previous next

Chapter 19:

  • The Sumter at Martinique
  • -- proceeds from Fort de France to St. Pierre

    -- is an object of much curiosity with the islanders -- news of the arrest of Messrs. Mason and Slidell, on board the British mail steamer, the Trent -- Mr. Seward's extraordinary course on the occasion.

the Sumter having sailed from Maranham, on the 15th of

September, and arrived at Martinique, on the 9th of November, had been nearly two months at sea, during all of which time, she had been actively cruising in the track of the enemy's commerce. She had overhauled a great many vessels, but, for reasons already explained, most of these were neutral. But the damage which she did the enemy's commerce, must not be estimated by the amount of property actually destroyed. She had caused consternation, and alarm among the enemy's ship-masters, and they were making, as we have seen, long and circuitous voyages, to avoid her. Insurance had risen to a high rate, and, for want of freights, the enemy's ships—such of them, at least, as could not purchase those lucrative contracts from the Government, of which I have spoken in a former page — were beginning to be tied up, at his wharves, where they must rot, unless they could be sold, at a sacrifice, to neutrals. As a consequence, the little Sumter was denounced, without stint, by the Yankee press. She was called a ‘pirate,’ and other hard names, and the most summary vengeance was denounced against her commander, and all who served under him. Venal scribblers asserted all kinds of falsehoods concerning him, and the elegant pages of ‘Journals of Civilization’ pandered to the taste of the ‘b'hoys,’ in the work-shops, by publishing malicious caricatures of him. Even the Federal Government denounced him, in grave state papers; Mr. [233] Welles, the Federal Secretary of the Navy, forgetting his international law, if he ever knew any, and the courtesies, and proprieties of official speech, and taking up in his ‘annual reports,’ the refrain of ‘pirate.’ This was all very natural, however. Men will cry aloud, when they are in pain, and, on such occasions, above all others, they will be very apt to use the language that is most natural to them—be it gentle, or ungentle. Unfortunately for the Great Republic, political power has descended so low, that the public officer, however high his station, must, of necessity, be little better than the b'hoy, from whom he receives his power of attorney. When mobs rule, gentlemen must retire to private life. Accordingly, the Commander of the Sumter, who had witnessed the facile descensus of which he has spoken, was not at all surprised, when he received a batch of late Northern newspapers, at seeing himself called hard names—whether by the mob or officials. Knowing his late fellow-citizens well, he knew that it was of no use for them to

Strive to expel strong nature, 'tis in vain;
With redoubled force, she will return again.

Immediately after anchoring, in Fort de France, I sent a lieutenant on shore, to call on the Governor, report our arrival, and ask for the usual hospitalities of the port,—these hospitalities being, as the reader is aware, such as Goldsmith described as welcoming him at his inn, the more cheerfully rendered, for being paid for. I directed my lieutenant to use rather the language of demand—courteously, of course—than of petition, for I had seen the French proclamation of neutrality, and knew that I was entitled, under the orders of the Emperor, to the same treatment, that a Federal cruiser might receive. I called, the next day, on the Governor myself. I found him a very affable, and agreeable gentleman. He was a rear admiral, in the French Navy, and bore the aristocratic name of Conde. Having observed a large supply of excellent coal in the government dock-yard, as I pulled in to the landing, I proposed to his Excellency that he should supply me from that source, upon my paying cost, and expenses. He declined doing this, but said that I might have free access to [234] the market, for this and other supplies. Mentioning that I had a number of prisoners on board, he at once gave me permission to land them, provided the United States Consul, who lived at St. Pierre, the commercial metropolis of the island, would consent to become responsible for their maintenance during their stay in the island. There being no difference of opinion between the Governor and myself; as to our respective rights and duties, our business-matters were soon arranged, and an agreeable chat of half an hour ensued, on general topics, when I withdrew, much pleased with my visit.

Returning on board the Sumter, I dispatched the paymaster to St. Pierre—there was a small passenger-steamer plying between the two ports—to contract for coal and some articles of clothing for the crew. Of provisions we had plenty, as the reader has seen. Lieutenant Chapman accompanied him, and I sent up, also, the masters of the two captured ships, that were on board, that they might see their Consul and arrange for their release.

