General Robert E Lee’s surrender to the the Union army at Appomattox court house on the morning of April 9 1865, brought the four year Civil War to a close.
The fatal miscalculation of the confederacy that it could achieve independence from its more powerful and industrialised northern states; and its total underestimation of the iron will of President Lincoln to save the union at any cost, left the confederate states bankrupt, its main cities in ruins, its spirit broken.
Life was not kind to our hero Capt Wilson who rescued all the passengers and crew of the Connaught which had caught fire in the Atlantic some 100 miles south of Boston, October 7 1860. In previous weeks the Diary has described his daring rescue, of almost 600 terrified people in a heaving sea, from a blazing ship in growing darkness. He was lauded by Queen Victoria, and by the merchants of New York and Boston. He had admirers in England, who paid for a painting of the dramatic rescue; while others subscribed to ‘an elegant service of plate’, to be made by Tiffany’s on Broadway.
Perhaps Capt Wilson’s rescue was discussed more by the people of Galway, where the Connaught was the pride of J Orwell Lever’s Galway Line, which for six years, 1858-1864 had high hopes to make Galway a stepping stone to America, in comfortable steam-powered ships.
When the Civil War broke out, Capt Wilson led a brief adventurous life privateering, and running the Union navy blocade into southern ports. He made little or no money from his daring exploits. Whatever money he may have had in Boston or New York, from where he sailed commercially before the war (including his ‘elegant service of plate’ ), was now closed off to him. Washington did offer immunity from prosecution for treason, with restoration of civil rights to all who had participated on the confederate side, with the exception, however, of ‘all persons who have been engaged in the destruction of the commerce of the United States upon the high seas.’
The obituary of his wife (she died in impoverished circumstances in New Orleans ), which was published in the New York Times on November 20 1892, illustrates how dire the circumstances of the Wilson family became. ‘All the silverware etc which was held in the North, was confiscated, and he was declared an enemy of the United States.’
Spirit of Galway
The loss of the PS Connaught was the final blow in the courageous endeavours of the Galway Line. Steamship interests in Galway, never gave up the idea that we could become a major port of embarkation for America, and the campaign to re-establish a transatlantic service from Galway was revived periodically through the latter half of the 19th century and in the early decades of the 20th.
The critics of the present plans to extend Galway harbour out into the bay, to accommodate transatlantic liners, and to improve our harbour business, have chosen to forget the great explorative adventure that the Atlantic offered to Galway as far back as medieval times, to the visits by Christopher Columbus who questioned mariners whether land lay far to the west of our shore, and the courageous vision magnificently displayed by our Victorian forebears.
To deny that is to deny the spirit of the Galway people.
NOTES: I am leaning heavily on James Mitchell’s ‘Rescue of the Passengers and Crew of the Connaught’, published in the Journal of the Galway Archaeological and Historical Society, volume 63, 2011; and Tim Collins’: Transatlantic Triumph and Herioc Failure - The Galway Line, published by the The Collins Press 2002.