previous next

Polignac's mission. From the Times-dispatch, May 19, 1901.

An interesting Chapter in Confederate History—Defence of President Davis.

The story of the proposed Cession of Louisiana to France Exploded— an interview with the Emperor—Foreign aid and slavery.

The following throws interesting light on an incident of Confederate history, which has been greatly distorted:

Villa Jessie, Cannes, France, April 17, 1901.
General Marcus J. Wright:
My Dear General,—I enclose the narrative of my journey to France in 1865, intended to refute the suggestions of the Washington Post, and beg that you will kindly, in defence of the honor of President Jefferson Davis, General Kirby Smith, and my own self, give my explanations the widest publicity. You will observe that on page 6 I have the military rank of Governor Allen as colonel, written in pencil; the reason is that I do not remember whether he was then colonel or general, and I wish you would kindly correct the rank and the initials to his name. Had I been able to refer to clippings and memoranda notes I could have supplied more precise dates.

I hope you received my telegram of 2nd instant, worded: ‘Will answer your letter, meanwhile I deny emphatically suggestion of Washington Post.’

Should you be able to find in print the speech of Hon. Jefferson Davis, to which I allude, please substitute the exact wording into my manuscript.

Hoping that you will do me the favor of acknowledging the receipt of my manuscript, believe me, my dear General, ever your friend,


The letter was printed in the Washington Post, and is reproduced here:

The last Chapter in Confederate history.

In two editorials of the Washington Post, March 14 and 19, 1901, the suggestion is made and repeated that toward the close of the war of secession, in 1865, I was sent to Europe by President Jefferson Davis on an important mission, the object of which was to offer to the Emperor of the French a retrocession of the State of Louisiana in exchange for armed intervention on behalf of the Confederacy.

This startling discovery was intended to fill a gap in history, and I wonder that even the love of fiction inherent to mankind could have led any minds so far astray as to give the slightest attention, far less attach any credence, to a wild, sensational suggestion the offspring of an overfertile imagination.

The plain truth is that I had no mission at all, or, if for want of another word it must needs be called so, its conception involved nobody but myself. The genesis of it and its development are set forth in the following narrative:

After the successful issue of the Louisiana campaign in 1864, there being no prospects of a speedy renewal of hostilities, and the division I then commanded being in the highest state of efficiency, it occurred to me that I might do some good by conveying information abroad. Letters which I received about that time, having strengthened this opinion, I repaired to Shreveport in .the winter of 1865, and suggested to General Kirby Smith the advisability of granting me a six months leave of absence for the purpose of going abroad and of availing myself of the curiosity and interest which the presence of an active participant in the great struggle now going on could not fail to awaken in foreign parts, in order to enlist sympathy with the Southern Cause. Nor was my purpose as vague and indefinite as might appear thus far. There was one circumstance which gave it substantiality—one man who was, so to say, the pivot of my self-imposed task. This man was not the Emperor of the French, far less Lord Palmerston, but the Duke of Morny, an intimate confidant and devoted friend of the Emperor. [328] As a statesman, he was credited with some shrewdness—practical, self-possessed, as devoid of enthusiasm as free from prejudice. I had some acquaintance with him. I had met him privately several times before leaving France. I had introduced to him one of the delegates whom, at an early stage of the conflict, some of the Southern States had sent abroad (I believe it was the delegate from South Carolina), and had noticed on every occasion his readiness to receive information and the unbiased, practical view he took of the conflict. With him I could talk without hindrance. I could see him privately, informally. He could listen to me day after day without in any manner committing his government, ask any questions he liked, and elicit every information more freely from a mere eye-witness, bearing no credentials, than he could do from an authorized representative of the Confederate Government. Here, then, was an advantage which I intended to turn to account during a temporary absence from the field.

For ‘modification of sham neutrality.’

