Military history

Chapter 17

WITH THE APPROACH OF THE American elections came, too, the whole host of evils that Robert Bunch had predicted. Lord Lyons wrote privately and frequently to Lord Russell, raising the points their man in Charleston had touched upon so often. Russell had broached, for instance, the question of the American diplomat in London, George Dallas, attending an international conference to be held on the slave trade. Lyons said he feared that President Buchanan “will not dare to let Mr. Dallas take a part.” Both Buchanan and Secretary of State Lewis Cass had grown “irritable” on this subject, he said. “The fact is that the country is becoming more and more divided into an absolute anti-slavery and an absolute pro-slavery Party,” Lyons explained, and Buchanan’s Democratic Party “does not like to have even the Slave Trade with Africa denounced. On the contrary, the success of their struggle for superiority in the Senate depends upon their getting new states admitted into the Union as slave states, and they are happy to think that they must import slaves in order to have enough to send into those states.”

In Charleston, enthusiasm for a reopening of the Middle Passage continued to grow. The slaver Jehossee, named for an island on the South Carolina coast, had sailed out of Charleston the previous year. Everybody had known what she was up to. Her owner, Hugh Vincent, had helped outfit and supply the Wanderer. But nobody in the city had lifted a finger against her. In fact, many were proud of her.

Once the Jehossee arrived off the African coast, however, she didn’t fare so well. The British sloop-of-war Falcon stopped her, boarded her, and discovered that the slave deck was laid. The Falcon’s officers didn’t want to take any chances. Probably they knew of the embarrassing revelations about officers of the British squadron who had fallen for American bonhomie aboard the Wanderer. In any event, the Falcon’s officers treated the men aboard the Jehossee as criminals. They strip-searched the crew and kept them prisoner aboard the vessel. The American ship’s captain, stranded on the African shore, busied himself writing letters trying to get the American commander of the U.S. Africa Squadron to intervene on his behalf: “Now, Sir—I look to you for that protection and redress that is due to American Citizens and their Insulted Flag.” But the commodore, it seemed, was nowhere to be found. So Vincent, the Jehossee’s owner in Charleston, brought a lawsuit against the British, as if they were the criminals and his Jehossee was perfectly innocent. “The infernal impudence of these brutes is a little too much,” Bunch wrote to Lyons in April 1860. All winter long people had been “bragging and hurraying” about the Jehossee and its mission. To demand compensation from Britain for her capture “passes even Slave Trading impudence.”

Then word reached the United States that Queen Victoria’s eldest son, Edward Albert, the Prince of Wales, might well be paying a visit to North America. Bunch dreaded the idea that the heir apparent might come to Charleston. He said he worried about the health issues in the summer. He didn’t want the prince dying of yellow jack on his watch. But, more important, he didn’t want the prince implicated in slavery in any way. Mere politesse—a cup of tea delivered by a servant—could suggest complicity. Wales could not ride down the street without passing hundreds of slaves, and he would be feted by the same Charleston “aristocrats” who had applauded the Wanderer and defended the Jehossee.Probably a part of Bunch also thought so much attention focused on the British royal could focus too much on his consul in South Carolina’s claustrophobic community. Bunch survived by playing on ambiguities and deceptions that might be stripped away if he had to host the son of the Queen. Bunch did not want to have to make too many explanations to the prince about the slaveholders’ impudence, or to the slaveholders about the Crown’s vehement views. But he did want to see the royal visit. So Bunch began maneuvering to get himself up to Canada or New York to catch a glimpse of the eighteen-year-old royal scion and connect there with the entourage from London, some of whom Bunch knew personally from earlier assignments in Latin America and New York.

Lyons was receptive to the idea. He had been in the United States almost a year but still hadn’t quite gotten his footing in Washington. The John Brown affair had blindsided him at first, and, like a visitor following an orderly through an asylum, he’d relied on Bunch to help him steer his way through the madness that followed Harpers Ferry. He had been shocked to find that the Crown’s “remonstrances concerning the Slave Trade” counted for less and less with the “irritable” Buchanan. But, of course, Bunch had warned him that would be the case.

One day in April, Lord Lyons met President Buchanan out walking in Washington. As the president and the minister took in the spring weather, Buchanan said it had always been his great ambition to be able to say at the end of his administration that he had left no question with Great Britain unsettled, that for the first time since the Revolution “the docket was clear.”

Buchanan’s concern at that moment was in the faraway Pacific Northwest, where an errant pig belonging to an American farmer had provoked a confrontation over who owned the little island of San Juan next to the Canadian city of Vancouver. Federal troops had occupied it in the firm belief that possession was nine-tenths of the law, and Lyons’s conversation with the president among the spring blossoms shows how easily, almost casually, American politicians continued to toy with the idea of military action against Great Britain in order to appease political sentiments at home. “I hope that a matter of such small real importance won’t be allowed to cause a war between two great nations,” Buchanan told Lyons. “But the people of the West Coast are becoming very excited, and I really don’t know what to do. Can you help me on this? I am sure if you put your wits to it, you can come up with an amicable settlement.”

Lyons did not even raise the question of the slave trade in that meeting, even though it was still very much on “the docket.”

LORD LYONS LEARNED very quickly that of all the British consuls in the United States there were only three whose information and judgment were consistently reliable. One was Robert Bunch in Charleston, the epicenter of secessionism. One was William Mure in New Orleans, the gut, the ventre, of the American heartland. And one was Edward Mortimer Archibald in New York City, which was, in its way, the center of the world. Archibald, a Canadian-born attorney, had replaced Anthony Barclay as the British consul after the Crimean recruitment scandal in 1857, and he reported on the slave trade with almost as much dedication as Bunch. Near the South Street docks he could pick up plenty of intelligence about the brigs being outfitted for the African journey, and for good measure he also put a ship broker in Havana on his payroll as a secret agent.

There was no question that the traffic between Africa and Cuba remained heavy. Despite the Buchanan administration’s stepped-up efforts at enforcement and the many dark clouds on the political horizon in the United States, the trade appeared to be increasing, money for the U.S. Africa Squadron was drying up, and the Buchanan administration didn’t want to ask Congress for more, lest the slave-trade debate add more fuel to the fires of secession (which was, of course, precisely what the fire-eaters wanted).

All the while, the price of Negroes kept rising as the marketplace bet that the cotton-growing South would be able to keep its slaves even if it stayed in the Union. And if the South seceded, of course the slaves would be more valuable than ever as cotton cultivation and the peculiar institution would push west and down into Central America. The temptation to bring African slaves back to the United States kept growing—and also the temptation to sell into slavery any black man of any nationality, free or not, British citizen or not.

Lyons, who supposedly feared embarrassing his valet about his breakfast and saw more of his servants’ shoes than their faces, took to visiting the U.S. Senate and House chambers, where the atmosphere was charged with as much dangerous electricity as a summer thunderstorm. He tried to talk to all the key players but instinctively gravitated toward the Northerners, and the more he moved among them, the more suspicious the Southerners grew of his motives. TheCharleston Evening News went on record warning Lyons that “if civil and sectional war should be the issue of the present controversy, England will have herself to blame.” England, said the Evening News, “was the nurse and foster-parent of that sentiment of Negro-equality which may yet shake the foundations of her fabric manufacturing industry.” Southerners missed few opportunities to remind Britain of its dependence on their cotton exports.

One day the blustery Senator Louis Wigfall from Texas was holding forth on the Senate floor. He was tall and imposing, and some compared his eyes to those of a tiger, they were so intense and unsettling. He was in the middle of answering questions about his rambling oration on the Homestead Act, when suddenly he shifted his gaze and called the attention of visitors in the Senate gallery to a sofa in the Senate chamber. William Seward, the “embodiment” of the Republican Party, as Wigfall put it, sat there—right there in the Senate—“conferring” with Lord Lyons. Wigfall, who had a reputation as a bully, didn’t need to huff and puff about some international English-Yankee abolitionist conspiracy. The Senate was still investigating the John Brown affair; Seward had been questioned, and from the moment the commission went to work, it had been looking for a conspiracy that stretched across the Atlantic. The investigation hadn’t come to any conclusions, but it is precisely under such circumstances that a well-timed implication draws more blood than tedious explication.

Lyons looked up, shocked when he heard his name, and quickly left the chamber “a good deal embarrassed.” As soon as Bunch read a report of what had happened, he dashed off a note to Lyons. Senator Wigfall may have been elected from Texas, Bunch wrote, but, in truth, he was “from and of South Carolina.” He is “a drunken blackguard. He is what is called a Southern ‘fire-eater,’ has fought one or two duels, and also killed a man named Bird in cold blood.” Then Bunch added with his usual acidic irony, “He has richly deserved his place in the U.S. Senate.”

IN THAT SPRING OF 1860 it seemed the whole national crisis was “from and of South Carolina,” and it was just about to reach its climax there as the convention of the national Democratic Party came to Charleston.

For many years the party, which liked to call itself “The Democracy,” as if it were the be-all and end-all on the subject, prided itself on being a political organization that embraced all parts of the nation, North and South, East and West. To achieve that goal it had become the party of conciliation and accommodation, especially on the issue of slavery. But all that was coming to an end. The party’s efforts to split the difference between Northern and Southern views with the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 and the notion, called “popular sovereignty,” that the people of a territory could choose whether the territory would enter the Union as a free state or a slave one, failed horribly. The Act destroyed an earlier compromise, in place since 1820, that barred slavery north of latitude 36˚30' except in the state of Missouri; and the result, as settlers and squatters had poured into Kansas, had been the torrents of blood and terror exploited by the likes of John Brown.

At the Charleston convention, the Southern fire-eaters planned to make their stand against Senator Stephen Douglas, the slippery author of the Kansas-Nebraska Act, who had ceded the nomination to Buchanan in 1856—with Buchanan vowing not to seek a second term—and who now wanted the White House, at last, for himself. The Southerners hated Douglas. In fact, they hated compromise. They intended to block his nomination at the convention, or walk out, or both. Several of them wanted not only to divide the party, but also to split the nation in two like a half-rotted log, and one of the issues they planned to use as a wedge was the question of the African slave trade. If the Democratic Party could be torn asunder, then the anti-slavery Republicans would carry the much more populous North and write off the demands of the South. That would lead to an exodus of the slaveholding states, and that would be the end of the Union.

The scenario was clear. Bunch had predicted it more than a year before in his letter to the Foreign Office about the contemptuous way the courts in South Carolina had thrown out the Federal case against the slave ship Brothers: “They will awake from their delusion to find the Democratic Party broken up and the whole power of the Country thrown into the hands of the ‘Republicans.’ When this shall happen, the days of Slavery are numbered. It may still exist in that comparatively narrow strip of territory in which a pestilential climate renders black labor necessary, but the prestige and power of Slaveholders will be gone, never to return.”

Now the first act of that drama was about to play out just a few blocks up Meeting Street.

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