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The Global American Civil War and Anglo-American Relations in China's Treaty Ports

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  07 October 2022

Thomas M. Larkin*
Affiliation:
Department of History, University of Bristol, Bristol, UK
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Abstract

Taking a global approach to the American Civil War from the vantage of China, this article explores the nineteenth-century transnational connections and disconnections that linked the American community there to distant diplomatic crises unfolding in the Atlantic. Such episodes as the raiding of the Confederate privateer Alabama and the Trent Affair reached China's Americans through newspaper articles and correspondence that described an Atlantic theatre dominated by the spirit of war. Such reports had an ambiguous effect in China. On the one hand, they undermined American mercantile enterprises that had been poised to expand into China's interior. On the other, they created only ephemeral ripples of discontent amongst a wider Anglo-American community ultimately bound together by common interests and a sense of racial and cultural solidarity. I argue that while rumour and speculation were powerful forces capable of crippling the United States’ merchant marine, colonial society in ports such as Hong Kong proved surprisingly resistant to metropolitan socio-political crises. Through the central case-study of the Alabama and related debates sustained in 1860s China, this article accordingly explores the extent to which (semi)colonial societies were susceptible to or insulated from metropolitan crises.

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This is an Open Access article, distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution licence (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0), which permits unrestricted re- use, distribution and reproduction, provided the original article is properly cited.
Copyright
Copyright © The Author(s), 2022. Published by Cambridge University Press

‘The term “Chinese” is in general use’, declared an 1863 China Mail article, ‘in the building-yards of the Clyde and the Mersey.’ The ‘Chinese’, indeed the ‘Emperor of China’ himself, were evidently ‘striving’ to construct and outfit a fleet of iron-clad vessels. As the Hong Kong newspaper confided, these terms were a smokescreen; a fabricated ruse masking the widely known fact that Liverpudlian shipwrights were disregarding British neutrality to craft steamships for Confederate use against the Union merchant marine. The term ‘Chinese’ was code for the Confederates, and the ‘Emperor of China’ was none other than Confederate President Jefferson Davis.Footnote 1 Overtly linking China, Britain, and the American Civil War, the article played upon concerns pervading China's American mercantile community that a British-made fleet of Confederate privateers would destroy what shipping remained under the American flag. Responding to the same rumours, the Confederate paper the Daily Intelligencer gloated

the Emperor of China seems to be a great friend of ours. He has vessels built and then gives them to us. The Yankees will have to declare war against him…the poor Emperor of China will never be allowed to build another vessel we fear! The Yankees will close all the ship-yards against him.Footnote 2

The root of this discourse could be traced to July 1862, when Messrs. John Laird, Sons & Co. launched a sleek steamer known throughout its construction by its shipyard number: ‘290’. Slipping out of the Mersey, 290 – now christened ‘Enrica’ – arrived off Terceira Island in the Azores on 10 August.Footnote 3 The British Aggripina arrived on 18 August bearing munitions and coal, and two days later the Bahama brought Enrica's future captain Raphael Semmes.Footnote 4 Semmes took command on 24 August and, hoisting the Confederate ensign, re-christened the ship the Confederate States Ship (CSS) Alabama, declaring his mission to ‘cripple the commerce of the enemy’.Footnote 5 Secrecy had, to this point, been paramount, for in launching the steamer Laird, Sons & Co. tested the limits of the British government's 1819 Foreign Enlistment Act, which prohibited furnishing foreign nationals with ‘vessels for warlike purposes’ in conflicts towards which Britain was neutral.Footnote 6 Over the next two years, Britain was cursed throughout the Union as, under Semmes's command, the Alabama became the Civil War's most successful and notorious commerce raider, capturing or destroying sixty-four merchant ships and one warship, the Hatteras, in its twenty-two months of voyaging.Footnote 7

The Alabama's true impact, however, was not the physical damage inflicted upon Union shipping but the threat to commercial systems and Anglo-American relations that the privateer, the Civil War, and British support for the Confederacy represented in such distant ports as Hong Kong and Shanghai. Indeed, the Civil War was a crucial part of American commercial failure in China which historians of Sino-Western trade have largely neglected.Footnote 8 Along the China coast, an incendiary local press with delayed access to news often amounting to little more than rumour fanned Civil War anxieties.Footnote 9 In the short term, such rumours could be destructive, undermining the foreign community's commercial, political, and social stability in China. But there were also strong local ties, built upon shared experiences in a foreign land and Anglo-American ideas of racial and cultural solidarity, that proved difficult to unbind.

I aim to provide a broader understanding of such nineteenth-century transnational connections and disconnections, arguing that while rumour and speculation were powerful forces capable of crippling US commerce in China, the colonial context cushioned the socio-political impact of metropolitan crises. This article uses the case-study of the Alabama to unpack the complex ways the Civil War affected Americans’ social and commercial standing in China, exploring, in the process, (semi)colonial susceptibility and resistance to metropolitan influences. I first consider the Alabama's creation and the ways such incidents were communicated to Americans in China. I then explore how metropolitan debates about British neutrality evolved within the British (semi)colonial contexts of Hong Kong and Shanghai. Finally, I assess whether the Alabama and wider Civil War rumours undermined American commerce and social stability in China. I question how Civil War tensions were experienced in Hong Kong and Shanghai, whether such tensions threatened the socio-commercial position of merchants there, and to what extent these (semi)colonial spaces were insulated from transnational crises.

China might not seem the obvious place to look to understand the Civil War's wider impact, but its effects upon the small American community trading along the China coast nuance a broader discussion of the US’ changing interest in the Pacific.Footnote 10 Emphasizing Sino-American commerce's bearing over how the US imagined its global economic ascendency, Dael Norwood argues that economic changes following the Civil War prompted a shift from ‘“China trade” thinking to “China market”’ thinking amongst Americans.Footnote 11 Such a conceptual shift swept the legs from under China's American firms, for whom the remote war's destructive effects had initiated the dismantling and recalibrating of a commercial system eighty years in the making. Although not necessarily apparent in the moment, for China's Americans the war's impact upon the domestic economy and their enterprises helped redefine a political–economic relationship that had long been integral to the US’ global ambitions.

