May 4, 1862: The London Times on the war

Benjamin Butler
Benj. Butler

The New York Times reprinted an editorial from the London Times, showing a view of the American Civil War from outside. It appears, firstly, that the London Times’ editorialist has some disdain for pretty much all of the American — except the noble Virginians, who seem to be almost on a par with the aristocracy at home. Meanwhile, they doubt that the North can ever conquer the whole length of the Mississippi, and warn that if they do capture New Orleans (as by this time they had), they’d die of various swampy pestilences.

Not a wholly objective view, all in all.


The Americans in the North are on the tip-toe of expectation for news of the fall of New-Orleans. This is the next thrust of the swordfish into the whale. The Federals are so elated with their recent successes that they are impatient of any pause in the course of victory. They chafe under the delay in clearing the Mississippi, and at being checked at a point five hundred miles above its mouth; but they assure their “ignorant foreign critics” that they have, already, in all probability, gained possession of New-Orleans. The force at the mouth of the Mississippi is strong enough to strike terror wherever there is human life to be extinguished and property to be plundered. The American papers boast that it is the most formidable naval force sent on a hostile errand in modern times. In an age which remembers the fleet that spread itself over the Black Sea, the vaunt is sufficiently bombastic, but still it is a tremendous force when directed against an enemy which has no navy and can keep up no dock-yards, and depends upon smuggled supplies for its powder and its guns. It comprises a terrible mortar fleet of the heaviest ordnance which can be bought or made in the North, and more than 200 vessels, including the largest steam frigates in the Fedaral navy. “The world,” we are told, “will be astonished at the force the [???] Government has sent against this rebellious city. and it will take even the American people by surprise when they learn its extent and importance.”

The Northern conquerors do not over-estimate the importance of the conquest for the tidings of which they are so impatient. New-Orleans is the commercial metropolis of the South and the West; it is the emporium of the vast tracts traversed by the Mississippi and all the great tributaries of that most mighty of rivers. It has a greater command of internal navigation than any city in the Old or New World. In itself, as a city, it is little worth. Built upon a flat below the level of the risen river, it would, perhaps, be to the permanent [???] of its [???] if the dikes were cut, and the stream were allowed to flow over it. To friend or to foe its atmosphere alike is fever and death, and even among the acclimated New-Orleanists the annual mortality is three times that of Boston. It it not the city, but the position at the point that commands all the internal navigation which is so important. The Southern papers persistently remind its defenders that “superior cheapness of transportation by water draws thither all the cotton produced in Middle and Western Tennessee, Arkansas, Eastern Texas and Mississippi, while the tobacco, hemp and cereals of the vast Western empire find their way thither from the same cause.” The occupation of New-Orleans would be a tourniquet tightened over the great artery of the seceded States. This important place is now attacked both by land and by water, Gen. BUTLER has a strong land force under his orders, and Capt. PORTER, with his mortars and his frigates, has already passed the bar at the mouth of the river. Nothing was wanting but that the Mississippi fleet should come down by the upper river, and the city would be surrounded and must fall. But even without this aid, hopes run high at New-York that by this time New-Orleans is in the hands of the Imperial North.

Perhaps in the case of a city where yellow fever and cholera have in some years destroyed one-tenth of the whole population, the best revenge of an invaded people would be to let the invaders take and hold it. Such, however, does not appear to be the intention of the Confederates. They on their side also have their boasts of assured victory. Commercial writers of the first authority have predicted that New-Orleans is destined to become the emporium not only of the Southern and Western States of America, but also of the whole world; and that, when the uncultivated and unoccupied basins of the Mississippi and Missouri are peopled and titled, this city, or one placed on some happy neighboring site, will eclipse all the present magnificence of the ports of the North. The Confederates are as sanguine that they will be able to preserve their commercial capital for its future destinies as the Federals are that they are even now certainly wresting it from them. New-Orleans is a hundred miles from the mouth of the river, and the banks are fortified all the way down. At a convenient point there are forts armed with the heaviest guns, and commanding an artificial dam stretched across the river, and which is calculated to delay any naval force under the guns of the forts for a sufficient time for the artillery to sink them. These defences, so described, are suspiciously like those which were prepared by the [???] to oppose the passage of the English and French fleets up the Pelho, and which, although temporarily successful, were readily overcome when the leaders had learned to respect their enemy. But, in addition to these, there are, we are told, two iron-cased floating batteries, carrying heavy armaments, and a garrison of 32,000 men, eager for the appearance of the invaders. The New-Orleanists say they are mad with excitement and rage, that their hot shot are ready, their furnaces in complete preparation, and that the Yankees, whenever they come, will receive a hot reception.

The game of brag on both sides is played with equal enterprise. Events will soon tell us on which side the power of execution lies. Times are much altered since an English Admiral and an English General quarreled and bungled on the same spot, and were lured en by the most transparent tricks to disgraceful defeat. Near half a century has sufficiently improved the art of war to make us certain that Gen. MANSFIELD LOVELL will not have an opportunity of saving New-Orleans by the simple tactics of Gen. JACKSON; but if there be any truth in the loud cries of defiance of the Southern Press, the conquest of this city is not so absolutely certain as the Northerners think, it maybe attacked either from the sea or from the river. If the Federalists think it better to force their gunboats and steam-frigates up the river their success must depend upon their being able to run the gauntlet of the forts and batteries. Once past these there is deep water up to the city quays, and many miles above. Arrived at these New-Orleans is their own. But, If they are strong enough by land, there Is an inlet of the sea which reaches within six miles of the city, and from this they may debark their land army and attack the city by land. The 32,000 men in garrison ought to be able to give a good account of these invaders, if that garrison exists in any other columns than those of the newspapers. It is suggested that the attack is to be made in concert, by Gun. BUTLER. debarking from the Lake, or rather Gulf, of Pontchartrain, and by Capts. PORTER and FARRAGUT up the river. If there be any real fight in these belligerents, this is an impending event worth our interest.

