By John Bennett
(This article originally appeared in "Crossfire", the magazine of the ACWRT (UK) no. 57 - August 1998)
Benjamin Moran was Assistant Secretary at the United States Embassy in London from 1857 to 1864 and Secretary from 1864 to 1874, serving five different Ministers to Great Britain (1). Born in Pennsylvania in 1820, he first visited England in 1851, and returned two years later, when he obtained a post as a temporary clerk at the American Embassy. In 1854 he secured a permanent post there, and three years later was appointed Assistant Secretary. From then on he kept a private journal, describing visitors to the embassy, diplomatic business, court ceremonies, social occasions, events of the day, sightseeing, country walks, and the weather. Because of his job, he was in a unique position to observe people and events, and in particular the Civil War, as it appeared from this side of the Atlantic. (2)
When the Civil War began, the U.S. Minister in London was George Mifflin Dallas, but in May 1861 he was replaced by Charles Francis Adams, who was to serve till 1868. The United States Embassy was then at 24 Portland Place (now the site of the RIBA building), but that month it began a series of moves which ended when it finally came to rest in April 1862 at what was then 5 Upper Portland Place (now 98 Portland Place), at the corner of Park Crescent, where it remained until after the war. (The building is now marked by a blue plaque).
"Civil War has set in at the South, and Fort Sumter has been taken", wrote Moran in his journal on 26 April 1861. Now that the South have thrown off all disguise and have come out in their true colours", he added, "I am for war to the knife." Three days later he noted: "The news today is alarming. Civil War has fairly set in, troops are pouring Southward and a fearful time must ensue". He cannot have known how true that would be.
At the beginning of August 1861 he was anxiously awaiting news of the first major encounter in Virginia "This has been a wet dreary day, and the gloom has rather increased than deadened by anxiety to know the result of the great battle near Manassass Junction..." he remarked on 3 August. "Well, the great battle has been fought..." he confided two days later. "The English papers head their columns with large type announcing the dreadful rout of the Federal Army. There was some grand fighting on our side truly; but timely reinforcements to the enemy, cowardice and incompetency on the part of too many of our own officers, and lack of discipline with the men, created a panic that ended in defeat, rout and running, he admitted.
The events at Hampton Roads in March 1862 not surprisingly received considerable attention: "We have exciting news from home again. A remarkable naval action recently took place in Hampton Roads, between the Merrimac, in her ... iron-plated condition, and several Federal wooden ships at anchor there ... At the same time it appears the Merrimac and her fellows were driven back by the Monitor, a recently built iron-plated vessel ... with a revolving tower, but only carrying two guns", he noted on 25 March. The next day he added: "Our mails of this morning show that the Monitor triumphantly defeated the Merrimac". The encounter was a sensation: "The battle between the Monitor and Merrimac is the one topic of present conversation. Nothing in modern times ever created such excitement in Europe", he observed on 5 April.
In the absence of a transatlantic telegraph - it was not successfully laid till 1866 - news of the Civil War took a
long time to reach London. It came in the form of telegrams, dispatches, and the American newspapers, brought by steamers, which took nearly a fortnight to cross the Atlantic. On 21 April 1862 Moran recorded: "... we have news today of the taking of Island No 10, and the defeat of the rebels at Pittsburg Landing on the Tennessee River. This last was a desperate fight and resulted in the flight of the rebels". (3)
There was more good news next month: "On my return to London... I received news of the capture of New Orleans, which elated me not a little, for its possession by our people is one of the heaviest blows the rebellion has yet received", he wrote on 12 May 1862.
Not all the news was so welcome. On 28 August 1862 he acknowledged: "There is bad news from home. McClellan has retreated altogether from the Peninsula, and seems to be bringing his army up to Washington".
Sometimes the news was wrong: "This has been a Red-Letter Day. Mr Joshua Bates telegraphed to us the news of the rebels having been defeated by Pope and McDowell on the identical field of Bull Run on the 29th August..." he wrote jubilantly on 9 September 1862. However, the following day he had to admit: "The English papers have proved to their satisfaction that Pope was defeated, and I am afraid they are right".
For whatever reason, Moran makes no reference to the battle of Antietam, other than to record a conversation he had, in January 1863, with a Dr Todd, who had served there as a surgeon in the Union Army.
On the 19th of that month he noted: "... there is positive information of the thorough defeat of the rebels by Gen'l Rosecrans at Murfreesboro. This is cheering, for we have wanted a victory a long while in all conscience".
