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The Nashville at Southampton

The Illustrated London News, vol. 39, no. 1119, p. 535-536.

November 30, 1861

It has become a question whether there is any design in both or either of the contending parties in the States of America to obtain from Great Britain, in a certain sense involuntarily, that which would amount to a violation of neutrality. It is well known that there has been, and probably there still is, an irritability among the more sensitive spirits of the Federal States against England on account of the decided principles of non-intervention in this terrible quarrel which have been laid down by our statesmen and universally acquiesced in by our people. What was expected of this country in such a juncture of American affairs as now exists does not very clearly appear; but of the fact that dissatisfaction with the conduct of England prevails to a considerable extent in the Northern States there is no doubt. Of the feeling towards this country in the Southern States we have little or no knowledge; but there have been rumours, the effect of which is that the Confederates believe that, in our secret hearts, our leaning is to
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Destruction of the Federal Merchantman Harvey Birch by the Confederate War-Sloop Nashville.—See Next Page.


Page 536

their side, and that our sympathies are, so to speak, wrapped up in cotton. So much of our prosperity, and of the welfare of a large part of our population, is supposed, not without reason, to depend on our import of an article of which in our markets the South has hitherto enjoyed a practical monopoly, that it has been whispered that the Confederate leaders had determined not to allow the export of any cotton to this country under any circumstances, and even apart from the restriction of a blockade, in the hope that England would yield to a commercial pressure, which might easily be converted into a social disturbance, and take such steps as would in effect cause her to do something more than lean to the party of the Secessionists. It would scarcely be denied, even in America itself—certainly not in the Southern States—that even a show of partisanship on the part of England would throw a heavy weight into the scale against the party which she discountenanced; and, however any such idea may be disavowed, it is more than probable that either section would be glad to test the real feeling of this country and the absolute soundness of the neutrality which she professes. Circumstances have just occurred which, as we conceive, will tend to bring about a settlement of any doubts which may exist in regard to this question. Far be it from us to insinuate anything which can be construed into even a tendency to offence to either party in this unhappy contest, but we may be permitted to say that it has long been the boast of the Americans as a people that they are essentially what they call "smart;" and, among other additions to the language which is common to the Old and the New Country which they have succeeded in making is the word "dodge"—the significancy of which is admitted. Of course, the word could not exist unless that which it signifies also existed; and that its application should creep into the conduct of the public affairs of the States, Federal or Confederate, at a critical moment, and when a great object was at stake, would not be in the least surprising.

These remarks have been elicited by the fact that armed vessels, both of the Federal and Confederate States, have made their appearance at one of our principal ports, and have demanded that aid, in the shape of opportunities and facilities for refitting, which, by the permission of the Sovereign, any State is accustomed to afford to the war-vessels of all nations. In the case of the Federal vessel, whatever may have been her objects or her destination, she bore with her no distinctive marks of those qualities which would have brought her within the terms of the declaration of neutrality which has been solemnly enuticiated to the contending parties in America by the Government of this country. In that declaration it is laid down that her Majesty and all her subjects will "hold a strict and impartial neutrality between the Government of the United States of America and certain States styling themselves the Confederate States of America." The subjects of this realm are warned against adding to the warlike force of any ship or vessel of war or other armed vessel belonging to either of the contending parties; and an interdict has been laid on the armed ships, and also the privateers of both parties, from carrying prizes made by them into the ports of the United Kingdom or of any of her Majesty's possessions. Sinning overtly against none of these provisions, the James Adger—Federalist—got what she required at Southampton, and in due time departed from that port, whither and for what immediate purposes we were bound by the letter of international law not too curiously to inquire. Hardly had the Federal flag disappeared from our waters when the Confederate colours floated in the same harbour, also over an armed ship, coming, avowedly, for the purpose of refitting. But here the parallel ceases. Without any attempt at disguise, but, as far as we can judge, with ostentatious frankness, it is made known by the commander of the Nashville that almost, if not entirely, in British waters, he had captured and burnt a trading vessel belonging to adherents of the Federal party, made prisoners of the crew, and brought them to England in irons; this latter course having been taken because they declined to enter the Confederate service.

