John Murray Forbes was feeling “half ill” and trying to rest in his Milton, Massachusetts, home on Saturday March 14, 1863. But resting was soon out of the question when the railroad magnate and a member of one of New England’s leading maritime families received a “brief telegram” from Treasury Secretary Salmon P. Chase. The secretary wanted to meet with him the next day at the Fifth Avenue Hotel in Manhattan. Forbes, a man who once served tea to John Brown, “could not refuse” and hurried to New York. Without being explicitly told why the meeting was on such short notice, he likely knew it concerned frightening reports on Confederate buying of advanced, powerful warships in Europe.
With Chase, an ardent abolitionist, that day was Navy Secretary Gideon Welles, the founder of Hartford, Connecticut, Evening Press, and the New York-based William H. Aspinwall, the owner of the lucrative gold-hauling Pacific Mail Steamship Company and the builder of the trans-Panama railroad.
While not friends, the four were acquainted with each other. Forbes and Aspinwall came from tightly-knit Yankee families that pioneered America’s China trade of tea, silk, and opium. Welles and Forbes met each other during the ill-fated Peace Convention in Washington in early 1861. That winter, Aspinwall had been in Washington discussing a plan with the Buchanan administration and the incoming Lincoln administration to relieve Fort Sumter. He met Forbes then. (1)
When war came in April, Forbes peppered Chase with ideas on how to finance the conflict. His suggestions on taxes and long-and short-term bonds, and short-term Treasury notes for unexpected expenses, were largely ignored. Aspinwall fired off his missives on graft in Navy acquisition to Welles and the energetic Gustavus V. Fox, assistant secretary, with little effect
But Welles, on the other hand, used both men to launch the Navy’s war against the Confederacy. They were in the front ranks chartering and buying steamers to blockade Southern ports and to chase down Confederate commerce raiders.
On their own, Forbes, staunch Republican, and Aspinwall, long-time admirer of the cashiered George McClellan, rallied men like themselves into Union Leagues to back the war effort – politically and economically. They also launched Loyal Publication Societies to boost the Union cause. Forbes also threw himself into raising volunteer regiments in Massachusetts, including black troops. Certainly, three of the men in the room – Welles, Forbes, and Aspinwall – saw the United States as a naval power, but one facing the gravest threat in its history from the sea. The fourth man, Chase, had the money to eliminate that threat, the Confederate European shopping spree for oceangoing ironclads.
As Fox wrote to Forbes, “We have not a port in the North that can resist an ironclad over very moderate power.” (2)
The Union Navy had escaped disaster in Hampton Roads the year before when John Ericsson’s Monitor stalemated the iron-plated, slant-roofed CSS Virginia. They won reprieves later that spring when CSS Virginia was scuttled because its draft was too deep to make it safely to Richmond, and Captain David Farragut’s flotilla rushed past the still unfinished ironclads on the Mississippi River to capture the Confederacy’s busiest port and largest city New Orleans.
A desperate Congress authorized letters of marque to seize blockade runners bringing war materiel to the South. Even as the blockade tightened, Ulysses Grant marveled at the quality and quantity of the European-made rifles the Confederates carried at Vicksburg. But letters of marque were worthless pieces of paper in keeping European-built ironclads taking to sea for the South. (3)
The Union Army fared even worse on the land. The summertime fears of Washington under siege for the second time in two years had been palpable. After Second Manassas, “the rebels again look upon the dome of the Capitol,” and the fears barely ebbed after the Battle of Antietam. Robert E. Lee and his Army of Northern Virginia were still in fighting form. The two politically-driven, grand Union advances launched in early winter had faltered. The Army of the Potomac was again in disarray following the fiasco at Fredericksburg in December. The Army of the Cumberland had held its own a little later that month at Stones River in Tennessee, but with enormous casualties.
The war weariness in the North that cost the Republicans a number of governorships and reduced their ranks in Congress was contagious.
Changing war aims from restoring the Union, an ideal that Aspinwall embraced, to freeing the slaves in states in rebellion, an ideal that Forbes blessed, proved more popular in Europe than in many parts of the North. More fodder for the opposition. Democrats rubbed their hands together in anticipation of the 1864 elections.
The historian Charles Francis Adams Jr. characterized that time as “that darkest hour before the slowly breaking dawn” of Union victories as Vicksburg and Gettysburg. (4)
Now with the military campaign season on land fast approaching and with each arriving steamer and mail packet from Great Britain delivering more disturbing news about Confederate successes in building commerce raiders – like Alabama and Florida and frightening reports from Liverpool of mysterious activities at the innovative Laird Brothers shipyard, the four agreed these were desperate times requiring bold actions.
Before the meeting Forbes had suggested to Fox that the United States should do everything in its power to buy these new Laird ironclads at Birkenhead. In Forbes’ scheme, the move would be made by a “merchant untrammeled by naval constructors and such nuisance” in the name of “Siam or China.” Subterfuge and false fronts were how the Confederates’ did it, why not take a play out of their book? (5)
In Washington, Fox liked the idea. Thinking along the same lines in London was the United States consul Freeman H. Morse. His subterfuges and fronts would be “Russian, Italian or other foreign houses.” Morse proved invaluable as events were soon to show. (6)
Although Chase paid scant heed to Forbes’ ideas on financing the war, he and Welles let the two businessmen come up with their own statement of purpose of what they were to do with the $10 million set aside for this effort. Their primary target was “the most dangerous vessels,” the Birkenhead rams, the men agreed. The second point was to do this as surreptitiously as possible. Don’t compromise the administration or Charles Francis Adams, the American minister in London and Forbes’ longtime friend, in the effort “to prevent the sailing of Confederate ships.” The “deniability” approach did not apply to Morse and his counterpart in Liverpool, Thomas Haines Dudley. The men on the scene were integral to the plan as it was sketched out in the hotel room and as it evolved in Europe. (7)
Mr. Aspinwall and Mr. Forbes were heading into the war.
1. Thomas H. O’Connor, Civil War Boston: Homefront and Battlefield, Northeastern University Press, Boston, 1999, p. 47.
2. John Murray Forbes, Drawing on Letters and Recollections of John Murray Forbes edited by his daughter Sarah Forbes Hughes (hereafter Hughes, Recollections), Vol. 1, Cambridge, Google e-Book, pp. 293, 342 and Vol. 2, p. 3. John Launtz Larson, Bonds of Enterprise: John Murray Forbes and Western Development in America’s Railway Age (hereafter Larson, Bonds of Enterprise), Google e-Book, pp. 96-97.
3. Ulysses Simpson Grant, Personal Memoirs of U.S. Grant, Dover Publications, New York, 1995, p. 229.
4. Douglas H. Maynard, “The Forbes-Aspinwall Mission” (hereafter Maynard, Forbes),The Mississippi Valley Historical Review, vol. 45, No. 1 June 1958, pp. 67-89. Charles Adams, Studies Military and Diplomatic, 1775 – 1865 (hereafter Adams, Studies), MacMillan Company, New York, 1911, pp. 355-363.
5. Hughes, Recollections, Vol. 2, p. 27.
6. Maynard, Forbes, pp. 67-89.