"There are murmurs in town that Hooker has been defeated at and I fear that it is true", he commented on 18 May 1863. (4) However, on 25 May he was able to write: "The home news is better than was at first expected. Hooker effected a safe retreat across the Rappahannock, and General 'Stonewall' Jackson is dead of wounds".
On 7 July, 1863, he recorded the start of what was to be the Gettysburg campaign - "News has reached London of Lee's second invasion of Pennsylvania" - and followed with a note written on 22 July, while he was visiting Paris: "It was two o'clock when we got back to Paris: and then we heard the news of the great battle of Gettysburg and of the capture by Grant of Vicksburg!" (5)
Less welcome was the news about the battle of Chickamauga: "Some days ago we received intelligence of the defeat of Rosecrans at Chicamauga (sic), the report being that our army has been almost destroyed. It now comes out that this story is untrue, and that although we have undoubtedly suffered a check, the advantages to the rebels are very questionable", he observed on 3 October 1863. (6)
In mid-September 1864 came the news he was waiting for: "We received corroborative news last evening", he wrote on 13 September, "That Sherman had taken Atlanta".
There was more good news in mid December 1864: "Yesterday afternoon we received some home news, the most important being that ... Sherman will reach the coast, and that a serious battle had been fought at Franklin, Tenn, between Hood's and Schofield's forces. Our people were successful, but fell back to a more secure position in the night", he recorded on the 15th of the month. A fortnight later, on 28 December, he could report: "We have news today of the taking of Savannah by Gen'l Sherman, and the defeat of Hood near Nashville by Thomas".
"Glorious news reached us today. This is the reported capture of all the forts at the entrance of Cape Fear River, and the almost certain fall of Wilmington", he noted on 30 January 1865. (7)
Moran was clearly moved by the intelligence which he received on 3 March, 1865: "At about 4 o'clock... came ... news of the capture of Charleston and of the raising of the old flag over Fort Sumter. It thrilled me and I gave vent to my feelings. Nearly four years ago I was here when Sumter fell, and when treason was everywhere. Then I never faltered in my loyalty and I now rejoice over the victory of our arms, and that the cradle of the rebellion is in our hands. We have lived ages in these four years; but we will come out a nation and live for centuries".
On 15 April, 1865, he could write: "Early this morning I got news of the capture of Richmond and Petersburg ... It seems a negro corps was the first to occupy Richmond, and there was a dash of poetic justice in that". Eight days later came even more exciting news: "We this day received the grand news of Lee's surrender, and the prospect of peace".
The most unexpected news of all came on 26 April: "At about half past twelve today ... came ... the news that telegrams had been received in London announcing the assassination of President Lincoln and the attempt to take the life of Mr Seward. I was horror struck ... about one o'clock we received an official telegram from Mr Secretary Stanton, giving full particulars."
While an his way to work, on 26 May, Moran saw a handbill announcing in large letters the capture of former Confederate President Jefferson Davis. The war was truly over.
In 1875 Benjamin Moran became United States Minister to Portugal, and when that office was discontinued in 1876, was made Charge d'Affaires at Lisbon, serving as such until 1882. Ill health forced his resignation and he returned to England; he never went back to America, but settled at Braintree, Essex, where he died on 20 June 1886.
© ACWRT(UK) 1998 & 2001
Blue Plaque: photographed by, and reproduced with kind permission of, John Atkinson
Medford Historical Society: Officers Inspecting Damage to the deck of the Monitor after its battle with Merrimac
(1) The United States was not yet represented by an ambassador in London.
(2) Sarah A. Wallace and Frances E. Gillespie (eds.), The Journal of Benjamin Moran, 1857-1865. University of Chicago Press, 1948-9 (2 vols.) The original journal, covering the period 1857-1874, in forty-one volumes, is in the Library of Congress.
(3) The battle of Pittsburg Landing, or Shiloh, for example was fought on 6 and 7 April 1862, but was not reported in The Times until 23 April.
(4) In the journal Moran has written Fredericksburg in mistake for Chancellorsville.
(5) Perhaps because he was on holiday, Moran was rather late in learning about Gettysburg and Vicksburg; reports had already appeared in The Times on 17 and 20 July.
(6) Chickamauga was to be the South's last major victory.
(7) Fort Fisher was captured on 15 January 1865, and Union troops entered Wilmington on 22 February.