So much of the well-known facts connected with the Nashville it has been necessary to state in order to justify the supposition which we venture to lay down, that the whole proceeding, from first to last, was carried on with the design of bringing to the test the question of British neutrality. It would seem as if this merchantman in ballast was taken and destroyed by a Confederate ship of war with the object of exhibiting the character of the latter openly before the eyes of the English Government, and coming, as it were, red-handed, from the destruction of a Federal vessel, she enters an English port, and asks aid and assistance in rendering her complete and efficient, and enabled to proceed on a cruise in which, of course she expects to meet with other vessels belonging to her enemies and to deal with them in the same manner as she treated the Harvey Birch. It is true that she brought no prize into a British port; but she brought with her all the symbols and signs of a prize. Indeed, she retains property on board of her belonging to the captain and passengers of the captured, for the recovery of which these latter have endeavoured to invoke the help of English law. Can it be denied that, if permission were given to the Nashville to refit and repair, it would be a violation of the spirit, if not of the letter—and even this distinction is by no means clear—of that part of the Queen's declaration which forbids "the adding to the warlike force of any ship or vessel of war or other armed vessel belonging to either of the contending parties?" No doubt the technical answer to this assertion is, that these words apply only to matters which are called contraband of war. But the real question is, how would such an act as the aiding and comforting—to use an old legal word— of this Confederate vessel, fresh from the capture of a Federal vessel, he construed by the authorities and the people of the North; and, if the truth were known, does not the Captain of the Nashville know that it would be construed in a hostile sense; and is not that the very reason why he has brought his ship, with the crew of her prize, into Southampton harbour?

Something might be said of the "prononcé" manner in which a Confederate agent who has come to England in the Nashville—of whom and of his mission we say nothing-has talked of the vast quantities of cotton which are lying ready for shipment in the Southern States, and which, of course, only await some contingency which would break up or render ineffective the Federal blockade. This matter, small in itself, is sufficiently suggestive, and is not without significance in arguing the view we have taken in reference to this transaction.

It should be clearly understood that we are discussing this question, not in any spirit of partisanship or with any tendency of feeling or opinion towards either party in the United States, but solely, as it stands, as a matter for the exercise of the discretion of the Government of this country in carrying out that principle of neutrality which has been laid down as our rule of action. In that sense, and considering the question only from that point of view in coming to a conclusion, it seems to us that the observance of pure and unadulterated neutrality demands that no assistance should be given to the Nashville. Admitting that all which we have suggested of a crafty device having been adopted in order to embroil this country with the Federal Government to be without foundation, and indeed we did not for a moment mean to insinuate that it should enter into the consideration of the Governvent[sic] in practically dealing with the matter, on the true construction of our declaration of rigid non-intervention, and, still more, on the principle of sound policy, the usual accommodation and appliances which are granted to ships of war in our ports ought to be withheld from this Confederate vessel of war presenting herself under her peculiar circumstances to the notice of the English authorities.

We have waited in vain up to the moment at which we are writing for the decision of her Majesty's Government on this subject. For all that has hitherto appeared the affair of the Nashville remains unsettled. It is certain that some definite and unmistakable rule which would include just such circumstances as those which surround the case of the Confederate ship ought to have been immediately promulgated by the Government, so that there might be no mistake as to the conditions on which armed vessels of either belligerent are henceforth to be allowed to enter British harbours, and as to the rights which they are to enjoy whilst they remain in harbour. It is true that a still more important event may bring the question of the relations which are to exist between this country and the Federals into a condition of exactitude; but it is just possible that the acts of the Commander of the San Jacinto to our mailsteamer Trent may not lead to hostilities between the two countries, and in that case the necessity for accurate and unmistakable rules of neutrality will be more than ever needed.

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Next: Destruction of a Federal American Ship by a Confederate Sloop of War.Articlevol. 39, no. 1119, p. 536 (5 paragraphs)
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