The next day was Sunday, and I went on shore, with Mr. Guerin, a French gentleman, who had been educated in the United States, and who had called on board to see me, to the Governor's mass. In this burning climate the church-hours are early, and we found ourselves comfortably seated in our pews as early as eight o'clock. The building was spacious and well ventilated. The Governor and his staff entered punctually at the hour, as did, also, a detachment of troops— the latter taking their stations, in double lines, in the main aisle. A military band gave us excellent sacred music from the choir. The whole service was concluded in three-quarters of an hour. The whites and blacks occupied pews promiscuously, as at Paramaribo, though there was no social admixture of races visible. 1 mean to say that the pews were mixed, though the people were not—each pew was all white or all black; the mulattoes, and others of mixed blood, being counted as blacks. I returned on board for ‘muster,’ which took place at the usual hour of eleven o'clock. Already the ship was full of visitors, and I was struck with the absorbed attention with which they witnessed the calling of the names of the crew, and the reading of the articles of war by the [235] clerk. They were evidently not prepared for so interesting a spectacle. The officers were all dressed in bright and new uniforms of navy blue—we had not yet been put in gray, along with the army—the gorgeous epaulettes of the lieutenants flashing in the sun, and the midshipmen rejoicing in their gold-embroidered anchors and stars. The men attracted no less attention than the officers, with their lithe and active forms and bronzed countenances, heavy, well-kept beards, and whitest of duck frocks and trousers. One of my visitors, turning to me, after the muster was over, said, pleasantly, in allusion to the denunciations of us by the Yankee newspapers, which he had been reading, ‘Ces hommes sent des pirates bien polis, Monsieur Capitaine.’

In the afternoon, one watch of the crew was permitted to visit the shore, on liberty. To each seaman was given a sovereign, for pocket-money. They waked up the echoes of the quaint old town, drank dry all the grog-shops, fagged out the fiddlers, with the constant music that was demanded of them, and ‘turned up Jack’ generally; coming off; the next morning, looking rather solemn and seedy, and not quite so polis as when the Frenchman had seen them the day before. The United States Consul having come down from St. Pierre to receive his imprisoned countrymen, himself, I caused them all—except three of them, who had signed articles for service on board the Sumter—to be parolled and sent on shore to him. Before landing them, I caused them to be mustered on the quarterdeck, and questioned them, in person, as to the treatment they had received on board—addressing myself, especially, to the two masters. They replied, without exception, that they had been well treated, and thanked me for my kindness. From the next batch of Northern newspapers I captured, I learned that some of these fellows had been telling wonderful stories, about the hardships they had endured on board the ‘pirate’ Sumter. It will not be very difficult for the reader, if he have any knowledge of the sailor-character, to imagine how these falsehoods had been wheedled out of them. The whole country of the enemy was on the qui vive for excitement. The Yankee was more greedy for news than the old Athenian. The war had been a god-send for newspaperdom. The more extraordinary [236] were the stories that were told by the venal and corrupt newspapers, the more greedily were they devoured by the craving and prurient multitude. The consequence was, a race between the newspaper reporters after the sensational, without the least regard to the truth. The moment a sailor landed, who had been a prisoner on board the Sumter, he was surrounded by these vampires of the press, who drank him and greenbacked him until parturition was comparatively easy. The next morning, the cry of ‘news from the pirate Sumter’ rang sharp and clear upon the streets, from the throats of the newsboys, and Jack found himself a hero and in print! He had actually been on board the ‘pirate,’ and escaped to tell the tale! More drinks, and more greenbacks now followed from his admiring countrymen. Your old salt has an eye to fun, as well as drinks, and when it was noised about, among the sailors, that some cock-and-a-bull story or other, about the Sumter, was as good as ‘fractional’ for drinks, the thing ran like wildfire, and every sailor who landed, thereafter, from that famous craft, made his way straight to a newspaper office, in quest of a reporter, drinks, and greenbacks. Such is the stuff out of which a good deal of the Yankee histories of the late war will be made.

My paymaster, and lieutenant returned, in good time, from St. Pierre, and reported that they had found an abundance of excellent coal, at reasonable rates, in the market, but that the Collector of the Customs had interposed, to prevent it from being sold to them. Knowing that this officer had acted without authority, I addressed a note to the Governor, reminding him of the conversation we had had the day before, and asking him for the necessary order to overrule the action of his subordinate. My messenger brought back with him the following reply:—

Fort de France, November 12, 1861.
to the Captain:—
I have the honor to send you the enclosed letter, which I ask you to hand to the Collector of Customs, at St. Pierre, in which I request him to permit you to embark freely, as much coal as you wish to purchase, in the market. * * *

