UK Heritage

The Nashville Affair

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By John Bennett

 

(The original text of this article appeared in 'Crossfire', the magazine of the ACWRT (UK) No. 65 April 2001)

 

The Trent incident and the Nashville affair are two examples of the way in which the American Civil War impinged on Great Britain. Though less well-known than the Trent incident, when Confederate commissioners James M. Mason and John Slidell, on their way to Europe, were forcibly removed from a British mail steamer in the West lndies, the Nashville affair, in which a Confederate cruiser undergoing repairs in an English port was blockaded by a Federal warship, nevertheless caused great excitement and alarm.

 


Originally built as a fast passenger steamer in 1853, for service between New York and Charleston, the Nashville, a 1,220-ton side-wheeler, had been seized by the Confederates at the outbreak of war. Refitted as a commerce raider, she was commissioned as the CSS Nashville, with a complement of 40 officers and men, but was only lightly armed with two 6-pounder guns, because her decks would not support heavy armament. It was originally thought that she would take Messrs Mason and Slidell to Europe, but following a change of plan they left in another vessel.

 

On 26 October 1861, under the command of Lieutenant Robert B. Pegram, CSN, formerly of the U.S. Navy, the Nashville ran the blockade at Charleston, and after coaling at Bermuda, sailed for England, where it was hoped the work of strengthening her for service as a warship could be carried out. (1)

 

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Near the mouth of the English Channel she captured and burned the Harvey Birch, en route from Le Havre to New York, the first Northern merchantman to be taken by a Confederate commerce raider in the North Atlantic, and on 21 November she arrived at Southampton. As well as the crew of the unfortunate Harvey Birch, she also had on board some spare officers for ships being built in England for the Confederate Navy (the Florida and the Alabama), and Colonel John L Peyton, CSA, state purchasing agent for North Carolina. (2)

 

The Nashville was the first Confederate ship to visit a European port, and her appearance caused a sensation. The Times reported:

 

Great excitement has been created here by the arrival in our waters this morning of a steamer of war bearing the flag of the Confederate States of America, and which has since come into dock, where she now lies snugly berthed in the outer tidal basin. She came up the river about 8 o'clock, and anchored off the mouth of the ltchin, with the Confederate flag flying at the peak and a pennant at the main. Soon afterwards a number of men were landed from her in the docks, who proved to be the crew of a late American merchant ship, the Harvey Birch, which had been captured and burnt on Tuesday morning near the entrance of the Channel. (3)

 

Her arrival also led to a heated diplomatic correspondence between Charles Francis Adams, United States Minister in London, and Lord John Russell at the Foreign Office, about the exact status and maritime rights of a ship which Adams regarded as nothing more than a pirate. This particular matter however, was soon overtaken by a new and more pressing crisis, when news of the Trent incident reached London on 27 November, creating a wave of anti-Northern and pro-Southern feeling, and bringing Britain to the verge of war with the United States.

 

The Nashville had been badly damaged by Atlantic storms, and on 5 December she went into dry dock to have the necessary repairs carried out; but her captain soon found that Britain's Proclamation of Neutrality meant that there was no question of his ship's military capability being enhanced. (4) There were other problems too: an attempt was made one night to set the ship on fire, then several of the crew deserted.

 

The work of repairing the Nashville was completed, and she was ready to leave, when on 8 January 1862 the situation changed dramatically, with the appearance at Southampton of the USS Tuscarora, 'one of the new screw corvettes built for the Federal navy', with a complement of 200 officers and men, and armed with nine heavy guns. Her captain, Commander Tunis A. M. Craven, USN, was under orders to avenge the burning of the Harvey Birch, though without infringing English neutrality.

 

The Times wondered what would happen now? Would the Nashville, certainly no match for the Tuscarora, be forced to remain at Southampton till the war was over, or would she attempt to run the blockade and escape? The two ships, about a mile apart, watched each other closely, and reports of the illegal presence of armed men at night in Southampton docks began to appear; they were from the Tuscarora and were clearly spying on the Nashville. This cat and-mouse-game was to continue for almost a month.

