Alternate History, Arrant Nonsense, Art, History, Removing Statues, Revisionist History, Sculpture, statue, Waterloo, William Seward

Learning All About History by Looking at Statues. Chapter VI. It Was a Dark & Stormy Night…

Chap VI.

Our next statue, “Nydia,” was chosen because its creator was born in my hometown.

I wanted to discuss the intellectual and aesthetic question “Why is this artist’s most famous work, the most-replicated statue by an America sculptor, during the 19th century, like a chronic sinus infection?”

The answer to the question:  Drip, drip, drip.

I’ll explain the dripping in just a sec.

I am from Waterloo, NY.

If you ask people in my village, the only famous person from here is a football coach, named Coughlin.

He’s depicted in a mural, painted on the side of a bar on Main St., overlooking a vacant lot where they play quoits.  Genuine old-time residents pronounce his name like a cat hacking up a hairball.

Runner-up is a guy named Gridley, who invented an improved washboard. (No kidding.  It was curved.)

The back of the village garage, which faces a defunct grocery store, and a crumbling, unusable bridge, has a mural, showing two more local heroes:  Murray & Welles, who began the village’s Memorial Day observances in 1866.

Then one day, by chance, I found out that one of the most successful American sculptors of the 19th Century was born here.

Not only is there no statue of him in Waterloo, but in all seriousness,

I’ve never once heard his name mentioned in his birthplace.

It’s Randolph Rogers.  Born 6 July 1825.

You can see his works in parks, galleries, and the better sort of cemeteries in NYC, Hartford, Gettysburg, Cincinnati, Detroit, Richmond, Philadelphia, Washington, etc.

His “Columbus Doors,” all 20,000 pounds of them, are the main entrance to the U.S Capitol.  They’re an homage to Lorenzo Ghiberti’s Renaissance masterpiece, the “Gates of Paradise” in Florence.

Randolph Roger’s versions are 17′ tall, and depict everyday life in Columbus, Ohio, during a political convention.

 

One one door, a stylized border of venial sins surrounds panels with scenes of graft, extortion, lobbying, malfeasance, pettyfogging, etc. while the other door depicts the politicians’ torments in the afterlife.

Rogers created statues and busts of Adams, Lincoln, William Seward, General Lew Wallace (of “Ben Hur” fame), and allegorical figures like “The Genius of Connecticut” for the top of their statehouse.  (This last one was later re-named “We’re All Above Average” and then melted down for scrap during WWII.)

His Civil War monuments include the Soldiers’ National Monument at Gettysburg.

The Seward statue is in Madison Square Park, in NYC, and was the subject of a scurrilous rumor that Rogers re-purposed a leftover Lincoln body and stuck on a Seward head.  It’s simply not true.  The proportions are fine – Seward just had a small head, relative to his body and nose.

(Henry Adams wrote that he had “a head like a wise macaw.“)

 

And one of Roger’s statues has replicas in almost every big art gallery in the U.S.A.

The work is called “Nydia

It was the most popular American sculpture of the 19th Century.

Nydia is based on a character in a book called “The Last Days of Pompeii” (1834).

The author, Bulwer-Lytton, was a politican-novelist, and poet-playwright.  It-is-all-about-hyphens-with-this-guy.

The book was a huge hit.

And it’s absolutely unreadable.  I know that, because I tried.  Really.  Cannot be done.

I mean, I have an exceptionally high tolerance for tedium.  I can show you my survivor badge for “One Thousand PowerPoint Presentations” and once, I stayed awake for 3 ½ minutes of “Twilight.”  But this book – –  I lasted one page.

Here’s the beginning:

’HO, Diomed, well met!  Do you sup with Glaucus to-night?’ said a young man of small stature, who wore his tunic in those loose and effeminate folds which proved him to be a gentleman and a coxcomb.”

Doesn’t that just make you long for a dark & stormy night, so you could rub out the author before he writes anything else?

“Sup with Glaucus”??  Why no, I finally got a prescription for Amoxicillin and it cleared up that Supping Glaucus, boy, I’m glad to be done with all that Mucus and Phlegma.

But it turns out, Glaucus is not a medical condition, it is the hero.  And he and Nydia live in Pompeii.

And also a type of sea gull, I looked it up in Wikipedia.

