Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - London and Londoners in the Eighteen-Fifties and Sixties, by Alfred Rosling Bennett, 1924 - Chapter 28 - 1861 (continued) - Federals and Confederates - Perilous Moments

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American Civil War - Nashville at Southampton -Trent affair - Commodore Wilkes - Great Eastern for Canada - Army Medical Board - Record railway run - War pictures - Monitor - Ericsson - Blockade runners - Midhat Pasha - Fredericksburg.

THE American Civil War broke out early in 1861, and the figures of Lincoln, Jefferson Davis, Lee, Beauregard, Stonewall Jackson, Wilkes, McLellan and Grant began to defile across the scene; Fort Sumter, Harper's Ferry, Richmond, Mobile, Charleston, New Orleans, Virginia and Maryland became commonplace words, and the Confederate hymn The Bonnie Blue Flag floated on the London air from numberless barrel-organs. Without understanding much of the merits of the quarrel, my sympathies, nearly always with the under-dog, instinctively went out to the South. Americans nowadays are prone to blame us, the countrymen of Wilberforce, who were still, entirely at their own expense, chasing and capturing slavers (some flying the stars and stripes amongst them) and liberating captives, for siding with slavery against the enlightened North, but they forget that, as a distinguished authority has said, "the war was not ostensibly begun for extinction of slavery but for maintenance of the Union, and even Lincoln failed to declare himself at the outset an abolitionist."
    Then Gladstone, certainly no friend of slavery, got himself fathoms deep in hot water (the American Minister threatened to demand his passports), by saying publicly that "Jefferson Davis has made an army, a navy and a nation: the reunion of North and South has become impossible."
    [-225-] All of which facts ill-instructed Radicals of to-day forget or ignore when they are out to deplore the imaginary British advocacy of slavery. They have waited but not seen.
As American jurists have admitted, the Southern States had a right to secede under the United States constitution; but it was not convenient to allow them to do so, and they were restrained from exercising that right by main force for which, more or less as an after-thought, or at least a-s a development brought about by events, slavery was put forward as justification.
    And Americans of to-day forget how obnoxious the Federals made themselves to England m the early days of the War and the many insults they levelled at us. And perhaps some Englishmen remembered how unfriendly they had been during the Crimean War, and the popularity enjoyed by the New York couplet:
        "John Bull pretends the waves to rule,
            But why don't he take Sebastopool?"
which was ungracious as well as ungrammatical. And American memories overlook the fact that, only a few years before, hot-blooded champions of the equality of man wanted to go to war because we would not give up runaway slaves who took refuge in Canada. Nevertheless, it must be admitted that many sincere and active advocates of negro freedom existed in the North who never ceased to make their voices heard. Mrs. Beecher Stowe was one of them, and her famous novel Uncle Tom's Cabin, bad long been a potent factor in the fight. Longfellow, too, had testified in the same good cause. Still, they were not the United States Government, to which such enthusiasts were at first an embarrassment rather than an aid. With a voting power enormously in excess of that of the South the North had never given a mandate, by the election of a President or otherwise, for slavery abolition. The most that could be said was that events were trending that way.
    Then there was an attractive dash and picturesqueness and, at all events seeming, chivalry about the Confederate leaders that appeared lacking in the Northerners. They had nobody to parallel the Federal General Butler, who was [-226-] accused of flogging women at New Orleans and never satisfactorily exonerated.
    Was it surprising, therefore, that when, at the first engagement at Bull Run, the Federal Army stampeded, there were souls in England that did not bleed for the American Eagle?
    In November, 1861, a Confederate privateer, the paddle-wheel steamer Nashville, docked at Southampton and was followed into port by a Federal man-of-war called, if I recollect a-right, Tuscacora, or something to that effect The crews met and fought on shore and got run in by the local police for breach of the peace. After a time the British Government ordered Nashville to clear out, but kept the Yankee back for twenty-four hours. So the Confederate got clear away, but later in the war was caught up a river by the Federals and burned. One of the papers had a double-page illustration showing the enemy ships cruising in the Solent with H.M.S. Shannon in between keeping them from mutual assault and battery. Not the first time in history that a Shannon had restrained American naval ardour.
    But while this drama was enacting a much graver marine incident, news of which was retarded by lack of the Atlantic telegraph, was happening in the West Indies.
    Messrs. Slidell and Mason, appointed by the Confederate Government as their representatives at London and Paris, took passage at Jamaica on the Royal Mail Steamer Trent. A Federal man-of-war, the San Jacinto, way-laid this vessel on the high seas near Cuba on November 8th, fired shots across her bows, sent armed marines on board, and forcibly took the Confederate deputies from under the British flag.
