Thursday, May 26, 2016

Benjamin Butler and Yacht America, Part Three

Cloaked in iconic history and carrying the name of its country, yacht America's career interwove with figures who reflected the intricacies of wealth and power that shaped the nation's destiny. Those intricacies involved occasional contradictions of personality and principle, that accompanied talent and an instinct for opportunity.

In the 1870's Halibut Point's pastures made up part of the Babson Farm. On its eastern flank most of the land stretching to Pigeon Cove had been acquired by The Oil King of Swampscott, Eben Phillips, who recognized that coastal land values would skyrocket once the Eastern Railroad connected Rockport to Boston. One of Eben Phillips' passions was his racing schooner Fearless.
To the west of Halibut Point considerable acreage of Lanesville and Bay View had come under the control of the Cape Ann Granite Company, founded by Benjamin Butler. Garrulous Butler met taciturn Phillips in his first racing test for America, on July 24, 1875, fourteen miles north of Halibut Point off the Isles of Shoals, in a regatta promoted by the proprietor of the Isles'  Oceanic Hotel. America bettered Fearless in elapsed time on the course but the judges favored Fearless in corrected time.1 Butler touted his yacht's ascendancy. Phillips, characteristically, left no recorded words. Intriguingly, no photographs seem to exist of either man aboard his yacht.
Author Harriet (Stevens) Robey, third from left, in 1903
Benjamin Butler's descendants still reside on his estate by the Ipswich Bay. His great-granddaughter Harriet Robey assumed the mantle of family biographer with a lens both admiring and confessional. She gave fair consideration to many of her forebear's intricacies within the covers of Bay View.2

Harriet Robey's reflections on Great-Grandfather Butler
Benjamin Butler of Lowell, Massachusetts, progressive labor advocate and detester of slavery, profited from substantial stock holdings in the Middlesex Mills that depended on slave-grown cotton. During the Civil War General Butler served as military administrator in the Departments of Virginia/North Carolina and in New Orleans, which collectively smuggled hundreds of thousands of bales of cotton northward to keep Lowell's mills operating while sustaining the Confederate economy and war effort. During this service he "somehow managed to increase his net worth from about $150,000 in 1862 to about $3 million six years later."3 

Gloucester historian Joe Garland noted how Butler's wartime relationships (both North and South) enabled his acquisition of America in 1873:4
            "The fast deal that brought Ben Butler his greatest joy brought him the glory-covered old first-time captor of the America's Cup....Butler had won the claim of Gazaway Bugg Lamar, a Georgia banker turned blockade runner, for compensation for cotton condemned during the war. His grateful client apparently contended or offered to contend that he owned another property seized but never properly condemned, the famous schooner America....Rumors that Lamar might press his claim to America evidently scared rival bidders away, and she was quietly if not secretively knocked off for $5,000 to a straw for Butler and Jonas French."
            "Navy Secretary George M. Robeson, a Butler crony subsequently investigated by Congress on charges of extravagance and corruption, posted her for auction over the hot objections of naval officers who had learned their ropes on her as midshipmen." 

Ben Butler enjoyed twenty exhilarating years as master of America, investing faithfully in her upkeep and modernizations. He bequeathed the yacht to his only daughter, Blanche, and her husband, General Adelbert Ames.

The wedding of Blanche Butler and General Adelbert Ames, 18702
Joe Garland exhumed further threads from the rough-and-tumble tapestry of social history:4
            "Ames was a West Point graduate, winner of the Congressional Medal of Honor for bravery in the First Battle of Bull Run. In Virginia he served under his future father-in-law, the citizen major general who at every opportunity had made a point of scorning Pointers since he was politically passed over for admission as a boy. Ames rose to general, commanded a military department in the South after the war and was appointed to the Senate from Mississippi in 1871 at a time when Congressman Butler enjoyed great influence with President Grant. In 1874 he was elected governor of the former slave state. At the head of a corrupt carpet-bagger government and caught up in the forces that were tearing Reconstruction apart, Governor Ames was impeached by the white-liners when they regained control of the Mississippi legislature. Butler got a smart ex-Confederate lawyer to defend his son-in-law, and the charges were withdrawn in exchange for his resignation."

Harriet Robey's Grandfather Ames in 1932, aged 97,
with his friend John D. Rockefeller, aged 93

America as skippered by Adelbert Ames and his son, Butler Ames5
America sailed her last race on July 20, 1901, fifty years after her initial one. Then she lay under wraps in Boston until 1916. A local committee of loyalists bought her to head off her mortification as a packet between the Cape Verdes and New Bedford. In 1921 the syndicate's treasurer, Charles Francis Adams, arranged her "sale" back to the Navy for $1.00.

