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


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