The glaucous gull …the second largest gull in the world. which breeds in Arctic regions of the Northern Hemisphere and winters south to shores of the Holarctic.”

I remember thinking that you might want to know that, but now I don’t know why.

(Didn’t you think for sure, Glaucus was a sinus or eye infection?)

One more sentence, and you’re done.

Well, you must sup with me some evening;  I have tolerable muraenae in my reservoir, and I ask Pansa the aedile to meet you.”

Well, sure, I’d love to sup, unless some clever blacksmith has invented tines, and then we could just eat with forks, like grownups, and stop all this supping crap.

Um, aedile is a type of Roman magistrate?

And I found, with a dawning sense of horror, that muraena is a type of Mediterranean moray.

So this idiot  is bragging that his reservoir is infested with eels ?? and no doubt we’re going to be supping up jellied eels for dinner??  and why is this paired with the magistrate??  Unless it’s the politician/slimy eel thing??

 

I misplaced my notes – – this is either a still from the 1913 silent film “Last Days of Pompeii,” or a current cabinet meeting in Washington.

 

It’s a long, convoluted lava flow of melodrama — Greeks, Romans, Christians, the Cult of Isis, love potions, a witch, and eels.

Most of the characters are wiped out by the volcano, but not nearly soon enough.

Pompeii is depicted as a warped and decadent place, and yet, not fun.  If anyone tried to get a good bacchanalia going, I’m sure Bulwer-Lytton threw a wet toga over it.  His artistic conceit was clearly to deep-fry every sentence into agonized contortions, to mirror the bodies found in the ashes of Pompeii.

Better to dig up roasted Romans than to be engulfed and buried in this book – I never made it past the first page.

So anyway.

The book was a huge hit.

It was 1834.  In three years, if you’d finished the book, Victoria would begin her reign, and you’d have 63 years, seven months, and two days of additional dullness ahead of you.

In the U.S., free from monarchies and elitist literature, we were celebrating Jacksonian Democracy and getting ready for bank failures, 25% unemployment, and a 7-year long recession.

Most of this wasn’t Bulwer-Lytton’s fault, but he didn’t help.

So…some years after all that, I was in the Memorial Art Gallery in Rochester, NY and ran across a statue of “The Toothache”.

At the sufferer’s feet rests the broken capital of a Corinthian column, symbolizing an impacted wisdom tooth.

 

 

It turned out that in 1861, inspired by the book, Randolph Rogers created this depiction of Nydia.

Nydia is guiding Glaucus, the hero, and the love of her life, through the eruption and ash-storm that was engulfing Pompeii, towards the harbor.

There he would be safe, and have lots of lovely eels to eat.

Her mission accomplished, Nydia then continues on, into the Mediterranean, and dies.

I don’t remember why, unrequited love I think, but she drowns, or maybe the eels get her, but she definitely dies.

It’s all very tragic, because she didn’t drag Glaucus and Bulwer-Lytton with her.  Somebody really should have tied them all together and dropped them off a pier, attached to a Corinthian column.

I think Nydia washes up again, in the epilogue.

So, somehow, Randolph Rogers was inspired to depict Nydia, pre-drowning, but already drippy.

The statue was a huge hit.

It’s displayed in the big galleries in NYC, Washington, Boston, Chicago, Philadelphia, Portland, Providence, L.A., and a whole lot more places.

In fact, Rogers replicated it 167 times (seriously).

Rogers didn’t actually chisel all these himself, of course.  He had a workshop in Italy, where workmen cranked these out for Culture Tourists, in the days when a souvenir was a souvenir, and before snow globes were invented.

Here’s a mention in “A History of European and American Sculpture” by Chandler Rathon Post (1921):

“Randolph Rogers never found his vein.  He tried his hand with tolerable results at several kinds of sculpture, but all his many productions suffer from a blight of dullness…his portrait statues…are fairly respectable performances in stiff rhetoric.”

Well, quite likely, you think I’m all wet, and ignorant, and that Nydia is a lovely statue.  They have one in the Memorial Art Gallery, the National Art Gallery, the Met, the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, Chicago Institute of Art, I’m tripping over this thing where ever I go.

But to my uneducated, rustic eye, it looks awkward, and a bit odd.

