A Notable Passage to China: Delano Reactions to News of the War at Home
Fall 1999, Vol. 31, No. 3
By R.J.C. Butow
© 1999 by R.J.C. Butow
During the years the family spent in Hong Kong (1862–1866), news of the Civil War at home caused much concern, especially when the Union forces were at a disadvantage, as they so frequently seemed to be. In mid-October 1862, prior to the arrival of Catherine and the children, Warren Jr. had written to his brother Frank: "I do not wonder at the loss of confidence of the people at large in our President, Secretaries, Officers of Army & Navy, Politicians &c &c, for a more wilful, a more outrageous sacrifice of a great and Good Cause backed by abundant men and means and the Enthusiasm of almost twenty millions [in population] is not to be conceived of. I approved of the Presidents caution in the early stages of the war—but whether he is after all nothing but a huckstering politician, under influence of a traitor wife, or [whether he is] yielding to the domineering of a few bold slave holding seceshionists [sic] who have the courage to pretend to be Union men and stay in Washington to watch and influence the game—I am at a loss to determine. As for [Gen. George B.] McClellan, whatever may be his principles and his skill as a soldier, he has signally failed—and a long and elaborate defence in the N.Y. World of 8th Aug. has placed him lower in my estimation than he was before. . . . The man who does the work of the Country will—must—be a man not afraid of liberty and just laws for the Colored as well as the White man. Where is that man?"
Not all of the letters written to loved ones at home reached them, but enough correspondence has survived to show that news of the war was eagerly awaited, despite the frustrating knowledge that the most recent report would routinely be two months old by the time it got to Hong Kong. At the end of November 1862, Warren's eldest daughter Louise wrote: "We have the full account of the battle of Antietam [September 17, 1862]; what dreadful fighting there was there! And yet the next mail may bring news of massacres even more terrible. It is very hard to think that our side is not nearly so well off as when we left home, on the 25th [of] June. I think McClellan is a believer in the retrograde progressive movement. I wish we were at home to assist in working for the poor wounded & dying soldiers."
In February 1863 word came of the battle of Fredericksburg (December 13, 1862), which "was condemned," Louise's sister Dora noted, "as a great mistake." A few days later a steamer arrived via San Francisco with more bad tidings: "Our only victory that of Murfreesboro [December 31, 1862 - January 2, 1863]," Louise wrote. "And what an awful carnage!" She was disturbed to learn that the Confederate raider Alabama, which was still at large on the high seas, had taken one of the California steamers. "We now ask the question 'How many more will she be allowed to take?' There are but few loyal Americans of the right sort here [in Hong Kong], but I am thankful that all of Russell & Company are strong, & when we had a dinner the other night, the gentlemen insisted on having 'John Brown' sung. The English ladies had left, one excepted, & when we came to the part 'We'll hang Jeff Davis to a northern apple tree' she was quite shocked."
At the end of April 1863 the Delanos learned that the ship Jacob Bell "had been captured by the rebels and burnt." Mrs. Dwight Williams, the wife of an American official of the Chinese Maritime Customs, was on board, causing the local community of Union supporters to ponder her fate.* "I do not know," Louise wrote to Uncle Frank, "if there were any other passengers or not. . . . I think nothing would induce me to go home by ship now if I could, for if we were taken by rebels I should do something dreadful before we escaped. Papa says if he were at the head of affairs he would hang one half of our navy officers, & ask no questions. Some one asked him if he cared nothing about the 'habius corpus,' & he says 'Oh yes, I would have their carcass.' He says that the greater part of our navy officers are either drunken or traitors. There are persons out here who have seceshion friends at the north, who hear regularly from their friends at the south. The southerners get wind of all our plans almost before we know them ourselves."
In another letter to Franklin Hughes Delano, written at Rose Hill on June 7, 1863, Louise reported the family's latest concern: "Papa says he should not be surprised if . . . war were declared between England & the United States. What they want of a war I cannot see, & I do not believe they do want one. They think that if they would declare it, the whole American people will go down on hands & knees, & beg them not to do so, promising to behave as they wish, & they have such an opinion of Americans that they will not believe that they can fight with . . . Englishmen, but some day when we (not they) are ready, they will discover their errors, I hope."
