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"at the time of the Civil War" [CARD]

A scene from The Cardboard Box - illustrated by Sidney Paget

[Editor's note: The following is a guest post from Civil War author, lecturer and book reviewer Tom Elmore, who is also a Sherlockian and a member of The Hansom Wheels of Columbia, South Carolina.]

The gas lit streets of 221B Baker Street in Victorian London and the battlefields of the American Civil War would appear to have little in common with each other. Yet on two occasions the effects of America's bloodiest conflict landed right in the study of the world's greatest detective, Sherlock Holmes.

Before we examine how Holmes and Dr. John Watson became entangled in the aftermath of the war, let us travel back two decades before these two men met and see how the war affected British life in general.

Most Sherlockians believe that Holmes and Watson were born sometime in the mid 1850s, with Watson preceding Holmes by two or three years. Consequently they were possibly too young to be aware of the events going on across the ocean; but given Holmes sharp mind it is possible that he may have picked up some details. Likewise, Watson's literary agent, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle who was born in 1859 would have had little, if any interest or recollections about the war.

However, their fathers would have certainly kept up with news of the war in the British newspapers as it was very much on the mind of the English people for various reasons. Some were worried about the impact the war would have on the British economy, others, still smarting from the American Revolution and the War of 1812, wanted to see American-style democracy fail.

A number of British government and military officials were particularly interested in the style of fighting, which is now called modern warfare, that was being waged. Several British officers went to America to observe the actions of both armies; the most famous being Sir Arthur James Lyon Fremantle of the Coldstream Guards. He traveled throughout the north and the south in 1863, witnessing the Battle of Gettysburg and later the New York City Draft Riots. Returning to England, Fremantle published his diary of his trip entitled Three Months in the Southern States. The book was a bestseller on both sides of the Atlantic though it incorrectly predicted a Southern victory.

Thanks to early Southern victories, the British took interest in many of the Confederate leaders, most notably Generals P.G.T. Beauregard and Robert E. Lee, both of whom would decline offers to command European armies after war. Allegedly, the famous photo of Lee in his full dress uniform was made at the request of Queen Victoria.

Gen. Robert E. Lee in his dress uniform

Early in the war, there was strong public support in Great Briton for the south. Many Southern sympathizers showed their support by wearing a red and blue striped tie with white stars in the blue, a fashion statement that has been readopted by Southern partisans in recent years.

England gave the Confederacy "belligerent" status, which was just short of giving it full diplomatic recognition. Fear that England would take that next step dictated much of the foreign policies of U.S. President Abraham Lincoln's administration. Lincoln and his Secretary of State, William Seward, one of the best Secretaries of State ever, were constantly walking a tight rope, doing what they could to keep England out of the war without antagonizing the United Kingdom.

Seward’s job was not easy. In November 1861, the U.S. Navy warship San Jacinto intercepted the British mail ship Trent which was carrying two Confederate diplomats. Without authorization the San Jacinto fired two shots across the bow of the Trent and demanded that the diplomats be surrendered, which they were.

England was outraged and demanded the U.S. release the prisoners or risk going to war. However, public support for the actions of the San Jacinto in the North was so strong that giving in to British demands would have been a political disaster for the Lincoln administration. Consequently Seward, with Lincoln's blessing, cleverly crafted a letter to the British government stating though the U.S. had not acted illegally, he would release the prisoners anyway. He further stated that he was glad that the British government had protested as it seemed that the British were now going to recognize the rights of neutral ships, a long simmering issue of controversy between the two nations.  The plan worked, and another war was avoided.

A major asset to Lincoln and Seward was U.S. Ambassador to the Court of St. James, Charles Adams - grandson of founding father John Adams and son of the sixth president, John Quincy Adams. Adams assumed his post shortly after the Confederacy was granted belligerent status and immediately started working to see that Southern recognition went no further. He informed British politicians that the U.S. would view continued contacts with Confederate representatives and arm sales to the South as violations of England's neutrality. These measures worked and helped cool British sentiment towards Dixie.

Ultimately, the diplomatic efforts of Lincoln, Seward and Adams, coupled with the Emancipation Proclamation and the growing number of Northern victories on the battlefield, ended all hope for South's longed for and much needed British diplomatic recognition.

Though no one named Sherlock Holmes fought for either the North or the South, there were three soldiers named S. Holmes, one for the Union, two Confederate. In addition there were 1122 Confederate soldiers whose last name was Holmes, while 2603 Union soldiers shared that last name. Among the latter was Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. who served as a lieutenant during the war and was wounded three times. His father, Oliver Wendell Holmes was a noted writer of his day who used his pen to support the North, and is credited as the man for whom Doyle named his detective.