 

Like someone you’d feel bad for, if you ran across her downtown, and probably kind of avoid, because she’s hunched and her dress is half-off, and then you’d feel terrible, when it dawned on you that she was blind, and you weren’t sure if she was trying to cross the street, or if she was aware of her wardrobe malfunction, and depending on the angle, she’s either suffering from toothache, or is listening for something, like maybe an oncoming bus, or chariot, so you’d have to go back and hesitantly ask if she would like assistance in crossing the street, and she says, no, thank you, I’m actually listening for a volcanic eruption.

And until Mount Vesuvius actually blows, you’d think she was delusional, and should you call social services or something, the whole thing is awkward.

Oh, I forgot to mention that.  The character was blind.  I hadn’t realized this until I looked at the book, it’s hard to tell with a statue.  The full title is “Nydia, The Blind Flower-Girl of Pompeii”.

 

She’s not identified as such, but pretty sure this is Nydia, from the 1913 silent movie “The Last Days of Pompeii” (Library of Congress)

 

It’s an interesting example of how tastes change.  I don’t know if most people today, would be crazy for the statue, or the book.  I’ve yet to find anyone who’s actually read Bulwer-Lytton.  Because I’ve asked a lot of random people at airports, bus stops, restrooms, and bars, and only gotten funny looks.  Apparently he’s really not popular anymore.

 

(Do you know he added a third Lytton to his name?  Edward George Earle Lytton Bulwer-Lytton, 1st Baron Lytton.  Because having it only twice, you might forget??  Or to distract people from “Bulwer”?)

(Today, “Bulwer-Lytton-Lytton-Lytton Disorder is better known as “Compulsive Redundancy Syndrome.”)

Most of us tend to remember and focus on the good stuff.  In the 1830’s, people were reading “Oliver Twist,” “The Hunchback of Notre Dame,” “The Fall of the House of Usher,” “The Lady of Shalott,” etc.  But just like our own time, people consumed lots of not-so-wonderful stuff.

Maybe that’s the value of looking at “Pompeii” and “Nydia”  – – for contrast, and to show just how wonderful the good writers and artists were.  To remind ourselves, just how exceptional Dickens, Poe, Shelley, Hawthorne, Washington Irving, Byron, Emerson, Delacroix, etc. were.

In 1861, when the statue was unveiled, there were other horrible things happening, like Fort Sumter and the Battle of Bull Run, but there were also wonderful things:  Church’s “The Icebergs,” Whistler’s “Symphony in White, No. 1,”  Manet’s “Music in the Tuileries,” and Leutze’s “Westward Ho!” so Rogers can’t use the Civil War as an excuse.

Nydia is shown as she guides some Pompeii people through the blinding volcanic ash-cloud to safety – the man she loves, his girlfriend, and some really insistent people hawking postcards.  That’s admirable, and that’s why she’s holding her hand to her ear.

Although I still say, she could have had a toothache, too, right?  and that’s why she drowned herself, not the unrequited love thing.

The museum sign informs us, that the statue is evocative.  But would you have understood the situation, if I hadn’t told you? That she’s listening for which way an exploding volcano is located?  If she were a Labrador, would you guess that someone was blowing a dog whistle?  Or figure, poor doggy, has a toothache.

Well, we’re all learning a lot from these statues, aren’t we.

And anyway, Randolph Rogers was born in my hometown, he was knighted by King Umberto I, and Art is in the eye of the beholder.

So is glaucoma, I did look it up, and it’s related to Glaucus, but I forget how.  Something to do with seagulls.

 

Excavation of the Temple of Isis at Pompeii (Wellcome Library)

 

 

P.S.  Glaucus, glaucoma, and the seagull really are all related!  But this post is way too long already.

 

 

An earlier, and I think, much nicer work, “Ruth Gleaning” (1850).  As in the Book of Ruth in the Bible, and “gleaning” as in gathering up leftover barley.

 

 

 

 

And one final piece, “The Last Arrow” (1880) – – I wonder if his fellow Upstater, Frederic Remington, saw this, since it predates his bronzes by fifteen years.  These two pictures are from the Met website.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Civil War, England, History, NY, Ships, UK, Uncategorized, William Seward

American Civil War in the English Channel.

 

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If you don’t know him, William Henry Seward was Abraham Lincoln’s Secretary of State, and right-hand man.  Lawyer, Governor of N.Y., U.S. Senator, the man who purchased Alaska.  And expected to be the first Republican President, instead of Lincoln.