 

It seemed ironic to The Times that just as the crisis in Anglo-American relations resulting from the Trent incident was resolved, 'the war between the Federal and the Confederate States is brought to our very doors, and the two navies stand arrayed against each other ... in British waters'. (5) For the government it was a worrying development, particularly when a rumour took hold that the Nashville had telegraphed to Cadiz for the CSS Sumter to come to her assistance. HMS Dauntless was sent to Southampton and anchored where she could observe the protagonists, and HMS Warrior and HMS Trafalgar were on standby in the Solent.

 

The feeling that the Civil War had now arrived on England's doorstep, expressed in The Times earlier that month, was reinforced by a report which appeared in a Southampton paper:

 

'On Thursday evening <23 January> a party of men belonging to the Nashville went into the taproom of the Bell beershop, in French Street, and called for some refreshments, which they received. They remained there drinking and enjoying themselves for sometime, but about nine o'clock they were surprised by seeing two of the crew of the Tuscarora come into the house. Some conversation took place, which soon merged into high words, and one of the Nashville men becoming exasperated at some remark which fell from one of the Yankees, jumped from his seat and knocked his cigar from his mouth.

 

The ire of the Northerner was naturally excited by this insult, and he immediately pulled a pistol from his pocket, snapped it at the man, and ran off, followed by his companion. The landlord, no doubt feeling somewhat uncomfortable at the probability of a battle between North and South being fought out on his premises, cleared the house. Nothing more came of the affair - the results of which were about as important as some of those 'great victories', which, according to their own accounts, the Federals are constantly achieving'. (6)

 

On 29 January the steamship La Plata, carrying the two Confederate commissioners who had been at the centre of the Trent incident, docked at Southampton. Their arrival created relatively little interest, in spite of their recent fame, though the officers from the Nashville waited on them to pay their respects.

 

Lieut. Pegram and Cdr. Craven had both been informed by the Admiralty Superintendent at Southampton, that under the terms of the Foreign Enlistment Act, if warships from two warring countries were in a neutral port at the same time, their respective departures must be at least twenty-four hours apart. To ensure this was observed, another warship, HMS Shannon, arrived at the entrance to Southampton Water.

 

There were arguments about the interpretation of the Act, and which ship should leave first, but finally, on 3 February 1862, the waiting game came to an end. 'The Nashville has got away to sea', reported The Times. 'The despatch steamer, arrived from Jersey, reports that she saw the Nashville pass the Tuscarora in the Solent, off Cowes. The latter had her guns run out and steam up, and Her Majesty's frigate Shannon was lying close by, also with her guns out and steam up, to prevent the Tuscarora moving, and to enforce the 24 hours' law, the Nashville having the priority of start'. (7)

 

The Nashville was taken out by one of the Southampton pilots, who left her five or six miles from the Needles, and she was later seen by a steamer inward bound from New York. An embittered Cdr. Craven, convinced of collusion on the part of the British authorities, made no attempt to follow his faster adversary, and the Tuscarora sailed in search of the Sumter.

 

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Though she captured and destroyed another Northern merchant ship, the Robert Gilfillan, on her way back to the Confederacy, the Nashville's career as a commerce raider was over. After decommissioning, she was converted into a blockade-runner, the Thomas L. Wragg, then briefly became a privateer, the Rattlesnake, before being destroyed in the Ogeechee River, Georgia, by the monitor Montauk in February 1863.