Conversely, there were 54 John H. Watsons who served in the war, 33 for the North and 21 for the South, with one of the latter serving as an assistant surgeon of the 36th Texas cavalry.

In the literary world of Holmes and Watsons, there were two occasions where the American Civil War entered their Baker Street lodgings. The first was in "The Adventure of The Five Orange Pips," which originally appeared in The Strand magazine in November 1892. It was later included in The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes short story collection published the next year, and was one of Doyle's favorite short stories.

The plot involves John Openshaw whose uncle, Elias Openshaw suddenly came back to England in 1869 and settled on an estate in West Sussex after living for years as a Florida planter. During the Civil War he had served as a Colonel in the Confederate Army under Lt. Gen. Stonewall Jackson and Gen. John Bell Hood. (For the record there were eighteen soldiers whose last name was Openshaw, but all of them fought for the North.)

Being a bachelor, Elias allowed his nephew to stay at his estate, but strange things started happening. Although John could go almost anywhere in the house he could never enter a mysterious locked room containing his uncle's trunks. Then in March 1883 a letter postmarked from Pondicherry, India arrived for the Colonel inscribed only "K.K.K." with five orange pips (or seeds) enclosed.

"What on earth does this mean?" [FIVE]

Then papers from the locked room were burned and a will was drawn up leaving the estate to young Openshaw. Afterwards, the Colonel would lock himself in his room to drink or he would go forth in a drunken sally with a pistol in his hand. On May 2, 1883 he was found dead in a garden pool.

Then on January 4, 1885 Elias's brother Joseph receives a letter postmarked Dundee with the initials "K.K.K" and instructions to leave "the papers" on the sundial.  Despite his son's urging, Joseph Openshaw refuses to call the police. Three days later, Joseph is found dead in a chalk-pit. The only clue John Openshaw can furnish Holmes is a page from his uncle's diary marked March 1869 in which orange pips have been sent to three men, of whom two flee and the third has been "visited".

Holmes advises Openshaw to leave the diary page with a note telling of the destruction of the Colonel's papers on the garden sundial. After Openshaw leaves, Holmes deduces from the time that has passed between the letter mailings and the deaths of Elias and his brother that the writer is on a sailing ship.

Holmes also recognizes the "K.K.K" as the Klu Klux Klan, the Southern Reconstruction group. According to Holmes, the group had a sudden collapse in March 1869 and Holmes theorizes that the collapse was caused by the Colonel's maliciously taking their papers away to England. Holmes reaches for volume K of the American Encyclopedia and reads that the Klan got its name "from the fanciful resemblance to the sound produced by cocking a rifle."

(Holmes could not have been more incorrect, the Klan’s name came from Greek word kuklos, which means circle. While National Grand Wizard and former Confederate general Nathan Bedford Forrest did disband the Klan in 1869, but it was due to the increasing lawlessness of local chapters. Federal legislation passed in 1870 and 1871 all but outlawed the Klan and helped to further the group's demise until it was reorganized in 1915.)

The next day there is a newspaper account that the body of Openshaw has been found in the Thames River and the death is believed to be an accident. Holmes checks sailing records of ships that were at both Pondicherry in January and February 1883 and at Dundee in January 1885 and finds a Savannah, Georgia based a boat named The Lone Star.

Holmes confirms that The Lone Star had docked in London a week before. He then sends five orange pips to the captain of The Lone Star and a telegram to the police in Savannah that the Captain and two mates are wanted for murder. But The Lone Star never arrives in Savannah; there are severe gales and the only trace of the boat is a signpost marked "L.S." sighted in the middle of the North Atlantic.

This story would later be the basis for the 1945 film Sherlock Holmes and the House of Fear starring Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce as Holmes and Watson. However the film differed dramatically from the Doyle short story and contained no references to the American Civil War.

The second time the war was mentioned was "The Cardboard Box," which appeared in The Strand in January 1893. In England it was originally included in the short story collection The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes published in 1894, though American editions removed the tale due to its reference to adultery. In America it was included in the 1917 collection His Last Bow. While the story today is still included in all British editions of the Memoirs, some U.S. editions have it in His Last Bow as well as the Memoirs. Supposedly the events in this case took place between the years 1885-1891.