Prior to the Civil War, American enterprises in China had been poised to take off. The conclusion of the Second Opium War (1856–60) between Anglo-French forces and the Qing provided Americans an opportunity to procure a second Sino-American treaty without conflict; an opportunity to, as Yao Tingfang describes it, ‘look on, sitting idly and enjoying the fruits [of British imperialism]’ (guanwang zuoxiang qicheng 觀望坐享其成).Footnote 12 Following Britain's lead, William Bradford Reed, Guiliang 桂良, and Huashana 花沙納 signed the 1858 Sino-American Treaty of Tientsin, expanding Americans’ commercial and legal privileges in China.Footnote 13 The treaty's ‘most favoured nation’ status guaranteed the US any concessions other powers gained in their respective and subsequent treaties.Footnote 14 Without firing a shot, Americans benefited from China's defeat and from all future concessions. Emboldened by the new opportunities the treaty promised, American merchants in Hong Kong and Shanghai fixed their gaze upon the China coast and up the Yangzi, preparing for the opening of China's interior ports that the 1860 Convention of Peking treaty ratifications would surely secure.

Yet, by the decade's end, the Yangzi enthusiasm that had gripped China's American merchants abated and many established firms began to fail. There are various local reasons behind these merchants’ failure to generate the envisioned returns. Robert Bickers describes, for instance, how the British firm John Swire & Sons outmanoeuvred its American competitors to monopolize Yangzi shipping, while Michael Hunt identifies how changing monetary exchange rates and incentives for investing in the US deflated American efforts in China, but the Civil War also unexpectedly influenced the state of trade in China.Footnote 15 News of events such as the 1861 Trent Affair, when Union Captain Charles Wilkes of the United States Ship (USS) San Jacinto seized Confederate diplomats James Murray Mason and John Slidell from a British mail packet, could have surprising ramifications for American commerce and society in distant China.Footnote 16 The Alabama's privateering was no different and, despite never sailing further east than Borneo, the Confederate raider became a recurring topic in China's English-language newspapers and in American correspondence.Footnote 17

Such Civil War tensions were keenly felt in Hong Kong and Shanghai, where the American community's socio-political standing was ambiguous. The former was a British colony and the symbolic and administrative centre of American and Anglo-European society and commerce in China. The latter was China's most important treaty port; a semi-colonial entrepôt whose International Settlement was administered by the surprisingly autonomous multinational Shanghai Municipal Council even if the port's inhabitants technically remained subject to their respective consuls’ authority.Footnote 18 Together, these ports provide natural points of comparison to study Anglo-American conflict and cohesion. Hong Kong's Americans were conscious of living and operating in an effectively British space, while Shanghai's comprised part of a complex socio-political environment with ambiguous power structures in which national rivalries were often suppressed to preserve racial hierarchies.Footnote 19 A holistic study of the Alabama would suggest its privateering never ‘seriously interrupted’ Union trade, but for American merchants in Hong Kong and Shanghai the situation's ramifications were accordingly more complicated, spilling beyond the realm of commerce into the socio-political sphere.Footnote 20 Civil War anxieties threatened – if only briefly – Anglo-American social harmony in China, while the threat of Alabama privateering and the conflict's appropriation of ships intended for the China trade immobilized trade at the precise moment it was predicted to grow. Overextended firms heavily invested in the infrastructure to sustain a new Yangzi trade found themselves without vessels to ply the river and unable to ship cargoes home. They would never fully regain their footing. The 1860s marked the beginning of a steady decline, and by the 1880s not one of the major American firms in China remained.

I

Throughout the Civil War, privateering, and by extension British neutrality, filled papers and letters on both sides of the Atlantic, prompting a public outpouring of speculation over the future of Anglo-American relations and impending war between Britain and the Union. Commenters’ opinions in American and British papers in turn fuelled gossip shared with American friends and family abroad and were reprinted extensively by local newspapers in Hong Kong and Shanghai. For those Americans in China who cared to read the news, such articles carried bleak predictions of further conflict.

One of the earliest such crises during the Civil War, the Trent Affair, caused American and British commenters to speculate on the shape an Anglo-American conflict might take, constituting the first real threat to peace within China's treaty ports.Footnote 21 In November 1861, Wilkes of the San Jacinto, a vessel familiar to Hong Kong's Western community for its service in East Asia and involvement in the Second Opium War, boarded the British mail packet Trent and seized the Confederate diplomats it was transporting.Footnote 22 Reactionary responses to the episode in the US and Britain speculated an Anglo-American war would follow. Adopting a tone similar to later responses to Confederate privateering, Union commenters claimed Britain had breached its neutrality by transporting belligerent diplomats, the British responding that the boarding of a neutral vessel had transgressed British sovereignty.Footnote 23

Just as Ronald and Mary Zboray argue of intranational Civil War correspondence, frenetic news reporting and telegraphs accompanied letters to Americans abroad, exporting rumours that painted a metropolitan ‘social setting dominated by the spirit of war’.Footnote 24 Writing to her sons in Hong Kong, Elizabeth Ann Farley of Ipswich, MA, described how the British press and people ‘[broke] forth with violent denunciations and abuse’ of America following the incident. The British government, she continued, was rumoured to be pouring ‘troops and munitions’ into Canada ‘with every demonstration of hostility’. Farley's letter, and a later one from her husband George W. Heard, related how the event ‘produced a profound sense of scorn and disgust’ in America.Footnote 25 Her brother Augustine Heard Sr, writing from Boston, likewise informed his nephew Albert Heard that one ‘cannot find a man or woman [in America] that does not pray for a time when’ the North might ‘punish [Britain] as she deserves’.Footnote 26 The ‘virulent Anglophobia’ the Trent inspired was slow to abate and, as Duncan Andrew Campbell argues, its memory affected anti-British and anti-Union sentiments for nearly two years following the episode.Footnote 27 Building upon these sentiments, the Alabama's launching would rekindle concerns about British neutrality and the threat of conflict that China's Anglo-American community would discuss at length, the privateer's rumoured exploits further undermining confidence in American shipping between East Asia and the West.

