American Collections blog

31 August 2011

"That symbol - the Great Seal of the infant Confederacy - sent to it by its nurse, England", or Civil War Digitisation Project Update (II)

[electroplate copy of the seal of Confederate States of America, Seals.XLIV.229 [1864]]

More images have arrived from the photo studio, including some digital images of the seal of the Confederate States of America that I mentioned in my previous post on the Civil War Project (above; Seals.XLIV.229).

The Library's collections (colony?) of seals are held by the former Department of Manuscripts, which for many years gathered together articles on items in its collections, and which are available in the 'Pamphlets' collection in the Manuscripts Reading Room.  A note attached to the seal (and reference in the Pamphlets card index catalogue), led me to Pamphlet 1072 (vol. LXXV), about fifty steps from my desk.  All very satisfyingly old-fashioned.

Bound in the 75th leather volume is Sigillologia.  Being Some Account of the Great or Broad Seal of the Confederate States of America.  A Monographby 'Joannes Didymus Archæologos', published in Washington, D.C., 1873, and sold for 25 cents.  Another copy is held at shelfmark 8176.b.5.(24).

The author begins with a long quotation from Harper's Monthly Magazine(Feb., 1869), which, writing during the Reconstruction period, recounts 'the extraordinary spectacle... of the efforts of an oligarchy, small in numbers, but powerful in influence, to establish another nation within the bounds of the Republic [during the Civil War]... and to give it the symbol of sovereignty in the form of a Great Seal.'  Provided by 'its nurse, England', the seal was believed lost and, Harper's continued, 'antiquaries of the future, will search in vain for an impression of an emblem of sovereignty of the 'C.S.A.'  None was ever made.  The broad seal of the Republic kindly covers the dishonored ashes of that child of sin'. 

During its first year, the Confederacy passed a law establishing a seal for the republic, deciding that the work would be executed in England.  James Mason, the Confederate's envoy in London, was sent a copy of the act, and a photograph of the equestrian statue of Washington in Richmond, D.C (designed by Thomas Crawford).  The founder of the USA was also to be the symbolic founder of the Confederacy, surrounded by the agricultural products of the southern states.  Mason thought that cotton, rice and tobacco were 'distinctive products' of the Confederacy, and omitted wheat and corn, since these were produced in the north as well.  Finally completed in 1874, it was sent, along with wax, paper and an iron press (which, it seemed was then sent under seperate cover), in the care of Lieutenant Chapman via Halifax and Bermuda (where, to avoid the risk of Union interception, the press remained),  Chapman being 'charged, under no circumstances to run the risk of its being captured.'

However, the Monthly was mistaken in its view that the seal melted in the ashes of the Confederacy. In 1873, Charles Colcock Jones received a letter:

'My Dear Sir,

At considerable trouble and expense, I have been so fortunate as to rescue this interesting memorial from oblivion, and, possibly, a vandalic melting pot (it is of pure silver, and weigh several pounds).  I have had many electrotype impressions of it executed, and in deference to your antiquarian and archælogical tastes and devotion to the Lost Cause, have the pleasure of handing you, herewith, the first one finished, which you may regard as a proof-impression before letters...'

Hoping to raise funds for the relief of the (southern) needy, as well as perpetuate the self-regarding memory of the Confederacy, a electroplated copy had been produced.  This was authenticated by J. S. and A. B. Wyon, Chief Engravers of Her Majesty's Seals, whose predecessor, Joseph Wyon, had produced the original 'symbolical emblem of sovereignty' in 1864.  It seems that other impressions were made at the time for official use.   The author of Sigillologia also wanted it to be known that he was producing impressions in gold, silver, and bronze, and were available for purchase...  The present copy was donated to the British Museum by J. F. Pickett, of Washington, D.C. in 1874. 

As such, it is a reminder of the 'nurse' of the Confederacy.  Along with cruisers, uniforms and other materiel, Britain sold postage stamps and the necessary equipment of provide the new republic with the 'emblems of sovereignty. 

The Seal now resides in the Museum of the Confederacy in Richmond, VA (along with materials relating to its rediscovery).

 See also




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