Tuesday, July 7, 2015

July 8, 1861 - "Wicked designs of the South"; arrests in the North

From Our Man in Charleston: Britain's Secret Agent in the Civil War South, to be published July 21.

Purcell M’Quillan was an Irishman who’d been working as a clerk in a Charleston carpet warehouse, and asked for a passport from Bunch so he could go visit his father in Baltimore. When he was arrested, manacled and sent to the infamous prison at Fort Lafayette in New York harbor, M’Quillan was, like many other suspected Southern agents and sympathizers, denied habeas corpus. The
ostensible charges were spying for the rebels and trying to buy weapons, but M’Quillan was released after a few weeks following protests by Lord Lyons. He may never have been involved in anything, and it is plausible that the main reason the clerk was picked up was so Seward’s men could gather more information on Bunch.

The Charleston consul pretended to be unperturbed by all this. After all, M’Quillan was just one of so many messengers he’d sent northward. “I had some conversation with him when I gave him his passport (which I did after full inquiry, an examination on oath, etc.),” Bunch wrote to Lyons. “I asked him if he were going to Washington on his return to Charleston, and on his replying in the affirmative gave him a line to Your Lordship stating that he was a respectable young man and might be trusted with anything you might have for me. Of course he may have been buying arms for the Southern Confederacy, but I really do not believe it.” The last two pages of that letter are in code, which has not been deciphered and, from context, appear to deal with Southern plans for retribution against Britain if it does not recognize and support the Confederacy. They are summed up on the back of the document by the phrase “wicked designs of South.”

Engraving of "the political prison at Washington, corner First and A Streets" from "Harper's Weekly," courtesy of The American Library of Paris.

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