With the expression of my highest regard for the Captain,


I remained a few days longer, at Fort de France, for the convenience of watering ship, from the public reservoir, and to enable the rest of my crew to have their run on shore. Unless Jack has his periodical frolic, he is very apt to become moody, and discontented; and my sailors had now been cooped up, in their ship, a couple of months. This giving of ‘liberty’ to them is a little troublesome, to be sure, as some of them will come off drunk, and noisy, and others, overstaying their time, have to be hunted up, in the grog-shops, and other sailor haunts, and brought off by force. My men behaved tolerably well, on the present occasion. No complaint came to me from the shore, though a good many ‘bills,’ for ‘nights' lodgings,’ and ‘drinks,’ followed them on board. Poor Jack! how strong upon him is the thirst for drink! We had an illustration of this, whilst we were lying at Fort de France. It was about nine P. M., and I was below in my cabin, making preparations to retire. Presently, I heard a plunge into the water, a hail, and almost simultaneously, a shot fired from one of the sentinels' rifles. The boatswain's-mate's whistle now sounded, as a boat was called away, and a rapid shuffling of feet was heard overhead, as the boat was being lowered. Upon reaching the deck, I found that one of the firemen, who had come off from ‘liberty,’ a little tight, had jumped overboard, and, in defiance of the hail, and shot of the sentinel, struck out, lustily, for the shore. The moon was shining brightly, and an amusing scene now occurred. The boat was in hot pursuit, and soon came upon the swimmer; but the latter, who dived like a duck, had no notion of being taken. As the boat would come up with him, and ‘back all,’ for the purpose of picking him up, he would dive under her bottom, and presently would be seen, either abeam, or astern, ‘striking out,’ like a good fellow, again. By the time the boat could turn, and get headway once more, the swimmer would have some yards the start of her, and when she again came up with him, the same tactics would follow. The crew, hearing what was going on, had all turned out of their hammocks, and come on deck to witness the fun; and fun it really was for some minutes, as the doubling, and diving, and twisting, and turning went on—the boat now being sure she had him, and now sure she had n't. The [238] fellow finally escaped, and probably a more chop-fallen boat's crew never returned alongside of a ship, than was the Sumter's that night. An officer was now sent on shore in pursuit of the fugitive. He had no difficulty in finding him. In half an hour after the performance of his clever feat, the fireman was lying—dead drunk—in one of the cabarets, in the sailor quarter of the town. He had had no intention of deserting, but had braved the sentinel's bullet, the shark—which abounds in these waters—and discipline—all for the sake of a glass of grog!

Our time was made remarkably pleasant, during our stay; the inhabitants showing us every mark of respect and politeness, and the officers of the garrison, and of a couple of small French vessels of war, in the port, extending to us the courtesies of their clubs, and mess-rooms. I declined all invitations, myself, but my officers frequently dined on shore; and on the evening before our departure, they returned the hospitalities of their friends, by an elegant supper in the wardroom, at which the festivities were kept up to a late hour. Riding, and breakfast-parties, in the country, were frequent, and bright eyes, peeping out of pretty French bonnets, shone benignantly upon my young ‘pirates.’ The war was frequently the topic of conversation, when such expressions as ‘les barbares du Nord!’ would escape, not unmusically, from the prettiest of pouting lips. I passed several agreeable evenings, at the hospitable mansion of my friend, Mr. Guerin, the ladies of whose family were accomplished musicians. The sailor is, above all others of his sex, susceptible of female influences. The difference arises, naturally, out of his mode of life, which removes him so often, and so long, from the affections, and refinements of home. After roughing it, for months, upon the deep, in contact only with coarse male creatures, how delightful I found it to sink into a luxurious seat, by the side of a pretty woman, and listen to the sweet notes of her guitar, accompanied by the sweeter notes, still, of her voice, as she warbled, rather than sang some lay of the sea.

In these delightful tropical climates, night is turned into day. The sun, beating down his fierce rays upon heated walls and streets, drives all but the busy merchant and the laborer [239] in-doors during the day. Windows are raised, blinds closed and all the members of the household, not compelled to exer tion, betake themselves to their fauteuils, and luxurious hammocks. Dinner is partaken of at five or six o'clock, in the afternoon. When the sun goes down, and the shades of evening begin to fall, and the first gentle stirring of the trees and shrubbery, by the land breeze begins to awaken the katydid, and the myriads of other insects, which have been dozing in the heat, the human world is also awakened. The lazy beauty now arises from her couch, and seeking her bath-room, and tire-woman, begins to prepare for the duties of the day. She is coiffed, and arranged for conquest, and sallies forth to the Place d'armes, to listen to the music of the military bands, if there be no other special entertainment on hand. The Place d'armes of Fort de France is charmingly situated, on the very margin of the bay, where, in the intervals of the music, or of the hum of conversation, the ripple of the tide beats time, as it breaks upon the smooth, pebbly beach. Ships are anchored in front, and far away to the left, rises a range of blue, and misty hills, which are pointed out to the stranger, as the birth-place of the Empress Josephine. The statue of the Empress also adorns the grounds, and the inhabitants are fond of referring to her history. I was quite surprised at the throng that the quiet little town of Fort de France was capable of turning out, upon the Place d'armes; and even more at the quality, than the quantity of the throng. What with military and naval officers, in their gay uniforms, the multitudes of well-dressed men and women, the ecclesiastics in the habits of their several orders, the flower-girls, the venders of fruits, sherbets, and icecreams—for the universal Yankee has invaded the colony with his ice-ships—and the delightful music of the bands, it would be difficult to find a more delightful place, in which to while away an hour.

