The Chesapeake Affair


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The Chesapeake Affair was an international diplomatic incident that occurred during the American Civil War. On December 7, 1863 Confederate sympathizers from Canada’s Maritime Provinces captured the American Steamer Chesapeake off the coast of Cape Cod. The expedition was planned and led by Vernon Guyon Locke of Nova Scotia and John Clibbon Brain. George Wade of New Brunswick killed one of the American crew. The Confederacy had claimed its first fatal casualty in New England waters. The Confederate sympathisers had planned to re-coal at Saint John, New Brunswick and then head south to Wilmington, North Carolina. Instead, the captors experienced difficulties at Saint John, which required them to move further north and re-coal in Halifax, Nova Scotia. American forces violated British sovereignty by trying to arrest the captors in Nova Scotian waters, which further escalated the affair. Wade and others were able to escape through the assistance of prominent Nova Scotian and Confederate sympathiser William Johnston Almon.

The Chesapeake Affair was one of the most sensational international incidents that occurred during the American Civil War. The incident briefly threatened to bring Great Britain into the war against the North.

Historical context

The practice of slave-owning was outlawed in Nova Scotia (and all of the British Empire) by the Slavery Abolition Act 1833. When the war began most Canadians were overtly sympathetic to the North. At the beginning of the American Civil War approximately 20, 000 Canadians, almost half of them Maritimers, went to fight, primarily for the North. There were also strong family ties across the border.

As the war went on, relations between Britain and the North became strained for numerous reasons and sympathy turned toward the South. Britain declared itself neutral during the war, which led to increased trade that went through Halifax to both Northern and Southern Ports. Nova Scotia’s economy thrived throughout the war. This trade created strong ties between Halifax and merchants from both the North and South. In Halifax the main commercial agent for the Confederacy was Benjamin Wier and Co. – a company that flew the Confederate flag outside its office and accepted Confederate money. The informal headquarters for the Confederates was located at Waverley Hotel, Barrington Street (present day Waverley Inn). At the same time, Halifax became the leading supplier of coal and fish to the North.

While trade with the South was flourishing, the North created a the naval blockade to prevent supplies getting to the South. Hundreds of Blockade runners would use the port of Halifax to ship their goods between Britain and the Confederate States. Much of the coal and other fuels used to run Confederate steamers went through Halifax.

Further Canadians became fearful of the power the North demonstrated in destroying the South and the possibility of wanting to annex Canada after the Southern defeat. Toronto, Montreal, St. Catharines and Halifax hosted a well-financed network of Confederate spies, escaped prisoners, and soldiers of fortune trying to influence government opinion in the war. The Confederates arranged various attacks on the south from Canada, such as the raid on St. Albans, Vermont. The plan to kill President Abraham Lincoln was made in the St. Lawrence Hall hotel in Montreal, Quebec. The Chesapeake affair was a plan created in St. John, New Brunswick by Confederate sympathisers to capture an American ship, which would become a blockade runner for the South.

Capture

Locke had arranged for Braine and sixteen Confederate sympathisers from Nova Scotia and New Brunswick to board the Chesapeake as normal passengers while in New York. While en route to Maine, on the night of December 7, just off the coast of Cape Cod, Baine and the others commandeered the vessel. In the exchange of gunfire that transpired the ship’s second engineer was killed and three others wounded. After the seizing of the vessel, Locke took command of the vessel himself at Grand Manan Island.

The crew was faced with the problem that neutrality regulations forbade the bringing of prizes into British waters. Locke still took the Chesapeake to Saint John, New Brunswick as planned but was unable to load coal for the voyage south. As a result, the steamer made its way to Nova Scotia. They stopped in at Shelburne (DEC 10) and at Conquerall Bank, Nova Scotia on the Lahave River (Dec 14) where they loaded some coal, and then spent two days and sold some of the stolen cargo for supplies.

In the mean time, two Union warships, the fast side-wheeler Ella and Annie, moving south from Halifax, and the USS Dacotah, coming north from Shelburne, were closing in.

The Chesapeake was nearly caught by the Ella and Annie on the LaHave River. Under the cover of night, the Chesapeake turned all lights out and slipped behind Spectacle Island and out the LaHave without being detected. The Chesapeake was again able to avoid capture at Lunenburg and made its way to Halifax. The vessel moved through Mahone Bay. At St. Margaret’s Bay it let some crew leave the ship. By December 16, the ship arrived at Mud Cove harbour at Sambro. Once there Locke went to Halifax over land and arranged to have a schooner come to Sambro to load coal. While the Chesapeake was being loaded with coal the Ella and Annie and USS Dacotah arrived.

Arrest

Upon the arrival of the American warships, most of the crew of the Chesapeake fled. Lieutenant Nickels of the Ella and Annie violated British sovereignty and international laws and proceeded to arrest the three men that remained – one New Brunswicker and two Nova Scotians. George Wade, who had murdered a crew member, was among the prisoners. The Americans took the Chesapeake to Halifax to get clearance for their actions from the British. The Chesapeake arrived in Halifax on December 17, under the escort of the two American War ships. Three other warships, who had also been in pursuit of the Chesapeake, followed. (These included the USS Acacia, USS Cornubia, and the USS Niagara (1855).)

U.S. Secretary of State William H. Seward told the British that he wanted the Chesapeake returned immediately and the captures put in jail and extradited to the states.

Escape

William Johnston Almon was generally regarded as the unofficial Confederate consul in Halifax. He constantly harboured Confederate “refugees” and hosted numerous prominent Confederate officials, who were automatically welcomed at Rosebank during their stay in town. He was a friend and correspondent of Confederate President Jefferson Davis. He worked with Alexander Keith, Jr. to free the Confederates.

The Chesapeake was to await adjudication in the colonial Admiralty court, while the Confederate prisoner Wade was to be given to the American authorities for extradition. Almond and Keith arranged for Wade’s escape in a rowboat to Ketch Harbour and then on to Hantsport. The Americans were outraged and, in response, the British put a warrant out for the rest of his crew. A few of the crew were tried but were found not guilty on a technicality.

Aftermath

While the Southern sympathisers believed they were engaging in an act of war because they had an official letter of marquee from the Confederacy, as the investigation into the affair unfolded, it was discovered there was no legality to their letter. As a result, rather than the Chesapeake affair being an official act of war, it was, in fact, an act of piracy and condemned as such by most of the newspapers in the Maritimes.

Many Southerners settled in Canada after the war. In Halifax approximately 30 senior Naval and Army officers from the South settled in the city. Some of the most prominent were John Wilkinson, Thomas Edgeworth Courtenay, and John Taylor Wood.

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