The circumstances behind the Alabama's creation are well known and deeply mythologized. Depending on the ‘first-hand observer’ quoted, the accessed newspaper's loyalties, and too often the historian's political sensibilities, the episode is infused with tilted sentiments about the Civil War. For some, it was the world's most successful commerce-raider, launched through the guile of its builders and commissioning agents, captained by a shrewd yet brilliant lawyer, crewed by brave Southern patriots and British sympathizers, and engaged in a form of chivalrous privateering.Footnote 28 For others, it was a symbol of British hypocrisy, its captain a cruel and arbitrary man, its crew unskilled and mutinous; a ship that owed its success to duplicitous tactics and that, when put to the test in a real naval battle, came up wanting.Footnote 29 Such mythologizing forms an important part of the Alabama's story, however, because it helps explain why rumours surrounding the ship's exploits found such purchase amongst China's Anglo-American community. The mundane issue at the heart of the Alabama scandal was one of imprecise law and diplomatic posturing; an issue bearing limited relevance to remote and autonomous colonial administrators in China. Yet, for Americans and British abroad, the scandal's true impact lay in the ship's mythic exploits – Semmes being compared to Blackbeard or Francis Drake, and the Alabama to Vanderdecken's Flying Dutchman – and the threat its creation posed to commerce and Anglo-American relations.Footnote 30

The Alabama was one of several war vessels that British shipwrights built for the Confederate States. In theory, such construction was clandestine, but all concerned parties recognized the practice and Britain's failure to end it chafed the Union public and administration. In 1862, The New York Times reported that the Union's Secretary of State William Seward accused the British of producing a fleet of steamers ‘expressly to run the [Union] blockade’ and prey on Union shipping.Footnote 31 Further articles charged shipwrights in Liverpool, ‘the most pro-Confederate place in the world outside the Confederacy itself’, with outfitting a number of vessels including the Labuan, Emily St Pierre, and General Miramon for Confederate buyers, but the sister sloops-of-war Florida and Alabama bore the brunt of Union outrage.Footnote 32 These two ships, known by various names and often mistaken for each other, soon sparked panic over Confederate privateering and the Union merchant marine's vulnerability. Such confusion further entrenched their British origins, as the Florida was often mistakenly identified by the Alabama's shipyard pseudonym ‘Gunboat 290’, or by its own: Oreto.Footnote 33

Confederate agent James Bulloch, acting as a private individual, had commissioned Laird, Sons & Co. of Merseyside to build ‘290’.Footnote 34 Discretion had been paramount, as the British Foreign Enlistment Act ‘prohibited “equipping, furnishing, fitting out, arming…any vessel with the intent that such vessel should be used to commit hostilities against any state”’ with which Britain was at peace.Footnote 35 As with those vessels nominally for the ‘Emperor of China’, builders employed a range of deceptions including false names and red herrings about the ships’ intended destinations. The Italian government, for example, supposedly commissioned the Oreto, and 290 was for either a Spanish company or the Spanish government.Footnote 36 Neither lie weathered scrutiny, and as 290 took shape, its true purpose became obvious.Footnote 37 Technical consideration for the Foreign Enlistment Act ‘prevented the guns &c., being placed on board in Liverpool’, but the sleek form betrayed 290's function and, upon arrival at Terceira, the British ship Aggripina provided equipment as it would on multiple occasions throughout the steamer's career.Footnote 38

Across the Atlantic and in China, such vessels’ British origins inspired debates over the laws of neutrality, and accompanying these debates came fresh stirrings of Anglo-American war. The issues of maritime neutrality and privateering's legality could be traced back to the 1856 Declaration of Paris, drafted during the Crimean War. The declaration abolished privateering, made provisions to protect enemy goods shipped under neutral flags and neutral goods shipped under enemy flags, and stipulated that for blockades to be binding they must effectively block all access to the enemy's coasts.Footnote 39 The US, seeking to protect all private property from enemy warships, regardless of belligerent status, refused to sign unless such protection was guaranteed. Americans contended that, ‘if private property might still be seized by warships’ then why not by privateers, which they considered ‘another branch of the public armed forces of the state?’Footnote 40 Britain opposed the amendment, and so by refusing to sign unless these conditions were met, the Americans technically endorsed privateering's legality.Footnote 41 The Alabama debates pivoted around this impasse. Americans vocally opposed privateering as well – almost a moot point during the Civil War, as they considered all Confederate privateers pirates – but in abstaining from the transnationally recognized declaration against it, their protests against British shipyards outfitting privateers and against British vessels running the Union's blockade had tenuous legal footing.Footnote 42

The nuances of maritime law and this legal duel between British and American politicians are too numerous to discuss here and are, besides, the subject of many excellent studies.Footnote 43 What is important to consider is that British and American commenters’ portrayals of the Alabama amplified the threat of its privateering in China. Confederate papers, for example, celebrated the damage Semmes inflicted upon Union shipping and Union–British relations. An early London and China Telegraph article reprinted in Atlanta's Daily Intelligencer gloated that as the US had not signed the Paris treaty, cargoes bound for the Northern states would be easy pickings for Confederate privateers.Footnote 44 Later reports continued to laud Semmes and his ‘skill’, alongside the Florida's efforts, likening Northern ships to a defenceless ‘school of herrings chased by two sharks’, and congratulating both ships’ crews for ‘pretty well cut[ting] up the East India and China trade’.Footnote 45

Despite the brevity of the Alabama's East Asian voyage, Confederate reporting fixated on damage to the Union's China trade. Playing upon the privateer's Dutchmanesque image, Captain Sedgewick's article, published in the Sentinel of Richmond, VA, provided an atmospheric account of the Latona's encounter with one of the Alabama's victims – ‘a cotton ship from China’ – off Java Head. The victim, encountered on a ‘dirty, rainy sort of night’, had been left standing aflame, ‘not a soul aboard her’, the light the fire emitted ‘doubly dim and black’. Sedgewick then witnessed ‘a long, low craft’ glide ‘out of the darkness’ past the Latona and slip again into the night.Footnote 46 Another account recollected how the Alabama had, at the time, ‘seemed ubiquitous’, and ‘if suddenly on the Indian Ocean a red light was seen in the distance’ and ‘dim clouds of smoke’ rolled ‘before the wind’, then ‘men knew Semmes was at work’.Footnote 47 Such accounts perpetuated myths of the Alabama's Eastern exploits and its wraith-like potential to appear unexpectedly off any Asian port.Footnote 48 The circulation of these reports, whether fact or fancy, contributed to anxieties in China about Union commerce's security and impending Anglo-American hostilities.

