By the spring of 1863, American ambassador to England Charles Francis Adams had a much bigger problem than the activities of British-built Confederate raiders on his hands: the construction of two 230-foot long ironclad rams in the Laird shipyard at Birkenhead that evidence suggested were destined for the Confederacy. At 230 feet long and 40 feet wide, with 6-7 foot iron spears at the front, rotating turret batteries, full iron plating, and a top speed of 10 knots, these ships were the Americans’ worst nightmare. Lincoln’s cabinet even considered blatantly ignoring Britain’s “neutrality” and sending a U.S. Navy squadron to destroy the rams, which had been under construction since the previous summer.
In the summer of 1862, Confederate Navy Secretary Stephen Russell Mallory sent orders to one of the Confederacy’s agents in England, James Bulloch, to go ahead with plans to have two large ironclads built for the Confederate Navy. Identified as Nos. 294 and 295, the ships were supposed to be completed by the Laird firm by March and April of 1863, respectively, and delivered to Liverpool for pickup. Bulloch had originally decided that both ships should be built in the same yard to cut cost, decrease potential Union interest in their construction, and hopefully speed up production. However, any hope of reduced Union interest disappeared quickly. Union spies, informants, and agents were everywhere, and their activities only increased, particularly in spring 1863, as the ships were nearing completion.
When the American Civil War ended in 1865, the United States government sold off naval vessels as the country transitioned to Reconstruction. One of those vessels, the CSS Stonewall, traveled to countless and unexpected locations. The CSS Stonewall never fought in the American Civil War as it was intended to do, but instead was destined to fight in the civil war between the Japanese shogunate and emperor as the first ironclad warship of the Imperial Japanese Navy.
In 1868, the Tokugawa Shogun—the military leader of Japan—relinquished his power to the Meiji Emperor during Japan’s civil war, known as the Boshin War. The Tokugawa family had ruled as Japan’s shogunate since 1603 and oversaw the country’s peace time and isolation from the outside world for over 260 years. Japanese isolation would not last forever. In 1853, Commodore Matthew Perry of the United States forcefully opened Japan to the outside world with an “open-door policy.” The shogunate was impressed by Perry’s modern “tools of war” and was determined to upgrade their navy to fit the modern world. The CSS Stonewall would eventually become the ship that would help Japan accelerate toward modernization and end the Japanese civil war. However, the Stonewall was originally intended to aid the Confederate States of America in missions such as attacking William T. Sherman’s base at Port Royal, breaking the Wilmington blockade, or striking New England ports.
Switzerland is, and was, not a state comparable to many others in Europe—especially most of the other states who observed the Civil War. Unlike states such as France, Prussia, and Great Britain, Switzerland was not a major world power in 1861, nor even a monarchy as most of Europe was. A small landlocked mountain nation about half the size of the state of South Carolina, Switzerland had not recognized the rule of any monarch since the late Middle Ages. It maintained a loosely bound, oligarchic government until the French Revolution, when it was toppled by revolutionary troops in 1798. By 1813, a state in the older model had been restored, though one that maintained many centralized and nationalized aspects of the revolutionary regime. Liberal fervor, like that which was spreading through all through Europe in the nineteenth century, took root among the Swiss in the following decades, resulting in numerous democratic government reforms in the 1830s. By 1847, the forces of centralizing liberalization and the old conservative order came to a head, resulting in Switzerland’s very own civil war: the Sonderbund War. While it only lasted for about a month, the war was waged by several Catholic cantons eager to roll back reforms and return power to a cantonal level.
Quick—think of the name of a European country. I’ll give you a second to decide.
Picked one? How many of you named France, Germany, Britain, Russia, or perhaps Spain or Italy? The vast majority, I would bet, given their historical and cultural significance. Perhaps there was a sprinkling of smaller, though certainly notably nations such as the Netherlands or Poland. Perhaps a select amount of clever individuals went with Luxembourg, Lichtenstein, or Monaco. How many people, I wonder, would think of Switzerland—unaided, that is, by the very title of this article, which I expect has served to skew the results of my hypothetical experiment.
When I’ve spoken of Switzerland with my peers and friends, a fair number often confuse the small, alpine nation with Sweden—perhaps understandable, despite the vast gulf in geography, given the generalization of a neutral, prosperous European nation with a cross on their flag and whose name begins with “Sw.” Those who could identify Switzerland correctly could generally only list off a few stereotypes regarding what typically comes from there: cheese, chocolate, clocks, banks, army knives, neutrality, the Red Cross—and so forth. While, all things considered, that’s a reasonably assortment of things from a nation so often seemingly overlooked, these exports are more traits than concrete, historical facts, and truly, aside from a few vague notions of the Protestant Reformation in Zurich and an invasion by the French in the revolutionary era, I could not come up with many historical details on Switzerland myself. Continue reading “Not Exactly Neutral: Ferdinand Lecomte Observes the Federal Army”
[This piece is the third in a series on international observation of the American Civil War. Follow these links to read Part 1 and Part 2.]
