Sunday, December 23, 2012

Charles K. Prioleau


For some inexplicable reason, Charles Kuhn Prioleau was until quite recently, one of the lesser known figures of the American Civil War. Now however, thanks to research by dedicated historians, the full extent of Prioleau's importance is finally being recognised. Born on 15 April 1827 in Charleston, SC, he is best remembered as a Senior Partner of Fraser, Trenholm & Co., Liverpool, England. Known to all as the 'Friend of the Confederacy', Charles was one of the main financiers of Confederate blockade-runners during the Civil War.

The fourth of five children of a prominent Charleston, SC, Judge, Charles Kuhn Prioleau was described as "the best looking of the family - had a round face, good complexion, good blue eyes, and he grew to be of medium height..." He served with distinction with the US Army in the Mexican War and in 1854 aged 27, moved to Liverpool, England as Managing Partner of the shipping and trading company Fraser, Trenholm. He was naturalized in England in 1863 at the start of the Civil War. As a Fraser, Trenholm, partner, he was entitled to 5% of profits and ran a profitable trading business, importing cotton and exporting English goods to the Southern states.

During the Civil War conflict, Prioleau served as unofficial banker to the Confederate States Government in England. The Confederacy deposited funds with his company and the firm financed the purchase of ships, arms, ammunition and other goods for the Southern war effort. Working with Confederate Navy purchasing agents, the firm also helped acquire and outfit some sixty five ships which were subsequently engaged in blockade running and disrupting Northern shipping.

Early in the War, he took an option on ten, large steel-hulled East Indiamen available for the bargain price of two million pounds sterling in London. His proposal to Gen. Beauregard, the Charleston Area Commander, and the Confederate government in Richmond, VA, to use these to blockade Boston and therefore possibly win the War was never accepted.

In Liverpool, he married the acknowledged 'Belle of Liverpool', Mary Elizabeth Wright. They moved into a baronial mansion outside Liverpool called Allerton Hall. Later however, in early 1862, Charles hired an architect and built a large town house at 19 Abercromby Square, incorporating many South Carolina features and decorations. This house later became the Bishop of Liverpool's Mansion and can now be viewed as part of the University of Liverpool. In 1864, he bought a large ocean-going yacht, the 'Ceres', for £5,500 and kept her berthed at the Liverpool Yacht Club.

At one point, Charles Prioleau bought a modern rifled cannon which he sent to Gen. Beauregard to be used in Charleston against Fort Sumter in the first days of the war. This rifled cannon, the Galena Blakely, was bought from George Forrester & Co in Vauxhall and shipped to Charleston. It was first used in action on 12 Apr 1861 to fire on Fort Sumter.

In 1866, he represented Charleston's St. Michael's Episcopal Church in Liverpool by having the eight old church bells re-cast and shipped from Liverpool to Charleston. They had been sent to Columbia to avoid the shelling of Charleston but had been melted by the heat from the Sherman’s burning of Columbia. The bells arrived in Charleston in Feb 1867, were hung in the steeple and are used to this day.

On 18 Oct 1864, the Prioleaus' organized 'The Grand Southern Bazaar' in Liverpool's St. George Hall. Most of the Liverpool gentry, sympathetic to the South attended - and the event raised £22,000 for the Confederate wounded over the five days of the event.

After the war was lost, Fraser, Trenholm was owed 170,000 pounds by the defunct Confederacy and had to declare bankruptcy in May 1867. Following this, Charles Prioleau was involved in several litigations both as a plaintiff and defendant.

Around 1870, Prioleau moved from Liverpool to 47 Queen's Gate Gardens, Kensington, London, and formed Prioleau & Co., a banking house. Later, he moved his family to Bruges, Belgium, where Charles conducted a banking business. Sadly his health deteriorated and he was forced to return to London where, on 3 August 1887 at the age of 60 he died at Brown's Hotel, London. Charles was buried in August 1887 in Kensal Green Cemetery, London, England.  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, was largely forgotten until rediscovered in a patch of brambles in the mid 1980's.

His wife Mary moved to Biarritz in France, where she lived until her death. Two of his sons were officers in the British Army. Over 600 of his letters, telegrams, photographs, and papers dating from 1860 to 1877 are archived at the Liverpool Merseyside Maritime  Museum. These are available on microfiche from Adam Mathews Publications, Marlborough, Wiltshire, England.

Charles Kuhn PRIOLEAU and Mary Elizabeth WRIGHT were married on 3 May 1860 in Walton-on-the-Hill Church, near Liverpool, England. Mary Elizabeth WRIGHT, daughter of Mr. and Mrs. Richard WRIGHT, was born in 1840 in New Brunswick. She died in 1897 at the age of 57 in Sainte Croix, Bayonne. She was buried in France. Before marriage, she lived with her parents at 'Elleslie', Breeze Hill, Liverpool, and was the acknowledged "Belle of Liverpool". Later, she and Charles lived at the baronial Allerton Hall in Liverpool and the house they built at 19 Abercromby Square in Liverpool. During the Civil war, she organized "The Grand Southern Bazaar" in St. George Hall, Liverpool, which raised over £20,000 for American Southern wounded. After her husband's death, she moved to Biarritz, France.

Charles Kuhn PRIOLEAU and Mary Elizabeth WRIGHT had the following children:

Lynch Hamilton PRIOLEAU, born 1861, England; married Frances MORRIS, 1894, London, England.
Charles Arthur PRIOLEAU, born Jan 1862, Liverpool, England; married Violet BRADSHAW, 1895; died 1912, Kingston Lisle, England.
Richard PRIOLEAU, born 1865, England; married Elise GURDON.
Major Louis St. Julien PRIOLEAU, born 1869, England; married Alexina WOMBWELL.
Margaret "May" PRIOLEAU was born about 1872. She died about 1960 at the age of 88. She lived at the Hermitage, Ilminster, Somerset, England.  
George Trenholm PRIOLEAU was born about 1874.
John "Jack" PRIOLEAU was born in 1882 in England. He died during the War about 1945 at the age of 63. He was buried in Cheltenham, England. Alexina Saunders-Davies recalls him as "Uncle Jack", a favorite of hers and her mothers. He had been Motoring Correspondent of the London Times in the late 1920s. In 1922, he made an epic journey from England across France, Italy and Morocco in a Bull-Nosed Morris called "Imshi" (Arabic for "Get out of the way, fast") and wrote a book "The Adventures of Imshi". A charming and vital person, he married in his 60s and moved to Jersey in the Channel islands.
Kindly submitted by H. Frost Prioleau, Hon. Member 290 Foundation

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