previous next

Chapter 82: the East India fleet.

Of course, in the long years after the war, there were many recitations of Mr. Davis's shortcomings, given by one or other of those who thought a mistake had been made when he was asked to preside over the Confederate States. One of these is his alleged failure to purchase the E. I. fleet, which was revamped in 1889 and given to the journals of the day.

Judge Roman, in his book entitled “Military operations of General Beauregard,” states that:

While journeying from Charleston to Montgomery, General Beauregard met Mr. W. L. Trenholm, whose father, George A. Trenholm, was a partner in the great firm of John Frazer & Co., of Charleston and Liverpool. This gentleman, as he informed General Beauregard, was the bearer of important propositions from the English branch of their house to the Confederate Government, for the purchase of ten large and powerful steamers, just built in England for the East Indian Company, which, no longer needing them, [897] was desirous of finding a purchaser; the ships were to be properly manned and fitted out, and sent to the Confederate States, thence to export enough cotton to pay for them, and as much more as should be required to provide for the armament and equipment of our forces. Such a plan, it was thought by the Frazer house, could easily be carried out. The United States Government would require time to collect and rendezvous its fleet, the inadequacy of which was well known; and no fear need, therefore, be entertained of its ability, at that time, to enforce a blockade of the Southern ports; an effective blockade could be prevented. After a certain number of voyages with large cargoes of cotton, for the purposes already mentioned, these steamers might be converted into cruisers, and employed to impede and destroy Northern commerce.

General Beauregard, thoroughly impressed with the incalculable benefits to be derived from the adoption of such a project, promised Mr. Trenholm to use his utmost endeavors in furtherance of the measures that gentleman was sent to advocate. In a letter to General Beauregard, dated Charleston, September 18, 1878, Mr. Trenholm says: “This I remember well, that you warmly supported the proposition, and used your influence in aid of its [898] being brought before the Cabinet, which was accomplished.” But neither General Beauregard's earnest advice, nor the strong and cogent reasons given by Mr. Trenholm were of any avail. The Confederate Government, under the erroneous belief that the war would be a short one, declined entertaining the proposals made to it. “No discussion took place in my presence,” says Mr. Trenholm, in the letter already alluded to, “but from questions put to me, I have always been under the impression that few, if any, of those present” (meaning the President and members of the Cabinet) “realized at all the scope and importance of the measures laid before them.” Thus was closed upon the Confederacy a door-then wide-open-through which might have entered that material assistance, those sinews of war, the want of which all the heroism of our troops and the endurance and self sacrifice of our people could not remedy.

The New York Sun of November 17, 1878, contained what purported to be an interview with General Beauregard, in which he said he had gone with a messenger of Messrs. Frazer & Co. to the Confederate Secretary of War, and urged him to buy the fleet.

Mr. W. L. Trenholm wrote to Mr. Davis December 18, 1878, of the alleged proposition [899] made to the Confederate Government by Mr. Trenholm.

Mr. Davis's answer.

One should speak with diffidence of events which passed seventeen years ago, and hence I should have preferred not being appealed to for my recollection of this matter.

The first application was made to me in February last. I enclose my reply to that (copy) and also copy of my letter to General Beauregard of September 18th. These letters have been read by Mr. Memminger, and he tells me that only one matter was brought before the Cabinet, viz., the proposition to subsidize steamers, to keep open communication with the West Indies.

Since the interview with Mr. Memminger, I have taxed my memory to recall what passed, and it seems to me that, whether it was before the Cabinet or not, the other proposal, viz., to purchase certain steamers, was spoken of at the cabinet meeting at which I was present by invitation. I think I rememn ber someone, possibly it was General Toombs, making a remark that showed that he had confused the two measures altogether, and thought the proposition was for the Government to buy the steamers, and then subsidize [900] a company to manage them, or something of that sort.

This is a vague and indistinct recollection, however, and I merely mention it because the same incidents may have made an impression upon the others.

As well as I can remember, I spoke in favor of both measures. Mr. Memminger thinks otherwise, but subsequent effort has failed to elicit any other recollections on my part.

Application having been made to others who were in a position to know all the circumstances of the alleged proposal to buy the fleet, so positively asserted by Judge Roman, the following answers were received. All show that their recollections are also “vague and indistinct,” of events of such great importance that, had they been accomplished, the “ door,” as Roman says, “ would not have been closed upon the Confederacy, through which might have entered those sinews of war, the want of which proved fatal to the cause.”