 

Whatever its views about the United States and the Confederate States, the British government was undoubtedly glad to be rid of its unwelcome visitors at Southampton. Punch caught the mood of the moment in a ditty called 'The Tuscarora':

 

"Give England a wide enough berth, we say,

And yard-arm to yard-arm you're free to lay,

And hammer and tongs you may pound away,

Both Nashville and Tuscarora;

 

We don't see any great call to brag

Of the deeds done under either flag -

The Nashville may search the Harvey Birch,

Or CRAVEN may PEAGRIM'S laurels smirch,

And the Nashville go down with a roll and a lurch,

To the guns of the Tuscarora". (8)

 

Lieut. Pegram was promoted to commander, after his return to the Confederate States. For a time he was captain of the CSS Richmond, an ironclad in the James River squadron, but in 1864 he returned to England in an unsuccessful attempt to buy ships for the Virginia Volunteer Navy Company; he died in 1894. (9) Cdr. Craven did not survive the war: he was in command of the monitor Tecumseh when she struck a mine and sank during the battle of Mobile Bay in August 1864.

 

The Nashville affair may seem a very minor incident when set against the backdrop of the Civil War, but it did confirm the belligerent status of Confederate warships, as well as the safety of neutral foreign ports; and in Britain's case it demonstrated the workings of the Foreign Enlistment Act and the Proclamation of Neutrality.

 

ACWRT(UK) 2001

 

 

Notes

 

(1) Though the Confederacy's ship building and repair facilities were very limited, the real reasons for the Nashville's visit remain uncertain. The Times described her as being on 'special service', and it may have been to test Britain's neutrality, or to demonstrate that the Confederacy had a sea-going navy.

(2) North Carolina was one of several Confederate states that sent agents to England to buy arms and equipment for their troops.

(3) The Times, 22 Nov 1861. The 'peak' here refers to the stern of the ship; at this date her ensign would have been the first Confederate national flag, the 'Stars and Bars', and her pennant would have had a blue head with seven stars and a red and a white tail.

(4) The treatment was even-handed: two weeks before the arrival of the Nashville, the USS James Adger, another converted steamer which was sister-ship to the Nashville, had put into Southampton for repairs and been subject to the same restrictions.

(5) The Times, 10 Jan 1862.

(6) Southampton Times, 25 Jan 1862. The Bell was destroyed in the 1940 blitz.

(7) The Times, 4 Feb 1862.

(8) Punch, 8 Feb 1862. Contemporary newspapers and periodicals seem to have had difficulties with the spelling of Lieut. Pegram's name.

(9) A volunteer navy, a modified form of privateering, had been authorised by the Confederate Congress in April 1863.

Lieut. Pegram's report of the cruise of the CSS Nashville is in Official Records of the Union and Confederate Navies, ser. 1, vol 1, pp.745-9. Secondary sources: W. M. Robinson, The Confederate Privateers. 1928: P. Van Doren Stern. The Confederate Navy: a pictorial history, 1962; W. F. Spencer, The Confederate Navy in Europe, 1983: C. G. Hearn, Gray Raiders of the Sea, 1992; Raimondo Luraghi, A History of the Confederate Navy, 1996.

 

 

Picture credits:

 

All images: with grateful thanks to U.S. Naval Historical Center.

 

Photo #: NH 59348 "The 'Nashville' and 'Tuscarora' at Southampton" Line engraving published in "Harper's Weekly", January-June 1862, page 96, depicting CSS Nashville (1861-1862) in dock at Southampton, England, circa January 1862, with USS Tuscarora (1861-1883) keeping watch in the right distance. Other identified ships in the distance are Dauntless and Moulton, which may be British warships present to protect English neutrality.

 

Photo #: NH 59350: CSS Nashville (1861-1862) Line engraving published in "The Soldier in Our Civil War", volume I, page 215, depicting the Nashville capturing and burning the U.S. merchantman Harvey Birch in the English Channel, 19 November 1861. U.S. Naval Historical Center Photograph.

 

Photo #: NH 59291: "The Rebel Steamer 'Nashville' Running the Blockade at Beaufort, North Carolina." Line engraving published in "Harper's Weekly", January-June 1862, page 209, depicting CSS Nashville (1861-1862) running into Beaufort on 28 February 1862, after her raiding cruise in the Atlantic and European waters.