One War at a Time, Again: The Chesapeake Affair

By David A. Carrino, Roundtable Historian
The Cleveland Civil War Roundtable
Copyright © 2014-2015, All Rights Reserved

Editor’s note: This article was the history brief for the March 2015 meeting of the Cleveland Civil War Roundtable.

During the Civil War the United States Navy committed a maritime violation of British sovereignty, which caused a serious international diplomatic incident and which led some in the British Empire to call for war against the U.S. This statement can refer to the November 1861 incident involving the British steamer Trent and the U.S. warship San Jacinto in what came to be known as the Trent Affair, but everyone who is interested in the Civil War knows about the Trent Affair. This statement can also refer to the less widely known December 1863 incident involving the Nova Scotian vessel Investigator and the U.S. gunboat Ella and Annie in what came to be known as the Chesapeake Affair.

At the center of the Chesapeake Affair was a U.S. passenger steamer, the Chesapeake, which made regular runs between New York City and Portland, Maine. A group of 18 Confederate sympathizers, all of whom were citizens of New Brunswick or Nova Scotia and, hence, were British subjects, plotted to hijack the Chesapeake, take her south, and use her to prey on Union shipping. Several of these men had aliases, so their names appear in different forms in the historical record. The masterminds of the plot were Vernon G. Locke and John C. Brain, each of whom was the epitome of a scoundrel. During the summer of 1863, these men and their cohorts met several times in Halifax, Nova Scotia and Saint John, New Brunswick to make their plans.

Judah Benjamin

In a feat of legal legerdemain that would make a shifty defense attorney proud, Vernon Locke concocted a scheme whereby, if the Chesapeake conspirators were apprehended, the commandeering of the Chesapeake would be classified as an act of war rather than an act of piracy, which would spare the perpetrators from charges of piracy, at least according to Locke’s convoluted rationalizing. Locke had in his possession a letter of marque written by Confederate Secretary of State Judah Benjamin authorizing a Confederate raiding ship, the Retribution, to seize Northern merchant ships and sell their cargo. The letter of marque had originally been issued to someone named Thomas Power, who transferred the letter to Locke when Locke took over command of the Retribution. After the Retribution captured some Northern merchant ships in the West Indies early in 1863, the vessel docked in Nassau in March 1863, but she was seized by the authorities because she was judged to be unseaworthy. However, Locke kept the letter of marque for possible future use, and that possibility arrived when Locke planned to use the letter to avoid charges of piracy for the hijacking of the Chesapeake. Locke’s scheme involved renaming the Chesapeake the Retribution and claiming that the vessel’s name in conjunction with the letter of marque constituted evidence that the Chesapeake conspirators were engaged not in an act of piracy, but an act of war.

A drawing of the Chesapeake from the December 26, 1863 Harper’s Weekly

On December 5, 1863, 16 of the conspirators boarded the Chesapeake in New York City as passengers and brought with them a large trunk, which contained a cache of weapons. Sometime between 1:00 and 2:00 a.m. on December 7, when the Chesapeake was at sea off of Cape Cod, the conspirators armed themselves, seized the vessel, and put the ship’s captain, Isaac Willets, in irons. During the hijacking, conspirator John Wade shot and killed the Chesapeake’s second engineer, Orin Schaffer, whose body was thrown overboard. The conspirators released most of the crew and passengers somewhere near Saint John, New Brunswick, and then they continued on to Nova Scotia to refuel for their voyage south. After his release, the Chesapeake’s captain was able to notify U.S. authorities about the commandeering of his vessel, and two U.S. warships were dispatched to pursue the Chesapeake. One of these warships was a gunboat named the Ella and Annie.

As an aside, the Ella and Annie had quite an interesting history. She began her existence as the William G. Hewes in 1860 and operated as a commercial steamer between the East Coast and the Gulf of Mexico. In April 1861 she was seized by the state of Louisiana, renamed the Ella and Annie, and used as a blockade runner. In November 1863, she was captured by a U.S. blockade ship and purchased by the U.S. Navy, which converted her into a gunboat by arming her. A few months after her role in the Chesapeake affair, she was rechristened the USS Malvern, under which name she became David Dixon Porter’s flagship and also transported Abraham Lincoln up the James River to Richmond, Virginia when Lincoln visited the captured Confederate capital.

USS Malvern

For a week after the hijacking of the Chesapeake, the Ella and Annie pursued the commandeered vessel along the southern coast of Nova Scotia, while the Chesapeake conspirators frantically tried to find a large enough supply of coal to fuel their captured ship’s voyage south. After one close call, in which the Chesapeake’s lights were turned off so the vessel could steam away unseen during the night, the Ella and Annie caught up to the hijacked ship on December 17 when the Chesapeake was taking on coal from a Nova Scotian vessel named the Investigator. The Investigator had been contracted by the conspirators to bring a supply of coal to the Chesapeake, and the transfer was being done in the harbor at Sambro, Nova Scotia, in other words, in British territorial waters. In spite of this, the captain of the Ella and Annie, J.F. Nickels, took control of the Chesapeake and also had a party board the Investigator, a British ship in British waters, where they found and took prisoner one of the conspirators, John Wade, the person who killed the Chesapeake’s second engineer. No other conspirators were found, because all of them had fled when they sighted the Ella and Annie closing on the Chesapeake. A boarding party from the Ella and Annie found two residents of Halifax, brothers William and Alexander Henry, on board the Chesapeake, because they had been contracted by the Chesapeake conspirators to serve as engineers, and the Henry brothers were also taken prisoner.

