Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Searching for the Civil War at the U.S. Embassy in China

During a two-week business trip to Beijing, I searched long and hard to find some sort of connection between China and the Civil War.  One evening, while working late at the U.S. Embassy and waiting for a conference call to DC, I came across an extensive collection of old photographs of past ambassadors to China mounted on the walls along a corridor.  Scanning the dates of service, I located the photo of Anson Burlingame, U.S. Minister to the Qing Empire (China) during the Civil War.  Burlingame is an interesting, if obscure figure, who was deeply involved in the politics of antebellum America.

Anson Burlingame (courtesy of Amicable Lodge, Cambridge, Mass.)

Burlingame was born in New Berlin, New York in 1820. He studied law at Harvard and settled in Boston after graduation.  Burlingame became known for his speeches on behalf of the Free Soil party in the 1848 election.  He served in the Massachusetts State Senate from 1853-54.  Massachusetts voters sent Burlingame to the U.S. House of Representatives as a member of the Know Nothing party in 1855.  He was later re-elected as a Republican.

Burlingame got caught up in the infamous dispute between Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts, and Representative Preston Brooks of South Carolina.  In May 1856, Sumner gave a speech on the Senate floor attacking Southerners who were sympathetic to the pro-slavery elements in Kansas Territory.  He set his sights on Senator Andrew Butler, Brooks' uncle and an author of the Kansas-Nebraska Act.  Brooks was so incensed that he walked onto the Senate floor a few days later and brutally attacked Sumner with a cane. 

1856 lithograph by John Magee depicting Sumner being clubbed by Brooks (courtesy of Wikipedia)
Enter Burlingame.  In July 1856, he denounced Brooks in a passionate speech on the House floor, calling him "the vilest sort of coward."  (The New York Times later praised the speech as "the most celebrated" of Burlingame's career.)  Brooks was maddened and challenged Burlingame to a duel.  Burlingame, who had a reputation as a fine marksman, gladly accepted.  He selected rifles as the weapon of choice, and Canadian soil across from Niagara Falls, New York as the site of the duel.  Brooks backed out, alleging that he could not reach the location of the duel "without running the gauntlet of mobs and assassins, prisons and penitentiaries, bailiffs and constables" on hostile Northern soil.  Rumor has it that Brooks was just looking for an excuse once he heard what a good shot Burlingame was.

Burlingame lost re-election in 1860.  President Lincoln first appointed him as Minister to the Austrian Empire, but the Austrian government rejected him in part because of his views on Hungarian independence.  Lincoln then named Burlingame as Minister to the Qing Empire on June 14, 1861.  As minister, Burlingame worked to foster a cooperative relationship with China, as opposed to the earlier militant policies which had been pursued by the Western powers during the Opium Wars.  He also cultivated relations with the reform elements of the court.  So far, I have not been able to locate much information about Burlingame's dealings with the Chinese concerning the Civil War.  However, according to the National Archives website, Burlingame asked Chinese Foreign Minister Prince Kung to deny the Alabama and any other Confederate ships entrance to Chinese waters in a March 8, 1864 letter.  The Chinese agreed.

Chinese language document from Department of State General Records concerning the Chinese decision to keep Confederate vessels out of Chinese waters (courtesy of National Archives)

"Presentation of Hon. Anson Burlingame and the attaches of the Chinese embassy to the President of the United States at the Executive Mansion, Washington, DC, June 5th" (1868 image, courtesy of N.Y. Public Library Digital Gallery)

In a role reversal, China in 1867 appointed Burlingame as envoy extraordinary and minister plenipotentiary to head a Chinese delegation to the United States.  Burlingame advocated for equal treatment of the Chinese and asked his fellow countrymen to welcome Chinese immigrants with open arms.  He also represented China in dealings with European powers.  Burlingame died in St. Petersburg, Russia in 1870.

Burlingame's work in China reminds us of the importance of foreign policy even in the midst of the Civil War.  Peking couldn't have been farther from Washington and the contested battlefields.  The United States, however, was an emerging power on the world stage, and diplomacy was essential to advancing national interests abroad, including those related to the on-going civil conflict.


Richard said...

Fascinating. I remember hearing about his dealings with Brooks, but knew nothing of his work in China.

That's really interesting. Thanks for posting it

Ron Baumgarten said...

You're welcome. Glad you enjoyed it.

When I read his story, I thought it was too good to pass up! I plan on posting one additional China-related story, then back to the war on U.S. soil.