Responding to frequent news of the Alabama's success, Northern commentators redoubled their denunciations of Britain, even invoking China's ongoing Taiping Civil War to suggest Union raiders raise the Taiping flag and ‘prey on British commerce, a la Florida, Alabama, &c.’.Footnote 49 The episode fanned Anglo-American outrage across the Atlantic and in China, The New York Times reprinting London articles alongside its own diplomatic reports to track the deteriorating relations.Footnote 50 Yet many reports remained measured, arguing that given the Union's domestic crisis, war ‘would not be expedient’.Footnote 51 Correspondents in London confirmed such sentiments, and while reporting that British popular opinion favoured the South, a strong desire to ‘avoid a war’ with the Union prevailed.Footnote 52 Rather than force a conflict, Northerners – a loud component being the China merchants – demanded indemnification for British damages to American shipping, which they received through the 1871 Treaty of Washington.Footnote 53 Still, as commenters debated the expediency of Anglo-British conflict in the Atlantic, fears of piracy and the immediate question of lost commerce threatened to drive a new wedge between China's British and American communities.

II

Historians championing integrative methodologies increasingly frame events such as the American Civil War within transnational or global contexts to assess the extent to which global and national historical narratives were intertwined.Footnote 54 Applying such an approach to the study of China's Taiping Civil War (1850–64), Stephen Platt's Autumn in the heavenly kingdom emphasizes the connection between America's intranational developments and their international relationships with Britain, the Qing, and the Taiping in mid-nineteenth-century China.Footnote 55 Focusing on China's internal crises, Platt flags the link between the American Civil War and developing concerns about the cohesiveness of Shanghai's Western community in the 1860s. The conflict – particularly the Trent and the Alabama episodes – sparked widespread processes of national reaffirmation, forcing Americans in ports such as Shanghai and Hong Kong to reconcile local interests with national sympathies.Footnote 56

Rumours about Confederate privateering and Anglo-American conflict during the Civil War found such purchase in China because of the American community's tenuous position. Americans may have comprised China's second largest Western community, but since their first arrival they had been far outnumbered by the British and Chinese communities – only 1,043 of Hong Kong's 24,157 inhabitants in 1845 were ‘non-Chinese’, and of these eighty-four were American – and lacked the same domestic political and martial support that the British enjoyed.Footnote 57 Moreover, as Stephen Tuffnell and Nancy Green observe of American expatriates in London and Paris respectively, eighty-odd years living and trading in China had caused the American community's aspirations to diverge from those at home.Footnote 58 While metropolitan letters described a breakdown in Anglo-American relations, China's Americans shared deep socio-political and commercial interests with the British that insulated them from domestic troubles.

One such interest revolved around the progression of China's ongoing Taiping Civil War.Footnote 59 While British and American diplomats had initially raced to make contact with the Taiping leadership at Nanjing, the prospect of establishing normal relations proved dismal.Footnote 60 With trade prospects looking grim, the mercantile community growing impatient with the instability blocking the Yangzi, and foreign policies of strict neutrality becoming harder to enforce, the British and French together elected to back the Qing in the conflict. Following the Anglo-French lead, Seward directed that American minister to China Anson Burlingame do the same in 1862.Footnote 61

Their reasons for doing so echoed those of 1855 when Shanghai's Anglo-American community begrudgingly consented to stop smuggling goods to Small Sword rebels who occupied the city on 7 September 1853. Months prior, the instability of this smaller insurgency had prompted the foreign community to band together to form a militia, the Shanghai Volunteer Corps (SVC), to defend foreign interests.Footnote 62 As with the Taiping, the foreign community initially entertained a positive, if profiteering, relationship with the rebels, the Small Sword leader Liu Lichuan 劉麗川 doing his utmost to garner foreign support. There was, by contrast, general derision for the Qing forces, driven by suspicions that the Shanghai Intendant Wu Jianzhang 吳健彰 was deliberately antagonizing Anglo-American relations. The SVC's first test was, accordingly, a battle on 3 April 1854 against Qing forces rather than the rebels to establish the International Settlement's ‘inviolability’.Footnote 63

Such skirmishes aside, the foreign community concluded in both 1855 and 1862 that stability would better suit their agendas. With both the Small Swords rebels and the Taiping, the prospect of lost commerce convinced the British and Americans to adopt a unified policy of standing with – or at least out of the way of – the Qing government. Regardless of their opinions regarding China's internal struggles, the foreign community's impulse was to form a united front that protected and advanced their political and private interests, a sense of shared purpose in China thus binding Americans to their British rivals.

Yet when faced with Anglo-American conflict in the Atlantic, the mostly Northern American treaty-port community encountered new incongruities between national loyalty and reliance upon the British for the expansion and preservation of their interests in China. These distant diplomatic crises were accordingly double edged in a manner distinct from anxieties attending China's ongoing Civil War. While alarming that the Alabama might suddenly appear off China's coast to prey on American ships, the understanding that should an Anglo-American war erupt, Northerners in the predominantly British treaty port of Shanghai or the British colony of Hong Kong would be at the mercy of their former peers further compounded the issue. The situation was thus primed for conflict between the two communities, but closer examination of local discourse suggests that the wider foreign society, when prudent, resisted external pressures.

Despite occurring over 8,500 miles away, the Trent Affair soon filled the pages of Shanghai's North China Herald and Hong Kong's China Mail newspapers, and the Alabama would likewise become a matter of concern for British and American traders and diplomats. Testament to its notoriety, the Alabama's eastern voyage, lasting little over two months from November 1863 to January 1864, spawned rumours spreading from Singapore to Hong Kong and up the China coast of it taking the Fokkien, recently sailed from Shanghai, or more harrowing still, making for the Huangpu river to lay up shipping in that port.Footnote 64 Through such channels, the ripples of the American conflict and its impact on Anglo-American relations reached China, the Trent and the Alabama threatening to destabilize the socio-commercial cohesion of China's foreign community.

From the reports, rumours, and misinformation circulating the China coast one would assume the foreign community conformed to metropolitan attitudes about British neutrality and the Civil War. Editorials reprinted in local British-run newspapers and letters from home supplied Americans in Hong Kong and Shanghai most Civil War information. Each contained a volatile mixture of nationalist and personal sentiment that threatened to antagonize China's Anglo-American community, importing a stream of reactionary speculation about the inevitability of Anglo-American conflict. Such sources predicted war, blaming commercial failings on British interventions, and threatening to degrade the Anglo-American relationship.