By this time, the other Union warship that had been sent after the Chesapeake, the Dacotah, arrived on the scene, and both ships escorted the Chesapeake to Halifax, where Sir Charles Hastings Doyle, Lieutenant-Governor of Nova Scotia, had been informed that a U.S. warship had taken possession of another ship in British territorial waters. When Doyle was later informed that an armed party had boarded a Nova Scotian vessel and arrested two citizens of Halifax, Doyle demanded that the Chesapeake and the three prisoners (Wade and the Henry brothers) be turned over to him. The captain of the Dacotah, A.G. Clary, who was the senior officer, acceded to this, and arrangements were made for Nova Scotian authorities to take control of the Chesapeake and the three prisoners, but not before much bluster from local authorities and newspapers about violation of British sovereignty. The indignation among Nova Scotians over violation of their sovereignty was matched by indignation in the U.S. over the piracy and murder that had been committed by British subjects on a U.S. vessel. For example, the Milwaukee Sentinel called residents of Saint John, New Brunswick “mere pimps of Jefferson Davis and his fellow traitors.”

Lord Lyons

On December 19, two days after the captain of the Ella and Annie seized control of the Chesapeake and took John Wade prisoner, a Halifax police contingent was sent to take Wade into custody upon his release from the Americans. A crowd of locals estimated at between 30 and 50 had gathered to watch the exchange, and as soon as Wade stepped onto the wharf, he was rushed by some in the crowd onto a small rowboat that appeared just as Wade set foot on the wharf. Wade was then taken away in the boat, which was rowed by two men, Jerry Holland and Bernard Gallagher, who were champion oarsmen. When one member of the police contingent, Constable Lew Hutt, drew his revolver and aimed it at the rowboat, three of the locals in the crowd grabbed Hutt and disarmed him, and the rowboat carrying John Wade disappeared out of sight. Not surprisingly, this inflamed tensions even more, since Wade was the man who killed the Chesapeake’s second engineer. Following Wade’s escape in the rowboat, there was an investigation of the incident, and in spite of the meticulously fortuitous circumstances of the escape, the Attorney General of Nova Scotia, J.W. Johnston, concluded in his report that the escape was not premeditated, but “resulted from means that casually offered at an opportune moment.” Nova Scotia Lieutenant-Governor Doyle related to Lord Richard Lyons, the British Minister in Washington, that there was “not a shadow of evidence of concert or premeditation to obstruct (the) arrest of Wade.” A 20th century historian gave his opinion of these official statements when he wrote in one of the most understated assertions to ever appear in a history article, “This is just too difficult to believe.” After his escape in the rowboat, John Wade was never apprehended and was never brought to trial for his role in the Chesapeake hijacking.

Warrants were issued for the arrest of the other Chesapeake conspirators, but only three were ever brought to trial, and these did not include Vernon Locke and John Brain, the leaders of the group, because Locke and Brain were never captured. The three conspirators who were apprehended were brought to court in January 1864 to determine if they should be extradited to the U.S. to face charges of piracy and murder. The magistrate, Humphrey T. Gilbert, ruled that the prisoners should be extradited, and one of the factors that played into the ruling was the irregularities associated with the letter of marque. However, the case was appealed to a higher court, and the presiding judge, William Johnstone Ritchie, overturned Gilbert’s ruling on a series of technicalities. The prisoners were released, and they never faced trial again. This is the closest that any of the Chesapeake conspirators came to punishment for their crime.

William Seward

As for the vessel that was commandeered, a court in the British Admiralty ruled that the Chesapeake’s seizure was unlawful, and she was returned to her owners, which at least brought this aspect of the Chesapeake Affair to a proper resolution. The only other issue to be resolved was the violation of British sovereignty, and this was handled diplomatically by U.S. Secretary of State William Seward in a letter to Lord Lyons, the British Minister in Washington. In that letter, Seward acknowledged that there had been a violation of British sovereignty, and he conveyed that President Lincoln disapproved and regretted the actions of the U.S. Navy personnel. In response, the British government deemed the apology from the U.S. government to be “ample and unreserved,” and the issue was settled.

“One war at a time.” With this witty comment, Abraham Lincoln explained his reason for not allowing the Trent Affair to escalate to something more serious. Despite all the bluster among the populace of Nova Scotia, by all accounts the Chesapeake Affair, in contrast to the Trent Affair, never rose to a level where war with England seemed like a possibility. But if the Chesapeake Affair had intensified to a degree that war with England became a realistic possibility, then Abraham Lincoln already had a clever quote of his own making to defuse the situation.

Related link:
The War that Never Was: Britain, the U.S. and the Trent Affair