Whilst we were still at Fort de France, a rather startling piece of intelligence reached us. A vessel came in, from St. Thomas, and brought the news, that the English mail-steamer, Trent, had arrived there from Havana, and reported that Messrs. Mason and Slidell had been forcibly taken out of her, by the United States steamer, San Jacinto, Captain Wilkes. A few [240] days afterward, I received a French newspaper, giving a detailed account of the affair. It was indeed a very extraordinary proceeding, and could not fail to attract much attention. I had known friend Wilkes, in former years, and gave him credit for more sagacity, than this act of his seemed to indicate. ‘A little learning is a dangerous thing,’ and the Federal Captain had read, it would seem, just enough of international law to get himself into trouble, instead of keeping himself out of it. He had read of ‘contraband persons,’ and of ‘enemy's despatches,’ and how it was prohibited to neutrals, to carry either; but he had failed to take notice of a very important distinction, to wit, that the neutral vessel, on the present occasion, was bound from one neutral port to another; and that, as between neutral ports, there is no such thing as contraband of war; for the simple reason that contraband of war is a person, or thing, going to, or from an enemy's country. I was glad to hear this news, of course. The Great Republic would have to stand up to its work, and Great Britain would be no less bound to demand a retraxit. If things came to a deadlock, we might have an ally, in the war, sooner than we expected. It would be a curious revolution of the wheel of fortune I thought, to have John Bull helping us to beat the Yankee, on a point—to wit, the right of self-government—on which we had helped the Yankee to beat Bull, less than a century before. I will ask the reader's permission, to dispose of this little quarrel between Bull and the Yankee, to avoid the necessity of again recurring to it; although at the expense of a slight anachronism.

When the news of Wilkes' exploit reached the United States, the b'hoys went into ecstasies. Such a shouting, and throwing up of caps had never been heard of before. The multitude, who were, of course, incapable of reasoning upon the act, only knew that England had been bearded and insulted; but that was enough. Their national antipathies, and their ridiculous self-conceit had both been pandered to. The newspapers were filled with laudatory editorials, and ‘plate,’ and ‘resolutions,’ were showered upon unfortunate friend Wilkes, without mercy. If he had been an American Nelson, returning from an American Nile, or Trafalgar, he could not have [241] been received with more honor. State legislatures bowed down before him, and even the American Congress—the House of Representatives; the Senate had not quite lost its wits—gave him a vote of thanks. It was not, perhaps, so much to be wondered at, that the multitude should go mad, with joy, for multitudes, everywhere, are composed of unreasoning animals, but men, who should have known better, permitted themselves to be carried away by the popular hallucination. The Executive Government approved of Captain Wilkes' conduct—the Secretary of the Navy, whose insane hatred of England was quite remarkable, making haste to write the Captain a congratulatory letter. But an awful collapse was at hand. Mr. Seward, as though he already heard the ominous rumbling of the distant English thunder, which was, anon, to break over his head, in tones that would startle him, on the 30th of November—the outrage had been committed on the 7th,—wrote, as follows, to his faithful sentinel, at the Court of London, Mr. Charles Francis Adams.

‘We have done nothing, on the subject, to anticipate the discussion, and we have not furnished you with any explanation. We adhere to that course now, because we think it more prudent, that the ground taken by the British Government should be first made known to us, here. It is proper, however, that you should know one fact, in the case, without indicating that we attach much importance to it, namely, that in the capture of Messrs. Mason and Slidell, on board a British vessel, Captain Wilkes having acted without any instructions from the Government, the subject is therefore free from the embarrassment, which might have resulted, if the act had been especially directed by us.’

