By the spring of 1863, American ambassador to England Charles Francis Adams had a much bigger problem than the activities of British-built Confederate raiders on his hands: the construction of two 230-foot long ironclad rams in the Laird shipyard at Birkenhead that evidence suggested were destined for the Confederacy. At 230 feet long and 40 feet wide, with 6-7 foot iron spears at the front, rotating turret batteries, full iron plating, and a top speed of 10 knots, these ships were the Americans’ worst nightmare. Lincoln’s cabinet even considered blatantly ignoring Britain’s “neutrality” and sending a U.S. Navy squadron to destroy the rams, which had been under construction since the previous summer.
In the summer of 1862, Confederate Navy Secretary Stephen Russell Mallory sent orders to one of the Confederacy’s agents in England, James Bulloch, to go ahead with plans to have two large ironclads built for the Confederate Navy. Identified as Nos. 294 and 295, the ships were supposed to be completed by the Laird firm by March and April of 1863, respectively, and delivered to Liverpool for pickup. Bulloch had originally decided that both ships should be built in the same yard to cut cost, decrease potential Union interest in their construction, and hopefully speed up production. However, any hope of reduced Union interest disappeared quickly. Union spies, informants, and agents were everywhere, and their activities only increased, particularly in spring 1863, as the ships were nearing completion.
I walked up to the customs officer and handed her my passport, which was opened to my student visa. When she asked for my letter of intent as to why I was entering the UK, I turned red. That letter was buried at the bottom of my extremely heavy carry-on. As I dug it out, I feared that she was probably thinking ‘what a dumb American.’ I managed to produce my papers and the questions began. “Where are you working?” she asked. “The American Museum in Britain,” I replied. “Where’s that?” she asked, sounding more than confused. “Bath,” I replied. “Well, who knew?” Really though, who knew that there is an American museum anywhere outside of, well, America? As an American studying for the semester in Bath, the city of all things Jane Austen, why did I choose to spend part of my semester at the American Museum?
First and foremost, the American Museum in Britain has an amazing collection of early American artifacts, folk art, and period rooms that have been recreated inside the museum. These collections include a better treatment of Native Americans than I have found in the average American history museum. This year’s exhibit in the main house also includes “Spirit Hawk Eye,” modern photographs of Native American culture by Heidi Laughton. The American Museum makes a concentrated effort to show more than just the sterilized history of the United States that has long been our national story.