China Mail articles in Hong Kong reveal how Atlantic tensions polarized China's Anglo-American communities, the newspaper publishing numerous articles about relations between the two English-speaking nations. The paper's London correspondent reported ‘great excitement’ in Britain as both sides armed for conflict, articles encouraged Britain to support the Confederacy, and one commentary reprinted from the Economist even dared the Union to attack Canada.Footnote 65 The China Mail's editors compiled most articles from metropolitan papers, publishing various stances to capitalize upon local interest in the debate, their selections representing an array of opinions about the war and Anglo-American relations. The 29 August 1861 supplement reprinted from The Spectator, for instance, educated readers on the cause of American bitterness towards Britain, citing the problem of Southern recognition and American beliefs that the British, possessing ‘false pretences of liberality’, took ‘wicked delight in the suffering of the states’.Footnote 66 A counterpoint, taken from The Times, gloated that ‘the pedestal on which Americans have been placed has been knocked from under them’; that they were not ‘the paragons of enlightened rule that they had been constantly made out to be’.Footnote 67

Cutting to the underlying matter, a 6 February 1862 China Mail editorial discussing the Trent Affair requested both parties consider each other's perspectives and find a peaceful solution.Footnote 68 Even as the editors preached moderation, they reprinted reports from Britain describing preparations for war.Footnote 69 This is far from an exhaustive sample, and contrary to Platt's findings that tensions in Shanghai defused following the winter of 1862, Hong Kong's China Mail periodically published incendiary materials from British newspapers throughout the war, the resulting anxieties bleeding into everyday life. The 1862 Fourth of July, for example, prompted Shanghai's North China Herald editor to publish articles criticizing America's patriotic vanity, and months later a British commenter's caustic China Mail editorial rejoiced at the mutual destruction of the slaveholding Confederates and the ‘ignorant and debased’ Union.Footnote 70 Within the pages of local newspapers, at least, Anglo-American rivalries found a platform.

As the war progressed, the tone of local reporting mellowed. Although The China Mail provided a public outlet which could only have served to remind Americans of their British neighbours’ bitter sentiments, much of its 1863–4 reporting on the conflict was moderate. One such article reprinted from London's Saturday Review calmly laid out the causes of Anglophobia in the Union. Maintaining the stance that Britain had broken no laws in launching the Alabama, the author conceded that a hostile American press might find through this supposed transgression of neutrality further reason to denounce Britain.Footnote 71 Local articles could be more balanced still, sympathizing with the Northern cause even as they decried Union violence and cheered the Alabama's exploits.Footnote 72 Some, still, consciously labelled the Alabama a pirate.Footnote 73 This last point was especially significant as it implicitly supported the Union stance that the South was a rebel force and that, regardless of the Treaty of Paris, Confederate raiding was illegal. Reflecting shifting attitudes about Britain's complicity in the affair, further articles cast the Alabama as a sobering lesson for maritime trade, cautioning that the US may retaliate in kind should Britain find itself warring with its European neighbours.Footnote 74

Regardless of their stance on British neutrality, such muted articles furnished Hong Kong's Westerners with a balanced perspective of Anglo-American relations calibrated to diffuse tensions within the Anglo-American community. Indeed, while only five of the twenty surveyed China Mail articles preached moderation, four of these were locally written. The remaining twenty articles were reprinted from foreign papers. Prescott Clarke and Frank King have noted that while Americans were a ‘favourite target’ in The China Mail's pages, the editors were typically ‘pro-American’.Footnote 75 For the purposes of the paper the editors preferred incendiary pieces, but the communities – and even the editors themselves – when in dialogue, demonstrated a capacity for level-headedness in the face of baiting journalism. Hong Kong's social dictates mitigated metropolitan tensions and transnational political conflicts, the inhabitants preferring to keep peace within their community.

Local China Mail articles reflected a widespread predisposition towards upholding the status quo in China, which found further purchase through colonial officials’ and foreign consuls’ activities. During the war, Hong Kong's and Shanghai's American and British officials handled reports of Anglo-American tensions rationally, but their activities still reflected unease about the diplomatic relationship between the Union and Britain. In Shanghai, as agitated reports arrived, the British Admiral James Hope made pragmatic preparations to seize the American community's ‘homes, ships, and assets’.Footnote 76 Circulars sent from London suggest such eventualities were anticipated. To preserve peace, they instructed colonial officials that, while no foreign consul could act belligerently in British waters, officials too should not interfere with or bar Union or Confederate vessels seeking provisions in their ports.Footnote 77

Hong Kong's officials, however, reinterpreted these orders into an even stricter policy of neutrality extended to Union and Confederate supporters alike. In March 1864, Hong Kong's colonial secretary W. S. Mercer wrote to the US Consul Horace Congar that the Union screw-sloop Wyoming had abused British neutrality by refuelling within the colony's jurisdiction and that its arrival should have been ‘intimated to the government of the Colony’.Footnote 78 Contrasting the antagonistic rhetoric politicians in the metropole deployed, Hong Kong's officials maintained a respectful correspondence about the Wyoming, it being both the British Governor Hercules Robinson's desire to underscore the port's absolute neutrality regarding the American conflict, and Congar's to dutifully and lawfully observe said neutrality.Footnote 79 While crises such as the Alabama sparked outrage in the metropole, Hong Kong's intimate context begged a more diplomatic touch.

The Trent Affair, the Alabama, and American fears of British interference gradually faded in Hong Kong and Shanghai. Although letters and news articles from home conveyed hostile rhetoric, China's American inhabitants rarely voiced concerns about their relationship with their British neighbours. Instead, George Dixwell described Shanghai dinners ruined by gaudy musicians; John Murray Forbes mentioned how all talk revolved around the coming horse races and ‘nothing else’; James Murray Forbes related days of ‘very good sport…at which almost every foreigner in Hong Kong was present’.Footnote 80 Others described China's political instabilities, problems with Taiping rebels, Yangzi navigation, and Japan's opening.Footnote 81 Reports home carried a life-goes-on tenor. The relationship between the writer and recipient did, granted, determine content, and circumstances may have been embellished to avoid causing stress.Footnote 82 Still, these letters described overwhelmingly active lives. Whatever anxieties afflicted the community, Anglo-American inhabitants in Hong Kong and the treaty ports shared common socio-cultural values and interests in China which repaired the rifts Britain's and the Union's volatile relations created.

Social life rebounded following these episodic Civil War crises, with few references to local unrest appearing in merchant letters home. Augustine Heard Sr's 1862 reply to his nephew in Hong Kong suggests that while merchants such as Albert Heard once shook ‘from fear of a war with England’, recent updates showed the situation in China had relaxed.Footnote 83 Dixwell wrote from Shanghai, October 1863, that the port's cosmopolitanism afforded a balanced view of the troubles, and with access to papers from Boston, New York, and London, Americans there were not ‘liable to the influence’ of reactionaries.Footnote 84 That month, James Murray Forbes reported a similar thaw in Hong Kong, where arriving war news was ‘so very old’ that he found ‘little interest reading the papers’.Footnote 85

Yet, despite the apathy of these merchants and the resiliency of Anglo-American social ties, the potential threat of the war spilling into the East Asian theatre caused China's Americans considerable commercial anxiety. Although debunked as rumour, reports about Confederate privateers visiting Shanghai trickled in as early as 1861, producing a general ‘indisposition’ to ship under the American flag.Footnote 86 Such rumours fanned local unease about the state of Union shipping in China and abroad. China's foreign society may have been placid, but as Americans soon realized, their trade networks remained vulnerable to transnational influences.

III

If transnational politics instilled imaginary divisions, the (semi)colonial cultural and racial landscape helped China's Anglo-American community overcome disparities that, as Ann Laura Stoler suggests, ‘would in other contexts separate and often set [their] members in conflict’.Footnote 87 Domestic politics clashed, but as Bickers argues of Shanghai's British and German communities during the First World War, China's foreigners did not want war; ‘they were partners, colleagues, friends’.Footnote 88 In such an environment, political differences, social slights, commercial failings, and even transnational conflicts were re-evaluated against local circumstances. National influences were weighed against Anglo-American socio-cultural ties and discarded when prudent. But while interests in China subordinated distant tensions to preserve socio-political cohesion, there remained tangible effects of these Atlantic crises that altered local commercial systems.

The years preceding the Civil War's outbreak had been ones of commercial optimism for China's American community. In November 1860, after the Convention of Peking formally ended the Second Opium War and opened the Yangzi to foreign navigation, Shanghai-based Albert Heard wrote his uncle describing the river as ‘a promised land’ for trade.Footnote 89 With the treaty resolved, his brother John Heard prepared his steamer Fire Dart for an exploratory voyage up river to assess the state of trade in the newly opened treaty ports and with the Taiping rebels invested at Nanjing.Footnote 90 There had been scattered trade with the Taiping in the 1850s, but John Heard's voyage signalled a sustained American commercial interest in the Yangzi, spurred by visions of profit.Footnote 91 These visions prompted the remodelling of American companies from commission agents to shipping firms, as partners ordered steamships from New England and New York to ply the river. Before these ships reached China, the Civil War broke out and many were sold instead to the Union government to carry troops and supplies along America's inland waterways.Footnote 92 By the war's 1865 resolution, American commerce had stagnated, Yangzi enthusiasm had deflated, and, facing loss, China-trade merchants looked to jettison their steamships where possible. The ‘disruption of American trade during the Civil War years’ and the ‘failure of commerce in the Yangtze valley to increase as expected’ would eventually lead to retrenchment and bankruptcy for China's established American firms.Footnote 93

As Americans struggled to make the Yangzi profitable, Congar's May 1862 report from Hong Kong outlined the grim situation for Seward. The Taiping Civil War, now firmly opposed by the foreign powers, had proved ‘disastrous to trade and commerce’.Footnote 94 And if the China trade seemed anaemic, America's own conflict and the subsequent Anglo-American tensions crippled American mercantile enterprises the world over.Footnote 95 Four months earlier, Congar had reported:

the entire stagnation of shipments and trade at this port on account of rumors which are in circulation in regard to hostilities between the United States and Great Britain. Some of our American vessels are changing owners, some are seeking security in Chinese ports, and all are anxious for intelligence from home so that they may act with prudence and discretion.Footnote 96

Already concerned over meagre returns from the Yangzi, American merchants became especially conscious of how their war's progress might affect relations with their British neighbours and their ability to turn a profit in China. Unverified rumours surrounding the Trent Affair and the Alabama's privateering compounded these concerns, producing imagined conflicts within China's Anglo-American community.Footnote 97 I use, here, the term ‘imagined’ because the threats sensationalized in the papers were never realized in Hong Kong or the treaty ports.Footnote 98 Still, the war existed in foreign minds as a construct with immediate ramifications.Footnote 99 While the previous section argued that (semi)colonial society proved resilient to metropolitan opinions, these distant crises – the Alabama being the most notorious – posed real threats to American shipping that would alter the commercial landscape of Sino-Western trade in the coming decades.

The Alabama's ability to paralyse American shipping in China played upon two inter-related anxieties. The first was piracy's historical prevalence in East Asia and the widely acknowledged dangers of shipping in the Nanyang 南洋 region. The second, stemming from the first, was American reliance upon British military and naval strength in China. This reliance could be traced to the 1840s and the First Opium War, when Americans deferred to British authorities to secure indemnification for damages to their private enterprises and protect their vessels in the Pearl River Delta.Footnote 100 Culturally embedded understandings of the numerous personal and commercial risks attending global trade, amplified by the great distance between China and the US and the perception that the Union merchant marine was effectively defenceless, stoked such anxieties.Footnote 101 Thus, while the decline in American shipping from East Asia was substantial, it was part of a historically justified global trend that saw prospective clients with little faith in the safety of Union vessels transfer goods to ships sailing under more secure flags.

Rumours about the Alabama operating in China were especially concerning as they mirrored regional fears predicated upon Chinese pirates’ historical success. Exploiting the Ming and Qing Empires’ loose maritime authority, regional pirates had grown syndicated, entrepreneurial, and enjoyed moderate success ‘carving out spheres of influence’.Footnote 102 To foreign merchants active in the early to mid-nineteenth century, piracy represented a major impediment to trade that they believed the Qing incapable of managing.Footnote 103 The irony, Wang Wensheng notes, was that Anglo-American smuggling, opium importation, and blatant schemes to support pirates and rebels against the Qing contributed to the region's lawlessness.Footnote 104 Such irony was lost on China's American traders, whose letters home betrayed both concerns and indignance about the insecurity of shipping in such a ‘lawless’ region.

