Following the American Civil War Sesquicentennial with day by day writings of the time, currently 1863.

Post image for “Only a fortnight ago they discovered that their whole wooden navy was useless;”–Adams Family Letters, Henry Adams, private secretary of the US Minister to the UK, to his brother, Charles.

“Only a fortnight ago they discovered that their whole wooden navy was useless;”–Adams Family Letters, Henry Adams, private secretary of the US Minister to the UK, to his brother, Charles.

April 11, 2012

Adams Family Civil War letters; US Minister to the UK and his sons.

London, April 11, 1862

Modest and unassuming as I am, you know, society is not the place for pleasure to me. Even at the Club I talk distantly with Counts and Barons and numberless untitled but high-placed characters, but have never arrived at intimacy with any of them. I am a little sorry for this because there are several very nice fellows among them, and all are polite and seem sufficiently social. Then, too, my unfortunate notoriety, which, I told you of, in a letter that I trust and pray may not be lost, some three months ago, tells against me, though it certainly has brought me into notice. I have no doubt that if I were to stay here another year, I should become extremely fond of the place and the life. There is, too, a certain grim satisfaction in the idea that this people who have worn and irritated and exasperated us for months, and among whom we have lived nearly a year of what was, till lately, a slow torture, should now be innocently dancing and smiling on the volcano, utterly unconscious of the extent of hatred and the greediness for revenge that they’ve raised. When the storm does finally burst on them, they will have one of their panics and be as astonished as if they ‘d never heard of anything but brotherly love and affection between the two nations. Of course it would be out of the question for me to hint at the state of things to them. I have only to smile and tell gross lies, for which God forgive me, about my feelings towards this country, and the kindness I have received here, which, between ourselves, so far as the pure English go, has been brilliantly conspicuous for its almost total absence. Only a fortnight ago they discovered that their whole wooden navy was useless; rather a weakness than a strength. Yesterday it was formally announced and acknowledged by Government, people and press, that the Warrior and their other new iron ships, are no better than wood, nor can any shot-proof sea-going vessel be made. In order to prove this, they ‘ve proved their Armstrong guns a failure, for he has given up the breech-loading system and been compelled to return to the old smooth-bore, muzzle-loader. So within three weeks, they find their wooden navy, their iron navy, and their costly guns, all utterly antiquated and useless.

To me, they seem to be bewildered by all this. I don’t think as yet they have dared to look their position in the face. People begin to talk vaguely about the end of war and eternal peace, just as though human nature was changed by the fact that Great Britain’s sea-power is knocked in the head. But for my private part, I think I see a thing or two. And one of these things is that the military power of France is nearly doubled by having the seas free; and that our good country the United States is left to a career that is positively unlimited except by the powers of the imagination. And for England there is still greatness and safety, if she will draw her colonies around her, and turn her hegemony into a Confederation of British nations.

You may think all this nonsense, but I tell you these are great times. Man has mounted science, and is now run away with. I firmly believe that before many centuries more, science will be the master of man. The engines he will have invented will be beyond his strength to control. Some day science may have the existence of mankind in its power, and the human race commit suicide by blowing up the world. Not only shall we be able to cruize in space, but I see no reason why some future generation should n’t walk off like a beetle with the world on its back, or give it another rotary motion so that every zone should receive in turn its due portion of heat and light. . . .

We are putting on the diplomatic screws. A few more victories and it will be all straight. We understand that the Nashville has been taken or destroyed, and it is today telegraphed privately to us that the crew of the Sumter are to be paid off, and her captain is coming to London. Bankrupt. The long purse, the big guns, and the men carry the day….

The Chief saw and conversed with a number of French celebrities. They are surprisingly well-disposed towards us now that we are looking up in the world. Here in London we are as comfortable as possible. The newspapers are dumb except for an occasional sneer, or assertion, which is invariably acknowledged to be false the next day. I tell you it’s not a bad thing to have seven hundred thousand fighting men behind one, to back one’s words up. I am more and more convinced every day that we are very much feared. Indeed you can imagine what the change must be when we all here know on the very highest authority that in May last it was supposed that the revolution was complete, and the recognition was a matter of course. Men who have made such a political blunder as that are apt to open their eyes wide when they find it out.

As for home affairs and your position, we are so ignorant that I shall not discourse on the subject. Of course we know all that the newspapers tell us and are waiting with a sort of feeling that is now chronic for the flash and the thunder that is soon to come from the cloud over Richmond and New Orleans. I despise a mail that does not tell of a victory, and indeed for some time past we have been pampered. But every time that the telegram comes and its yellow envelope is torn open, I feel much like taking a little brandy to strengthen me up to it. There is a nervous tremor about it that is hard to master. The 24th did well at Newbern. I wish to God I had been with it, or were with the Richmond army now. I feel ashamed and humiliated at leading this miserable life here, and since having been blown up by my own petard in my first effort to do good, I have n’t even the hope of being of more use here than I should be in the army. But I can’t get away till you come over….

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