Honorable L. P. Walker, ex-Confederate Secretary of War, wrote:

I have read the article in the New York Sun which you enclosed me in your letter to me of the second instant. I do not remember the interview with me mentioned by General Beauregard, nor that any proposition was [901] submitted to the Confederate Government for the sale to it of any steamers of the character stated here. If any such proposition was made, it has passed from my recollection.

To a like inquiry, addressed to Mr. Memminger, ex-Secretary of the Confederate Treasury, he replied on November 27, 1878.

My dear Sir: I have no recollection of having heard of the proposition referred to by General Beauregard. I remember my having written to Mr. Trenholm, one of the firm of Jno. Frazer & Co., to come on to Montgomery to present the advantages of establishing a depot for cotton and munitions of war at Bermuda, and some station in the West Indies, and that he came on and appeared before the Cabinet, warmly advocated this plan, and that it met with my cordial approval; but it was not approved by the Cabinet.

I remember nothing of any proposal to purchase the steamers of the India Company. Mr. William Trenholm remembers his appearance before the Cabinet in behalf of the scheme above mentioned. His address was confined to that scheme, but he says he made the proposition to the Secretary of War and [902] to Mr. Mallory, the Secretary of the Navy, to purchase the steamers of the Oriental Company, but that they had many grounds of objection to the purchase, such as the great draught of water, which would prevent their entering Southern ports, their construction of iron, and the want of money. He has no recollection of ever having spoken to me or you on the subject, nor did it enter into the statement made before the Cabinet; and as to myself, I have no recollection of having been consulted by either Mr. Mallory or the Secretary of War.

Very truly yours,

C. G. Memminger.

In a letter to Captain Bullock, C. S. N., written by Mr. Charles K. Prioleau, senior partner in the Liverpool firm of Frazer, Trenholm & Co., and dated Burges June 21, 1884, he says:

... As regards the ten steamers, I thought you knew about them. They are a part of the East India Company's fleet, the Golden Fleece, 7ason, Hydaspes, etc.; they were offered to me at the beginning of the war, before you came over, and before the Queen's proclamation. My idea was that, if they could have been armed and got out, they [903] would have swept away every vestige of a Federal blockader then upon the water. Frazer, Trenholm & Co. had not then been appointed agents of the Government, and I did not offer these vessels to the Government, but I mentioned them in a private letter to Mr. G. A. Trenholm, leaving it to his discretion to put it before them.

As a matter of fact, I never got any reply to this letter, and never knew that the ships had even been proposed to the Government till long after the war. No further inquiries were ever made me concerning them from any quarter. About nine or ten years (or perhaps not quite so much) ago, General Beauregard wrote me, saying that he was engaged upon his history, that he had heard about these steamers through William Trenholm, who had referred him to me for the particulars, and asked me if I would give him a statement, and allow him to mention my name as to my part of the transaction; to which I willingly consented, and gave him just the facts stated above. Of course, I know now that the enterprise would have been impossible, but we did not know anything for certain then; and any opinion of mine would have been that of a layman, and on its face valueless; therefore, when I heard no more I naturally concluded either that Mr. Trenholm [904] had not thought it worth while to propose the undertaking, or that the Government had been advised against it by their competent officers; and there is no doubt now that they were quite right not to risk so large a sum of money on so doubtful an enterprise, even if they could readily have raised it. It is, however, a little strange that, if the Government knew of these ships at the time you left, they did not instruct you to look at them. On the whole, I am inclined to think that they were never offered to the Government at all, but William Trenholm knew of them from having access to his father's correspondence ...

Very truly.1

With this letter I dismiss the charge of criminal neglect or supine disregard, on the part of the President and his cabinet, of favorable opportunity or of our danger, as “vague and indefinite.”

The pain inflicted on Mr. Davis in his old age and weak health by arraignments made against him by his own people, was relieved very much when he received an expression of regard from either North or South. He was gratified to learn, by a letter from a friend in Maine, his name had not, as he had been informed, been expunged from the honorary [905] membership of Bowdoin College, in Maine. He appreciated gratefully the action of the officers of the college, and answered their kind letter only a few months before his death. He was also much pleased at being made a member of the Kappa Sigma Society, which was done in a particularly handsome manner. It was the society of which our son was a much-lamented and beloved brother.

1 North American Review, October, 1889.

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: