When American academic Thomas E. Sebrell II recently led several students through London’s historic Kensal Green cemetery—armed with clippers, shears and historical records—the underbrush and thorns they slogged through tore both clothing and skin. Yet the group pressed on in pursuit of its quarry: the long-lost grave of Confederate bankroller Charles Kuhn Prioleau.
Suddenly a student cried out, “I got him.”
With that, a more than century-old mystery was solved.
Born in Charleston, S.C., Prioleau was a wealthy cotton merchant who migrated across the Atlantic to Liverpool when the war began in 1861. During the war he sent supplies and weapons to the South and financed the purchase of warships—including the privateers CSS Alabama, CSS Florida and CSS Shenandoah.
A wanted man when the war ended, Prioleau spent the rest of his life exiled in England. His business, Fraser, Trenholm & Co., went bankrupt. After he died in 1887, his grave—and his story—were lost to history.
“The reason he’s been forgotten is that Civil War historians and enthusiasts, for the longest time, focused on the military side of things,” says Sebrell, a Virginia native who lectures in history at Queen Mary, University of London. “Even when we did start covering things like Confederate shipbuilding in Liverpool, we didn’t talk about the personalities. Prioleau provided all the funding for that.”
Sebrell has worked hard to right the record. One account he read indicated Prioleau might be buried somewhere called Kelsall, but Sebrell couldn’t place that name during his initial searches. Even-tually he determined “Kelsall” might refer to Kensal Green, where 19th-century notables such as novelist Anthony Trollope and Lady Byron (the poet’s wife) are buried.
Sebrell learned from the cemetery’s office that someone named Prioleau was indeed buried there. A map he was given provided only a general indication of where the grave might be, and it didn’t help that parts of the cemetery had become completely overgrown. His students practically stumbled over Prioleau’s modest grave during their search.
Sebrell notes that Prioleau’s former home in Liverpool has been preserved, with intricate moldings and paintings rife with Southern American symbolism, including the St. Andrew’s cross, the yellow jasmine and the palmetto tree.
The Prioleau family was torn apart by the Civil War, Sebrell says, with one faction developing in England and Belgium (where Prioleau’s wife is buried) and another remaining in South Carolina. Sebrell’s discovery, however, has apparently gotten various Prioleau descendants talking to each other. “It’s brought a family back together,” he said.