IT was a time almost 160 years ago when the people of Southampton found themselves taking centre stage in the American Civil War.

And it escalated when a bar brawl between in the two sides in the city with firearms drawn.

It ended with the Government and the navy stepping in to restore normality to the city’s docks after three months of drama and uncertainty.

The weeks before and after Christmas 1861 were interesting times for Southampton with events linked to the American Civil War between the Federalists and the Confederates brought right into the heart of the town.

It all began in April 1861 when the passenger steamer Nashville, which sailed between New York and Charleston, was in Charleston harbour when she was seized by American Confederate forces.

The vessel was then fitted out as a cruiser with two light cannon to sail under the Confederate flag.

In October 1861 the American Federal Navy blockaded Charleston but the Nashville slipped through and made her way across the Atlantic to Britain.

On board were spare officers for ships being built in England for the Confederate Navy (the Florida and the Alabama), and a Confederate purchasing agent.

She sailed into Southampton on November 21 1861 in need of repairs having been badly damaged in Atlantic storms.

When she arrived Nashville became the first ship at war to fly the Confederate flag in an English port.

Port officials then placed her in the tidal dock which today is the marina at Ocean Village.

On board were her crew of 40 officers and men and the crew of the Harvey Birch a Federal merchant ship she had just days before captured.

The Harvey Birch, which was sailing from Le Havre to New York, was then pillaged and set on fire in the Atlantic.

Captain Pegrim of the Nashville released the crew and officers of the Harvey Birch once his ship had anchored in the Itchen.

William Nelson, Captain of the Harvey Birch, immediately petitioned the Southampton Magistrates for permission to search the Nashville to recover his ship’s papers, barometer and chronometer.

This was refused.

The British Government was determined that the only repairs permissible were those that made the Nashville seaworthy.

They also ordered that no work would be undertaken to enhance her fighting ability.

It was hoped that she would then quickly depart.

But this was put on hold by the arrival on December 15 in Southampton of the newly built and heavily armed American Federal warship Tuscarora under the command of Captain Craven.

He at one time been a shipmate of the Nashville’s Captain Pegrim.

Tuscarora had been sent to protect American Federal shipping and avenge the sinking of the Harvey Birch and promptly anchored in the Itchen near the entrance to the tidal dock.

Captain Craven of the Tuscarora had ordered three armed men and an officer ashore to spy on the Nashville.

But they were discovered near the dry dock on January 10 1862 by Philip Hedger the Docks Superintendent who ordered them to leave the docks and return to their ship.

At one time an attempt was made to set the Nashville alight while on another some of her crew deserted and another was taken to the workhouse with smallpox.

But tensions between the two crews on both ships continued to grow.

It was inevitable therefore, that with both crews coming ashore that a confrontation would occur in one of Southampton’s bars.

And so it came to pass that it was in The Bell pub in the city’s in French Street on Thursday evening, January 23 that it came to a head.

Members of the two crews were drinking in the bar when a comment was made to a black member of the Tuscarora’s crew by one of the seamen from the Nashville.

A fight broke out with an exchange of blows and then the drawing of a pistol.

The landlord stepped in and cleared the bar of both parties.

As a result the British Government realised that the matter needed to be resolved quickly and peacefully.

Westiminster then sent HMS Dauntless to Southampton to sort out the confrontation.

Captains Craven and Pegrim were informed by the Admiralty Superintendent that the Foreign Enlistment Act was to be enforced.

That meant that the weaker of the two ships would be permitted to leave to be followed 24 hours later by the other.

Captain Pegrim thought that he could get around this by leaving and returning within 24 hours continually thus keeping the Nashville locked in port.

He played this cat and mouse game for several days and this was finally stopped when HMS Shannon with all guns out confronted the Tuscarora off Cowes where she was then kept at anchor.

That then allowed the Nashville to be taken out of Southampton by a pilot named Bowyer who left her five or six miles from the Needles on February 3.

The Tuscarora left the Solent 24 hours later but did not pursue the much faster but poorly armed Nashville.

Southampton heaved a sigh of relief and the town once more returned to normal.

Both ships eventually returned to America, where the Civil War continued until 1865.

  • Godfrey is a tour guide with