Dramatic Moments in American Diplomacy/Chapter Nine

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Dramatic Moments in American Diplomacy by Ralph W. Page
Chapter Nine: Publicity vs. Duplicity. The Intrigues of an Emperor

A Mysterious Stranger Appears at the Paris Consulate with Proof of an Imperial Plot—The Iron-clad Rams of Napoleon III—The Death Knell of the Fleet and the Threatened Bombardment of New York—The Intrigues of an Emperor—The Fallacy of Neutrality—The Diplomatic Methods of John Bigelow—A Cunning Ruse—The Planted Dispatch—The Collapse of the Conspiracy.


It was during the Civil War. John Bigelow, consul-general of the United States, was transacting business in the consulate in Paris, France. It was Sept. 10, 1863. Entered David Fuller, messenger. He presented the card of a stranger. The stranger demanded an immediate audience, and that it be personal and private. Years afterward the distinguished journalist and

diplomat described this interesting interview as follows :

"Permission granted, a man of middle age presently entered, and after closing the door carefully behind him proceeded to say that he had a communication to make of considerable importance to my government. He was a Frenchman of the Gascon type, small of sta- ture, with glittering black eyes, and thick, coarse, jet-black hair, which had appropriated to itself most of his forehead ; he was sober and deliberate of speech, as if he had been trained to measure his words and was accustomed to be held responsible for what he said. I was not prepossessed by his appearance, perhaps be- cause of my rather extensive experience of people continually presenting themselves at the consulate in quest of a market for their suspicions, rumours, and imaginings, and who usually introduced themselves, like the person before me, as bearers of information of vital importance.

"I asked him to be seated, and waited for

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him to proceed. He asked if I was aware that the Confederates were building war vessels in France. * * * He proceeded to state as facts within his own knowledge that there were then building in the ports of Bordeaux and Nantes, for account of the Confederate States of America, several vessels, some of which were armour plated and with rams, which altogether were to cost from twelve to fifteen millions of francs; that the engines for some of them were built and ready to put in, and that for the armament of these vessels artillery and shells had also been ordered. I here remarked that no vessel of war could be built in France with- out the authorization of the French Govern- ment. He replied that the official authoriza- tion for the construction, equipment, and arm- ing of these vessels had already been issued from the Department of the Marine. I asked him if he meant seriously to affirm that the ves- sels he spoke of were building under an official authorization of the Government. He reaf- firmed his statement, and added further that he

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was prepared to prove it to my entire satisfac- tion.

"I tried not to betray my sense of the su- preme importance of this communication, which was too circumstantial and precise to be wholly imaginary, if possibly exaggerated. * * *

I said to my visitor: 'Of course what you state is of grave importance to my govern- ment if it can be substantiated, but of none at all without proofs which cannot be disputed or explained away.'

" *0f course not,' he replied.

" 'What kind of proofs can you furnish?' I asked.

" 'Original documents,' he said, 'and what is more, I will engage that with my proofs in hand, you can effectually secure the arrest of the ships. * * *'

"He thereupon produced a certified copy of the government authorization and some half dozen original letters and papers, showing, be- yond a doubt, the substantial truth of his state- ments. * * * He said that of course the papers

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were not obtainable without some expense and much trouble, and that when the documents he proposed to furnish me had actually defeated the naval operations of the Confederates in France, he would expect 20,000 francs. * * *

  • 'At the hours agreed upon on Saturday, the

12th, Mr. X reappeared with his supplemen- tary proofs. These, with those already in my possession, were conclusive ; nothing could have been more conclusive."

The documents were letters from Arman, a great shipbuilder at Bordeaux, a member of the Legislature and a powerful partizan of the throne and imperialistic party in France. One was to M. Voruz, an ironfounder of Nantes, acknowledging receipt of moneys on account of "two ships which I am building for account of the Confederates." Another was to the Compte P. de Chasseloup-Laubat, Minister of the Marine in the Imperial Cabinet asking authority to arm four ships of war building in Bordeaux and Nantes. This let- ter naively stated that "Their special arma-

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ment contemplates their eventual sale to the governments of China and Japan." The most alarming of the lot was the official authoriza- tion signed by the Minister of Marine himself.