    Commodore Wilkes, commander of the San Jacinto, was supposed to have been prompted, at least partly, by vindictiveness, as he was known to nourish a grudge against the British for an offence they had unwittingly given him. Wilkes had been leader of an American exploring expedition to the South Seas some twenty years before, and in a book he wrote about it he claimed to have discovered new land, supposed to be part of an Antarctic Continent. An account of the classic expedition of Ross and Crozier in the Erebus [-227-] and Terror was afterwards published, in which, when dcscribing his return voyage, Ross gave his ships' track as crossing the position assigned to Wilkes's Land. This attracted attention at Washington, and Wilkes was suspected of fooling Uncle Sam with a pretended discovery. Ultimately he was court-inartialled and at the request of the United States Government a British officer attended with a copy of Captain Ross's log.* (* Extract from Captain Ross's log, 1841: "At noon our observations placed us in lat. 64 51' S, 164 45' E., dip 83  30'. We were therefore very nearly in the centre of the mountainous patch of land laid down in Lieut. Wilkes's chart as forming a part of the Antarctic Continent.)
     The Commodore was acquitted of intentional deceit, it being considered probable that he had been misled by fog and towering icebergs; but Wilkes's Land had to come off the chart.
    And Ross had remarked rather caustically on the fact that Wilkes had pushed his explorations in the Antarctic on the very route that the British expedition had announced they were to follow. Said he, "I should have expected that national pride would have caused the choice of any other path in the wide-open field than one thus pointed out, if no higher consideration had power to prevent such an interference." Such candour had not pleased the American Commodore-he seemed to suspect there was something personal about it-and had had his bowie-knife in John Bull ever since. A naval George Francis Train.
    The news of the Trent outrage created a great sensation. Lord Palmerston at once sent a demand for the release of the envoys and an apology to the flag. There was no cable and before the ultimatum reached Washington matters had become complicated by Congress passing a vote of thanks to the gallant Commodore for his patriotic conduct, a proceeding fervently acclaimed by the American Press. Palmerston, who knew the importance of being in earnest, did not wait for developments but despatched the Great Eastern with Guards, Rifle Brigade, and Royal Artillery, and a full cargo of war material, to Canada, although it was the middle of a rather severe winter. Never had the Guards found their bear-skins so comfortable.
    [-228-] An echo of this episode which showed that Palmerston was really serious came to me so late as 1917, when a friend related how his father, chief of a surgical appliance firm, had been sent for in haste and a contract for a million surgical dressings offered him at his own price, celerity being the one essential. Promptitude being of such importance, he pointed out that by adopting a more modern form of pin a simple alteration whereby much time would be saved would become feasible without any harm to efficiency; but the soul of the Army Medical Board was hugely vexed at the suggestion, and he was peremptorily told to manufacture to sample - which dated from the Peninsular War or beyond - or not at all.
    Had a less able and level-headed man than Lincoln been at the helm of American affairs, war would in all probability have followed, but that wise ruler was not going to give the Confederates such an ally as Great Britain, and he made Congress climb down, eat their own words, and surrender the representatives. But not without mistrust. He knew the Americans were in the wrong, but, as he afterwards admitted, feared the effect of telling them so.
    Until the Washington decision was known, excitement reigned in England. There was only one mail a week, and it was considered likely that the boat due at Queenstown on January 1st, 1862, would carry peace or war amongst her cargo, and locomotives were kept in steam there and at Holyhead in readiness to run the Queen's messenger to London without delay. But the reply did not come until January 7th, when Mr. Ramsbottom's express engine Watt made a non-stop run from Holyhead to Stafford, 130 miles in two hours twenty-five minutes, whence the carriages were taken straight to Euston, l33 miles, by Bloomer No. 372 in two hours thirty-five minutes. Before the train had quite stopped the Queen's messenger was in a hansom and racing to the Foreign Office. Peace!
    The illustrated journals were full of American war pictures, some of which, I'm afraid, did not come from farther afield than Fleet Street; but still they conveyed a general idea of the scrimmage. The fight between Monitor and Merri-[-229-]mac in 1864 mystified pictorial artists a good deal. The ships were of novel and distinctive types, Monitor being a new vessel, with very low free-board--she was afterwards lost in a storm-and one high gun mounted in a central revolving turret, designed by that erratic genius, the Swedish engineer, Ericsson, already mentioned in connection with fire and railway engines and hot-air ships; Merrimac, a wooden three-decker of 4,000 tons and 60 guns built in 1856, in which year she paid a visit to Southampton, had been captured from the Federals, cut down and protected by slanting railway iron, from which shot was expected to glance harmlessly. Merrimac, which had already done much damage, one day came into Hampton Roads and with great gusto and success proceeded to sink the Yankee squadron of wooden ships anchored there, when Monitor hove in sight. A battle royal - I mean republican - ensued, of which Merrimac got the worse and fled. Great was the glory of Monitor and its designer, and sooner or later her distinguishing feature, the revolving turret, was imitated by all Christendom. But no illustrations of these mystery ships had come to England, so the artists had to interpret the word pictures of the scribes as best they could. The results were sometimes comical. But the public wanted Monitors and Merrimacs, and duly got them.