Charles Francis Adams conveying title of America to the U. S. Navy, 1921
Charles Francis Adams III, as President of the Massachusetts Historical Society in 1903 proposed to Congress that the famed frigate USS Constitution be restored and returned to active service. In 1920 he successfully skippered the America's Cup defender Resolute. He served as Secretary of the Navy under President Hoover from 1929 to 1933.

America returned to Annapolis in a museum status for the next twenty years. Wartime priorities prevented the Navy from investing in a restoration proposal by President Franklin Roosevelt. In 1942 she was crushed beyond repair when heavy snowfall collapsed the roof of her storage shed.

Model of America by Erik Ronnberg, 2003
Presented to the Cape Ann Museum by the descendants of Benjamin Butler
1. Winfield M. Thompson, William P. Stephens, and William U. Swan, The Yacht "America", 1925.
2. Harriet Robey, Bay View, 1979.
3. Peter Andreas, Smuggler Nation: How Illicit Trade Made America, 2013. Courtesy of Lise Breen.
4. Joseph E. Garland, Boston's North Shore, 1978.
5. Photograph courtesy of the Library of Congress, Detroit Publishing Company collection.

Thursday, May 19, 2016

Benjamin Butler and Yacht America, Part Two

After my last posting a reader expressed curiosity about how yacht America succeeded in intimidating rivals gathered for the 1851 racing season in England. Whether or not the intimidation was intentional it did not encourage her owners' goal of winning high-stakes prize money from the aristocrats assembled.

Great Britain pulsed with pride over Prince Albert's concurrent Great Exhibition and its centerpiece, the Crystal Palace. His Majesty invited yachtsmen from all over the world to admire the works of the Industrial Age, and to join in friendly sport off England's southern  coast.
The British cutters and schooners assembled for the international race featured complex rigs, huge loose-footed mainsails and two or more jibs.1
A syndicate of New York Yacht Club members commissioned their entry to the contest. They christened her America to magnify the challenge. After crossing the Atlantic America put into port at Le Havre, France for final refitting before joining the regatta at the Isle of Wight. As she breezed by local yachts word quickly spread across the Channel that the Yankees had arrived in a fast, dangerous-looking craft of radical design.

Her steeply raked masts, simple rigging, and low black silhouette prompted wary observers to the conclusion that yacht America looked piratical.2
New York shipwrights had incorporated hull and sail features that revolutionized yacht design. When America entered English waters and outran the cutter escorting her to the regatta, reticence to race against her increased. The Marquis of Anglesey, one of the greeting committee and a founder, in 1815, of the Royal Yacht Club after his pivotal role as cavalry commander in the defeat of Napoleon at Waterloo, took one look at the upstart and declared "If she is right, then all of us are wrong." Negotiations among the gentry over several weeks produced only one small purse, the Hundred Guinea Cup which, after her victory, became the America's Cup that continues as the premier international yachting trophy today.

General Butler3
General Benjamin Franklin Butler purchased the yacht in 1873. He relished her colorful Civil War history under sail in both the Union and Confederate navies. When he reviewed her 1851 triumph over England's  best for Harper's Magazine he included this anecdote.4

In the Illustrated London Journal, a few days after, appeared a cartoon which showed the interior of the cabin of a royal yacht, with the Queen at lunch, waiting the return off the Needles of the yachts. Her Majesty says, 'Signal-master, are the yachts in sight?'
    'Yes, may it please your Majesty.'
'Which is first?'
'The America.'
     'Which is second?'
     'Ah, your Majesty, there is no second.'
Though not a yachtsman Benjamin Butler invested lavishly to restore America to her winning ways. In 1875 he retained Donald McKay, the great builder of clipper ships, to supervise alterations making her more competitive among a new generation of yachts. McKay modified her rig, added two cabins, and replaced the tiller with a steering wheel.
Donald McKay's rendition of 18755
In his next decade of ownership General Butler, also Congressional Representative from Gloucester, commissioned three more substantial alterations of the yacht while pursuing quixotic racing titles, but mainly the splendid satisfaction of cruising aboard a beautiful legend.

The Burgess rendition of 18856
The most remarkable overhaul came at the hand of naval architect Edward Burgess. He reset her masts slightly forward of plumb, lengthened the deck to fore and aft, and enlarged the keel so she could carry more sail. Within a couple more years Butler had her repainted white.

America, August 18917
When America rounded Halibut Point out into Massachusetts Bay she sailed as a glamorous projection of her owner as well as a fancy maritime self-portrait of Cape Ann.

1. John Rousmaniere, The Low Black Schooner: Yacht America 1851-1945, 1986. "YACHTING/Scene Off Cowes, Isle of Wight." Colored lithograph, "Fores Marine Sketches Plate 1" published in London 1851. Courtesy of New York Yacht Club.
2. Rousmaniere, ibid. "America Approaching the Castle at Cowes,” A. Fowles, 1852.
3. Photograph courtesy of Paul St. Germain, Cape Ann Granite, 2015.
4. General Benjamin F. Butler, "The Story of the America,"  Harpers Magazine July 1885.
5. Rousmaniere, ibid. Edwin Hale Lincoln photo c. 1884, courtesy of Mystic Seaport Museum.
6. Rousmaniere, ibid. "Schooner yacht America at anchor c. 1886," Mystic Seaport Museum.
7. United States Library of Congress, Detroit Photographic company collection.

Thursday, May 12, 2016

Benjamin Butler and Yacht America, Part One

The America became the most celebrated American yacht of all time. She had been christened in 1851 to put the world's maritime powers (read Great Britain) on notice that the young nation was preparing to out-sail them.

Charles Boswell, The America 1
The swift schooner immediately accomplished that goal. She went on to a colorful and controversial history that has intrigued many observers. A century later investigative journalist Charles Boswell undertook extensive research to prepare a definitive biography of the yacht. He came to the task with hard-won credentials.
America emerged from New York, where Hudson River-Erie Canal trade met global markets at a cosmopolitan port. She was conceived and sponsored by the wealthy elites who had just founded the New York Yacht Club. They commissioned George Steers to build them the sleekest racer in the world that could also stand up to a trans-Atlantic crossing through heavy weather.

John Stevens, founder of the New York Yacht Club2
Even before reaching England the challengers succeeded in intimidating, then besting the Royal Yacht Club's finest in a contest that circumnavigated the Isle of Wight in view of Queen Victoria's summer palace.
The race course around the Isle of Wight, 18511
America celebrated victorious America with the most elegant lithograph ever made up to that time.

Lithograph occasioned by the victory of yacht America, 18512

Leading artists of the day depicted the achievement. Our own maritime painter Fitz Henry Lane contributed a rendering based on the sketches of other artists who had been able to witness the race.
Fitz Henry Lane, The Yacht America Winning the International Race, 18513
The owners of America realized a second part of their plan by selling the yacht to a British nobleman. They returned home in the fall of 1851. The United States did not see its heroine again until she appeared under the English flag in Charleston South Carolina as a swift blockade-runner for the Confederacy at the opening of the Civil War.
James Bulloch, chief Confederate agent in England1
In the decades leading up to the Civil War a dynamic young Massachusetts attorney named Benjamin Franklin Butler was making a financial and political fortune for himself, from meager beginnings.
Attorney Butler earned a commission as a major general by sponsoring a Massachusetts regiment for the Union Army. On the way south his unit contributed significantly to preventing ambivalent Maryland from leaving the Union. General Butler was assigned as military governor of New Orleans after Admiral Farragut's victory on the lower Mississippi River. He showed considerable skill in the peaceful and profitable administration of local affairs. At one point during the War he summered in a tent with his son on the Gloucester shore of Ipswich Bay. He named the spot Bay View.

At the close of the War General Butler returned to this tent site as a large figure in our quiet corner. The property gave him eligibility for election to the United States Congress over weak opposition, a carpet-bagger on Cape Ann. He began to substantiate his residence by building a handsome shoreside home from the local granite. Noting the wave of ornate stone edifices being constructed by the federal government during his term in office he bought extensive quarry acreage adjoining his estate to found the Cape Ann Granite Company. He had amassed a considerable personal fortune during the War.  

Understandably General Butler aspired to a magnificent yacht. During his years of service in Washington he came to yearn for America, which had been captured by Union forces and stationed as a training ship for midshipmen, as well as a cruiser for flag officers, at the Naval Academy in Annapolis.

John Cassels1
The Navy spent $9,000 refitting America to prepare her for the first defense of the America's Cup in 1870. But another yacht beat her in the national trials and went on to defeat the British challenger. Intriguingly the Navy decided to auction America a few years later for reasons never convincingly explained by the Secretary of the Navy - a friend of General Butler. All but one bidder withdrew from the auction when a rumor circulated that the Navy had failed to acquire proper title to the vessel during the War. Sole bidder John Cassels, one of General Butler's former military subordinates, succeeded in purchasing America for a mere $5,000. Cassels immediately transferred ownership to Butler, who sailed her triumphantly to Bay View.

Cartoon lampooning Benjamin Butler4
Some observers were dismayed that the Navy had so mysteriously lost its prize. They interpreted the proceedings as shenanigans. They speculated that the deal, though apparently legal, was of a pattern that characterized the aggrandizement of Benjamin Butler in the world of affairs. An opposition newspaper proclaimed his methods "Butlerisms," among other disparagements.

...To be continued next week... 

1. Charles Boswell, The America, 1967
2. John Rousmaniere, The Low Black America Schooner Yacht 1851-1945, 1986
3. Erik Ronnberg, "Fitz Henry Lane's Yacht America," Antiques & Fine Art, Summer/Autumn 2010
4. Harriet Robey (great-granddaughter of Benjamin Butler), Bay View, 1979

Thursday, May 5, 2016

Facets of America

Our recent travels to the Georgia-Carolina coast and its inland mountains added to our family experience of geographic and cultural America. We sought out acquaintance with the contemporary South and ante-bellum architecture draped in Spanish moss. We visited historic venues of the Civil Rights movement.

The Gatehouse, Biltmore

A Vanderbilt residence1

In Ashville we saw but didn't muster the $120 entry fee (for two) to 'Biltmore,'  America's most opulent residence . Nearby, we made pilgrimage to the site of impecunious  Black Mountain College, the avant-garde center of study where rector Charles Olson began his Maximus poems to Gloucester.
Tim and "The Angel," Burnsville NC

Up in the hills we bought an angel crafted of gourds. We marveled at Appalachian quilts. We saw the three domes of Thomas Jefferson at Monticello, at the University of Virginia, and at the Memorial in DC. We pondered the inability of this brilliant author of the Declaration of Independence to transcend a privileged life supported by slave-holding.

Slave quarters, Monticello

Dr. L. D. Britt, Monticello trustee, introducing Dr. Marian Wright Edelman,
recipient of the Thomas Jefferson Foundation Medal in Citizen Leadership
In Savannah we entered the upper margin of the Floridian zone with semi-tropical flora and fauna: palm trees, alligators, fantastical bird rookeries. Turning north we savored three successive springs. We ascended from the lowlands into the Blue Ridge Mountains to see first the climax, then the beginning of the azalea, dogwood, and redbud inflorescences. They would soon start blooming here when we returned to Massachusetts in mid-April for a third spring.
Anhinga, the southern cormorant
Wood stork

Great egret rookery

Glossy ibis

Happily, most of the places we visited required no admission charge. We walked around cities, meandered through the countryside, reveled in National wildlife refuges, parkways, and DC monuments, all for free. Or I suppose you could say more accurately, those public treasures repaid us citizens who have funded government budgets for many decades.

Visitor Center, Harris Neck National Wildlife Refuge outside Savannah

The opportunity to visit Charleston  added an extra lure to the itinerary. The yacht America, which eventually called Gloucester's Bay View its home port, figured in the maritime forces of both sides in the American Civil War. After winning the Hundred Guinea (America's) Cup in England in 1851 she became a diplomatic courier between Charleston and London for the Confederacy. She was offered by her English owner as a blockade runner possibly with slave-carrying intentions. Following her capture and refitting with cannon by Union forces the speedy vessel joined the North's blockade enforcement off the Carolina coast.

America, James Bard painting 18512

In the weeks ahead Notes from Halibut Point will embark on a series of essays touching on America and the diverse personalities of her owners as they shaped the unfolding of America.

Yacht America in the Ipswich Bay3
Just down the coast from Halibut Point sits a center of these themes in American history. The high-textured portion of the story begins when Civil War Major General Benjamin F. Butler of Lowell vacationed there in 1863 on a promontory he named Bay View. He went on to election as a United States Congressman and Governor of Massachusetts. His descendants, some still residing on the property, have commemorated their forebear with a model of his personal pride and joy, yacht America.
Butler family monograph

The family engaged Erik Ronnberg to recreate America as Butler had reconfigured her with naval architect William Starling Burgess. That model still graces the lobby of the Cape Ann Museum.

The America
Erik Ronnberg, 2003

A century after Ben Butler last held the tiller of America billionaire Bill Koch sponsored the design and construction of a new yacht by that name to wrest the America's Cup back from the national disgrace of a four year hiatus in Australia. Recently he commissioned Erik Ronnberg to make a model of the original America for his own maritime collection.
Victorious William Koch holding the America's Cup, 19924
America continues to astonish us with the wealth of its natural and human resources.  

1. Photographed from a movie screen at the Biltmore Visitor's Center.
2. From John Rousmaniere, The Low Black Schooner Yacht America, 1986
3. From Bay View by Harriet Robey, great grand-daughter of Benjamin Butler,1979.
4. Internet image, unattributed.