Monday, January 24, 2011

Searching for the War in China: The East India Squadron

Spending two full weeks in China gave me plenty of time to think about Civil War connections to the Middle Kingdom.  At the outbreak of the war, the U.S. Navy's East India Squadron patrolled the waters of the Far East.  The fleet was charged with protecting America's interests across the region.  In the1850s, the East India Squadron played a major role in the opening of Japan and fought the Chinese in a couple of battles during the Second Opium War.  The squadron also conducted anti-piracy operations to protect merchant vessels engaged in lucrative trade with Asian countries.

C.K. Stribling (courtesy of Wikipedia)

When news of the Civil War reached the East India Squadron, its commander, Flag Officer C.K. Stribling, issued the following general order on June 30, 1861, which was reprinted in the September 13, 1861 edition of the New York Times:
By the last mail we have authentic accounts of the commencement of "civil war" in the United States, by the attack and capture of Fort Sumter by the forces of the Confederate States.

It is not my purpose to discuss the merits of the cause or causes which have resulted in plunging our country into all the horrors of a "civil war," but to remind those under my command of their obligations now to a faithful and zealous performance of every duty.

Coming as we do from the various sections of the country, unanimity of opinion on this subject cannot be expected, and I would urge upon all the necessity of abstaining from all angry and inflammatory language upon the causes of the present slate of things in the United States, and to recollect that here we have nothing to do but to perform the duty of our respective stations, and to obey the orders of our superiors in authority; to this we are bound by the solemn obligations of our oath.

I charge all Commanders and other officers to show in themselves a good example of virtue, honor, patriotism and subordination, and to be vigilant in inspecting the conduct of all such as are placed under their command

The honor of the nation, of the flag, under which many of us have served from boyhood, our own honor and good name require us now, if over, that we suffer. No blot upon the character of our country while the flag of the Union is in our keeping.

U.S.S. Saginaw, c. 1860 (courtesy of Wikipedia).  The Saginaw was with the East India Squadron at the start of the Civil War.  She eventually saw service with the Pacific Squadron.  Drew at Civil War Books and Authors reviews a recent book about the Saginaw (see here).

The article gives no indication of the reaction of the officers and sailors upon learning of the outbreak of war. For those siding with the South, the situation must surely have been tense. In any event, unless they were willing to jump ship and find their own way back home or simply desert and remain in Asia, Confederate sympathizers were obliged to grin and bear it until they arrived back in home port.  (It would be interesting to learn exactly what happened in response to the Flag Officer's general order.  If I find out, I will let readers know, or if someone out there knows, please share with us.  Stribling himself, a native South Carolinian, remained loyal to the Union.)  

The East India Squadron would stay on patrol in the Far East during the Civil War, although Stribling returned home.  America, even in the midst of civil conflict, had world-wide interests to protect.


DW@CWBA said...

The reaction of the ship's complement to the outbreak of Civil War is not covered in any kind of detail in the book, which is weak overall when it comes to crew composition. Instances of desertion were very frequent throughout the service period covered and is one of the book's main themes (for lack of a better word), but I don't recall any being directly traced to sectional allegiance.

Ron Baumgarten said...

Thanks, Drew. Too bad the book doesn't go into detail on such issues. I wonder how many primary sources out there reference the start of the war and the reaction of the crew of the various ships in the squadron? Surely Stribling or some officer at the very least wrote something, somewhere. If only there were time to find it. But it is interesting to put yourself in the shoes of a sailor and think about how you would react to news of the war so far away, and whether there were regional tensions on board.