Vulnerability remained a persistent anxiety for the American community and, leading up to the Civil War, American traders despaired at their navy's ‘disgraceful condition’ at Hong Kong.Footnote 105 Their discontent inspired appeals to domestic contacts, Albert Heard begging in an 1860 letter to New York that the city's influential magnates lobby on the China traders’ behalf for more protection.Footnote 106 If New Yorkers did, they failed and instead, by the war's 1861 outbreak, the sole sloop Hartford that Heard had mentioned was recalled for Union service. The US navy's commander-in-chief in China, Cornelius Stribling, and Commander William Radford of the Dacotah, scrutinized as Southern-born Americans but well regarded amongst China's predominantly New Englander community, were reassigned to America where they fought for the Union. With theirs and the Hartford's departure, China's Americans found themselves ‘without either protection or a minister’.Footnote 107 The only remaining war steamer in the east, the Saginaw, floated crewless off Macau and Congar begged Seward to send forces ‘able and willing to defend American honor and interests’.Footnote 108

As Anglo-American relations in the Atlantic deteriorated, British and American officials such as Shanghai's Admiral Hope and Hong Kong's Congar prepared for trouble, but the foreign community's common interests helped soothe enflamed tempers. Anticipating the sentiments that would prevail, an 1861 China Mail article declared that, should Americans in China require protection, British naval commanders were duty-bound to ‘stand by [their] brethren’.Footnote 109 As the American Josiah Tatnall had declared at the Bai He in 1860 while disregarding American neutrality during the Second Opium War to rescue stranded British forces, to many foreigners in China ‘blood [was] thicker than water’.Footnote 110

Still, assurances published in local newspapers did little to protect American shipping. Despite implicitly understanding that they could rely upon their British neighbours, American traders soon realized the Civil War was undermining their trade. Rumours of Anglo-American hostilities spread through articles and letters from home froze shipping and even already-chartered vessels remained in port.Footnote 111 The situation worsened in autumn 1863 when local newspapers reported the Alabama had rounded the Cape of Good Hope heading eastward. Such rumours panicked American traders, reducing confidence in ‘the use of American tonnage’ as vessels in Hong Kong busied themselves changing flags.Footnote 112 Unproven reports of the Fokkien's capture in December that year seemingly legitimated such caution.

With the flag even ‘less in demand than before in Chinese waters’, The China Mail recommended Americans sell their ships.Footnote 113 A reprinted New York Times article, guessing incorrectly that four Confederate steamers were operating in East Asia, confirmed that such uncertainty gripped a transnational market, counting only one ship in Liverpool ‘loading under the American flag’. Others had swapped flags for those of ‘Peru, Prussia, and Portugal’, as Eastern insurance offices ‘point blank refused’ American risks.Footnote 114 James Morris estimates that the Union lost one third of its total shipping tonnage as American ships reregistered to escape Confederate raiders, high insurance rates, and Union service.Footnote 115 Widespread and damaging as they were, Alabama rumours in China barely lasted longer than the ship's eastern voyage. The following spring The China Mail reported the Alabama's departure from the region and its subsequent defeat by the Kearsarge off Cherbourg, France.Footnote 116

The Alabama's defeat dissipated fears of privateering but made little difference to American merchants who had poured capital into what had, by 1865, become a bloated Yangzi trade. Although Americans maintained some confidence in the river's promised riches, John Heard's exploratory voyage in 1861 had uncovered few viable markets thanks to the Taiping Civil War's destruction.Footnote 117 Still, when the Qing restored stability and opened the river to regular commerce, American firms invested heavily in steamships.Footnote 118 Appeals to patriotic duty, however, encouraged merchants to sell these steamers to the Union at a loss before they could turn a profit in China.Footnote 119 Russell & Co. redirected the Antelope and Flambeau to the war effort, Olyphant & Co. only ran Ta-Kiang two years before chartering it to the Union Navy in 1864, and the Union appropriated other ships including the Fahkee and Howquah in 1863.Footnote 120 Even the Dai-Ching, Chih-Kiang, and Kiang-Soo, commissioned from America by the Qing, were sold instead to the Union.Footnote 121 These steamships remained slated for the China trade as soon as they should be freed from military service.

With the war's end, decommissioned vessels flooded East Asia, but China's market for steamships had cooled. Without vessels to dominate the river during the war, or the confidence and security required to sustain an international trade, Americans faltered at a crucial moment. Augustine Heard & Co.'s struggles demonstrate how, facing a saturated market, offloading these now unneeded vessels to recover the expense of their construction, outfitting, or purchase became a real challenge. When the firm's steamer Suwonada was discharged following two-year's Union service, John Heard wrote his brother Augustine at Boston that ‘if she could be sold on the way then all the better’.Footnote 122 Heard was optimistic, however, and acting as brokers for the sale of the former gunboats Pawtuxtet, Kankakee, and Asheulot, the firm scrambled to find buyers, only selling two of the ships between January and July 1868.Footnote 123 Assessing the situation in 1871, Dixwell complained that shipping and speculation had ruined the company, that Chinese customers had disappeared, and that the firm's capital was frozen in real estate and the ships Venus and Suwonada – still in the Heards’ possession seven years later.Footnote 124

The Alabama and the Civil War provided convenient scapegoats to explain American shipping's decline, but there was some truth to such claims and following the war the old merchant houses realized the China trade had changed.Footnote 125 The war had come at a promising time for China's foreign firms, and although American merchants were well situated to exploit the Treaty of Tianjin, their domestic conflict claimed the steamships they had built for the Yangzi, temporarily reduced confidence in their firms, and threatened relations with China's British community. In the following decade, George Heard would inform his brothers that their firm's coastal trade and China Sea business had ‘about played out’. Like other Americans, Augustine Heard & Co. was ‘hard up’ for funds, and even their unwavering rival Russell & Co. was conceding the Yangzi to the British Butterfield & Swire.Footnote 126 The socio-political turmoil Anglo-American tensions caused during the American Civil War quickly faded but, having lost their footing, merchants continued to struggle. The depressed period between the mid-1860s and 1880s would see widespread commercial failure amongst China's American firms.

