In the Diary of September 22 I asked whether the ‘gallant and humane’ Captain John Wilson of the The Minnie Schiffer, who miraculously snatched from certain death 591 passengers and crew from the burning PS Connaught, ever received the ‘elegant service of plate’ especially commissioned for him from the prestigious Tiffany and Co of Broadway, New York. The plate was paid for by the merchants of New York and Boston ‘in appreciation of his gallant conduct at sea’ on that fateful evening October 8 1860.
The Minnie Schiffer was a small brig, returning from the south of France with a cargo of fruit and wine. About 100 miles out of Boston she came across the drifting PS Connaught practically blazing from head to stern. Its passengers and crew faced a certain and terrible death. The burning ship was too hot and dangerous to set alongside. Instead ‘in a space of about eight hours during the increasing murk of a stormy October evening - and all accomplished without loss of life, despite the hundreds of persons involved, many of whom must have been stressed, disorientated and terrified’, Capt Wilson ferried the despairing people across to his brig, in life boats.
It was a daring and sensational rescue, and won wide acclaim. The PS Connaught was the flagship of the Galway Line, a courageous adventure story which planned to take passengers safely across the Atlantic in the mid 19th century, in comfortable steam and paddle ships. The technology to do so, however, was in its infancy, and often unreliable. Nevertheless, as I have said before, between 1858 and 1864 ships of the Galway Line completed 55 trouble free return voyages to New York and Boston. People realised that America was the destination for ever increasing numbers of Europeans; vast profits could be made if reliable transport was available.
Publicity following the rescue was enormous. Captain Wilson was a hero. In England, a subscription was opened to present Capt Wilson with a painting of the rescue, painted by ‘the eminent marine artist Mr Brierly’ (see illustration with this Diary* ).
Apart from the rescued passengers, many people contributed to a fund for the captain and his crew. He received the generous sum of about $10,000 (his crew ‘appropriate sums’ ), and with it probably bought a share in the Calhoun, a tug boat of 509 tons.
Capt Wilson was born in Baltimore, Maryland, but since his marriage in 1847, he had made his home in New Orleans, Louisiana. He was there when in April 1861, the civil war broke out. He decided to fight with the Confederacy.
Because the Confederates did not yet possess a regular navy, their president Jefferson Davis encouraged private owners to arm their boats, and to sink or capture ships of the United States. Captured ships could be sold, and the proceeds divided between the owners and crews.
Not surprisingly Capt Wilson’s Calhoun, armed with five guns and a crew of 85, was the first boat to set off looking for victims. She steamed downstream from New Orleans on May 16. On the following day she captured the first prize-ship of the war. Within a week it had taken a total of six such craft. They were quickly put up for sale, but not one of them sold. When eventully they did sell, profits were disapointing.
A narrow escape
On August 2 the Calhoun had a narrow escape. She was sighted by a federal warship off the mouth of the Mississippi, and barely succeeded in seeking the safety of shallow water. Both ships fired at each other. Neither received damage, but Captain Wilson began to believe that being a pirate in a dangerous war, was gretting too risky, and there were no easy pickings.
Of course Capt Wilson was well known in Galway, and hugely admired for his rescue of the terrified people on the PS Connaught. The Galway Vindicator of June 29 announced that ‘Capt Wilson has recently gone into the privateering business’, adding that ‘the elegant service of plate prepared by the merchants of New York and Boston, as evidence of their appreciation of his gallant conduct in rescuing the passengers and crew of the Connaught, still awaits Captain Wilson’s orders at Tiffany’s on Broadway, where it was manufactured.’
As far as I know the plate still awaits the brave captain.
Next week: A sad end for a hero
NOTES: *Galway historian James Mitchell discovered two dramatic paintings by Oswald Walters Brierly, of the rescue of the passengers and crew by the Minnie Schiffer at the Maritime Museum, Greenwich, UK. Due to the American Civil War the paintings, apparently, were never given to Capt Wilson.
I am unashamedly taking all this week’s Diary from Dr Mitchell’s laudable article The Rescue of the Passengers and Crew of the Connaught published in the Journal of the Galway Archaeological and Historical Society, volume 63, 2011.