The New World now trembles under the measured tread of armed men. The wooden huts which sheltered the ill clothed Southerner from the rain, and snow, and hail, and from the fierce biting gales which swept from the mountain gorges, are blackened ruins; and the cotton-canvas tents which performed the same friendly office to the well [???] and [???]-for Federal soldier, have, either fallen a prey to the camp-follower, or found a place in the country wagons in the baggage.-train. The camp-fires, fed laboriously during the. long weary Winter months, on the Southern and Northern side, by chopping down primeval forests, of stalwart growth, to be dragged afterward from the bush through snow and mud for miles, and then by relays of soldiers turned into handy faggots, no longer flare in the still midnight and reguite the time of the drowsy watchers. Winter has come and gone, the ground is once more dry and firm. the nights scarcely chilly, and the hostile armies are again in motion. The district lately occupied by the Southern forces on the Potomac is changing masters. The South is massing its soldiers on its weak defensive points, and leaving its frontier open where attack will do no harm. Never in modern times have so many men been arrayed against each other, never have military operations assumed such magnitude, and never possibly will more blood have been shed. It is the band of Cain raised once more against his brother; the strong seeking the subjugation of the weak; the brave and gentle born rising to defend home, and life and honor. Blood will, therefore, flow-like water, and the times in which we live be stained by the perpetration of a revolting crime.

Turn which way the tide of battle may, history promises no example of like carnage. The North, fired by recent success, hastened by the shortness of the fighting season, and goaded by clamor, is, it appears, to try the rash experiment of bearing down the enemy more by force than science. In a month or little more from now, the Mississippi Valley from Cairo to New-Orleans must be won or lost, and the [???] States brought back into the Union, for the sickness in the Valley of the Lower Mississippi in midsummer is as deadly to the Northerner as to the [???] European. There is thus no time to carry on the war in the Mississippi Valley in what has been called the Old World fashion, and while the Federal [???] does the best it can with New-Orleans, Gens. GRANT and HALLECK are to drive the enemy before them from the west into the Gulf of Mexico. But between the Federal forces in the west and the Gulf of Mexico there is a breadth of country to be traversed and a length of river to be forced which to any but Americans would be appalling. Memphis is 242 miles below Cairo, and 798 miles above New-Orleans, and everywhere below Savanna, on the Tennessee River, and No. 10 Island on the Mississippi, the Federal Generals are believed to be opposed by superior Confederate forces. And not only so, but while the Confederate forces hold the country from Decatur to Memphis as the base, the Mississippi River from Memphis to No. 10 Island as the perpendicular, and the country from Decatur to No. 10 Island as the hypothenuse of a right-angle triangle, the Federals merely threaten the base of this position at Corinth from Savannah, and the apex, or extremity, at No. 10 Island. The North, therefore, whatever its disregard of science, is opposed in the Mississippi Valley by consummate scientific skill, for were No. 10 Island to be captured, there are no fewer than 32 more islands between No. 10 island and Memphis up some of which the Confederates might make the same determined stand they now do. Again, were BEAUREGARD to be attacked at Corinth, and routed, as ignominiously as the Confederate Generals who commanded Fort Donelson and Fort Henry, the whole Confederate force lying between No. 10 Island and Corinth — the number of which is stated at 130,000 fighting men -would at once cover the retreat or rout of BEAUREGARD, and even threaten the Federal rear. Still further on the right bank of the Mississippi, and occupying much the same position as the Confederate fences between Decatur and No. 10 Island, are the Confederate Divisions under Gen. VAN HORN, who fought, so well at Pea Ridge, and now threaten the besieging force on the right bank of the Mississippi, before No. 10 Island. If, then, the North attempts to bear down the South in the Mississippi Valley, the Confederates have only to keep their ground to command success; while, at the best, the success of the North would be only partial. And what does partial success or defeat to the North in such a case imply? Partial success can only stave off the day of reckoning until the setting in of the sickly season, and defeat implies utter and sickening ruin. As long as the South commands the Mississippi, the ready fleets of swift steamers formerly employed in the cotton trade, and which usually made the up river voyage from New-Orleans to Cairo in four days, would be employed as transports to cut off the retreat of the Federal forces, and not a single Federal soldier need escape. A terrible vengeance would be in start for the Federal forces in the Mississippi Valley for the excesses which have been charged against them.

Equally disastrous to the Federal cause are the probabilities in Virginia. Run who may in the present war, the Virginians will never run, and no honest Northerner believes they will. They are the nobles of the land, the men to whom the United States owe all that is great in its literature, its science, and its statesmanship. Virginia has cradled the worthiest and greatest in the land, and the refinement and heroism of its sons have, been emulated by their children’s children. Every Virginian hearthstone, it has been said, will be torn up, and every Virginian shed his blood before the Old Dominion passes from Its present keeping. And Virginia is as well and as stoutly held as the Mississippi Valley. The Federal forces may push their way up the Virginia rivers, and even capture Richmond, but, away from their gunboats and supplies, the Federal forces will have to fight Virginia and the South on equal terms. In fact, success in Virginia will place the Federals an unequal footing, for they will be in a strange country, and will have to fight not merely with the Potomac, but with Maryland in their rear. Maryland has for a year been held in chains and ruled with a rod of iron by the Federal Government, and a severe Federal check in Virginia means nothing less than the uprising of the people of the State, not to wage war in the usual way. but after the fashion which has made Baltimore the terror

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