General H. W. Allen, an accomplished gentleman and distinguished officer, still suffering from a wound received in the field, was then Governor of Louisiana. I enjoyed his friendship and confidence. He honored me with his esteem, and had lately offered me a presentation sword in the name of the State of Louisiana. To him I also imparted my purpose, and the question was fully discussed in all its bearings between him, General Kirby Smith, and myself. It is true that as to the intrinsic nature and merits of the conflict I could only repeat what others had said, yet both Governor Allen and General Kirby Smith concurred in the opinion that my acquaintance with the Duke de Morny was an interesting feature, which I might well try to turn to good account during a period of anticipated calm, in which my presence among my troops did not appear of absolute necessity. None of us three was over sanguine about the result of my undertaking, and in our wildest flights of fancy never looked to an armed intervention as within the range of human possibilities; but it did not seem impossible to obtain a modification of a sham neutrality, which worked [329] entirely in favor of the North, to which a stream of mercenaries from all parts of the world was constantly flowing, and to secure something like equal treatment to the Confederate States, especially as regarded their navy. French commercial interests, I well knew; made the mercantile world lean toward the South, and in fact, it is difficult for me even now to comprehend how England and France could, from the first, submit to a mere paper blockade, in direct opposition to some of their most important commercial and manufacturing interests, when they might have set it aside by a mere stroke of the pen, without probably ever firing a gun over it.

My journey was, after due consideration, finally decided on. In order to give more weight to my presence abroad I asked General Kirby Smith to allow my chief-of-staff, Major T. C. Moncure, to accompany me; and Governor Allen said he would avail himself of this opportunity to write a letter to the Emperor of France, of which his aide-de-camp, Colonel Ernest Miltenberger, should be the bearer. It lay within the sphere of authority of General Kirby Smith to grant Major Moncure and myself a leave of absence of six months. Neither the chief of the War Department nor President Davis had to be consulted in the matter, and in point of fact they were not.

I did not read the letter which Governor Allen wrote, and, therefore, cannot speak ‘de visu’ of its contents, but in a letter addressed to the editor of the Washington Post, bearing date Washington, March 16th, and published in that paper under the heading, ‘Lost Chapter in History,’ I note the passage:

“A paper was prepared, which I read, to be presented to Napoleon III, quoting the third article of the treaty of Paris, ceding Louisiana to the United States,” etc., etc.

There was no other paper prepared than Governor Allen's letter, and since the correspondent of the Washington Post has read it, he knows as well as I do that it contained no such bargain as that suggested by the Washington Post—viz., the retrocession of Louisiana to France in return for armed intervention, nor does he assert it verbatim.

Governor Allen's confidential scheme.

I have said I enjoyed Governor Allen's confidence. This is [330] not a mere commonplace sentence. In fact, before our departure, Governor Allen imparted to me a scheme of his of a somewhat surprising nature, and which, at the time, might well have borne the stamp ‘Confidential.’ I shall disclose it further on, and it will serve to dispose of some other assertions of a speculative character which have appeared in the Washington Post. Meanwhile, I go on with my narrative.

Having no memorandum notes at my disposal at the time I write, I cannot give precise dates, but I believe it was in March, 1865, that Colonel E. Miltenberger, Major Moncure, and myself left Shreveport on what may have appeared a special mission of some kind. Of us three, Colonel E. Miltenberger alone was invested with an official character, confined, however, to the State of Louisiana, not emanating from the Confederacy as an aggregate of States.

Our path lay through the breadth of Texas, and the news of my passage having preceded me, I was met at every stage of our journey by a deputation of citizens, who came to welcome me; nor was I allowed to settle any hotel bill, but everywhere was received and considered as the guest of the State. In recalling these incidents, I am only impelled by the desire of conveying to the State of Texas my deep and lasting sense of gratitude for the well-remembered and highly-appreciated courtesy extended me on that occasion.

We travelled by stagecoach, and our progress was slow. At length we reached Matamoras, where we crossed the Rio Grande into Mexico territory. Here we had to wait for steamer to take us to Havana, and at the latter place another delay occurred, when finally we were able to embark on board a Spanish ship, one of a line of steamers plying between Havana and Cadiz, which port we reached after a stormy passage of at least fourteen days.