Wm Seward LOCI spent two summers as a docent in the Seward House Museum in Auburn, New York.  Seward’s prominent role in Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln” helped attract even more visitors to this great old house,  located in an otherwise obscure town in Upstate New York.

The Seward family not only donated the house, but its contents – artifacts, pictures of diplomats and rulers from around the world, paintings, objets d’art, furnishings, etc.

An Inuit kayak, a glass humidor with more-than-century-old Cuban cigars, a blood-stained sheet from an attempted assassination – you know, the usual stuff found in any household.

 

Last of the Alabama Commodore Winslows grand victory march. L.N. Rosenthal chromolithograph

Celebratory sheet music. “Last of the Alabama ~ Commodore Winslow’s Grand Victory March” LOC

You simply cannot talk about everything in the plethora of art and artifacts.

But after spending hundreds of hours as a guide, one object stands out for me, as likely to be overlooked by visitors.

2010 grabbag 198It’s an old painting of two ships.  If you’ve got a couple of minutes, it’s a really interesting story from the Civil War.  And tells something about the wheels-within-wheels that a Secretary of State needs to operate.

First-time visitors are often a bit stunned by the sheer number of interesting bits and bobs.  They’ll pause to admire a gorgeous stone fireplace, one of many in the house, glance at the painting hung above it, and move on.

The paintings which draw more attention are the large Thomas Cole landscape, and the portrait of Seward’s daughter by Emanuel Leutze  (best known for “Washington Crossing the Delaware”).

 

Kearsarge Alabama Seward House painting

I think the J. W. Anderson painting in the Seward House may be the most historically-accurate. The small ship in the middle is the Deerhound. http://www.SewardHouse.org. 33 South St, Auburn, NY 13021

 

But this year, the museum is focusing on the painting with the melodious name Action between the U.S.S. steamer Kearsarge, Capt. J.A. Winslow, and the Alabama, off Cherbourg, June 19, 1864,  painted by a British maritime artist, Captain J. W.  Anderson.

One of the Civil War’s few sea battles, fought two miles off the French coast, and the only battle from that war, fought outside the country.   The CSS Alabama, a fantastically successful Confederate commerce raider, was finally sunk by the USS Kearsarge.

 

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Clouds of cannon smoke and steam, as the Alabama begins to sink. Manet, 1864. Philadelphia Museum of Art

 

F.D.R. (Assistant Secretary of the Navy under Woodrow Wilson), had a similar painting of the ships, and it hangs in the library at Hyde Park.

And yet another, the most famous, is by Manet, who also painted the Kearsarge when it visited France after the battle.

I love the contrast in Manet’s latter work, now in the Met — the harbor at Boulogne is filled with jolly little sailboats, buzzing around a stark and menacing black warship.

Manet Kearsarge

Manet, 1864. Metropolitan Museum of Art

This incident is also part of a larger story, about the complex and dangerous international situation facing the U.S. during the Civil War.  Like Farragut sailing through the mines in Mobile Bay, Seward often proved adept at navigating foreign relations and avoiding European recognition of the Confederacy, or even European military intervention.

Remember that at that time, Britain had the world’s most powerful navy, and an army stationed in Canada.  France’s militant 2nd Empire was busily doubling its overseas possessions, and sent tens of thousands of troops to Mexico in 1861 to install a puppet regime.  That same year, Spanish soldiers reoccupied the Dominican Republic.

The Monroe Doctrine did not appear to be holding water, and Seward must have felt like the Dutch boy at the dike.

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Seward had endorsed Winfield Scott’s plan to block off southern ports, but in 1864, the blockade was still a sieve.  Fast, custom-built blockade runners continued to bring European weapons and supplies to the Confederacy.  Huge profits compensated for the ships that were captured or run aground.

Coming just after the slaughter of The Wilderness, Spotsylvania, and Cold Harbor, the highly-publicized sea battle, in international waters, buoyed the reputation of the U.S. Navy, and Lincoln’s war effort.

It’s sometimes recited in typical post-Reconstruction romanticism:  a sea-worn and outgunned Rebel raider, with its gallant Confederate crew defying the odds, and bravely sailing out to its inevitable Lost Cause doom, against the more powerful Federal behemoth.Eagle shield postcard 1907

I am biased, as an unrepentant Unionist, and in seaman’s terms, I think that’s a load of codswallop.  Let’s take a look.