If no ‘explanation’ had been thought of by Mr. Seward, up to this time, it was high time that he was getting one ready, for, on the same day, on which the above despatch was written, Lord John Russell, then charged with the duties of the foreign office, in England, under the administration of Lord Palmerston, wrote as follows, to Lord Lyons, his Minister at Washington:

‘Her Majesty's Government, bearing in mind the friendly relations which have long subsisted between Great Britain, and the United States, are willing to believe, that the United States naval officer who committed the aggression, was not acting in compliance with any authority from his Government, or that, if he conceived himself to be so authorized, he greatly misunderstood the [242] instructions, which he had received. For the Government of the United States must be fully aware, that the British Government could not allow such an affront to the national honor, to pass without full reparation, and her Majesty's Government are unwilling to believe that it could be the deliberate intention of the Government of the United States, unnecessarily to force into discussion, between the two Governments, a question of so grave a character, and with regard to which, the whole British nation would be sure to entertain such unanimity of feeling. Her Majesty's Government, therefore, trust that, when this matter shall have been brought under the consideration of the Government of the United States, that Government will, of its own accord, offer to the British Government such redress as alone, could satisfy the British nation, namely, the liberation of the four gentlemen [the two Secretaries of Legation were also captured], and their delivery to your lordship, in order that they may again be placed under British protection, and a suitable apology for the aggression, which has been committed. Should these terms not be offered, by Mr. Seward, you will propose them to him.’

Mr. Seward had no notion of proposing any terms to Lord Lyons. The shouts of the b'hoys had scarcely yet ceased to ring in his ears, and it would be an awkward step to take. Besides, he could have no terms to offer, for the Government had, in fact, approved of Captain Wilkes' act, through its Secretary of the Navy. The back door, which Mr. Seward intimated to Mr. Adams was open for retreat, when he told him, that Captain Wilkes' act had not been authorized by the Government, was not honorably open, for the act had afterward been approved by the Government, and this amounted to the same thing. Later on the same day on which Earl Russell wrote his despatch to Lord Lyons he added a postscript to it, as follows:—

‘In my previous despatch of this date, I have instructed you, by command of her Majesty, to make certain demands of the Government of the United States. Should Mr. Seward ask for delay, in order that this grave and painful matter should be deliberately considered, you will consent to a delay, not exceeding seven days. If, at the end of that time, no answer is given, or if any other answer is given, except that of a compliance with the demands of her Majesty's Government, your lordship is instructed to leave Washington, with all the members of your legation, bringing with you the archives of the legation, and to repair immediately to London. If, however, you should be of opinion that the requirements of her [243] Majesty's Government are substantially complied with, you may report the facts to her Majesty's Government, for their consideration, and remain at your post, until you receive further orders.’

This was indeed bringing matters to a focus. Mr. Seward was required to liberate the prisoners, and make an apology, and that within seven days. This was putting it rather offensively. It is bad enough to make a man apologize, especially, if he has been ‘blowing’ a short while before, but to tell him that he must do it at once, that was, indeed, rubbing the humiliation in. And then, where was the Congress, and the Massachusetts legislature, and Mr. Secretary Welles, and all the ‘plate,’ and all the ‘resolutions’? Posterity will wonder, when it comes to read the elaborate, and lengthy despatch, which Mr. Seward prepared on this occasion, how it was possible for him to prepare it in seven days. But it will wonder still more, after having patiently waded through it, to find how little it contains. I cannot deny myself the pleasure of giving a few of its choicest paragraphs to the reader. Do not start! I gentle reader, the paragraphs will be short; but short as they are, you shall have the gist of this seven days labor, of the American diplomatist. David wrote seven penitential psalms. I wonder if Lord John Russell had a little fun in his eye, when he gave Mr. Seward just seven days for his penitential performance. But to the paragraphs. Mr. Seward is addressing himself, the reader will observe, to Lord Lyons. After stating the case, he proceeds:—

‘Your lordship will now perceive, that the case before us, instead of presenting a merely flagrant act of violence, on the part of Captain Wilkes, as might well be inferred, from the incomplete statement of it, that went up to the British Government, was undertaken as a simple, legal, and customary belligerent proceeding, by Captain Wilkes, to arrest and capture a neutral vessel, engaged in carrying contraband of war, for the uses and benefit of the insurgents.’