When considering international observation of the Civil War, common sense suggests that the vast majority of observers would be individuals with distinct military interests in mind. Given the distance between the United States and Europe, as well as the time that observation of the war demanded, Europeans did not simply pack their bags for a day trip to the battlefield to observe the Americans fighting each other for nothing but curiosity and laughs. Military interests and observations were not fully the draw of those who did go, however—on occasion politics were involved.
This post is the second part in a series on Captain Justus Scheibert and international observation of the American Civil War. Read Part 1 of the series here.
Helmuth von Moltke, the elder of the two notable Generals von Moltke and who made his fame in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-1871, is noted for allegedly describing the American Civil War as nothing but “two armed-mobs” running around the countryside and beating each other up, from which very little of military utility could be learned. While a proper source for this quotation cannot be pinned down, and it may never have even been uttered at all, it serves as a rather succinct description of how Prussians would ultimately view the military legacy of the Civil War. In his official observations for the Prussian military commander, Captain Justus Scheibert makes an effort to impart what he viewed as the importance of the conflict to military thought and tactics, though he often focuses his writings on the ways in which American warfare was inferior to Prussian methods.
On a grand tactical scale, Scheibert divides the progression of the war into three phases. He characterizes the first phase of the opening days of the war as being disorderly and confused, defined by haphazard skirmishes lead by men who had not yet truly come to grips with warfare (a rather von Moltke-esque description). The second stage, from roughly 1862 to Gettysburg in 1863, represented a maturation of tactics, with special emphasis now being placed on learned battle formations such as the offensive column, giving a sort of linear character to the fighting. The third phase, from Gettysburg to the end of the war, was one focused upon defensive, at least from the Confederate point of view that Scheibert takes. Grand retreats and movements were a thing of the past as advances were, as Scheibert observes, now made inch by inch as each army fortified and refortified across the landscape. Continue reading “A Prussian Observes the American Civil War”
History likes to look for heroes—individuals with exceptional stories who can serve as the embodiment of others of their kind. In the (very specific) world of international observers to the Civil War, Colonel Arthur Fremantle is that hero. He is familiar even to many casual students of Civil War history as “that British guy who hung around with the Confederates,” in large part thanks to the widespread consumption of Michael Shaara’s popular book The Killer Angels and the aptly-named movie version Gettysburg. His fame is not without merit; Fremantle’s diary detailing his travels through the Confederate States is filled with interesting observations and commentary on the Civil War and the American South through the fascinating lens of a complete outsider.
Arthur Fremantle was not, however, the only international observer to the Civil War (or even the only British observer), a fact that is often overlooked. Representatives were also sent from Napoleon III’s France, the Austrian Empire, and the Kingdom of Prussia, as well as from a handful of other European states. The international implications of any kind of outcome made the war relevant to the interests of European power politics, to say nothing of the military knowledge that could be gained through observation of the war. Continue reading “Justus Scheibert and International Observation of the Civil War”
Of the great body of writing on the American Civil War, perhaps little is more compelling to our modern audience than the first-hand accounts of its participants. There are many kinds of such accounts, including memoirs, diaries, letters, maps, an…
This post was first published on the Civil War Institute’s previous blog, 901 Stories from Gettysburg.
Of the great body of writing on the American Civil War, perhaps little is more compelling to our modern audience than the first-hand accounts of its participants. There are many kinds of such accounts, including memoirs, diaries, letters, maps, and photographs. Additionally, the war years saw various observers accompanying Union and Confederate armies alike. Some of these witnesses were reporters, detailing battles and campaigns for newspapers and magazines, while others were foreign military officers who attached themselves to American armies and kept diligent records of their experiences. One of these men, Lieutenant Colonel Arthur James Lyon Fremantle, a British army officer who was present with Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia at the Battle of Gettysburg, wrote vividly and extensively of his experiences and observations made while accompanying Lee’s men on the road to Gettysburg. He carried his descriptive narrative through until the din of battle had faded and the Army of Northern Virginia found itself once again in retreat across the Potomac River. Fremantle’s writings offer modern readers a unique perspective on the events of July 1st, 2nd, and 3rd, 1863, and place us directly on the ground with Lee and his officers. Over the course of the three days of battle, Fremantle directly witnessed Lee’s meetings with his officers and staff. Fremantle also watched the unfolding events of July 3rd from Seminary Ridge, in the company of Lieutenant General James Longstreet. Fremantle spent a significant amount of time in the company of Lee, Longstreet, and their staffs, and the records he left behind demonstrate that his time spent with these men allowed him to see beyond the myths and legends of the decisions they made and positions they held. Additionally, Fremantle captures quite well how Lee’s common soldiers engaged with notions of duty and pride, as reflected in their actions on the field and in the immediate aftermath of defeat at Gettysburg.