IV

Hong Kong's 1871 Fourth of July celebration was a jubilant affair. American houses and ships in the harbour were ‘lively in their bunting’, a cosmopolitan collection of flags adorned the US consulate and, amongst these, those of the US and Britain ‘were intertwined’. The China Mail congratulated the new US Consul David Bailey for bringing together Americans and non-Americans alike ‘in the most friendly manner possible to celebrate the day held in honour’. Bailey attributed the ‘good feeling’, so different from the previous decade's celebrations, to the ‘happy adjustment of all differences between Great Britain and the United States’. The Anglo-American Treaty of Washington's signing that May had ‘cleared away’ the difficulties existing between the two nations, establishing ‘an entente cordiale…welcomed in no part of the world more thoroughly and sincerely than in Hong Kong’.Footnote 127

The Treaty of Washington resolved many outstanding issues related to the Alabama's privateering that plagued China's Anglo-American community. By now, Britain's complicity in the Alabama's creation was well known, and compensation had been sought for the damage Semmes had inflicted upon Union commerce. Whether through action or rumour, such privateers – and the Civil War generally – had frozen Union shipping in ports as distant as China; these crises in turn threatening to incite Anglo-American conflict in the Atlantic and abroad. In signing the Treaty of Washington in 1871, the British agreed to pay a $15,500,000 indemnity to the US, acknowledging and making reparations for their role in allowing the Alabama and ‘other vessels’ to ‘escape’ their ports, and reaffirming the meaning of neutrality for both parties.Footnote 128 Commerce had suffered, but the exigencies of colonial and treaty-port life had mitigated Anglo-American conflict's threat to the socio-political order in China. With the treaty's signing, Bailey hoped a co-operative spirit could return to China's Western community.

Examining the Civil War's global impact through the Alabama and China's American community, I have argued that even as rumour and speculation undermined US commercial efforts in East Asia, colonial society proved resistant to the antagonistic sentiments gripping the metropole. Distant anxieties over flashpoints such as the Alabama's and Florida's construction or the Trent Affair spread rapidly to ports such as Hong Kong and Shanghai through private letters and newspapers. These reports’ effects were manifold, threatening to destabilize Anglo-American society, politics, and commerce in China. Still, while commercial systems proved fragile, crumbling in the face of such distant crises, society rebounded, strengthened by ideas of racial and cultural solidarity and shared experiences in a foreign land.

Adopting a transnational approach to Civil War tensions through the case of the Alabama offers an opportunity to assess the wider impact of such events, and the extent to which colonial spaces were susceptible to or insulated from metropolitan influences. Such an approach demonstrates that the colonial context diffused transnational tensions; that even as their enterprises suffered, Americans abroad were less reactive to Civil War panic than might be supposed from metropolitan letters and news reports. When measuring the global impact of any case-study, it is vital to consider not just the ways distant regions were interconnected but the ways in which they remained separate. Throughout the conflict, Anglo-American tensions remained concerning, American commerce struggling to rebound from lost opportunities on the Yangzi and the ephemeral crisis of a distant Civil War, but local affairs and the immediate contexts of Hong Kong and the treaty ports competed for the attention of China's American community. According to their letters home, life went on.

Acknowledgements

The author would like to thank colleagues in the University of Bristol's American History Reading Group and Asian Studies Seminars for their early feedback on the article; the editor and reviewers for their excellent feedback; and George Cautherley, whose support enabled much of the research underpinning this article.

Competing Interests

The author declares none.

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107 ‘Extract of a letter from John Heard’, 25 July 1861, HBS, FM-17-1.

108 Horace Congar to William Seward, 15 Feb. 1862, 26 May 1862, NARA, vol. 5, RG:59.

109 ‘General news’, China Mail, 25 July 1861, p. 2.

110 George Heard, ‘USS “Powhatan”, off the Peiho, 27 June 1859’, in Gillian Bickley, ed., Through American eyes: the journals of George Washington (Farley) Heard (Hong Kong, 2017), pp. 97–9.

111 Albert Heard to Augustine Heard Jr, 14 Feb. 1860, HBS, HL-33A.

112 Horace Congar to William Seward, 10 Oct. 1863, 26 Oct. 1863, 26 Dec. 1863, NARA, vol. 5, RG:59.

113 ‘Shipping charters & settlements’, China Mail, 3 Dec. 1863, p. 3.

114 ‘Extracts from our foreign files’, New York Times, 29 Jan. 1864, p. 2; see also Blue, ‘The China coast’, p. 132; Benito J. Legarda Jr, After the galleons: foreign trade, economic change and entrepeneurship in the nineteenth-century Philippines (Manila, 1999), pp. 296–8.

115 Morris, James M., ‘America's stepchild’, The Wilson Quarterly, 11 (1987), p. 122Google Scholar.

116 ‘Shipping charters & settlements’, China Mail, 12 May 1864, p. 2; ‘Local interests’, China Mail, 4 Aug. 1864, p. 2.

117 Heard, ‘A trading trip up the Yangtsze’, pp. 24–6, 28, 33.

118 Anne Reinhardt, Navigating semi-colonialism: shipping, soveriegnty, and nation-building in China, 1860–1937 (Cambridge, MA, 2018), pp. 29–30.

119 Kwang-ching, Liu, ‘Financing a steam navigation company in China, 1861–1862’, Business History Review, 49 (1954), p. 167Google Scholar.

120 Liu, Anglo-American steamship rivalry in China, pp. 22–4; ‘Fahkee’, ‘Howquah’, ‘Ta-Kiang’, ‘Dictionary of American naval fighting ships’.

121 Bickers, Scramble for China, p. 179; ‘Naval news’, New York Times, 16 Apr. 1863, p. 8.

122 John Heard to Augustine Heard Jr, 24 Apr. 1864, HBS, GM-1-5.

123 Augustine Heard & Co., Shanghai, to Augustine Heard & Co., Yokohama, 13 May 1868, Jardine Matheson Archive, Cambridge University Library.

124 George Dixwell to John Heard, 5 June 1871, 19 Oct. 1871, 8 Oct. 1872, HBS, FM-13-1.

125 Stephen C. Lockwood, Augustine Heard and Company, 1858–1862: American merchants in China (Cambridge, MA, 1971), pp. 110–11.

126 George Heard to Albert F. Heard, 28 Mar. 1870, 5 Apr. 1873, HBS, JL-2; George Heard to Augustine Heard Jr, 19 Feb. 1873, HBS, JL-2; Bickers, China bound, pp. 62–6.

127 ‘“Extract”, The China Mail, 5 July 1871’, in David H. Bailey to Bancroft Davis, 4 July 1871, NARA, vol. 7, RG:59.

128 Geneva Arbitration Tribunal, Papers relating to the Treaty of Washington, V: Geneva arbitration (Washington, DC, 1872), p. 8.