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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Chestertown History, Civil War

1861 Chestertown and the pirates

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Chestertown 1861   —   “Sitting on the Dock of the Bay”

(Ok we’re sitting on a dock on the Chester River, not the Bay, but I love Otis Redding.)

The Eastern Shore of Maryland was not a battlefield of the Civil War.  But the war did touch life there once in a while.  This story reflects two old sayings, often reproduced in abbreviated form:

“War is Hell.  Even when you don’t have to wear a corset”

“They also serve, who only stand and wait, on a dock in Chestertown”

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I went to college in Chestertown, MD, and during a couple of rainy weekends, read everything I could find about the town in the old days, in the digital archives of old newspapers.  This is one of the stories I ran across.

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Sometimes a historian feels entitled to an educated guess.

In college, I was taught to call it a hypothesis.

So, on Tuesday, July 9, 1861, I am hypothesizing, there was a crowd of passengers on the dock in Chestertown, waiting for the Chester, the regular ferryboat from Baltimore, and getting more and more irritated.

Because the ferryboat was not coming to Chestertown that day.

It was, instead, chasing pirates.

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Steam Paddle Wheeler

Steam Paddle Wheeler. LOC

That day, the Chester was at its dock in Baltimore with a full head of steam, ready for its routine trip to Chestertown, when the Provost Marshal of Baltimore suddenly commandeered the craft, and directed it to Fort McHenry.

Nobody at the fort had seen any action since 1814, and anyway, everyone likes a boat ride, so it was not hard to persuade a company of gunners to climb aboard, and bring a couple of 24-pounder cannons with them.

The heavily-armed ferryboat then steamed off to Chesapeake Bay looking for a schooner full of pirates.

Leaving the Chestertown passengers cooling their heels on the dock, wondering where their ride had gotten to, and if the entire Civil War was going to be like this.

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The people they were chasing, who the soldiers considered pirates, were considered by others to be, in fact, privateers and patriots.

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They had already captured four ships, they were armed and dangerous… and their leader wore a dress.

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I found the story not in a history book (although I’m sure it’s there, somewhere, as another strange footnote to the Civil War) but reading old newspapers online, looking for news of Chestertown.

It began, as do so many stories of weirdness and woe, with two Marylanders.

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One of these gentleman adventurers was named Richard Thomas.

Raised on a plantation in St. Mary’s County that was once owned by Lord Baltimore, his father was the Speaker of the Maryland House of Delegates, and his uncle had been governor.

A West Point dropout, Thomas claimed to have served as a mercenary in China and Italy, under the name Zarnova.

He returned to America, and rather than enlist in the Confederate army, which limited your fashion choices to gray or butternut, he decided instead to serve as a secret agent.

During this story, he would be known as Madame Zarona.  Or Madame LaForce, or Serano, etc. the newspaper accounts disagree;   some reporters just called him “The French Lady”.

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George Nichols Hollins

Commodore George Nichols Hollins, Confederate Navy. LOC

The second man was from Baltimore, and was a genuine seadog.

George Nichols Hollins began as a midshipman in the War of 1812, serving under Stephen Decatur, and rose through the ranks.  He seems to have been somewhat impulsive, as shown by “The Bombardment of Greytown”.

In 1854, he was captain of a sloop-of-war off the Miskito Coast (Nicaragua) when Americans in Greytown complained of mistreatment.

Hollins responded by bombarding and destroying the town.

This seemed just a bit of an overreaction to some people, and created a bit of a diplomatic fuss, since the town was under British protection, but just then the British were busy dying of cholera in the Crimean War, and it blew over.

The Evening Star, a Washington, D.C. paper, described Hollins as “pompous” and “notoriously weak in the upper story”, but this could just have been sour grapes, because by then, he’d resigned from the U.S. Navy to join the Confederates.

It was ironic that in his younger years, Hollins had fought the Barbary Pirates, and would now begin his new naval career by becoming one, at least from the Union point of view.

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The plot Thomas and Hollins came up with was simple.

The St. Nicholas, a steam-powered paddlewheeler, was making regular runs from Washington to Baltimore, carrying passengers & freight, and supplies for US Navy ships.

They would seize the ship, and use it to approach, board, and overpower the Pawnee, a Union warship patrolling the Potomac.

Pawnee sketch by A. R. Waud 1860

The USS Pawnee. Sketch by A. R. Waud, 1860. from the Library of Congress

The Pawnee was built at the Philadelphia Navy Yard, and is usually described as a ten-gun sloop-of-war,  although one source lists it as a much more disreputable-sounding “second class steam sloop (screw)”.

It had been bombarding Confederate shore batteries and blockading the river.  In May, the ship steamed up the Potomac to Alexandria, Virginia, and demanded its surrender.  (This was the same day that Col. Elmer Elsworth got shot there, taking down a secessionist flag –the first Union officer to die in the war).

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Thomas and Hollins approached Governor Letcher of Virginia with the plan of attack. The operation called for revolvers, carbines, cutlasses, and a full-skirted dress with crinolines and hoops.

I have been unable to discover a really satisfying description of the dress, so this will require another historical hypothesis.

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“Pagoda” sleeves over engageantes were popular that year, and mauve and purple were still au courant, but speaking as a professional historian, I believe a Confederate secret agent would choose a gown in “magenta”.  It was one of the brand-new chemical dyes, and named for the Battle of Magenta, during the Italian War of Independence.

Somehow this seemed important to me when I looked it up.  I don’t remember why.  But I thought maybe you’d want to know.

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Letcher

John Letcher, Governor of Virginia. Lawyer, Editor, Politician, Spymaster.

Governor Letcher liked the plan to seize the irritating Pawnee, was apparently OK with magenta, and advanced $1000 to hire a crew.

Thomas and Hollins were behind enemy lines, and needed to quickly assemble a band of desperate rogues and cutthroats.

But luckily, they were in Baltimore and knew some guys.

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Actually, it was undoubtedly an easy place to recruit – this was only two months after the Baltimore Riot (a mob attacked soldiers passing through on their way to Washington) demonstrated the temper of the city.  Southern sympathizers called the riot the “Pratt Street Massacre” and when the soldiers finally shot some of the mob, this was the source of the “patriotic gore…That flecked the streets of Baltimore” in Maryland’s state song.[1]

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Norwich Paddle steamer

Paddle steamer. LOC

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On June 28, 1861, sixteen of the Confederate conspirators boarded the St. Nicholas,  disguised, depending on the newspaper account, as “passengers”, “mechanics”, or “New York Zouaves”.

Except for Thomas, who was now disguised as Mme. Zarona, a French fashionista, and by some accounts, was flirting with the ship’s officers from behind a Spanish-style fan.

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At first, it was still not clear to me why he was wearing a dress.

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But he was portraying a fashionista, and the ruse was to justify hauling a load of steamer trunks onto the ship, supposedly loaded with the latest Paris fashions.

Apparently no one noticed that a box of French hats felt a lot like a crate full of revolvers.

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3b50487r LOC poster Zouave remember Ellsworth

A Zouave, exulting in his comfortable, loose-fitting, yet stylish trousers. LOC

At some point during the voyage, Thomas changed into a Zouave uniform — very possibly more spectacular than the dress.

Zouave uniforms (based on those of French colonial soldiers in North Africa) usually involved red pantaloons, an embroidered blue jacket – – and you got to wear a fez, too!

Thomas opened up the trunks, distributed pistols and cutlasses to his band, and locked the ferryboat’s crew in the hold.

The Confederates were now ready to board and capture the Yankee warship.

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But the target of this exercise, the warship Pawnee, was gone.

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NY Zouave

NY Zoave. LOC

Dahlgren

Admiral Dahlgren aboard the Pawnee, his flagship, leaning on one of his namesake cannons.  I think this photo was taken at the end of the war, after one of his sons had been killed during a cavalry raid on Richmond, possibly attempting to assassinate Jeff Davis. LOC

If they’d asked, the Confederate Secret Service Bureau could have revealed the Pawnee’s movements to the privateers.  Governor Letcher ran a string of spies, and the head of the Confederate Secret Service, in fact, was from Baltimore County. [2]

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Or, alternatively, the Confederate raiders and secret agents could have…just picked up a newspaper.

During the Civil War, the movements of warships were listed in the paper, just like any other shipping.

Apparently the secret agents did not read the Baltimore Daily Exchange that day, which reported a fight the day before at Mathias’ Point.

During the fighting while Union forces attempted to erect a shore battery, the captain of a gunboat had been killed.  The Pawnee was carrying his body back to the Navy Yard.

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Stern Wheelers

Stern Wheelers

So instead of stalking the Yankee warship, the dread rebel privateer St. Nicholas paddled off toward the Rappahannock.

On the way, they captured three civilian ships:  the Monticello (3500 bags of Brazilian coffee), the Mary Pierce (200 tons ice), and the Margaret (270 tons coal).

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The Confederate war machine now had the capability of making a lot of hot coffee, or alternatively, iced coffee.

The Governor of Virginia, delighted, and possibly highly caffeinated, promoted Hollins to commodore, and Thomas to colonel.  The ferryboat freebooters had a big parade in Richmond, and everybody got to wear Zouave uniforms.

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All this happened in June.

So all through this tale, you’ve been wondering, if you’ve paid attention, why were the Chestertown passengers waiting around on the dock in July?

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Baltimore spy

Harper’s Weekly “A Female Rebel in Baltimore…” LOC

Apparently, Thomas/Zarnova/Madame X decided to repeat the stunt.  According to one account, he was onboard the Columbia, sister ship to the St. Nicholas, but was recognized by the St. Nick’s captain, who had been released by the Confederates and was returning home as a passenger.

But according to the NY Daily Tribune, Colonel Thomas/Madame X was caught by a police officer, who’d boarded the Mary Washington, looking for one of the rioters who had attacked the Sixth Massachusetts soldiers marching through Baltimore in April.  The policeman recognized Thomas & some of his men, stopped the boat at Fort McHenry, and got a company of  soldiers to arrest the Confederates.

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It took an hour’s search to find Thomas.  He was hiding in a large bureau drawer in the ladies’ cabin.

He really did seem to have a thing for women’s clothing.

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Thomas and his men were treated as pirates, rather than POWs, and were sent to prison.

The southern press complained of the “villainous and inhuman” treatment of Confederate privateers.

(They’d been sent to Philadelphia.)

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A Memphis paper reported them as being held in damp, dark cells for felons, often in double irons;  they were entitled to rations costing sixteen cents per day, but a Union officer was quoted as saying they managed on a nickel.  Governor Letcher of Virginia reportedly threatened to subject Union soldiers to the same treatment, and at some point, the privateers were released.

Thomas headed for France and stayed there for the duration.

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After Thomas’ arrest, the Chester (the ferryboat-turned-pirate-hunter)  was pressed into service to look for a schooner that was reportedly hanging around with the rest of the raiders onboard.

But I don’t know if they ever found it.

Or when they finally picked up the Chestertown passengers.

Or if they had to give the cannons back.

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The Civil War fostered many huge leaps in military technology.  Aerial observation, electronic communications, ironclad warships with turrets,  breech-loading weapons, landmines, etc. But was also one of the last gasps for cavalry charges with sabers and plumed hats…and also for privateers.

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After the Crimean War, the Europeans had banned privateering, and country after country, even the Ottoman Empire, signed on.  Queen Elizabeth I had graciously smiled upon Drake and Raleigh, and all the gold they’d looted from the Spanish, but Victoria was not amused.  In the 19th century, somehow privateering (and having the Queen have to share the prize money), just didn’t seem very…Victorian.

But even if An Englishman Would Not Do That, the British shipyards were happy to build the CSS Alabama and other commerce raiders for the Confederates.

Lincoln and his successors were not amused by this, and after many years of Exchanging Stiff Notes, and finally, international arbitration, Gladstone actually coughed up fifteen million dollars so he didn’t have to listen to any more gripes.

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(There were commerce raiders in WWI, but they were ships of the Imperial German Navy, not privateers working on spec.)

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Back in the 1850’s, the U.S. was asked to sign the ban on privateering, but in those days, our fleet was still dwarfed by those of the European powers, and folks still remembered the successes of the Baltimore clippers during the War of 1812.  And all that lovely prize money.

Secretary of State William Marcy, a good New York lawyer after all, wanted the U.S. to keep its options open.  His response echoed Geo. Washington’s admonition to avoid Large Standing Armies, and powerful navies.  He told the international community, that this ban on privateers sounded very expensive, as we’d have to purchase a Great White Fleet somewhere, and we’d have to think about it.

And we still are.  Thinking it over.  The U.S. has never signed the ban, so technically, we’re still free to seek letters of marque and reprisal,  put on a dress, and go seize a ferryboat.

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THE END

[1]   Have you actually read the original lyrics of the Maryland State Song?  Kind of amazing.   The state of Georgia gets a fantastic tune by Hoagy Carmichael, and Maryland gets a 2nd-hand Xmas carol with propaganda — which rhymes “bravely meek” with “shriek”.

I really resent someone contaminating “O Tannenbaum” with this crap.  OK, “gore” and “Baltimore” do rhyme, sort of, and Baltimore/gore is still a very appropriate association, but seriously, what an artless anthem of  negativity to teach school kids.  Like the rowdies killed in the “Boston Massacre”, Baltimore’s “anointed throng” was basically a bunch of thugs attacking people with rocks.  Maybe I sound a bit opinionated.

[2]  At the NSA’s Cryptologic Museum, they have a Confederate “cipher cylinder” the agents used to send coded messages.

(I’ve been to the museum, but cannot reveal to you where it is.)

(OK, it’s in Annapolis Junction.)

(On Route 32, behind the Shell station)

(and it has a gift shop!)

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Most of the photos of old steamboats, Hollins, and Adm. Dahlgren, and the A. R. Waud sketch of the Pawnee, are from the Library of Congress.  I was unable to find the Chester, but these pictures give you an idea of the age of steam and paddle wheelers.

P. S.   Putting cannons onto a ferryboat was not quite as crazy as it sounds.  In 1861, the U.S. needed to blockade Southern ports and capture the Mississippi, but only had a handful of ships.  The Navy began frantically building warships.  They could build a complete ship in an amazingly short time.  The “Liberty ships” of WWII got it down to five days, but they had prefab sections.  During the Civil War, the Northern shipyards up and down the Eastern seaboard, including Maryland, built serviceable warships from scratch in three months.  These “90-day gunboats” were then sent on blockade duty.

But in the meantime, the Union bought and converted hundreds of civilian ships — clippers, schooners, barks, whalers, tugs, stern-wheelers, side-wheelers, screw steamers, paddle frigates, steam sloops, etc.

The list of ship types gives you some idea of the floating menagerie assembled by the U.S. — one of the most diverse navies ever assembled.

Former civilian vessels were used as mortar boats, tenders, dispatch boats, tugs, coalers, survey boats, pilot boats, transports, etc.

Some had iron plates or heavy timbers slapped on the sides, and became gunboats.  The Confederates even sent “Cottonclads” into combat, using huge bales of cotton in lieu of armor.

Ferryboats and tugs were powerful and sturdily built, and apparently were favorites for conversion to warships.

Newspaper articles available via LOC about the privateers:

3/21/61;  3/28/61 Evening Star (Wash DC);  4/20/61 Daily Ohio Statesman (Columbus, OH);  4/21/61 Nashville Union and American (Nashville, TN);  4/20/61 The Daily Green Mountain Freeman(Monpelier VT);  4/22/61 The Daily Dispatch (Richmond, VA);  7/2/1861 The Daily Dispatch (Richmond, VA);  7/2/1861 Evening Star (Wash DC);  7/2/61 The National Republican (Wash DC);  7/2/61 The Daily Wabash Express (Terre-Haute, IN);  7/2/61 The Daily Exchange (Balt., MD);  7/6/61 The Daily Exchange (Balt.MD);  7/9/61 New-York daily tribune;  7/10/61 The Daily Exchange (Baltimore, MD);  12/23/62 Staunton Spectator (Staunton, VA);  8/14/62 Memphis Daily Appeal (Memphis, TN)

The Washington Times, October 6, 2007 Saturday, TRAVEL; THE CIVIL WAR; D03, 2339 words, Rebel raider disguised in hoop skirt, By Richard P. Cox,

SPECIAL TO THE WASHINGTON TIMES

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