This information was staggering. In our security of to-day it is impossible to conceive of the import of the situation, and the respon- sibility thus thrown in a few words upon the shoulders of the consul. It seemed possible that the fate of a nation was in his hands. It would have been scarcely more urgent if he had discovered a practical and imminent plot to blow up half of Grant's army in the moment of attack.

A revolution had just taken place in the art of building ships of war. The discovery of the ironclad ram had rendered the navy of the United States as obsolete as the triremes of Greece. These two monsters nearing com- pletion in the ways at Bordeaux were more than a match for all the squadrons of Far- ragut. They were expected with justifiable confidence to blast the Stars and Stripes from

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the sea, to lift the blockade of the Southern ports, and to bombard the Bowery into sub- mission and tribute.

In them lay new heart and life for the starv- ing Confederacy. They meant guns and ammunition for Longstreet's deadly riflemen. They meant murderous food for Pendle- ton's batteries, shoes and blankets for a desti- tute soldiery, and three-course dinners for a gaunt population. Far worse than this: for they carried with them the panic of dangers strange and unfamiliar. Their successful op- eration would give the eager Emperor of France the encouragement and opportunity he was panting for — to recognize, if not join, the Confederacy.

Verily, circumstances alter cases. In 1776 a rebellious army in the United States had sought and obtained comfort and support from a Bourbon prince, in defiance of all rules of neutrality. And John Paul Jones in French ports had acquired the swift hulls and salt- petre which struck such a blow at the pride of

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the Mistress of the Seas. This is extolled in story and song. But all authority is unani- mous in horror and indignation at the depreda- tions of that pirate ship, the Alabama, which swept our own flag from the ocean ; it execrates the memory of the Napoleonic despot who harboured the *'spy" Sliddel, and plotted the independence of Richmond under a neutral cloak.

Although there remains no sane American who does not devoutly thank heaven for the success of the Union and the end of the with- ering system of slavery, there are many to whom it is not at all self evident that a sym- pathy and agreement with the cause of Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson in 1862 is con- clusive proof of total depravity. So in writ- ing this chronicle of the masterful manoeuvre by which a champion of the Federal cause con- tributed so much to the saving of the Union and discouraging its secret enemies abroad, there will be no pretence of thereby attempting to brand or catalogue the friends and enemies

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of America. At that time there were two Americas. And it was not so very obvious to the uninformed spectator in London and Paris which was the oppressed and which the op- pressor.

No such doubt exists concerning the Em- peror of France. Napoleon III exhibited all the traits that had made the very name of em- peror a just cause of suspicion in the Republic, and has now finally goaded a patient world into a war of final riddance. At the outset it is only fair to say that the people of France had no voice in, part or sympathy with, the im- perialistic schemes of conquest and diplomatic duplicity that characterized the actions of their ruler.

The moment the struggle broke out on the Potomac he saw his chance to put in practice the one infallible principle of princes — to conquer somebody.

Under the familiar guise of collecting just debts he invited a number of powers to make a

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joint expedition to Mexico. When he got firmly established there, he threw off the mask and proposed to stay. He put a satellite po- tentate of Austrian persuasion on the new throne. His partners in the enterprise, being honest in their purposes, withdrew. But there he remained. The army of Northern Virginia and Jubal Early's cavalry rendered impossible the defence of the Monroe Doctrine by Wash- ington.

In their dire extremity the Confederates promised Mexico to Napoleon if they were suc- cessful. This, together with the natural de- sire of a would-be absolute monarch to destroy the power of the foremost democracy in the world, readily persuaded him to champion the Southern cause in Europe. Together with the rest of the world he had issued his declaration of neutrality in the beginning of the struggle.

