The Personal Observations of a Man of Intelligence
Notes of a Tour in North America in 1861
Sir James Fergusson
Edited and with annotations and an introductory essay by Ben Wynne
Lamberville, NJ: The True Bill Press. ISBN-10:09791116-3-3
Reviewed by Gérard Hugues
Université de Provence – Aix-Marseille I
This volume constitutes a very valuable primary source for researchers in the field of the US Civil War, providing insight into the general atmosphere prevailing in both camps in the early stages of the conflict. Most useful is the introductory essay by Ben Wynne, which provides a solid background for a fair assessment of the situation and enables the reader to see through Sir James Fergusson’s often naďve or biassed notes.
In the summer of 1861, Sir James Fergusson, a Scottish aristocrat and Conservative member of the British Parliament, embarked for the United States, where an official declaration of war had just been issued by President Lincoln in late April of the same year. Fergusson was not officially commissioned by his government and the decision to travel across the North American continent was his and his only. Yet, as pointed out by Wynne, the British authorities, like most Europeans, saw the independence of the South as inevitable, and the problem that lay before them was that of the recognition of the new state. The then Prime Minister, Lord Palmerston, had chosen a neutral stance and he adamantly refused to take sides with either of the two parties, even though Britain would have welcomed the creation of an independent Confederacy that would weaken the United States and secure its dominant position on the world scene.
As he was not an envoy and was free to choose his itinerary, Fergusson gives a very rich and sometimes picturesque description of his three-month visit, traveling from Nova Scotia down to Virginia through several western states, then back to Washington DC and New York City. The narrative is teeming with anecdotes about the blunt realities of life in North America, and its day-to-day writing gives the text a vivid and colorful note, as when, in a very Tocquevillian manner, he expresses his amazement that in Halifax for instance he did not meet a single“beggar, or even a poor-looking person” .
But the interest of the book lies elsewhere. Ferguson may be viewed as a self-appointed commissioner who made it his duty to assess the real military and political situation, not only in the United States but also in Canada, as there was mounting fear that the Yankees would eventually try to seize the British province and extend their dominion over the whole continent. The volume also contains the useful report to Lord Palmerston which remained a dead letter though it was composed as a way to advise the Prime Minister and assist him in the decision-making process on the diplomatic relations between Britain and its former colonies.
His conclusion, prompted to him by Jefferson Davis, President of the Confederacy, is that the British government would be well inspired to acknowledge the independence of the South, so as to open channels of commerce between the two nations. With hindsight, this narrative and its astounding conclusions sound so fundamentally erroneous that one may wonder how the brilliant aristocrat may have been so misled by what he saw and especially what he heard from the protagonists, from both the southern and the northern sections.
And yet, the mistakes and misjudgments are probably the most valuable elements in the book. It undoubtedly is an immensely useful tool for whoever would like to go into a deeper study of the attitude of British public opinion towards the war in progress and how a kind of sympathy arose in Britain towards those chivalrous knights who fought for the survival of their nation and their “civilization” when the Yankees were simply motivated by mundane pursuits related to vulgar economic considerations. What emerges from this volume is that, strangely enough, the wounds of the Revolutionary War are not healed yet and that consciously or not, “a man of intelligence” finds solace in giving a deprecatory and contemptuous view of the “federals”, i.e. the official authorities of the nation. The comparison between the two armies is to the systematic advantage of the Confederate troops, alleged to be more “soldierlike” and consisting of Americans only, unlike the Yankees, who have enrolled Germans and other nationalities and lost in national spirit …
Most unexpected in these notes is the treatment of President Lincoln, compelled to take war measures, and accused by Fergusson of having instituted a tyrannical power in the United States and of annihilating all individual rights and liberties. Admittedly, Fergusson was welcomed by and had a gentlemanlike conversation with Jefferson Davis while he never had a chance to meet the legitimate president of the Republic. Slavery is not even a contentious issue under Fergusson’s pen as he seems convinced by Southern belles met along the way that “numberless are the tales of the happiness of the slaves, in which as a rule [he] really believe[s]” .
All in all, Sir James Fergusson’s notes form a very surprising and stimulating volume, first published in 1861 and happily and usefully unearthed by the True Bill Press for the benefit and pleasure of both professional historians and the general public.
Cercles © 2010