 

Like so many Civil War commanders, the two captains knew each other from the Mexican War.  Both men had been given ships during the war, and both men had lost those ships in accidents.

Semmes AlabamaThe Confederate captain was Raphael Semmes – now a pirate, or a privateer, depending on whether or not you viewed the Confederacy as a legitimate entity.  During 657 days at sea, the his Alabama sank a Union gunboat, and captured or burned 65 American merchant ships.  She took boats all across the world, from Newfoundland to South Africa, Bermuda to the Straits of Malacca.

This Confederate raider seemed to be everywhere.  Everywhere, that is, except the Confederacy, which the ship never visited.

 

Alabama LOC

Alabama with one of its victims burning in the background. LOC

 

Finally, after two years of cruising and destruction, in June of 1864, the Alabama called into the port at Cherbourg for repairs.

The Union captain, John Winslow, anchored his ship, the USS Kearsarge just outside French waters, called in the older USS Saint Louis to re-stock supplies and help block the Confederates from escape, and sent a challenge to his old shipmate to come out and fight.

Semmes could have tried to sneak out on some foggy night, or left his ship docked in neutral waters for the duration, but he chose to respond to the challenge.

It was an interesting match-up.  Both “sloops-of-war” were hybrids – a combination of sails and steam/screw propeller. Steampower gave the ships much more maneuverability in than in the days of sail, but also created a vulnerability – a hit to the steam boiler could be as catastrophic as one to the gunpowder magazine.

 

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Along its sides, the Alabama mounted six 32-pounders, big five- or six-thousand pound cannons, basically unchanged from the days of Admiral Nelson, which could fire a 6-inch, 32 pound cannonball for up to a mile. The Kearsarge only mounted four.

This doesn’t seem like very impressive armament.  Lord Nelson’s flagship, the HMS Victory, had 110 guns.  During the evacuation of the Norfolk Naval Yard, at the start of the Civil War, the navy burned the old USS Pennsylvania (to keep it out of Confederate hands), a 140-gun ship, including 104 of these 32-pounders.

 

Alabama Currier & Ives LOC

Currier & Ives. LOC

 

However, the Alabama was packing something much more lethal:  two huge pivot guns (able to fire in a wide arc), a 68-pounder smoothbore, and a 7-inch rifled gun that fired a 100-pound shot with great accuracy.

 

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Pivot gun on the Kearsarge. This is a wonderful model at the Strawbery Banke Museum, near the Portsmouth Navy Yard, where the ship was built.

 

The Kearsarge also had pivot guns:  two 11-inch smoothbore “Dahlgren’s.”  Named for their inventor, an U.S. admiral, these were giant bottle-shaped cannons, each one weighing more than five automobiles, firing 110-pound projectiles. There was also a 30-pounder Parrott rifled cannon — smaller, but more accurate.

 

11-inch Dahlgren Winslow LOC

A postwar postcard, showing the 11-inch Dahlgren gun “Winslow” that sank the Alabama. Library of Congress

 

There was another factor in this fight.  Both ships were wooden-hulled, but the Kearsarge, like an undercover cop, was wearing concealed body armor.

 

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Chain mail, last seen in these parts during the Norman Conquest, made a comeback.

Hidden under a thin layer of boards, heavy chains had been stapled to the sides of the Kearsarge, helping to protect the hull from cannonballs.

 

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So, anyways… true to her namesake state, Alabama come out shootin’.  It fired 150 shots, by some accounts, or more than twice that, by others.  But after so much time at sea, the Alabama’s gunpowder and fuses were contaminated and less effective. One shot hit the Kearsarge’s rudder, but luckily, the shell didn’t explode;  hits to the hull did not penetrate.

The Union ship shot less, but with more effect.  A cannonball punched through the Alabama’s hull at the waterline, flooding the engine room, and ended the fight.  As his ship sank, Semmes, in what seems like a dishonorable fit of pique or spite, threw his sword into the ocean, rather than giving it to Winslow.  Some accounts indicate that the Alabama struck its colors, but then got off a few more shots.  Teddy Roosevelt believed that his uncle, Lt. Irvine Bulloch, fired the last two shots (two of his maternal uncles fought for the Confederacy).