One of two things was necessary before he dared to commit himself to open war with the United States. One was the assistance of

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Great Britain. The other was a Confederate ^ victory giving him at least a favourable pre- diction of a final victory.

His urgent and repeated attempts to per- suade the English to interfere, or at least recognize the Government of Richmond, had failed. They had failed in spite of the nobility, Mr. Gladstone, and the Prime IMinister, whose natural sympathies were with the Southern half of the country and the courtly genius which had hitherto predominated in American affairs; and also in spite of the high protective tariff just passed by the Union, causing great loss to British industry.

He had failed because England was ruled by its people. These people had an inherent re- pugnance to the institution of slavery which no cabinet dared face; and strange to relate, the Queen of England would not hear of it. Queen Victoria probably had as broad a vision and as- deep an understanding of the future of the Anglo-Saxon strain as any person then

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living. At all events, she is reported to have flatly stated to her minister :

"My Lord, you must understand that I shall sign no paper which means war with the United States."

Consequently our anxious diplomats in their outposts of the drama at Paris believed that the crisis had been averted, when the sudden entry of this Gascon informer from the offices of the ship -builder Arman disclosed a plot of the first magnitude hatching under their noses.

One thing was certain. The American con- sul had to stop these ships from sailing, no mat- ter who was behind them, and no matter how he did it. Little things like this, hardly known by the public and ignored by those who see in a diplomat only a favoured plum-gatherer with a tinsel hat and a fancy tea room, are fre- quently put up to our representatives abroad.

If this revelation exposed merely a Con- federate plot, and a shipyard working under cover of the false pretences that its vessels were

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for the Pacific trade, the problem was easy. With proofs now in his hands Bigelow could convince the authorities of the real designs of the enterprise, and they would be stopped at once. For this sort of thing was the gravest breach not only of the accepted laws governing neutrality, but of the repeated assurances and promises of the Emperor himself. A glance at his exhibits convinced the consul that Napoleon "was hovering over us — like the buzzards — in Gerome's famous picture, over the exhausted camel in the desert — only deferring his descent until we should be too feeble to defend our- selves." In other words Napoleon III was himself a party to the construction of these leviathans destined to destroy a friendly country.

The first move was conventional. Com- plete copies of the papers were placed in the hands of M. Drouyn de Lhuys, the French Minister of Foreign Affairs. These were ac- companied by remonstrances, and insistent de- mands that the vessels be seized. The worthv

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minister, who was not in his master's confi- dence, was shocked and astonished. He prom- ised to take up the matter at once with the Minister of Marine. And after so long a time the Minister of Marine, w^ho seemed to con- sider it altogether incredible that these ships should have anything to do with the Confed- eracy, promised to take it up with His ]\Iaj- esty. His Majesty was away on a fishing trip. Furious notes and thinly disguised threats heated the mails from Washington. The accepted channels of diplomacy were clogged with the debris of negotiations.

But meanwhile day and night the work on the ironclads proceeded furiously. It became evident that the crafty Emperor was going to win in the slow race and manage to be con- vinced just about fifteen minutes after the rams had safely cleared the harbour.

No hero was on hand so desperate and cap- able as to blow them up single-handed. And there were no boats afloat in America that could keep these di^agons of the deep in har-

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bour once they were ready to sail. There re- mained but one power to restrain them. The sense of justice. Not the Emperor's, for he had none. Not that of his ministers, for he controlled them. But the sense of justice of the people of France.

When a consul starts to go behind the gov- ernment to which he is accredited and appeals in the name of a foreign power to the citizens of a country, he takes his reputation in his hands, and starts upon the forbidden paths that usually lead to disgrace and recall. As a matter of fact, it can only be done under two circumstances. One is under cover, where the envoy supplies the ammunition and a native does the talking — as when Bunau-Varilla en- gineered the defeat of the Nicaraguan route in the canal debate in Congress — or when the people are to be told something they wish to hear, and agree with in advance. Otherwise the fate of Dumba and citizen Genet lies in wait.

