The story of the Great Seal would probably make a good film, with spies, secrets and deceits. You might wonder why it is part of a display in The Globe Museum, St George’s, Bermuda. The museum houses a replica of the seal and a screw press of the age, though the actual press is on Bermuda in the hands of a private collector. So what is it doing there?
Setting: late 19th, early 20th century, the story commences in 1864, a couple of years into the American Civil War
Background: In 1861 South Carolina seceded from the Union because they believed it no longer represented the ideology of the Southern states, they had joined by choice and so were free to leave. Soon after, 11 other states followed and thus the Southern Confederate States were set against the Northern Unionist States. The South was greatly outnumbered, 9,000,000 people, over 3 million of which were slaves) against 22,000,000 from the industrial North, that held all the cards – transport links, foreign trade, a trained army, a navy. The Unionists placed blockades along the Southern ports, to stop them trading. Bermuda, sitting in the mid-Atlantic and British, was officially neutral, but found a rewarding role enabling blockade-running i.e. it was a convenient port from which to deliver goods to Confederates, though not without risks.
JAMES MASON, Confederacy Diplomat in London. He was a central figure in the Trent Affair, another story entirely but one that almost brought GB and US into full blown war in 1861. If Wikipedia links are anything to go by he was well-connected: no less than 15 of his relatives have Wiki pages. I was disappointed to see his picture – nothing like the homonymous actor.
James Mason was requested by the Confederate Government to source a die-engraver in Britain
JOSEPH S WYON, Chief Engraver of Seals, whose previous work included a seal for Queen Victoria. He inscribed the margin of the seal with his name and address (287 Regent St London – now a newsagents)
JS Wyon engraved the seal in silver. The cost was £122.10.00
Lt ROBERT T CHAPMAN, of the Confederate Navy, of the CSS Sumter then CSS Alabama, both of which ended up stuck in European waters, which is how he happened to be in England at just the right time.
Lt Chapman was tasked with carrying the seal and press to Richmond, Virginia. He travelled first to Halifax, Nova Scotia, on the Cunard Liner Africa, where he then boarded a steamer Alpha bound for Bermuda. He was told in no uncertain terms that this item could not be captured and was prepared even to throw it overboard. It is said that he abandoned the presentation box and fine leather satchel and carried it instead in his pocket. Chapman was held up in Bermuda for some time, three failed attempts to leave the island, so it wasn’t until September 1864 that the Great Seal arrived in Richmond, Virginia. The press, however, did not reach Virginia at all, too bulky and probably a dead give-away to what Chapman was carrying.
The Seal was in Confederate hands for 8 months until April 1865 when the war ended.
WILLIAM J BROMWELL was the state department clerk charged with moving the departmental records and storing them when the Confederate offices were cleared.
Bromwell kept many of these records with him when he moved to Washington DC in 1866. Mrs Bromwell reported carrying the Seal in her bustle out of Richmond when the Union forces took possession!
JOHN T PICKETT, Lawyer in Washington DC.
Bromwell qualified and practiced law in Pickett’s firm. Realising the risk of possessing the Seal -Bromwell had after all in effect stolen it – Pickett acted as agent in an attempt to sell the Seal either to the government or to interested southerners, he was asking $75,000.
Lt THOMAS O SELFRIDGE, an inspector requested by the state department to confirm that the Seal was genuine.
In 1872 the US Government paid $75,000 for the Confederate Seal.
Selfridge kept the Seal, and for many years it’s whereabouts was unknown.
At some point Pickett borrowed it temporarily in order to have copies made.
SAMUEL H BLACK, an expert in electrotyping (electroplating), pledged to secrecy under a masonic oath.
In 1885 1000 copies in bronze, silver or gold colour and housed in handsome cases were sold to raise money for Southern widows and orphans.
Browell died in 1875 and Pickett in 1884; for the next 20 years nothing was heard of the original Seal.
In 1905 the Confederate Museum of Richmond commenced a search for the Seal. It is unclear who actually discovered it again, reports give both a MISS LT MUNFORD and a Judge WALTER A MONTGOMERY, but it was not until 1910 that Selfridge, now and Admiral, was proven to hold the Seal.
Selfridge was demanding $1,000 for the Seal – curious amount given the Government had valued it at $75,000 some 40 years before. Nobody seems to have been much concerned that Selfridge did not actually own the seal himself. I don’t wish to upset any descendants, but maybe it had something to do with him being an Admiral?
THOMAS P BRYAN, EPPA HUNT Jr and WILLIAM H WHITE were three wealthy Richmond residents who each contributed $1,000 to purchase the Seal from Selfridge.
In May 1915 the Great Confederate Seal was displayed at the Confederate Museum of Richmond, the loan converted to a gift in 1943.
The image on the Seal is of George Washington astride a horse, copied from the statue in Richmond. Equestrian figures had appeared on royal seals from the time of Edward The Confessor.
The surrounding wreath was planned to include the major crops from the Southern states: cotton, corn, sugar, wheat, rice and tobacco. James Mason actually altered the design to omit wheat and corn, both grown also in the North.
The adoption of a motto provided lengthy debate: Deo Duce vincemus (under the leadership of God we will conquer) was thought to imply that the state of war would be permanent and use of the future tense added uncertainty; Deo vindice majores aemulator (under the guidance and protection of God we endeavour to equal and even excel our ancestors) was thought just too much of a mouthful. In the end it was a Mr THOMAS J SEMMES, Senator for South Carolina, who chose the simple phrase Deo vindice (God will judge – sometimes translated as God is our Defender – I defer to my classically educated friends)
Did the Confederate Government ever use the Seal?
With the press remaining in Bermuda and the short length of time for the administration then it was long thought that the seal was unused in any official capacity. However the US National Archives reportedly hold a document signed by President Jefferson Davis dated February 7th 1865 that bears the impression of the Seal. I say reportedly because I cannot track it down on their online archives (more than willing to go in person should Bermuda National Trust consider funding a discovery!)