Friday, July 3, 2015

July 4, 1861 - Seward threatens to "wrap the world in fire"!

William Howard Russell, the most famous war correspondent for the most powerful newspaper on earth, The Times of London, was in close contact with Consul Robert Bunch,  Our Man in Charleston. Russell, in the early days of his American tour, also had extraordinary access to the top officials in the governments of the United States and the Confederacy. On July 4, 1861, he went to visit Secretary of State Seward, who had been making a show of his hostility to Britain, and who grew more bellicose as he grew more desperate. Seward was also laying the foundations of an improvised police state, and making the work of a correspondent like Russell much more difficult.

July 4th -  "Independence Day." Fortunate to escape this great national festival in the large cities of the Union where it is celebrated with many days before and after of surplus rejoicing, by fireworks and an incessant fusillade in the streets, I was, nevertheless, subjected to the small ebullition of the Washington juveniles, to bell-ringing and discharges of cannon and musketry. On this day Congress meets. Never before has any legislative body assembled under circumstances so grave. By their action they will decide whether the Union can ever be restored, and will determine whether the States of the North are to commence an invasion for the purpose of subjecting by force of arms, and depriving of their freedom, the States of the South, Congress met to-day merely for the purpose of forming itself into a regular body, and there was no debate or business of public importance introduced. Mr. Wilson gave me to understand, however, that some military movements of the utmost importance might be expected in a few days, and that
General McDowell would positively attack the rebels in front of Washington. The Confederates occupy the whole of Northern Virginia, commencing from the peninsula above Fortress Monroe on the right or east, and extending along the Potomac, to the extreme verge of the State, by the Baltimore and Ohio Railway. This immense line, however, is broken by great intervals, and the army with which McDowell will have to deal may be considered as detached, covering the approaches to Richmond, whilst its left flank is protected by a corps of observation, stationed near Winchester, under General Jackson. A Federal corps is being prepared to watch the corps and engage it, whilst McDowell advances on the main body. To the right of this again, or further west, another body of Federals, under General McClellan, is operating in the valleys of the Shenandoah and in Western Virginia ; but I did not hear of any of these things from Mr. Wilson, who was, I am sure, in perfect ignorance of the plans, in a military sense, of the General. I sat at Mr. Sumner s desk, and wrote the final paragraphs of a letter describing my impressions of the South in a place but little disposed to give a favorable color to them.

WHEN the Senate had adjourned, I drove to the State Department and saw Mr. Seward, who looked much more worn and haggard than when I saw him last, three months ago. He congratulated me on my safe return from the South in time to witness some stirring events. 

"Well, Mr. Secretary, I am quite sure that, if all the South are of the same mind as those I met in my travels, there will be many battles before they submit to the Federal Government."

"It is not submission to the Government we want ; it is to assent to the principles of the Constitution. When you left Washington we had a few hundred regulars and some hastily levied militia to defend the national capital, and a battery and a half of artillery under the command of a traitor. The Navy Yard was in the hands of a disloyal officer. We were surrounded by treason. Now we are supported by the loyal States which have come forward in defence of the best Government on the face of the earth, and the unfortunate and desperate men who have commenced this struggle will have tor
yield or experience the punishment due to their crimes."

"But, Mr. Seward, has not this great exhibition of strength been attended by some circumstances calculated to inspire apprehension that liberty in the Free States may be impaired for instance, I hear that I must procure a passport in order to travel through the States and go into the camps in front of Washington."

"Yes, sir ; you must send your passport here from Lord Lyons, with his signature. It will be no good till I have signed it, and then it must be sent to General Scott, as Commander-in-Chief of the United States army, who will subscribe it, after which it will be available for all legitimate purposes. You are not in any way impaired in your liberty by the process."

"Neither is, one may say, the man who is under surveillance of the police in despotic countries of Europe ; he has only to submit to a certain formality, and he is all right ; in fact, it is said by some people, that the protection afforded by a passport is worth all the trouble connected with having it in order."

Mr. Seward seemed to think it was quite likely. There were corresponding measures taken in the Southern States by the rebels, and it was necessary to have some control over traitors and disloyal persons.

"In this contest," said he, "the Government will not shrink from using all the means which they consider necessary to restore the Union." It was not my place to remark that such doctrines were exactly identical with all that despotic governments in Europe have advanced as the ground of action in cases of revolt, or with a view to the maintenance of their strong Governments.

"The Executive," said he, "has declared in the inaugural that the rights of the Federal Government shall be fully vindicated. We
are dealing with an insurrection within our own country, of our
own people, and the Government of Great Britain have thought fit to recognize that insurrection before we were able to bring the strength of the Union to bear against it, by conceding to it the status of belligerent. Although we might justly complain of such an unfriendly act in a manner that might injure the friendly relations between the two countries, we do not desire to give any excuse for foreign interference although we do not hesitate, in case of necessity, to resist it to the uttermost, we have less to fear from a foreign war than any country in the world. If any European Power provokes a war, we shall not shrink from it. A contest between Great Britain and the United States would wrap the world in fire,
and at the end it would not be the United States which would have to lament the results of the conflict."

I could not but admire the confidence — may I say the cool
ness?  — of the statesman who sat in his modest little room
within the sound of the evening's guns, in a capital menaced
by their forces who spoke so fearlessly of war with a Power
which could have blotted out the paper blockade of the Southern forts and coast in a few hours, and, in conjunction with the Southern armies, have repeated the occupation and destruction of the capital.

The President sent for Mr. Seward whilst I was in the State Department, and I walked up Pennsylvania Avenue to my lodgings, through a crowd of men in uniform who were celebrating Independence Day in their own fashion, some by the large internal use of fire-water, others by an external display of fire-works.

Engravings of Lincoln's cabinet, with Seward standing, from "Harper's Weekly," courtesy of The American Library in Paris.

No comments:

Post a Comment