- The Washington Times - Friday, March 17, 2006

HANGING CAPTAIN GORDON: THE LIFE AND TRIAL OF AN AMERICAN SLAVE TRADER

By Ron Soodalter, Atria Books, 318 pages, illus., $26

The American Civil War had more than its share of scenes fraught with symbolism, from the capitulation of Fort Sumter to Robert E. Lee’s surrender at Appomattox. An episode that should be similarly well remembered is the trial and execution of Nathaniel Gordon, who in 1862 had the dubious distinction of being the only American ship captain to be executed for the crime of slave trading. For the first time, laws that equated slave trading with piracy were implemented to the fullest.

Slave traders were regarded with contempt in all parts of the United States, and because most of them were New Englanders, the South was free to agree. Gordon, too, was a Downeaster, but there was nothing special about him. A 34-year-old native of Maine, he was short, muscular and dark-bearded.

He had an adoring young wife and a 2-year-old son. He conveyed the air of a man used to giving orders, as indeed he was. In the spring of 1860, he was about to embark on his third voyage to purchase African slaves. In slave-trading circles, he was known as “Lucky Nat.”

Laws against slave trading had been on the books almost since the United States had become independent, but as the author points out at length, they never had been enforced seriously. American consuls routinely provided clearance papers for ships designed as slavers. A slaver had many reasons to worry off the African coast, but prosecution was low on the list.

In early 1860, Gordon took command of the 477-ton, three-masted Erie in Havana and headed for West Africa. By August, he had reached the mouth of the Congo River, where he loaded nearly 900 Africans, paying for them with whiskey. The slaves were given a cursory physical and then jammed into the lower deck in chains.

The Erie was just leaving the Congo estuary when it was spotted by a U.S. frigate, the Mohican, part of the American squadron on the lookout for slavers. A Navy boarding party captured the Erie and put Gordon under arrest.

An American officer was appalled by what he found aboard the Erie. The captives had been packed “wonderfully close,” he wrote, with the hatches locked in the equatorial heat. The slaves had been allowed no food or water, and “in their hunger and thirst, they had become clamorous for relief. … The stench from the hold was fearful.”

Gordon’s luck had run out, but he had no fear for his life. The charges against him might well be dropped in a New York court for lack of evidence. (The liberated slaves had been unloaded in Liberia, not necessarily to a tender fate.) At worst, he might be sentenced to a couple of years in jail.

This was not to be, and though one may be dry-eyed with respect to Gordon’s fate, he was a victim of dreadful timing. In the author’s words, New York City before the war “was home to an alarming number of Southern sympathizers; had a near-traitorous mayor; a crooked, proslavery U.S. marshal … a less-than-aggressive district attorney; and a level of slave trade activity that had reached alarming proportions.”

All this would change with the inauguration of Abraham Lincoln, but when Gordon was arraigned in November 1860, he promptly was offered a plea bargain. If he would name his financial backers, he would be sentenced to no more than two years in prison. Confident of exoneration, Gordon refused the deal.

The slaver’s first trial resulted in a hung jury — a result Mr. Soodalter attributes to jury tampering. However, a newly appointed government prosecutor, Delafield Smith, called for another trial and rounded up several former crewmen from the Erie as witnesses. In a second, sensational trial, Gordon was found guilty of piracy and sentenced to hang.

Gordon had one final hope, a pardon by the new president, and although the Northern press was all for hanging the slaver, there was a minority view. Edward P. Cowles, a former justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, reminded Lincoln that however heinous Gordon’s crime, “for some years past the efforts of the government to break up [the slave] traffic and punish those engaged in it, have not been characterized by much apparent earnestness or rigor.”

In the end, Lincoln gave Gordon a short stay of execution but refused to grant a pardon.

On Feb. 21, 1862, “Lucky Nat” Gordon stepped under the hangman’s noose.

Mr. Soodalter has written an engaging book about a forgotten incident in American history.

John M. Taylor of McLean writes frequently on Civil War subjects.

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