Grave found of man who bankrolled Confederates in American civil war

Academic uncovers lost London resting place of Charles Kuhn Prioleau, and the forgotten story of Confederate support in Britain

Maev Kennedy, Monday 10 August 2009

Tom Sebrell, an American academic, has rediscovered the lost grave of Charles Prioleau in Kensal Green cemetery, London. Photograph: Martin Godwin

The grave of a man who bankrolled the Confederate side in the American civil war, and ended up costing the British government £3.3m in compensation to the victorious north, has been tracked down in a patch of brambles in a London cemetery.

Charles Kuhn Prioleau, a cotton merchant born in Charleston, South Carolina, was based in Liverpool during the war, from 1861 to 1865. He disappeared from history in a bonfire of company records and correspondence after his firm went bankrupt, having sent supplies, funds, and blockade-busting ships to the Confederates.

But his mortal remains have now been traced to Kensal Green cemetery by a US academic who is gradually unearthing the almost forgotten story of Confederate support in England, which takes in the highest ranks of British politics and society.

Tom Sebrell, a history lecturer at University College London, led a small gang of students into the undergrowth armed with secateurs and cemetery burial records supplied by the Friends of Kensal Green. They literally fell over Prioleau’s broken headstone.

His war efforts began as an attempt to save his business when the cotton trade – crucial to the economy both of the southern states of America and the Lancashire mill owners – collapsed. Prioleau’s contribution to the Confederate cause grew to sending supplies, weapons, and ammunition to those states, and finally to buying, equipping and crewing warships.

Through agents, he acquired three of the most notorious privateers of the civil war: the CSS Alabama and the CSS Florida, built on Merseyside, and the CSS Shenandoah, built on Tyneside.

The first ship in particular, with a mainly English crew, caused such havoc that the £3.3m the British eventually paid the US government was known as "the Alabama claim".

After the war, Sebrell says Prioleau simply vanished. His company, Fraser, Trenholm and Co, went bankrupt, almost certainly to pre-empt compensation claims. He has descendants in England, Africa and the US, but none knew where he was buried. One branch thought Belgium, another somewhere called Kelsall, a name that led Sebrell and his team to Kensal Green.

Prioleau was buried there in 1887 among grand neighbours, including: the engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel; Lady Byron, the poet’s wife; the novelist Anthony Trollope; and WH Smith of newsagents fame.

But while some of their monuments are mini-cathedrals in grandeur, Prioleau’s, beside the Liverpool in-laws who moved to London with him, is comparatively modest. It certainly fails to match the millionaire style of his surviving home in Liverpool, now owned by the university. Also traced by Sebrell, the house features portraits of Prioleau and his wife, Mary, as well as elaborate Confederate decoration in all the main rooms.

"This is a part of the cemetery’s history that even we didn’t know," Barry Smith, a trustee of the Friends, said. "It’s fascinating to have another name to add to the already multi-layered history of this place."

Sebrell believes there is a rich tourism dividend in uncovering this lost history: already, he has invitations to lead guided tours of groups from Virginia and Carolina, and Liverpool is planning a Confederate history trail in 2011 to mark the 150th anniversary of the outbreak of the war.

© Guardian News and Media Limited 2009

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