    Ericsson, whose acquaintance we first made in the Marylebone Road, was very eccentric. He was said to have slept on his drawing-table. He was concerned in designing locomotives in the very early days, but in his old age he took offence at railway whistles being sounded close to his house near New York and expended much energy in trying to get them stopped. He claimed to be the inventor of the screw-propeller. He had truly worked at the problem early, but an Englishman, Smith,* (*Francis Pettit Smith, of Hythe, Kent, son of the local postmaster, made a first working model of a screw propeller boat in 1834, a second in 1835, and took out a patent in 1836. The following year the first actual screw-steamer, of 10 tons and 6 horse-power, was tried on the canal at Paddington. It was afterwards transferred to the Thames. and made a voyage to Dover, where it was inspected and proved on behalf of the Admiralty. As a consequence Archimedes, 237 tons, 90 horse-power, was [-230-] launched at Millwall in 1838. The five miles an hour stipulated for was doubled. In 1841 the Admiralty built Bee at Chatham, which, in order to test the two methods of propulsion in the same hull, was fitted with both screw and paddles. It is usual to say that the Great Eastern was the only steamer so provided, but such claimants reckon without their Bee. In 1844 Rattler, 800 tons, was built at Sheerness. Being tied stern to stern with the Alecto, paddle-wheel vessel of equal tonnage, she towed her backwards in spite of her best efforts. This drastic test established the screw propeller. Smith, however, had become impoverished and was granted a pension of 200 per annum.) had unquestionably [-230-] anticipated him, and, as he employed paddles for his Caloric in 1853, his pretensions were not unnaturally regarded as "hot air."
    The blockade of Charleston by the Federal fleet attracted much attention in this country because the great majority, if not all, of the steamers evading it were British. A cargo of necessaries for the Confederates successfully run brought much profit, and two or three such trips meant a modest fortune notwithstanding the liberal wages and bonuses paid to the officers and crews in consideration of the risk they ran. In 1891 it fell to my lot to lease in Portland Street, Manchester, a big building which had been erected out of the proceeds of a lucky run into Charleston.
    Laird & Co., Birkenhead, built with great rapidity a small fleet of swift paddle-steamers of light scantling for venturesome trading spirits-real merchant adventurers these-a good many of which vessels survived the war although not a few were captured or sunk. In Mesopotamia, in 1870-1, I made the acquaintance of one of these blockade.. runners which had been bought and renamed Assour by the Turks. Her original name I unfortunately forget. That enlightened and energetic Ottoman, Midhat Pasha, afterwards imprisoned, exiled, and, it is said, ultimately murdered for suspected participation in the death of Sultan Abdui Aziz, was then at Bagdad as Governor of Irak. He had a reformative and progressive bee buzzing under his fez which made its presence felt in several ways, one of which was steamers-here, there, and everywhere. He established a line of Turkish river-boats between Bagdad and Busra, in opposition to the old-time English line of Lynch & Co.; he ran a weekly trip between Busra and Bushire in Persia (this [-231-] was the Assour's turn); and bought several screw..Steainers for trading down the Persian Gulf. The old blockade- runner had a bad time coming round from ConstantinOple under the command of a Greek whose only previous maritime experience had been gained as captain of a dredger on the Suez Canal. Neptune kicked a-t this affront to his dignity, and Assour only got to Busra by burning her paddle-boxes, bulwarks, and part of the deck.
    Recollections of the early 1860s crowded on rue in 1898 when, making a tour in the United States, an American engineer who had fought in the Civil War took me to Fredericksburg, the scene of one of its fiercest battles. He showed me a position he had held all the day with the battery under his command. He said that he bad sent his wounded to a house close by, which he indicated, and during a pause paid them a visit. He found the Lower floors covered with injured men with only a negro, a white woman and several little girls in attendance. Suddenly the Confederates, who had hitherto let the house alone, began to drop shells all round it. Bang! bang! bang! they went, and some earth was thrown violently against the windows. The woman let fall the pan she was using and began to scream, while the children clung round her and howled in various soprano keys. Every bang was echoed by a volley of shrieks. Vainly my friend tried to calm them. "There is no danger," he cried; "the enemy won't waste shells on this house; dear madam, go on helping the poor wounded - I assure you there is no danger!" At that moment there was a terrific explosion overhead; the ceiling caved in and in an instant he, the woman, children and nigger, as well as the wounded, were covered with white dust, as if they had been suddenly rolled in flour by some energetic demon much pressed for time. A shell had burst in the roof, pulverised the plaster, and projected it over them. The woman and children screamed the louder when the magic transformation scene stood revealed, and my friend ran back to his battery, where be was at first mistaken for his own ghost.

source: Alfred Rosling Bennett, London and Londoners in the Eighteen-Fifties and Sixties, 1924