Sometimes you cannot just help but marvel at what may lie beneath a page filled with seemingly unrelated messages. The only thing these three telegrams have in common is the fact that they were transmitted on the same day, October 15, 1864, and by the same USMT operator.
In the first telegram, Henry W. Halleck (Borgia) instructs Samuel B. Lawrence, the assistant adjutant general to Lew Wallace, (he of the Ben Hur fame), to send the “dismounted cavalry to cavalry Depot.” This would be the Giesboro Point Cavalry Depot, one of the six such facilities maintained by the Cavalry Bureau of the United States Army. It was, in fact, the largest facility of this kind in the world.
The depot occupied the site of a tobacco plantation that belonged to George Washington Young, one of the District’s largest slaveholders. In July 1863, he offered to sell his plantation to the government for $100,000, but the United States army ended up renting the property for $6000 a year. This was not the first time Young received money from the United States government: under the terms of the District of Columbia Compensated Emancipation Act passed by Congress on April 16, 1862, Young had received $17,771.85 for his slaves.
If Young’s property had been located in Maryland, just outside the District, he could have carried on with his plantation. Congress had no authority to abolish slavery in the states. Lincoln tried to get the slaveholding states of the Union to abolish slavery on their own since the fall of 1861. It went nowhere. Maryland was a particularly tough case, as the state constitution explicitly banned “any law abolishing the relation of master or slave.”
In 1864, a predominantly Republican legislature succeeded in calling for a convention that would amend the state constitution. On September 6, the constitutional convention published the new charter which explicitly abolished slavery, and the governor called for a special ratification vote scheduled on October 12 and 13.
The supporters of the new constitution faced an uphill battle. The new constitution drew a firestorm of criticism from Democrats and even moderate Republicans. The critics blasted the document as a flagrant abuse of power that unlawfully deprived Maryland citizens of their “property” in slaves. The critics also singled out the provisions that mandated loyalty oath as a condition of casting the ballot and allowed soldiers in the field to vote.
On October 15, the returns were still being tallied and things did not look good. On 11:20 a.m., the USMT operators received a message from Henry W. Hoffman (1825-1895), a staunch Lincoln supporter who had canvassed the state in support of the constitution. according to Hoffman, “on the home vote” the constitution was likely to be defeated by a “probable maj[ority]” of “about one thousand.” There might be some good news, as it “is believed that the soldiers vote may overcome this & give a small majority for the Constitution.”
Lincoln replied with the second telegram on this page: “Come over to-night and c (see) me.” Lincoln must have realized that Hoffman was indeed correct. The constitution was in fact defeated by 1995 votes. Only after the soldiers’ ballots were counted, Maryland abolished slavery by a whopping 375 votes.
Three hours later, the operator tapped out the third message. Deciphered, it reads: “8 p.m. for C.A. Seward 29 Nassau St. William T. Minor Consul General and Thomas Savage Vice-Consul General Havana. William Hunter Chief Clerk State Department and G.G Tassara Spanish minister Washington. See Mr. Evarts ask to cooper rate [cooperate] with you. Signed F.W. Seward.”
The sender was Frederick W. Seward, the son of the Secretary of State and an assistant secretary of state in charge of consular service. The addressee was his cousin, Clarence. A. Seward, partner in the prominent law firm Blatchford, Seward & Griswold. “Mr. Evarts” was William Maxwell Evarts (1818-1901), partner in the renowned New York law firm Butler, Evarts, & Choate.
Why would an assistant secretary of state use the military telegraph to get his cousin in touch with the Spanish ambassador, the U.S. consular service in Havana, and another lawyer?
Both Clarence A. Seward and Evarts had been involved in high-profile of José Agustín Arguelles, lieutenant governor of the district of Colón, Matanzas, who was arrested in New York on charges of engaging in slave trade. The arrest was made upon a request of Cuban officials and the Spanish ambassador Gabriel Garcia y Tassara, and Arguelles was extradited to Cuba, despite the fact that the United States did not have an extradition treaty with Spain.
The arrest and rendition had caused a loud scandal. Arguelles’ wife filed a writ of habeas corpus with a New York court. Seward was accused of authorizing an unlawful arrest and violating Arguelles’ right of the asylum. The Secretary of State refused to back down: when called to testify before Congress, he declared that the United States, “the refuge of the innocent and oppressed,” could not, in good conscience, offer asylum to a slave trader, “the guilty betrayer of human freedom.”
In the meantime, a warrant was put out for the arrest of Robert Murray, the U.S. Marshal who had arrested Arguelles. It was Clarence A. Seward and William M. Evarts who represented the hapless marshal against the charges of kidnapping. The case was dropped in June 1864, do doubt due to their expert ministrations.
This telegram seems to indicate four months later both lawyers were still working with the State Department. It is likely that this cooperation had something to do with the fact that in 1865 a Cuban court found Arguelles guilty of slave trading and sentenced him to nineteen years of hard labor.
That a pedestrian looking page turns out to be teeming with soldiers, diplomats, lawyers, politicians, and even horses attests to the allure of archival work. We are, after all, dealing with a special kind of magic that somehow condenses entire lives, stories, and dilemmas into a single page jotted down some hundred and fifty years ago. And is it a mere a coincidence that all telegrams found on this randomly (I swear!) selected page should somehow have something to do with slavery?