This point was so utterly untenable, that it is astonishing that Mr. Seward should have thought of defending it. If it were defensible, he ought not to have given up the prisoners, or made an apology; for the law is clear, that contraband of [244] war may be seized, and taken out of a neutral vessel, on the high seas. It was not because contraband of war had been taken out of one of their vessels, that Great Britain demanded an apology, but because persons, and things, not contraband of war, under the circumstances under which they were found, had been taken out. If the Trent had been overhauled in the act of sailing from one of the Confederate ports, blockaded or not blockaded, with Messrs. Mason and Slidell, and their despatches on board, and the San Jancinto had taken them out of her, permitting the ship to proceed on her voyage, Great Britain would never have thought of complaining—waiving, for the sake of the present argument, the diplomatic character of the passengers. And why would she not have complained? Simply, because one of her ships had been found with contraband of war, on board, and the least penalty, namely, the seizure of the contraband, that the laws of war imposed upon her, had been exacted. But her ship the Trent, neither having sailed from, or being bound for a Confederate port, it matters not whom, or what she might have on board, the question of contraband could not arise, at all; for, as we have seen, it is of the essence of contraband, that the person, or thing should be going to, or from an enemy's port. Wilkes' act being utterly and entirely indefensible, the Federal Government should have saved its honor, the moment the affair came to its notice, by a frank disavowal of it. But, as we have seen, the b'hoys had shouted; Mr. Welles had spoken approvingly; Congress had resolved that their officer was deserving of thanks, and even Mr. Seward, himself, had gloried over the capture of ‘rebels,’ and ‘traitors;’ the said ‘rebels,’ and ‘traitors’ having frequently, in former years, snubbed, and humbled him in the Senate of the United States. Hence the indecent language, in which he now spoke of them. The reader, having seen that Mr. Seward justified Captain Wilkes' conduct, as a ‘simple, legal, and customary belligerent proceeding, to arrest and capture a neutral vessel engaged in carrying contraband of war, for the use and benefit of the insurgents,’ he will be curious to know, on what ground it was, that Mr. Seward based his apology. This ground was curious enough. It was, not that Captain Wilkes had gone too far, but that he had not gone far [245] enough. If, said he, Captain Wilkes had taken the Trent into port, for adjudication, instead of letting her go, his justification would be complete, and there would be no apology to make. Adjudication presupposes something to adjudicate; but if there was no contraband of war, on board the Trent, what was there to adjudicate? The British Government did not complain, that the question had not been presented for adjudication to the proper prize tribunals, but that their vessel had been boarded, and outraged, without there being any grounds for adjudication, at all. If the Trent had been taken into port, a prize-court must have liberated the prisoners. It would then, if not before, have been apparent, that there was no ground for the seizure. The act still remaining to be atoned for, what was there to be gained, by sending the vessel in? It is not denied that, as a rule, neutrals are entitled to have their vessels, when captured, sent in for adjudication, but Mr. Seward knew, very well, that no question of this nature had arisen, between the British Government and himself, and he was only trifling with the common sense of mankind, when he endeavored to turn the issue in this direction.

One cannot help sympathizing with a diplomatist, who being required to eat a certain amount of dirt, gags at it, so painfully, and yet pretends, all the while, that he really likes it, as Mr. Seward does in the following paragraph:—

‘I have not been unaware that, in examining this question, I have fallen into an argument, for what seems to be the British side of it, against my own country [what a deal of humiliation it would have saved his country, if he had fallen into this train of argument, before the dirt-pie had been presented to him]. But I am relieved from all embarrassment, on that subject. I had hardly fallen into that line of argument, when I discovered, that I was really defending and maintaining, not an exclusively British interest, but an old, honored, and cherished American cause, not upon British authorities, but upon principles that constitute a large portion of the distinctive policy, by which the United States have developed the resources of a continent, and thus becoming a considerable maritime power, have won the respect and confidence of many nations.’

Like an adroit circus-man, the venerable Federal Secretary of State has now gotten upon the backs of two ponies. He continues:— [246]

‘These principles were laid down, for us, by James Madison, in 1804; when Secretary of State, in the administration of Thomas Jefferson, in instructions given to James Monroe, our minister to England.’

These instructions had relation to the old dispute, between the two Governments, about the impressment of seamen from American ships, and were as follows:—

‘Whenever property found in a neutral vessel is supposed to be liable, on any ground, to capture and condemnation, the rule in all cases, is, that the question shall not be decided by the captor, but be carried before a legal tribunal, where a regular trial may be had, and where the captor himself is liable for damages, for an abuse of his power. Can it be reasonable then, or just, that a belligerent commander, who is thus restricted, and thus responsible, in a case of mere property, of trivial amount, should be permitted, without recurring to any tribunal, whatever, to examine the crew of a neutral vessel, to decide the important question of their respective allegiances, and to carry that decision into execution, by forcing every individual, he may choose, into a service abhorrent to his feelings, cutting him off from his most tender connections, exposing his mind and person to the most humiliating discipline, and his life, itself, to the greatest danger. Reason, justice, and humanity unite in protesting against so extravagant a proceeding.’

Mr. Seward after thus quoting, continues:—

‘If I decide this case in favor of my own Government, I must disavow its most cherished principles, and reverse, and forever abandon its essential policy. The country cannot afford the sacrifice. If I maintain these principles, and adhere to that policy, I must surrender the case itself. It will be seen, therefore, that this Government could not deny the justice of the claim presented to us, in this respect, upon its merits. We are asked to do to the British nation, just what we have always insisted, all nations ought to do to us.’

That is ‘coming down with the corn,’ now, handsomely, but in view of the antecedents of the question, and of the ‘seven days’ pressure under which Mr. Seward's despatch was written, one cannot help pitying Mr. Seward. We not only pity him, but he absolutely surprises us by the fertility of his imagination, in discovering any resemblance between the Madison precedent, and the case he had in hand. The British Government was not insisting that Mr. Seward should send the Trent in for adjudication. It did not mean that there should be any adjudication about the matter, except such as it [247] had itself already passed upon the case. Had it not said to its minister, at Washington, ‘If, at the end of that time, no answer is given, or, if any other answer is given, except that of a compliance with the demands of her Majesty's Government, your lordship is instructed to leave Washington, &c.’? To be logical, Mr. Seward should have said, ‘Our officer having made a mistake, by doing a right thing, in a wrong way, namely, by seizing contraband of war, on board a neutral ship, without sending the ship in, for adjudication, we will send the prisoners back to the Trent, if you will send the Trent into one of our ports for adjudication.’ But Mr. Seward knew better than to say any such thing, for the simple reason, that this was not the thing which was demanded of him, although he had written a lengthy despatch to prove that it was.

I was in Europe when Mr. Seward's despatch arrived there. Every one was astonished, both at the paper, and the act of humiliation performed by it. The act needed not to be humiliating. A great wrong had been done a neutral. It could be neither justified, nor palliated. A statesman, at the head of the Federal State Department, would have made haste to atone for it, before any demand for reparation could be made. To pander to a vitiated public taste, and gain a little temporary eclat, by appearing to beard the British lion, hoping that the lion would submit, in silence to the indignity, Mr. Seward committed one of those blunders which was equivalent to a great crime, since it humiliated an entire people, and put on record against them one of those damaging pages that historians cannot, if they would, forget. The following were the closing lines of this famous despatch:—

‘The four persons in question are now held in military custody, at Fort Warren, in the State of Massachusetts. They will be cheerfully liberated. Your lordship will please indicate a time, and place, for receiving them.’

When I read this paragraph, I experienced two sensations—one, of disappointment at the loss of an ally, with whose aid we would be sure to gain the independence for which we were struggling, and one, of mortification, that an American nation had been so greatly humbled, before an European Power; for though the Federal States were my [248] enemies, as between them and foreign nations, I could not but feel something like family attachment. Whilst I would humble them, and whip them into a sense of justice and decent behavior, myself, I was loth to see strangers kick them, and themselves submit to the kicking.

So very one-sided was the question, which Mr. Seward had permitted himself to argue, with so much zeal, and so little discrimination, that all the principal nations of Europe rallied, as if by common consent, to the side of Great Britain. Russia, France, Spain, and other Powers, all took the same view of the case that Earl Russell had done, and made haste, through their respective ministers at Washington, so to express themselves. I will let France speak for them all. The reasons which influenced the action of the French Government are thus assigned:—

‘The desire to contribute to prevent a conflict, perhaps imminent, between two Powers, for which the French Government is animated with sentiments equally friendly, and the duty to uphold, for the purpose of placing the right of its own flag under shelter from any attack, certain principles essential to the security of neutrals, have, after mature reflection, convinced it, that it could not, under the circumstances, remain entirely silent.’

The French Minister for Foreign Affairs then goes on to examine the arguments which could be set up in defence of the Federal Captain, concluding as follows:—

‘There remains, therefore, to invoke, in explanation of their capture, only the pretext that they were the bearers of official despatches from the enemy; but this is the moment to recall a circumstance, that governs all this affair, and which renders the conduct of the American cruiser unjustifiable. The Trentwas not destined to a point belonging to one of the belligerents. She was carrying to a neutral country her cargo and her passengers; and moreover, it was in a neutral port that they were taken. The Cabinet at Washington could not, without striking a blow at principles, which all neutral nations are alike interested in holding in respect, nor without taking the attitude of contradiction to its own course, up to this time, give its approbation to the proceedings of the commander of the San Jacinto. In this state of things, it evidently should not, according to our views, hesitate about the determination to be taken.’


The excuse which I have to offer to the reader, for permitting so much of my space to be occupied with this ‘affair,’ is, that it deeply interested every Confederate States naval officer, afloat at the time. I, myself, made several passages, in neutral vessels, between neutral ports, and might have been captured with as much propriety, even when passing from Dover to Calais, as Messrs. Mason and Slidell had been.

On the 13th of November, my water-tanks being full, and my crew having all returned from ‘liberty’—none of them having shown any disposition to desert—we got up steam, and proceeded to the town of St. Pierre, for the purpose of coaling; arriving at the early hour of 8 A. M., and anchoring at the man-of-war anchorage, south of the town. I immediately dispatched a lieutenant to call on the military commandant, accompanied by the paymaster, to make the necessary arrangements for coaling. St. Pierre was quite a different place, from the quiet old town we had left. A number of merchant-ships were anchored in the harbor, and there was quite an air of stir, and thrift, about the quays. Busy commerce was carrying on her exchanges, and with commerce there is always life. There were not so many idle people here, to be awakened from their noon-tide slumbers, by the katydid, as in Fort de France. A number of visitors came off, at once, to see us; rumor having preceded us, and blown the trumpet of our fame, much more than we deserved. Among the rest, there were several customhouse officers, but if these had any office of espionage to perform, they performed it, so delicately, as not to give offence. Indeed they took pains to explain to us, that they had only come on board out of civility, and as a mere matter of curiosity. I never permit myself to be out-done in politeness, and treated them with all consideration.

The Collector of the Customs gave prompt obedience to the Governor's despatch—commanding him not to throw any obstacle in the way of our coaling—by withdrawing the interdict of sale which he had put upon the coal-merchants; and the paymaster returning, after a short absence, with news that he had made satisfactory arrangements with the said merchants, the ship was warped up to the coal-depot, and some thirty tons [250] of coal received, on board, the same afternoon. This was very satisfactory progress. We sent down the fore-yard, for repairs, and the engineer finding some good machinists on shore, with more facilities in the way of shop, and tools, than he had expected, took some of his own jobs, of which there are always more or less, in a steamer, on shore.

As the sun dipped his broad red disk into the sea, I landed with my clerk, and we took a delightful evening stroll, along one of the country roads, leading to the northern end of the island, and winding, occasionally, within a stone's throw of the beach. The air was soft, and filled with perfume, and we were much interested in inspecting the low-roofed and red-tiled country houses, and their half-naked inmates, of all colors, that presented themselves, from time to time, as we strolled on. We were here, as we had been in Maranham, objects of much curiosity, and the curiosity was evinced in the same way, respectfully. Wherever we stopped for water—for walking in this sultry climate produces constant thirst—the coolest ‘monkeys’—a sort of porous jug, or jar—and calabashes, were handed us, often accompanied by fruits and an invitation to be seated. Fields of sugar-cane stretched away on either hand, and an elaborate cultivation seemed everywhere to prevail. The island of Martinique is mountainous, and all mountainous countries are beautiful, where vegetation abounds. Within the tropics, when the soil is good, vegetation runs riot in very wantonness; and so it did here. The eye was constantly charmed with a great variety of shade and forest trees, of new and beautiful foliage, and with shrubs, and flowers, without number, ever forming new combinations, and new groups, as the road meandered now through a plane, and now through a rocky ravine, up whose precipitous sides a goat could scarcely clamber.

As the shades of eve came slowly down,
The hills were clothed with deeper brown,

and the twinkle of the lantern at the Sumter's peak denoting that her Captain was out of the ship, caught my eye, at one of the turnings of the road, and reminded me, that we had wandered far enough. We retraced our steps just in time to escape a shower, and sat down, upon our arrival on board, to [251] the evening's repast, which John had prepared for us, with appetites much invigorated by the exercise. We found the market-place, situated near the ship, both upon landing and returning, filled with a curious throng, gazing eagerly upon the Sumter. This throng seemed never to abate during our stay—it was the first thing seen in the morning, and the last thing at night. The next morning, John brought me off a French newspaper; for St. Pierre is sufficiently large, and prosperous, to indulge in a tri-weekly. With true island marvel, a column was devoted to the Sumter, predicating of her, many curious exploits, and cunning devices by means of which she had escaped from the enemy, of which the little craft had never heard, and affirming, as a fact beyond dispute, that her Commander was a Frenchman, he having served, in former years, as a lieutenant on board of the French brig-ofwar Mercure! I felt duly grateful for the compliment, for a compliment indeed it was, to be claimed as a Frenchman, by a Frenchman—the little foible of Gallic vanity considered.

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)
Sort dates alphabetically, as they appear on the page, by frequency
Click on a date to search for it in this document.
November 12th, 1861 AD (1)
1804 AD (1)
November 30th (1)
November 13th (1)
November 9th (1)
September (1)
7th (1)
hide Display Preferences
Greek Display:
Arabic Display:
View by Default:
Browse Bar: