Southampton in the American Civil War

During the winter of 1861, Southampton became the unexpected centre of the American Civil War. After slipping through the Federal Army’s naval blockade of Charleston, the Confederate steamer Nashville had limped into the port of Southampton after sustaining damage on her Atlantic crossing.

Placed in a tidal dock, which nowadays is the marina at Ocean Village, the British Government determined that only those repairs necessary to make the Nashville seaworthy would be permissible. They hoped that she would quickly depart and that would be the end of Southampton’s involvement.

However, all hopes were dashed with the arrival of the Tuscarora, an American Federal Warship sent to protect American Federal shipping and to avenge the sinking of a Federal merchant ship, the Harvey Birch by the Nashville. She dropped anchor in the River Itchen near to the Nashville’s tidal dock, effectively trapping the Confederate ship.

Tensions rose between the two crews, with reports of spies being found around the docks, and one attempt to set the Nashville alight. It all came to ahead at The Bell, a pub in the port where a brawl quickly escalated from an exchanging of insults, to blows and the drawing of pistols. It only ceased when the landlord stepped in and tossed both crews out.

Realising that neither ship would leave, the British Government ordered that the Foreign Enlistment Act be enforced. This meant that the weaker of the two ships would be allowed to leave, followed by the other 24 hours later. For several days, the Nashville attempted to avoid this by leaving then returning to port within 24 hours, until the HMS Shannon, with all her guns out, confronted the Tuscarora, who was anchored off the Isle of Wight. The Nashville was escorted out of Southampton by a pilot vessel and left five miles from the Needles. The Tuscarora left 24 hours afterwards but did not pursue the faster Nashville. After nearly three months, Southampton returned to normal.

You can learn more about the American Civil War on our tours of the Southern Heartland and Eastern and Western Theaters. Our Southern Heartland tour spends two days in Charleston where the Nashville slipped the blockade, exploring ‘Battery’ seawall, Fort Sumter where the Civil War began, and the conservation site of H L Hunley, the first submarine to successfully sink an enemy vessel.

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Added: 11th January 2019

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