Bigelow used both methods. If there exists

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one characteristic distinctly and pre-eminently French it is the honour of country, what might be called a national chivalry. The glory and the good name of their native land is an exalted mania with all Frenchmen. Let them know the facts, and not even the Emperor would dare further to countenance actions that would re- flect upon the good name of France. This was Bigelow's opinion. And as a last chance it was to this end that he turned all his en- ergy.

He went to the leader of the French bar — a man grown old in the service of his country, the soul of integrity, whose probity as well as consummate legal acumen had placed him in the foremost rank of his times. He was also a member of the Corps Legislatif, a powerful factor in the opposition. The case was put frankly before him.

Whatever his opinions with regard to the American struggle, the Frenchman was in- dignant and astonished that France should be made to play this underhand role. He agreed

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to write a powerful denunciation of it to be signed by himself. This was placed in Bige- low's hands to be given to the press. But here a second obstacle was presented. An editor of liberal notions and national enthusiasm was readily found who gladly promised to print it. But in monarchies all grist that goes to the mill is not ground. The Minister of Interior got wind of the affair, and dispatched a per- emptory order that the article be suppressed.

Publicity, not its form of presentation, was the gist of this silent battle. And it is well known that some things can be made more startling by concealment than by display. Bigelow did not hesitate to start the report which soon spread over Paris that an opinion of international moment, written by the great au- thority Antoine Pierre Berryer, had been sup- pressed.

The eager and pressing curiosity and grow- ing comment carried the first rampart. Ar- man was ordered to cover his tracks by a sale of the vessels to Sweden, for account of Den-

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mark — with the assurance that only one would be delivered to the Danes. The other, once out of harbour, and the Americans lulled, would be transferred to the original destination.

So great was the popular support gathering behind this rumour that, some weeks before the ships were ready, M. Guerault, Editor of the Opinion Nationale determined to throw down the gage to the royal power and pub- lished a ringing article, *'Les Corsair es du Sud" in which the government was openly charged with a conspiracy with Arman "against the very existence of a friendly power."

These, the weapons of information and truth, are not so dramatic or so entertaining as the intricate intrigues of Metternich and the bold and bloody paths of daggers and lies by which Hichelieu gained his ends. But to-day the world is beginning to realize that they are by far the most powerful of all diplomatic weapons. In this case they insured the hasty retreat of the regal master from his equivocal position. They lined up the forces of public

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opinion across the mouth of the harbour of Bordeaux.

But they could not change the heart or real purpose of the Emperor any more than they now change those of the Hohenzollern. These men must be fought as one fights fire, with their own weapons. If blood and iron be the weapons they choose, very well, let it be blood and iron. If it be deception, very well, cheat the cheat. So concluding, Bigelow put on the finishing touch. He brought the Emperor to his own way of thinking by methods undoubt- edly to the Emperor's fancy — had he recog- nized them.

He sat down and wrote a fairy story to the American consul at Marseilles. He told him in confidence how speculators in the United States were building some dreadful warships, very like the Alabama — indeed, nicely calcu- lated to ruin the commerce of any nation in manner even worse than this scourge of the sea. And that they were to sail into the gulf of Mexico as privateers imder letters of

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marque from Benito Juarez, the Mexican president, whom Napoleon had recently hounded into the mountains. And that un- doubtedly they would be ruinous to French commerce and schemes in those latitudes.

This, all in a letter, in the nature of confiden- tial information, he dispatched by courier. He took very good care that it never reached its destination. The consul at Marseilles was not the person he wished to delude. Providen- tially it was stolen on the road and found its way at once into a newspaper.

The happy conclusion is soon told. John- son, the historian says :

"In all this there was no truth whatever, but the Emperor supposed it all to be true, and he made haste to stop the saihng of the Confed- erate ships, and to assure Bigelow of his friend- ship for the United States."

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