Kearsarge Alabama 1887 lithograph

1887 lithograph, with the Alabama sinking in the background. LOC

 

Winslow sent out a boat to pick up the pirates/privateers, and asked some of the “spectator” boats to assist, but then watched  as Semmes and some of his crew were whisked off to England by a private yacht.  This was the Deerhound, a fast steamship, built in the same shipyard as the Alabama, and owned by a rich industrialist who had come out to watch the fight, along with his wife and relatives, including children.

Despite the frustration of watching the raiders escape, Winslow refrained, wisely, from firing on the British yacht.  In any case, the Kearsarge had little room, and kept only a few Confederate officers.  The captured crew was simply paroled (basically sent ashore, on their word of honor to stop fighting).

 

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Looking down the barrel of a rifled cannon.

In the smoke of battle, we seem to have lost our Secretary of State (notorious for operating in a smokescreen of cigar fumes).

What does all this cannonading have to do with William Seward?

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Here’s a few things about this Confederate ship, that interested Seward so much.

It was a British-made sloop-of-war, armed with state-of-the-art British weapons (the rifled pivot guns), and had a primarily British crew, some trained by the Royal Navy.  The London Times proudly proclaimed that it was Portsmouth-trained gun crews that had performed the best on board the Alabama.  

 

So it was not Confederates, as a rule, in this fight, but British mercenaries, paid double wages in gold.

 

V0024799 Astronomy: various apocalyptic scenes, including a grieving Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images images@wellcome.ac.uk http://wellcomeimages.org Astronomy: various apocalyptic scenes, including a grieving widow, war, and the Duke of Wellington rejecting Harriet Winter [?]. Coloured lithograph, n.d. [c.1839?]. Published: - Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0 http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/

Wellcome Library

“The Ancient Grudge” was an expression heard during the WWI period, and it has an old, fusty sound to it, like something your grandmother might say, about a disagreeable neighbor.   I might use it to express the distrust and hostility that persisted between the U.S. and Britain, for decades after the Revolution and the War of 1812 —  in tensions at sea, along the Canadian border, especially in the Oregon region, and in political and economic competition around the world.

Nowadays, we view history from a time when the U.S. and Britain are die-hard allies.  We’ve fought together, in two world wars, and various military adventures since.  But in William Seward’s time, the British empire-builders were not-entirely-neutral or well-disposed toward the former colonies.

Alabama claims LOC

A post-war British cartoon. Europe watches as John Bull/Gladstone, playing William Tell, with a diminutive Uncle Sam as his son, during the Alabama claims settlement. Britain doing the sporting thing with the little chap, what? Kaiser Wilhelm I, a more reasonable fellow than his grandson, referees from the sideline.

Some of this friction was simply profit motive.  Britain desperately needed cotton for its unemployed textile mills, and was happy to allow its industrialists to reap profits from the war.  Private gun-makers sold Enfield rifle-muskets to both sides — something like 900,000 all told!  Blockade-runners, many built in British shipyards, supplied the Confederates with Whitworth rifles (favored by sharpshooters), breech-loading cannons, Colt revolvers made in London, uniforms, and other supplies.  Also compelling was Britain’s desire to split and weaken the U.S., and protect Canada.

DSC00709U.S.-British tension was more serious than most people remember.  British leaders were debating not just recognition of the Confederacy, but even military intervention to force U.S. recognition, even at the cost of outright war with the U.S.  Eleven thousand British soldiers were sent to Canada.  And there were these ships.

 

Blockade-runners were considered by Europeans to be good clean fun, a legitimate enterprise under international maritime laws.   But armed raiders like the CSS Florida and the CSS Shenandoah, that captured or destroyed over one hundred Yankee civilian vessels, were also built in Liverpool and Glasgow.  Britain’s government employed Admiral Nelson’s trick, and turned a blind eye.  Ships were bought through third-parties, and then equipped with British-made cannons when they reached the Azores, Bahamas, or Madeira.  They re-supplied in Europe, Brazil, Cuba, and Cape Town, and then attacked U.S. cargo ships and whalers around the globe.

Luckily, Seward’s agents, using a network of consulates and paid informants, blocked many more raiders from taking to sea.