From Cadiz we went on to Madrid, partly by stagecoach. From Madrid, however, we could travel on by rail to Bordeaux and Paris.

On the last day of our journey, in looking over a newspaper, the first news that met my eye was that of the Duke de Morny's death. It seemed like the irony of fate that the fulcrum—so to speak—of my efforts should fail me just as I was reaching my [331] destination. From that moment I knew that whatever sympathy I might meet with it could lead to no practical results. I did not even seek an audience from the Emperor. But it happened that among the former friends and acquaintances who, on the news of my return, hastened to meet me, there was an officer of the French army, Major De Vatry, half-brother to the then Duke of Elchingen, a descendant of the famos Marshal Ney, at that time on the Emperor's military staff. He was very anxious to secure an interview for me, which he did without any difficulty, the Emperor having, as he informed me, expressed at once his perfect willingness to receive me.

Informal audience with Emperor.

I had thus an informal audience, not obtained through the regular official channel, and was received by the Emperor with the greatest courtesy. He bade me sit opposite him, and during the conversation which ensued evinced much interest in the progress of the war, made many remarks on details connected with the operations in the field, but the political side of the contest was never touched upon. All I could do was to assure him that the people of the South were determined to fight to the last in defense of the political doctrine of State-rights handed to them as an heirloom by their forefathers, and that in doing so they were only upholding the principles of Washington, and of the other founders of the first Union of States established with the aid of the French nation. To this the Emperor made no reply. In taking leave of him I asked permission to introduce an aide-de-camp of the Governor of Louisiana, the bearer of a letter to him. The Emperor hesitated a moment, asking (I well remember his words): ‘Que me dit il dous cette lettre?’ (What does he tell me in that letter?) I replied that I had not read the letter, but that it surely recalled the fact that Louisiana had originally been a French settlement, adding that the ties of blood had ever since kept alive a natural sympathy with France among the descendants of the first settlers. The Emperor granted my request, but more I think from courtesy to me than from any other motive, for it struck me at the time how guarded he had become the moment we approached the boundary of official [332] ground. However, the next day I introduced Colonel Miltenberger. He handed Governor Allen's letter to the Emperor, who, without opening it; laid it on a table near him. He received us standing and our conversation lasted only a few minutes.

This was my last interview with the Emperor. The news of General Lee's surrender reached us almost immediately afterward, and the briefness of the interval would itself suffice to disprove the allegations contained in the first editorial of the Washington Post on ‘A Lost Chapter of History’ (March 14, 1901), from which I quote the following extract:

‘At all events Polignac, accompanied by Moncure, went to Paris—via Galveston, we think—and though their mission was barren of result, so far as concerned the Confederacy, it leaked out when Moncure returned that Louis Napoleon had frequently consulted with Lord Palmerston and that so far from refusing to consider the proposition at all—whatever it may have been—the latter had given it a great deal of his time, and had finally dismissed it with reluctance. We have since been told that the Queen herself intervened, but we rather think that the appearance of the Russian fleets at New York and San Francisco—with orders, as afterward transpired, to place themselves at the disposal of the United States Government—cut at least some figure in Lord Palmerston's philosophy.’

So much for history! The wonderful array of political intrigues, negotiations, conflicting efforts, and warlike demonstrations, supposed to have taken place in the space of a few weeks, perhaps only of a few days, does infinite credit to the dramatic imagination of the author, as well as to the spirit of enterprise which distinguished this dramatic personage. Indeed, the tenor of the whole article, with the Queen and the Russian fleets thrown in, appeals so strongly to one's sense of humor that it seems a pity to mar by any commentaries the comical foundation of the scene.