England did not join forces with the Confederacy against the Union, but the North was unable to achieve a decisive victory. In Hong Kong the Delanos remained suspicious of their "hated neighbors," the British. In a letter to his father in Fair Haven, written on the captain's birthday, October 28, 1864, Warren Jr. combined personal congratulations with a few words on a subject that was never far from his mind, the war at home: "We do not forget this day the 85th anniversary of your precious life. May it find you in good sound health of body and mind, with energy and spirit left for some good years of enjoyment of the blessings so bountifully showered upon us by our Creator—and allow you to see realized a just and proper termination of the Traitors, the just punishment of the leaders in that great crime, and the permanent establishment of human liberty as a reward for all the trials and sufferings, the cost of blood and treasure so freely given by the country to the cause of Justice and Humanity."
Winter passed into spring before the war was finally brought to a close. In a letter from Northampton, Massachusetts, to her "darling Aunt," dated April 10, 1865, Sallie Delano was clearly excited: "What wonderful news we have had this week, haven't we? Last Tuesday evening we . . . all went out for a walk to see the houses lighted up and the fireworks in honor of our recent victories. We have just received today the good news that [Gen. Robert E.] Lee's army has surrendered. I am so very happy! All the bells of the town are ringing and they are firing the cannon near the house."
Three months later, in a letter from Rose Hill to her Uncle Frank, Sallie's sister Louise was equally thrilled-eager to describe the family's commemoration of "our glorious anniversary the 4th [of] July." News of the North's victory over the South had reached Hong Kong, making the first Independence Day following the end of the war a special occasion, indeed. "We began to fear we shld have no celebration as we scarcely knew what to do, it being too hot for a dinner or a dance, & every one looked to us as being F.A.F. (first American family) to get up something." When nothing had been decided by the evening of July 3, Louise and Dora put their heads together: "[We] resolved to see what we could do, for every one felt ashamed to let this 4th pass without some notice. We talked it over with Papa & after some coaxing we settled on having an excursion in the [Russell & Co. steamer] 'Hankow.'"
The two sisters "were up betimes in the morning [of the 4th] writing the invitations" for a 6 P.M. departure from the wharf. Scarcely anyone declined: "There were just fifty on board," Louise wrote, "all Americans, not a single foreigner. Nine of us were ladies, & we were surprised to find so many other A's, but some of them were Captains & engineers [from the ships in the harbor]. The [steamer] was beautifully decorated with flags, & we went out of the harbor making a glorious racket. We anchored about six miles out where we had a splendid breeze, & the night was perfect, the moon being nearly full. We had hundreds of rockets & fireworks of every description, which were being sent off all the time. . . . It was so enlivening to feel we were under the American flag, & out of an English colony. We sang patriotic songs, & the evening flew by, & midnight found us just returning into the harbor sending up showers of rockets which made some of the inhabitants wish they were Americans for sure."
The Delanos had been able to celebrate the Fourth of July so joyously because they had not yet learned of the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. He had been shot by John Wilkes Booth on April 14, 1865, and had died the next day. By July 11 the news had reached Hong Kong. "We hope to hear next mail," Louise wrote, "that 'old Jeff' [Davis] is suspended [presumably she meant "has been hanged from a Northern apple tree"]. May the same be the case with [General] Lee, for whom I am sorry to say much sympathy is felt, even by those who ought to know better. For the past three days all the flags on American vessels in the harbor have been at half mast for our beloved President in accordance with the orders recd from home."
The war was over, but another year would pass before Warren and Catherine Delano could say goodbye to Hong Kong for good. At home at last, they were finally able to bring all of their children together again under one roof.
* Mrs. H. Dwight Williams later published an account of her experiences titled A Year in China; And a Narrative of Capture and Imprisonment, When Homeward Bound, On Board the Rebel Pirate Florida (1864). There are two copies of this book in the Roosevelt home in Hyde Park, NY. One is in FDR's small study on the first floor; the other is in his boyhood bedroom on the second floor. The copy in the study was signed by FDR at Hyde Park in 1931 (he had purchased it from a book dealer). Roosevelt's flyleaf inscription reads: "Capture of the 'Jacob Bell' by the Confed. S.S. 'Florida'."