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Introduction to the Michael Quin Documents
By George Rugg
One of the persistent diplomatic problems for the U. S. government during the Civil War was the impressment of foreign nationals into the military. The chief instigators of such crimes were men called runners or bounty brokers, who might employ deception, alcohol and other drugs, or sheer force to "shanghai" the unwary into American service. The motive was profit, for not only did the runner receive a brokerage fee on presenting the "volunteer" to an Army or Navy recruiting officer; he also received whatever portion of the victim's bounty moneya sum that varied with time and place but could amount to many hundreds of dollarshe chose to appropriate. Runners typically worked in collusion with recruiting agents, police officers, and others, who might receive a share of the bounty for their cooperation. Union Brig. Gen. Isaac Wistar described the system, in commenting on the caliber of recruit he was seeing in Virginia:
I think I am justified in saying that most of these unfortunate men were either deceived or kidnapped, or both, in the most scandalous and inhuman manner, in New York City, where they were drugged and carried off to New Hampshire and Connecticut, mustered in and uniformed before their consciousness was fully restored. Even their bounty was obtained by the parties who were instrumental in these nefarious transactions, and the poor wretches find themselves on returning to their senses, mustered soldiers, without any pecuniary benefit. Nearly all are foreigners, mostly sailors, and both ignorant of and indifferent to the objects of the war in which they thus suddenly find themselves involved. (Berwanger 1994, pp. 149-50).
The diplomatic correspondence of U. S. Secretary of State William H. Seward is filled with complaints from foreign legations regarding such practices. The most common complainant was the British ambassador, Lord Lyons, since British subjectsespecially Canadians and Irishmenwere targeted by bounty brokers with particular frequency. The documents shown here relate to the fraudulent enlistment into the U. S. Navy of a newly arrived Irish immigrant named Michael Quinn (or Quin; b. c1844). They are State Department copies of documents sent by Lyons to Seward on 8 August 1863, now being forwarded, on 13 August, to Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles, accompanied by a cover letter signed by Seward. The case itself was months old, and had spawned a good deal of paperwork prior to the appearance of this particular batch of documents. The two key items are; 1) a seven-page affidavit of Quinn's describing the circumstances of his entrapment, given to Edward M. Archibald, the British consul in New York, on 13 June 1863; and 2) an eight-page letter from Archibald to Lord Lyons, making the case for Quinn's innocence and the inadequacy of the initial U. S. response of the previous March.
Quinn was a 19-year-old native of County Tyrone, illiterate and "utterly ignorant of the world," who in January 1863 was emigrating to San Francisco when he was delayed in New York for lack of funds. Enticed by a runner feigning friendship and offering work aboard a passenger vessel, he was brought to a Naval Rendezvous where he was medically examined, told to put his mark to a piece of paper, and given a new suit of clothes (apparently a uniform). He was then taken to a receiving ship, the U. S. S. North Carolina, docked in New York harbor. Here Quinn became aware of his plight and, determined to resist, refused to take an oath of allegiance; he was consequently thrown in the ship's brig. An uncle of Quinn's learned of the matter and brought it to the attention of the British consul, who referred it to the Navy. But Quinn remained imprisoned until, handcuffed to a fellow unfortunate, he was put on a train bound for Cairo, Illinois, and the Navy's Western Flotilla. Near Salem, Illinois he managed to leap from the moving train and make his way to a nearby farm, where he spent some weeks recuperating from injuries suffered in his fall. Only in June was he physically able to travel, returning to New York where he made his statement to Archibald.
In his affidavit Quinn emphasizes that he never wished to join the Navy; that he was deceived into thinking he was signing on to a "California steamer," and was thereafter effectively kidnapped, forcibly kept in the American service. His account was accepted without reservation by Archibald and subsequently by Lord Lyons, and served as the premise for Lyons' suggestion to Seward that "some indemnity is due to this poor youth from the Government of the U. S." (letter of 8 August 1863). Whether such an indemnity was ever paid is not clear, though it would certainly seem that the U. S. came to acknowledge the justice of the British case, making no effort to retain Quinn's services or prosecute him as a deserter. (Soon after meeting with Archibald Quinn left New York to join his brother in California). Seward's initial response to the case, sent to Lyons on 31 March before the appearance of Quinn's affidavit, had been dismissive. It referenced an investigative report by Rear Adm. Andrew H. Foote citing the testimony of recruiting personnel at the Water Street Rendezvous where Quinn was "enlisted;" these men denied any impropriety and essentially characterized Quinn as a liar bent on shirking his duties as a U. S. sailor. (An account of this initial American response appears in Archibald's letter to Lyons of 8-9 July 1863).
Provenance note: The Michael Quinn Documents were purchased in 2007 from Almagre Books of Santa Fe NM (Catalogue 22, Item 114).
Bibliographic note: A fuller collection of documents relating to the Quinn case may be found in the National Archives' State Department Records, Central File (Record Group 59), 1789 to 1906, "Notes from the British Legation in the United States to the Department of State." Brief accounts of the case appear in Ella Lonn, Foreigners in the Union Army and Navy, Baton Rouge LA, 1951, p. 467, and in Eugene H. Berwanger, The British Foreign Service and the American Civil War, Lexington KY, 1994, pp. 153-4.
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