The mystery, involving murder and adultery in a dysfunctional family, has nothing to do with the American Civil War, but the conflict does come up when Holmes deduces that Watson is thinking about that conflict. When Watson demands an explanation, Holmes tells him:
"After throwing down your paper, which was the action which drew my attention to you, you sat for half a minute with a vacant expression. Then your eyes fixed themselves upon your newly framed picture of General Gordon, and I saw by the alteration in your face that a train of thought had been started. But it did not lead very far. Your eyes flashed across to the unframed portrait of Henry Ward Beecher which stands upon the top of your books. Then you glanced up at the wall, and of course your meaning was obvious. You were thinking that if the portrait were framed it would just cover that bare space and correspond with Gordon's picture over there."

"You have followed me wonderfully!" I exclaimed.

"So far I could hardly have gone astray. But now your thoughts went back to Beecher, and you looked hard across as if you were studying the character in his features. Then your eyes ceased to pucker, but you continued to look across, and your face was thoughtful. You were recalling the incidents of Beecher's career. I was well aware that you could not do this without thinking of the mission which he undertook on behalf of the North at the time of the Civil War, for I remember your expressing your passionate indignation at the way in which he was received by the more turbulent of our people. You felt so strongly about it that I knew you could not think of Beecher without thinking of that also. When a moment later I saw your eyes wander away from the picture, I suspected that your mind had now turned to the Civil War, and when I observed that your lips set, your eyes sparkled, and your hands clenched I was positive that you were indeed thinking of the gallantry which was shown by both sides in that desperate struggle. But then, again, your face grew sadder; you shook your head. You were dwelling upon the sadness and horror and useless waste of life. Your hand stole towards your own old wound and a smile quivered on your lips, which showed me that the ridiculous side of this method of settling international questions had forced itself upon your mind. At this point I agreed with you that it was preposterous and was glad to find that all my deductions had been correct."

"Absolutely!" said I. "And now that you have explained it, I confess that I am as amazed as before."

Because of the way the story was published in America, this scene is added to "The Resident Patient" in some editions.

Henry Ward Beecher

Henry Ward Beecher (1813-1887) was a celebrated and influential American Protestant clergyman. The charismatic minister averaged 2500 people to his Sunday sermons in his Brooklyn N.Y. church. Beecher was an outspoken abolitionist and expressed his views in the two national publications he edited. He also was an avid Northern supporter of the war, raising and arming a regiment.

Beecher visited Great Britain in 1863 and gave a successful series of lectures about the American Civil War across England and Scotland. These appearances help eroded British support for the South. When the war ended, Beecher was the main speaker when the American flag was re-hoisted above Fort Sumter.

Beecher's sister, Harriet Beecher Stowe, was the author of Uncle Tom's Cabin though some have speculated that her brother may have had a hand in the famous novel.

We are never told why Watson has an interest in Beecher, but it has led to speculation that Watson's father and/or an elder brother may have been an admirer of Beecher. However, some Sherlockians have theorized that Watson may have actually been born in the 1840s and fought in the American Civil War for the North, hence his chain of thoughts in the story.

In reality, the Beecher reference was an inside joke by Doyle. In 1874 Beecher was sued by a former employee, Theodore Tilton, who claimed that Beecher had an affair with Tilton's wife. (Mrs. Tilton claimed that Beecher believed in "free love.") The subsequent 1875 trial, while sensational, resulted in a hung jury.  All of which would have easily come to the mind of readers of The Cardboard Box at the time of publication.

While the references to the American Civil War in the Sherlock Holmes cannon are unique and interesting, they pale in comparison to a series of real-life coincidences that connect the character to the war.

Our American Cousin is an 1858 play in three acts by English playwright Tom Taylor. The comedy is about an awkward, boorish but honest American, Asa Trenchard, who meets his aristocratic British relatives when he goes to England to claim his family estate. It premiered in New York City on October 15, 1858 and was an immediate success. On April 14, 1865, Lincoln was assassinated while watching the play at Ford's Theatre in Washington, D.C.

Nine years later, 15-year-old Conan Doyle saw the play in London while on a three week Christmas holiday with an uncle.

Sixty-five years later, in 1939, Basil Rathbone portrayed Doyle's most famous creation for the first time. The 20th Century's-Fox's production of The Hound of the Baskervilles is still regarded by many as the finest film adaptation of any of Doyle's works. Rathbone's outstanding performance as Sherlock Holmes made him the living personification of the great detective for generations since.

Most of his fans would be surprised to known that according to Rathbone family lore the British actor was a distant cousin of Maj. Henry Rathbone, who with his fiancĂ©e Miss Clara Harris, accompanied the Lincolns to Ford's theatre that fatal night, proving once again that truth is stranger than fiction.

However, as Holmes said in "The Adventure of the Blanched Soldier," "But is it coincidence? Are there not subtle forces at work of which we know little?"