Seminar: ‘The Loss of HMS Captain: The Civil War Origins of the Victorian’s Navy’s Greatest Tragedy’.

January 2022

The event takes place in Great Scotland Yard, Whitehall (London) on Saturday, 22 January (2022); at the Civil Service Club.

From the Trent Affair of 1861 to the Alabama Claims of 1871, the United States posed a powerful new threat to the British Royal Navy both during and after the Civil War. Dr Howard Fuller looks into how the Civil War led to the tragic loss of 500 British lives.


In 1869 Hugh Childers, the First Lord of the Admiralty, described HMS Captain as the ‘crack turret ship’ of the British fleet, just before he saw his son Leonard (‘Lennie’) transferred over to the experimental ironclad.  With her controversially low-freeboard, the Captain was to finally embody all of the salient features of American Civil War monitors, floating the heaviest possible guns behind the best possible armour protection scheme, yet combined with the speed and strategic range of lofty broadside-armed cruisers like HMS Warrior.  The Captain could go anywhere and sink anything.

But when the vessel capsized in a gale off Cape Finisterre, Spain  on 7 September 1870, taking down Lennie, the ship’s nominal designer Captain Cowper Phipps Coles, and close to 500 others, people could only wonder how such a thing could have happened. Historians ever since have likewise questioned how the mid-Victorian Royal Navy could build such a manifestly unstable ship; too low in the water and top-heavy with sails.  Both Coles and the ‘public’ have been blamed for the disaster.

Yet previous studies have neglected the vital role of the American Civil War in both pressuring the Admiralty to maintain British naval supremacy at all costs, and to do so by producing an apex ironclad armed with turrets.  From the Trent Affair of 1861 to the Alabama Claims of 1871, the United States posed a unique threat to British global interests and imperial prestige.  Just as the original USS Monitor was built to check the Warrior as well as the CSS Virginia, the Captain was meant to command American waters once again if need be.

About the Speaker:

Howard Fuller completed his PhD through King’s College London, and is Reader in War Studies at the University of Wolverhampton.  He has authored three major works on mid-nineteenth century naval history: Clad in Iron: The American Civil War and the Challenge of British Naval Power (2007, reprinted 2010),  Empire, Technology and Seapower: Royal Navy Crisis in the Age of Palmerston (2013), and most recently, Turret vs. Broadside: An Anatomy of British Naval Prestige, Revolution and Disaster, 1860-1870 (2020), for Helion & Company, as part of its Wolverhampton Military Studies Series.


Tickets are £8, or £3 to attend online via Zoom.

 Thanks to the Round Table organisers, the first 20 students who enter the discount code UNIVERSITY2022 on the booking site will get their online attendance for free.


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