Academic journal article Civil War History

"The Personal Observations of a Man of Intelligence": Sir James Fergusson's Visit to North America, 1861

Academic journal article Civil War History

"The Personal Observations of a Man of Intelligence": Sir James Fergusson's Visit to North America, 1861

Article excerpt

THE PAPERS OF Lord Palmerston (1784-1865), British foreign secretary in the 1830s and 1840s and prime minister between 1859 and 1865, contain, amongst other items, a number of reports, letters and notes on matters concerning the British government and the American Civil War.(1) Whilst many of these sources have been used by previous historians, a report sent to Palmerston by Sir James Fergusson, a Scottish member of Parliament, on his visit to the United States in the autumn of 1861 has not previously been published. This report appears to be the only detailed account of events in the first few months of the Civil War by a British M.P.

In late 1861, Lord Palmerston received a letter, dated November 13, from Lord Derby (1799-1869), a previous prime minister:

   Sir James Fergusson who is just returned from America, and who has been in
   the Northern, Southern and Western States, has sent me the accompanying
   paper, which contains the result of his observations on the struggle now
   going on; with permission to forward it to you, or rather with a request
   that I would do so, if I thought that I could with propriety. I do not
   hesitate to comply with his wish, as much as you are engaged, you will
   probably be able to spare ten minutes to read it, and at this moment the
   personal observations of a man of intelligence cannot but be interesting.
   You will see that the bias of his mind is in favour of the ultimate success
   of the Southern Confederacy; but it sums up, as it seems to me very fairly
   the respective advantages and disadvantages of the two sides. When you have
   looked it over, you could return it either to me, or directly to him, as
   you please.(2)

The author of the report, Sir James Fergusson (1832-1907) succeeded to the Scottish family baronetcy in 1849. He then entered the Grenadier Guards and served in the Crimean War. In 1855 he became a Conservative M.P. for Ayrshire (a county in southwest Scotland)--a seat he retained until 1868. During the latter part of the nineteenth century he became governor of South Australia, followed by a term as governor of New Zealand and then of Bombay. After returning to England, he held a number of government offices in the Foreign Office and was postmaster general. He was killed in an earthquake in Jamaica in 1907.(3)

   From Edinburgh, 11th November 1861.

   I have lately returned from a Tour in N.America in the course of which I
   have visited the Northern, Western, Southern States and have seen somewhat
   of the character & circumstances of the forces at all points, but
   especially in Missouri on the Federal side and in Kentucky and Virginia on
   both. I was furnished with good letters of introduction to persons of all
   parties and on both sides; I thought to keep myself free from bias in
   favour of either, and in the conversations which I was able to hold with
   well-informed persons whether in North or South I endeavoured to controvert
   such opinions as appeared to me to be fallacious, in order by such means
   and otherwise to form a fair judgement. I should still, however, shrink
   from expressing a hasty opinion upon the probable result of a war,
   dependent upon the Resolution of a versatile people, (and) upon the
   achievements of armies yet newly organized, which are operating over a vast
   area and for the most part in a country so wooded and impassable except by
   infrequent roads as to be unsuited to extended military movements. But
   considering the value of recent personal observations and the difficulty of
   obtaining accurate information of either side, but especially of the South,
   I am anxious that such knowledge as I possess should not be lost. Moreover
   I have observed that the impressions of writers in the newspapers and
   magazines upon the prospect of the War have been very uncertain and
   fluctuating and that considerable effect has been produced upon the public
   by the imposing preparations of the North. … 
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