- The Washington Times - Friday, June 24, 2005

It was February 1868 in Washington. The Civil War, and the life of Abraham Lincoln, had ended almost three years earlier, and soon the Senate would vote on the impeachment of President Andrew Johnson.

Secretary of State William Seward, the manager of American diplomacy under both Lincoln and Johnson, decided it was time to inform the Congress officially that since the outbreak of war in 1861, the Union had sent 22 agents abroad on “secret diplomatic service.”

On Feb. 4, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Charles Sumner of Massachusetts, read to the Senate the letter he had received from Seward. Sumner was no friend of the Johnson administration, but he had chaired his committee for as long as Seward had headed his department, and he knew at least some of the stories of the 22 agents.

Seward’s letter paid high tribute to these men, saying that “the national life might have been lost but for their services.” If, he said, in the dark days of 1861 the Union could have sent to France and England the five agents sent there subsequently, the Rebels’ attempt to win European recognition of their belligerent rights might have been stopped quickly.

The total cost of the 22 agents to the department had been minuscule, just $41,193; this had barely indemnified them for their expenses.

It turned out that not all of the 22 had been sent abroad to assist with the war effort. Two had been sent after the war to the Dominican Republic to help with a plebiscite there; the Rev. W.H. Bidwell had gone to the Ottoman port of Jaffa (now Haifa, in Israel) to report on a colony of Americans from Maine who might need help.

Most of the agents, however, had gone abroad on wartime anti-Confederate service. They were an interesting group of people. One was New York State’s Republican boss, Thurlow Weed; another was Samuel B. Ruggles, one of the wealthiest and most prominent residents of New York City.

The late Catholic archbishop of New York, John Hughes, had been one of the agents, and so had Charles McIlvaine, Episcopal bishop of Ohio and second president of Kenyon College.

There also was the man whom Seward’s letter called “A. Yorib Trabalske” — Ayub Bey Trabulsi, probably an American of Lebanese origin — whose orders were to visit Ottoman ports on the Mediterranean and gather information that might prove useful in preventing attacks on Union shipping by Confederate raiders.

Until the Civil War, the use of such special U.S. diplomatic agents was not common, but it had begun early in the history of the American republic. William Short was sent to Madrid in 1790 to try to negotiate “the cession by Spain of the island of New Orleans.” When the United States finally acquired Louisiana in 1803, Gen. James Wilkinson was commissioned as a special agent to take possession of the new territory.

The missions of the agents whom the Union sent abroad during the Civil War ranged from what today we would call public diplomacy to what was clearly clandestine work.

In addition to Trabulsi’s mission to the Mediterranean, Commander William W. Walker of the U.S. Navy was sent in 1861 to Europe to observe and report on the activities of Confederate agents there, particularly their attempts to acquire arms and ammunition for the South and to outfit new Confederate cruisers in European ports.

Another special agent, George L. Schuyler, was sent to Europe to buy arms for the North.

These efforts were intended to complement, not substitute for, the efforts of Union diplomats stationed permanently in Europe.

It was all hard slogging. For some time, Confederate battlefield victories and the efforts of able Southern envoys such as James Mason and John Slidell, both of them former U.S. senators, made European governments think about recognizing the Confederacy.

The famous raider CSS Alabama was one of a number of ships built for the South in British shipyards. In 1863, two new Confederate cruisers, built at Liverpool, were prevented from going to sea only after U.S. Minister Charles Francis Adams warned the British foreign secretary that if they sailed, “It would be superfluous in me to point out to your Lordship that this is war.”

One of the Union agents, Henry S. Sanford was given a unique task when he was commissioned in 1861. He was to inform Gen. Giuseppe Garibaldi, the great liberator of Italy, that the U.S. government believed his services could be extremely useful in the United States — and was willing to offer him a commission as major general.

This was not what Garibaldi had in mind; he had made it known that he would be pleased to accept appointment as the Union commander in chief. Garibaldi declined the offer to make him a major general, and Washington secretly was relieved. This was a man who considered himself on a par with prime ministers and presidents. Lincoln already was having trouble with a general like that, George B. McClellan.

The work of some of these agents was not entirely secret. In December 1861, the New York Times reported that Hughes had been in France for some time, seeing numerous people. His Irish nature, the correspondent wrote, made him good at gaining friends; he added that “No Yankee that ever lived was a stronger Unionist.”

That same month, McIlvaine was in England. A letter he wrote to a fellow bishop, which appeared in U.S. papers, made clear he was seeing influential people.

Writing from the residence of the bishop of Winchester, McIlvaine described an evening he had spent at the home of Baron Kinnaird, who had invited him to speak to the assembled guests about Union aims.

What, of course, was secret about the missions of Hughes, McIlvaine and others was that they were abroad not as private travelers, but as Union agents.

Few of these agents have been given due credit by their fellow countrymen. When McIlvaine died in 1873, much was made of his ecclesiastical and educational work, but only brief mention was made of his wartime mission to England.

On the other hand, the Catholic Encyclopedia credits Hughes with having dissuaded French Emperor Napoleon III from extending diplomatic recognition to the Confederacy. (The American minister to Italy, George Perkins Marsh, took a less positive view of the archbishop, who was no abolitionist. In 1863, Marsh wrote to a friend, “The mission of that rank pro-slavery advocate Bishop Hughes did our cause great mischief in Europe.”)

All in all, we must believe Seward — who knew best what these men had done — when he told the Senate in 1868 what a major difference they had made in the outcome of the war.

Even in those days, $41,000 was a small price to pay for their services.

Peter Bridges, former ambassador to Somalia, is author of “Pen of Fire: John Moncure Daniel” (Kent State University Press, 2002), the biography of an American diplomat and Confederate editor.

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