But finally, the pretense became obvious, as the Laird shipyard, which built the Alabama, began work on what were undeniably warships:  armored rams, with massive gun turrets.  (The Laird shipyard survives in some form to this day, and did some of the work on the new HMS Queen Elizabeth aircraft carrier.)

Alabama cartoon John Bull LOC

A period cartoon, showing a disgruntled John Bull, who’s just realized the Confederate raiders were making out like bandits, and leaving Britain holding the bag, in the form of insurance claims for the lost ships and their cargoes. LOC

 

Seward’s people tracked the Confederate purchases, piling up evidence that was later used to successfully sue Britain for damages to U.S. shipping.  Britain was reminded of possible repercussions if the relationship went south:  American privateers’ toll upon their shipping in the past, the interdependence of Anglo-American trade and investments, and Britain’s dependence on American wheat.

British warships had been sent to Halifax and Bermuda, to intimidate, and to attack the East Coast in the event of war.  However, these sailing ships were now faced by an ever-increasing U.S. fleet, including armored monitors (low-slung steamships with revolving metal turrets, containing enormous cannons). The Confederate attack at Hampton Roads had demonstrated how easily an ironclad could sink wooden frigates.

“The secret of politics?  Make a good treaty with Russia.”  I don’t know if Bismarck really said that.  But the U.S., faced with a generally hostile Europe, found an ally in what seems an unlikely place, to modern readers, worried by the bellicose Vladimir Putin.

Seward cultivated friendly relations with Russia.  Two years before Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, the Tsar had liberated the serfs, and steadfastly refused to join any Anglo-French plans to intervene in the Civil War.  Russia’s refusal to join former enemies in such an alliance was hardly surprising, so soon after the bitter Crimean War.  Russian fleets arrived in the harbors of NYC and San Francisco.  Perhaps mostly to avoid being bottled up in the Baltic by the Royal Navy, in the event of war, but it was also taken by the U.S. as a much-appreciated gesture of support.

Spain, looking for opportunities to regain ground in the New World, was reminded that Confederate leaders had long advocated the takeover of Cuba.  And as the Confederacy continued to lose ground, Napoleon III understood that his forces in Mexico, already sustaining thousands of casualties, might face a large and experienced Union army on the Rio Grande in the near future.  (Indeed, Phil Sheridan missed the end-of-the-war Grand Review in Washington, hustling down to the Rio Grande with 50,000 men.  And U.S. rifles and ammo somehow ended up with Juárez’s anti-French forces. )

Finally, as Grant besieged Lee’s dwindling army twenty miles outside Richmond, and Sherman marched inexorably through Atlanta and toward the sea, with the Confederacy shrinking within the federal anaconda of armies and blockaders, and under Seward’s watchful pressure, Britain seized the armored warships from the shipyard.

Years later, as the story goes, Queen Victoria saw two ugly little gunboats, by then obsolete, chug by in a naval review, and asked if that was what all the fuss was about.

Alabama claims Harper's Weekly

Another postwar cartoon – America/Lady Liberty trimming British claws with shears marked “Alabama Claims”. The lion doesn’t look thrilled, but seems like a pretty amicable relationship. Harper’s Weekly, LOC

The issues and challenges faced by Seward in dealing with neutral countries, seem very current, in our modern age of  “Proxy Wars” and “Drone Wars”.   We fight without declarations of war, supply weaponry to rebels and secessionists, and to the Saudis and other anti-democratic regimes.  Confederate pirates/privateers were sometimes detained in Fortress Monroe, without trial, reminding us of Guantanamo Bay.  We pursue terrorists and guerrilla fighters into Pakistan or other “neutral” countries;  the raider CSS Florida was finally captured in a U.S. raid on a Brazilian port.  (When an international court ordered the ship be returned to Brazil, people were shocked, shocked! to learn it suddenly sank after a collision, and was never handed over.)

Today, the U.K. and France also continue to sell weapons, often to countries of questionable friendliness, as do Russia, China, Germany, and Israel.  And, of course, neutral, peace-loving Sweden.  And, of course, nobody peddles as many weapons as the U.S.

If you’re ever in Upstate New York, go to the Seward House and listen to a few stories about an amazing person and a memorable Secretary of State.  Seward demonstrated that, even in a time of swords, there’s still power in a pen, a diplomat, and sometimes, a really clever New York lawyer.

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Preserve the Union! Fenimore Art Museum.

 

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