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.

1 comment:

  1. Butler's Middlesex Company was a woolen manufacturer, not cotton. The Lowell cotton corporations, at the start of the civil war, sold off their cotton stocks and shut down production or switched to woolen or other production. If cotton was indeed smuggled, it didn't make it to Lowell since there were no mills open to accept it.