Nor are the afterthoughts intended to supply motives for these imaginary facts less ingeniously contrived. I quote again from the aforementioned letter to the Editor of the Washington Post (March 16, 1901):

. . .‘There was a strong feeling at the time west of the Mississippi River that the Confederacy was doomed, and the [333] effort was to preserve the part of the United States west of the river to the PacificOcean as a slaveholding Confederacy. Of course, if the European nations adopted the plan, it was certain that the vast majority of the negroes from the Carolinas to the river would be moved across it and that section would be an agricultural free-trade community. It was, of course, an iridescent dream, but some of the ablest men in the South were dreaming it.’

Slavery a Bar to foreign aid.

I should feel inclined to think that it is the dream of a dreamer, and that the correspondent of the Washington Post has dreamed it, for I have known all the most prominent men of the South and many others who might well come within the designation of ‘some of the ablest men,’ and never heard any one of them as much as hint at such a venture. Indeed, many of them knew too well that the institution of slavery proved the greatest bar to every hope of foreign assistance, and that the establishment of a new slaveholding community with the aid of a foreign power an absolute impossibility. But apart from this negative objection, I am able to give information of a positive nature which will point to the same conclusion.

I have said that while I was at Shreveport, preparing for my journey, Governor Allen had imparted to me a scheme he was then revolving in his mind. I will now disclose it. Seeing that the South could not replace its fallen combatants, whereas the North disposed of an ever-increasing army of foreign mercenaries; moreover, that whenever the Federals obtained temporary possession of Southern soil, they kidnapped the negroes and pressed them into military service, Governor Allen's idea was to arm the negroes, and as a consequence to give them their freedom. I remember his very words: ‘Of course,’ he said, ‘we must give them their freedom.’ Such a plan is obviously incompatible with the notion of a retrocession of Louisiana as a slaveholding community, and some interesting conclusions can be drawn from it.

In the first place, it shows that a prominent Southern man, thoroughly acquainted with all the conditions of political and social life in the Southern States, felt a perfect confidence in the loyalty of the black population. Many Northern men would, [334] no doubt, have considered the arming of the slaves as a risky undertaking on the part of the South.

But the history of the war bears out Governor Allen's confidence. During the four years the contest lasted no negro outrage or disturbance arising out of the circumstances has to my knowledge been recorded, nor is it possible to deny that the total want of effervescence in the black population in times where every facility for revolt was afforded them bears testimony to and throws light upon the way in which the institution of slavery was understood and put into practice in the Southern States.

On the other hand, it is impossible to admit that Governor Allen should have brooded over such a scheme as I have stated had he not conceived at least the possibility of its adoption, and this points to the conclusion that the leading minds in the South were, to his knowledge, very far from identifying slavery, in the abstract, with the Confederate cause. In corroboration of this inference I would recall:

1. A proclamation of President Abraham Lincoln, issued at the beginning of the war. In it he tried to bribe the Southern States back into the Union by the promise of the maintenance of slavery, and failed.

2. A speech by President Jefferson Davis, delivered, I believe, in 1864, and at Atlanta, Ga. In it he expressed the following sentiments (I quote from memory): ‘There are some who talk of a return to the Union with slavery maintained, but who would thus sacrifice honor to interest.’

With this quotation I will close my narrative. The plain statement of facts it contains will, I have no doubt, convince any unbiased reader that the supposed scheme of a retrocession of Louisiana never had any foundation in fact. Indeed I should not have thought it necessary even to contradict such a myth were it not that my silence might have been misinterpreted and allowed some cloud of suspicion to hover over the memory of departed friends. Their unsullied honor and untarnished fame are, however, in themselves proof against attacks which, be they base or futile, must inevitably recoil upon their authors, exposing them to ridicule or contempt.

C. J. Polignac. Villa Jessie, Cannes, France, April 17, 1901.

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 United States License.

An XML version of this text is available for download, with the additional restriction that you offer Perseus any modifications you make. Perseus provides credit for all accepted changes, storing new additions in a versioning system.

hide People (automatically extracted)
hide Dates (automatically extracted)
hide Display Preferences
Greek Display:
Arabic Display:
View by Default:
Browse Bar: