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Chapter 30:

  • The equipment of the Alabama illustrated by that of sundry Colonial cruisers, during the war of 1776
  • -- Benjamin Franklin and Silas Deane, as chiefs of a naval Bureau in Paris -- the surprise, and the revenge -- Wickes and Conyngham, and Paul Jones.

Mutato nomine
De te fabula narrator.
In the last chapter, I gave some account of the operations against British commerce, of certain ships of war and privateers, fitted out in the home ports of the enemy; but as stress has been laid, as we have already seen, upon the foreign origin of the Alabama, and it has been objected against her, that her captures were illegal, and piratical, on that account, it will be incumbent on me to show some cases on this point. The naval history of the enemy abounds in them, but I will content myself with adducing only a few, as specimens of the rest. I design to show that the United States have produced ships, the very counterparts of the Alabama, in every particular, foreign origin and all, and used them with destructive effect, against the commerce of their enemy. All readers of American history are familiar with the names of Benjamin Franklin, Silas Deane, and John Adams, for these distinguished gentlemen played a very important part on the theatre of the American Revolution. As they had much to do with the naval affairs of the Colonies abroad, it is of them and their doings that I would now speak. They were all Northern men, were leaders, in their day, of Northern public opinion, and their memories are justly held in high estimation, both North and South. I shall vouch them for the legality of the [389] origin of the Alabama, as a ship of war, and justify by their acts, and out of their mouths, all the doings of that ship upon the high seas. I again have recourse to Fenimore Cooper. ‘The Reprisal was the first American man-of-war, that ever showed herself in the other hemisphere. She sailed from home not long after the Declaration of Independence, and appeared in France, in the autumn of 1776, bringing in with her several prizes, and having Dr. Franklin on board as a passenger.’ It is well known that Silas Deane followed Dr. Franklin soon afterward, and it was not long before these two Commissioners, who were sent to Europe, to look after the interests of the Colonies, just as Messrs. Mason and Slidell were sent, in our day, to look after the welfare of the Confederate States, went to work.

Dr. Franklin, in particular, was a great favorite with the French people. He wore short breeches, with knee-buckles, and silk stockings, and had the portly air, and bearing of a philosopher. Having learned to fly kites when a boy, he had turned the thing to some account when he had gotten to be a man, and was also well known as the author of ‘Poor Richard's Almanac,’ a book full of axiomatic wisdom, and wise saws. He had a much better field before him, therefore, than Mr. John Slidell had. ‘Tempora mutantur, et nos mutamur in illis;’ and Slidell found that the ‘philosophers’ who had petted Franklin, and the fair women who had played with the tassels of his three-cornered hat, showered bouquets upon him, and talked prettily of the new doctrines of liberty that were just then coming in vogue, had all passed away. Neither philosophy, liberty, or knee-buckles were at all fashionable at the French Court when Slidell arrived there. In short, the people of France had found out that this thing of getting up a revolution for popular rights, however well it might suit other people, did not suit Frenchmen, and they were tired of the matter. They had, since Franklin's day, cut off the head of Louis XVI., played at republics a while, pretty much as children play at card-houses, now setting them up, and now knocking them down again, and having gotten tired of the game, like good children had gone back quietly to their old form of despotism, under Napoleon III., and were content! The [390] sympathy which they had bestowed upon Franklin, and which was productive of so many good results, in our first revolution, had dried up in the second and greater revolution.

Having thus briefly introduced the Commissioners of the Colonies to the reader, let us again look into Cooper, to see what their business was in France, and how they performed it. ‘In order,’ says this writer,

to complete the account of the proceedings of the American Commissioners in Paris, so far as they were connected with naval movements during the years 1776 and 1777, it is necessary to come next to the affair of Captain Conyngham, which, owing to some marked circumstances, made more noise than the cruises of the Reprisal and Lexington, though the first exploits of the latter were anterior as to time, and not of less consequence in their effects. While the Commissioners were directing the movements of Captain Wickes [we will come to these presently] in the manner that has been mentioned, they were not idle in other quarters. A small frigate was building at Nantes, on their account, and there will be occasion to speak of her hereafter, under the name of the Queen of France.

Some time in the spring of 1777, an agent was sent to Dover by the American Commissioners, where he purchased a fine, fast-sailing, English-built cutter, and had her carried across to Dunkirk. Here she was privately equipped as a cruiser, and named the Surprise. To the command of this vessel, Captain Gustavus Conyngham was appointed, by filling up a blank commission from John Hancock, the President of Congress. This commission bore date, March 1st, 1777, and, it would seem, as fully entitled Mr. Conyngham to the rank of captain in the Navy, as any other that was ever issued by the same authority. Having obtained his officers and crew at Dunkirk, Captain Conyngham sailed on a cruise about the 1st of May, and on the 4th he took a brig called the Joseph, &c.

Now, it is to be remarked, with reference to this passage, that the Alabama, though built in England, was not armed or equipped there, nor was her crew enlisted there; whilst the Surprise was not only ‘privately equipped as a cruiser,’ at Dunkirk, a port of France, then at peace with England—for France had not yet joined the Colonies in the war—but she got [391] all her officers and crew there, many of whom were Frenchmen. And when she got up her anchor for a cruise, still lying in the waters of France, she was a perfectly armed and equipped ship of war. She could have engaged an enemy, immediately upon passing beyond the marine league, whereas the Alabama, when she left the Mersey, was entirely unarmed, and without an enlisted crew, and could have been taken possession of by an enemy's cruiser as easily as any other merchant-ship. Mr. Seward insisted, with much vehemence, with the English Government, that the Alabama was not entitled to be regarded as a ship of war, but rather a ‘British pirate,’ because she had never been in a Confederate port. His latest form of protest is found in a letter to Lord Stanley, the British Secretary for Foreign Affairs, of the date of January 12th, 1867, as follows:—

Lord Stanley excuses the reception of the vessels complained of in British ports, subsequently to their fraudulent escapes and armament, on the ground that when the vessels appeared in these ports, they did so in the character of properly commissioned cruisers of the Government of the so-styled Confederate States, and that they received no more shelter, provisions, or facilities, than was due to them in that character. This position is taken by his lordship in full view of the facts that—with the exception of the Sumter and the Florida—none of the vessels named were ever found in any place where a lawful belligerent commission could either be conferred or received. It would appear, therefore, that, in the opinion of her Majesty's Government, a British vessel, in order to acquire a belligerent character against the United States, had only to leave the British port where she was built, clandestinely, and to be fraudulently armed, equipped, and manned anywhere in Great Britain, or in any foreign country, or on the high seas; and in some foreign country, or upon the high seas, to set up and assume the title and privileges of a belligerent, without even entering the socalled Confederacy, or ever coming within any port of the United States. I must confess that, if a lawful belligerent character can be acquired in such a manner, then I am unable to determine by what different course of proceeding a vessel can become a pirate and an enemy to the peace of nations.

Had Mr. Seward forgotten, when he wrote the above, the case of Dr. Franklin's ship, the Surprise? It will be recollected, too, that Mr. Adams, the United States Minister at the Court of London, frequently protested, in his correspondence [392] with the English Foreign Office, against the Confederates being permitted to have ‘stationed agents,’ at Liverpool, and elsewhere in the British dominions, conducting a ‘Naval Bureau.’ Had he forgotten the ‘Naval Bureau’ which was conducted in France, by Dr. Franklin and Silas Deane, who were ‘stationed agents’ of the Colonies? How they built, and purchased, and equipped, and commissioned ships, all in neutral territory; even filling up blank commissions sent out to them by the Congress for the purpose?

But to continue with our precedents. The career of the Surprise was not a very long one. Having carried some prizes into a French port, in violation of a treaty then existing between France and Great Britain, providing that neither should permit the enemies of the other to bring their prizes into her ports, she was seized by the French authorities, and we hear no more of her. But we do hear more, and that immediately, from the Naval Bureau in Paris, under the guidance of Dr. Franklin and Silas Deane. As soon as the seizure of the Surprise became known to the Commissioners, they dispatched one of their agents, a Mr. Hodge, to Dunkirk, where he purchased another cutter, which was fitted with all dispatch, as a cruiser, as the Surprise had been. This second vessel was called the Revenge, and ‘Captain Conyngham and his people,’ to use the words of the historian, were transferred to her. A new commission was given to Conyngham, dated on the 2d of May, 1777, filled up, as before, by the Commissioners, and he soon afterward proceeded to sea under it.

It will be seen with what indulgence, and even connivance the Commissioners were treated by the French authorities. The seizure of the Surprise was a mere blind, intended to satisfy England. The ship herself was suffered to pass out of view, but another ship was permitted to be equipped in her stead, and the officers and crew of the old ship were transferred to the new one, with little or no disguise, and the latter was suffered to depart on a cruise without molestation. Here was another ship, which had never been in any port of the Colonies, and which, according to Mr. Seward's vocabulary, was a ‘pirate.’ Let us see what she did. ‘The Revenge,’ continues the historian, ‘proved exceedingly successful, making prizes [393] daily, and generally destroying them. Some of the more valuable, however, were ordered into Spain, where many arrived; their arrival proving of great moment to the agents of the American Government in Europe. It is even affirmed, that the money advanced to Mr. Adams [the Mr. Adams, here spoken of, was John Adams, afterward second President of the United States, the grandfather of Mr. Charles Francis Adams, Federal Minister to England during the war; and the antagonism in which the grandfather, and grandson are placed, in reference to the principles I am discussing, is one of the curious revolutions of history] for travelling expenses, when he arrived in Spain, a year or two later, was derived from this source.’

The Revenge now disappears from view, as the Surprise had done before her, and the historian takes up the Reprisal, the ship, as we have seen, which carried Dr. Franklin over to France. ‘The Reprisal, having refitted, soon sailed toward the Bay of Biscay, on another cruise. Here she captured several more vessels, and among the rest a King's packet, that plied between Falmouth and Lisbon. When the cruise was up, Captain Wickes went into Nantes, taking his prizes with him. The complaints of the English now became louder, and the American Ministers were secretly admonished of the necessity of using greater reserve. The prizes were directed to quit France, though the Reprisal, being leaky, was suffered to remain in port, in order to refit. The former were taken into the offing, and sold, the state of the times rendering these informal proceedings necessary. Enormous losses to the captors were the consequences, while it is not improbable, that the gains of the purchasers had their influence in blinding the local authorities to the character of the transaction.’

Here we see not only a violation of neutrality, but a little bribery going on, these ‘rebel pirates’ having an eye to the ‘flattering results,’ spoken of by Mr. Cooper, some pages back. The historian proceeds. ‘The business appears to have been managed with dexterity, and the proceeds of the sales, such as they were, proved of great service to the agents of the Government, by enabling them to purchase other vessels.’ We see how capitally those ‘stational agents,’ Franklin and Deane, [394] were conducting that ‘Naval Bureau,’ against the like of which, in our case, Mr. Adams had so warmly protested. I again quote:

In April, the Lexington arrived in France, and the old difficulties were renewed. But the Commissioners at Paris, who had been authorized to equip vessels, appoint officers, and do other matters to annoy the enemy, now planned a cruise that surpassed anything of the sort that had yet been attempted in Europe, under the American flag. Captain Wickes was directed to proceed to sea, with his own vessel and the Lexington, and to go directly off Ireland, in order to intercept a convoy of linen ships, that was expected to sail about that time. A cutter of ten guns called the Dolphin, that had been detained by the Commissioners, to carry despatches to America, was diverted from her original destination, and placed under the orders of Captain Wickes. The Dolphin was commanded by Lieutenant Nicholson, a brother of the senior captain, and a gentleman who subsequently died at the head of the service. Captain Wickes, in command of this light squadron, sailed from Nantes, about the commencement of June, going first into the Bay of Biscay, and afterward entirely around Ireland, sweeping the sea before him, of everything that was not of a force to render an attack hopeless. The linen ships were missed, but many vessels were taken or destroyed.

The sensation produced among the British merchants, by the different cruises in the European sea, that have been recorded in this chapter, is stated in the diplomatic correspondence of the day to have been greater than that produced in the previous war by the squadron of the celebrated Thurot. Insurance rose to an enormous height, and in speaking of the cruise of Captain Wickes, in particular, Mr. Deane observes in one of his letters to Robert Morris, that it “effectually alarmed England, prevented the great fair at Chester, occasioned insurance to rise, and even deterred the English merchants from shipping in English bottoms, at any rate, so that, in a few weeks, forty sail of French ships were loading in the Thames, on freight, an instance never known before.” In the same letter the Commissioner adds: “In a word, Conyngham, by his first and second bold expeditions, is become the terror [395] of all the eastern coasts of England and Scotland, and is more dreaded than Thurot was in the late war.”

This same Captain Conyngham, afterward, while cruising on the American coast, fell into the hands of the enemy. He had, of course, become odious to the English people, and they had denounced him as a ‘pirate,’ as our Northern people have denounced the writer of these pages. Conyngham was closely confined, and the English admiral, whose fleet was then stationed in the waters of New York, threatened to send him to England for trial. Let us see what steps the American Congress took in behalf of this ‘rebel pirate,’ as soon as it heard of these proceedings. The subject having been brought to its notice, it directed its Secretary, Charles Thompson, to address a letter of remonstrance to the British admiral, threatening retaliation, if he dared to execute his threats. I quote from the journals of Congress:—

In Congress assembled, July 1799.—A letter of the 17th instant, from Ann Conyngham, and a petition from a number of inhabitants of Philadelphia were read, representing that Captain Gustavus Conyngham, now a prisoner with the enemy, is closely confined, and ordered to be sent to England, and praying that measures may be taken for the security of his person: Ordered, That the same be referred to a committee of three. The members chosen, Mr. Morris, Mr. Dickinson, and Mr. Whipple. The committee to whom were referred the petition, and letter respecting Gustavus Conyngham, brought in a report; whereupon, Resolved, That the following letter from the Secretary of Congress, be written to the admiral, or other commanding officer of the fleet, or ships of his Britannic Majesty, lying in the harbor of New York, viz.:

Sir, I am directed by the Congress of the United States of America to inform you, that they have received evidence that Gustavus Conyngham, a citizen of America, late commander of an armed vessel in the service of the said States, and taken on board of a private armed cutter, hath been treated in a manner contrary to the dictates of humanity, and the practice of Christian, civilized nations. I am ordered, in the name of Congress, to demand that good and sufficient reason be given for this conduct, or that the said Gustavus Conyngham be immediately released from his present rigorous, and ignominious confinement.

With all due respect, I have the honor to be, Sir,

Your most obedient and humble servant.

Resolved, That, unless a satisfactory answer be received to the foregoing letter, on or before the 1st day of August next, the Marine Committee do immediately order to be confined, in close and safe custody, so many persons as they may think proper, in [396] order to abide the fate of the said Gustavus Conyngham. Ordered, That the above letter be immediately transmitted to New York, by the Board of War, and that copies of said letter and resolution be delivered to the wife of Conyngham, and the petitioners.

Monday, Dec. 13th, 1779.—A memorial of Christopher Hale was read, praying to be exchanged, and to have leave to go to New York, upon his parole, for a few days, to procure a person in his room. Resolved, That Mr. Hale be informed, that the prayer of his memorial cannot be granted, until Captain Conyngham is released, as it has been determined that he must abide the fate of that officer.

Conyngham was afterward released. This is the way in which the ancestors of Mr. Seward, and Mr. Charles Francis Adams, took care of their ‘rebel pirates.’

There is one other point in the legal history of the Alabama, which it is necessary to notice, and to which I propose to adduce another of those awkward precedents, which I have exhumed from those musty old records, which our Northern brethren seem so thoroughly to have forgotten. It has been charged against the Alabama, that her crew was composed mostly of foreigners, and that this was another reason why she was not entitled to be considered as a Confederate States ship of war. Let us look a little into this charge. A sovereign is not only not obliged to account to other nations, for the manner in which he becomes possessed of his ships of war, as we have seen, but he cannot be questioned as to the nativity or naturalization of the persons serving on board of them. It could have been of no sort of consequence to any foreign officer, demanding to see my commission, whether I was a native of England, Germany, or France, or of any other foreign power. All that he could demand of me, in order to satisfy himself that I was entitled to exercise belligerent rights, was a sight of my commission as a Confederate States naval officer. Nationality is presumed in all such commissions, and the presumption cannot be inquired into. Mr. Justice Story, in the decision quoted a few pages back, says, as the reader will recollect, that the commission of a ship of war imports such ‘absolute verity,’ that it cannot be inquired into, or contradicted. It is like proving a fact by a record. No other proof than the production of the record is required, or indeed permitted. The commission of the commander is the commission [397] of his ship. Neither the Sumter nor the Alabama had any other commission than my own, and the orders assigning me to them. If this be the law with regard to the commander of a ship, a fortiori, must it be the law with reference to the subordinate officers and crew.

The writers on international law, without exception, lay down the rule, that a sovereign may enlist foreigners to assist him in his wars; and that the men thus enlisted are entitled to all the protection of belligerents, equally with native citizens. The Swiss foreign legions, so well known in history, are notable illustrations of this doctrine; and no one has ever heard of a Swiss being hung because he served under a foreign flag. Vattel, who has the rare merit of having so thoroughly exhausted all these subjects, that he has left scarcely anything for those who have followed him to say, lays down the doctrine as follows: ‘Much has been said on the question whether the profession of a mercenary soldier be lawful or not,—whether individuals may, for money, or any other reward, engage to serve a foreign prince in his wars? This question does not appear to me to be very difficult to be solved. Those who enter into such engagements, without the express or tacit consent of their sovereign, offend against their duty as citizens. But if their sovereign leaves them at liberty to follow their inclination for a military life, they are perfectly free in that respect. [Modern nations, and especially the United States, have left their citizens free to expatriate themselves at pleasure.] Now, every free man may join whatever society he pleases, according as he finds it most to his advantage. He may make its cause his own, and espouse its quarrels. He becomes, in some measure, at least for a time, a member of the State in whose service he engages.’ Again: ‘The sovereign has no right to compel foreigners; he must not even employ stratagem or artifice, in order to induce them to engage in a contract, which, like all others, should be founded on candor and good faith.’

But it was scarcely necessary to quote other authority, on that point, than the authority of the enemy himself. Mr. Secretary Seward knew, at the very time he was denouncing the Alabama as a ‘pirate,’ because of her having, as he alleged, a British [398] crew on board, that his own Government was filling up its armies, and its navy, too, with hundreds of thousands of raw recruits from Belgium, Germany, and Ireland, and other countries. Nay, more, that by an act of the Federal Congress, these debased and ignorant men, drawn, for the most part, from the idle and thieving classes of their respective countries, were invested, ipso facto, upon enlistment, with all the functions and attributes of American citizens—the function of robbery more especially included! With reference to the conduct of the enemy in this particular, I deem it not amiss to introduce a short extract or two, from a speech made by Sir Hugh Cairnes, her Britannic Majesty's Attorney-General, in the House of Commons, on the 12th of May, 1864. The discussion grew out of the case of the Confederate States steamer Georgia, which had recently returned to Liverpool, after a cruise. Among other questions discussed was whether the Georgia should be excluded from British ports, because of some alleged infraction on her part, of the British Foreign Enlistment Act. In speaking to this question, the Attorney-General, alluding to the insufficiency of the proof in the case, said:—

The case of the Kearsarge was a case of this character. Beyond all question, a considerable amount of recruiting was carried on, at Cork, for the purposes of that ship, she being employed at the time, in our own waters, or very near them, in looking out for the enemy; and she was furnished with a large addition to her crew from Ireland. Upon that being represented to Mr. Adams, he said, as might have been expected, that it was entirely contrary to the wishes of his Government, and that there must be some mistake. The men were afterward relanded, and there can be no doubt that there had been a violation of our neutrality. Nevertheless, we admitted the Kearsarge afterward into English waters. We have not excluded her from our ports, and if we had, I think the Government of the United States would have considered that they had some cause of offence.

‘But it does not rest here. I see from the paper, that the Honorable Member for Horsham, wants information respecting the enlistment of British subjects for the Federal Army. Now, from all quarters reports reach us, which we cannot doubt to be substantially true, that agents for recruiting for the Federal Army, with, or without the concurrence of the Government, are in Ireland, and engage men under the pretext of employing them on railways and public works, but really with the intention of enlisting them, and that many of these men are so enlisted. In Canada and New Brunswick the [399] same practices prevail. Representations have been made to the United States Government respecting the cases of particular persons, who have been kidnapped into the service, and I feel bound to say that those representations have not met with that prompt and satisfactory attention we might have expected,’ &c.

The reader thus perceives, that if the Alabama enlisted some foreigners to complete her crew, she was only following the example set her, by Mr. Seward himself; but there was this difference between the honorable Secretary of State and the writer. The former resorted to deceit, trickery, and fraud, whilst no man can say of the latter, that he inveigled him on board the Alabama.

I will now produce the precedent I spoke of, from those musty old records. It is drawn from the career of that remarkable sea-captain, to whom I have before referred, and with whose history every American is acquainted—I mean, John Paul Jones. The naval engagement, which conferred most honor upon Jones, was that between the Bon homme Richard, (named after Dr. Franklin's ‘Poor Richard,’ in the almanac, of which this Chief of the Naval Bureau in Paris was the author,) and the British ships Serapis and Countess of Scarborough. Mr. Cooper thus describes the crew of Jones' ship, picked up at Dunkirk, or Nantes, or some of the other French ports:—

To manage a vessel of this singular armament and doubtful construction, Commodore Jones was compelled to receive on board a crew of still more equivocal composition. A few Americans were found to fill the stations of sea officers, on the quarter deck, and forward, but the remainder of the people were a mixture of English, Irish, Scotch, Portuguese, Norwegians, Germans, Spaniards, Swedes, Italians, and Malays, with occasionally a man from one of the islands [meaning Sandwich Islands]. To keep this motley crew in order, 135 soldiers were put on board, under the command of some officers of inferior rank. These soldiers, or marines, were recruited at random, and were not much less singularly mixed as to countries, than the regular crew.

I had something of a mixture on board the Alabama, but I think Jones decidedly beat me, in the number of nationalities he had the honor to command.

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