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.
I 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.
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.
It’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”).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
There was another factor in this fight. Both ships were wooden-hulled, but the Kearsarge, like an undercover cop, was wearing concealed body armor.
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.
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).
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).
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?
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.
“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.
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.
U.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.)
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.
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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