Mr. Marsh to Mr. Seward

No. 75.]

Sir: I received last evening a note from Mr. Wheeler, consul at Genoa, informing me that Captain Page, late of the United States navy, and now in the confederate service, was at Florence, and reported, upon what seemed creditable evidence, to be waiting the arrival of the Southerner, a steamer lately built in England for the rebel government, of which he is to take the command.

I called this morning at the foreign office to draw the attention of this government to these facts; but as the minister of foreign affairs was engaged, I was unable to see him.

I have, however, had an interview with Mr. Cerruti, secretary general of that department, a gentleman of much ability and experience, and stated to him the facts of the case, as far as they were known to me, and the principles I thought applicable to it.

Mr. Cerruti, who is well disposed to our cause, requested me to reduce my observations to writing immediately, in order that he might bring the subject up for discussion before a meeting of the diplomatic commission about to assemble, and I accordingly drew up hastily a note, a copy of which is hereto annexed, and sent it to the foreign office.

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I have the honor to be, sir, very respectfully, yours,


Hon. William H. Seward, Secretary of State, &c.

Mr. Marsh to Mr. Venosta

Mr. Minister: It is doubtless known to the government of the kingdom of Italy that several vessels, built in England for the so-called Confederate States of America, or for private persons residing in those States, have sailed from British ports and committed extensive depredations on American commerce. These ships have cleared as merchant vessels, bound ostensibly upon lawful voyages, but have shipped armaments by other vessels to neutral ports, and there taken them on board. They have then, although never having visited a port claimed or occupied by the Confederate States, or entered any territory possessed by the forces of those States, hoisted the confederate flag, and plundered, destroyed by fire, or ransomed every American [Page 1161] ship they have been able to overtake, instead of sending them, according to the rules of civilized warfare, into ports, for condemnation by a court of admiralty, or otherwise establishing the validity of the capture, by legal adjudication.

These vessels, it is believed, are, in many instances, private property, belonging jointly to English and confederate subjects, and employed for the purpose of plunder for their benefit, and not for any object of civilized or lawful warfare.

This legation is informed that Captain Page, late of the navy of the United States, but at present in the service of the Confederate States, is now waiting at Florence to take command of a steamer, built in England or Scotland, for the purpose I have described, and expected soon to arrive in the Mediterranean. She has been called the Southerner, but will, perhaps, change her name, clear, it is supposed, as a merchant ship, for some neutral port, where she will take on board an armament, shipped by some other vessel, and then commence her piratical work upon the coasts of Italy, as her predecessors have already done in the Atlantic.

I protest, in the name of my government, against the admission of this vessel, or others of like character and objects, into Italian ports as lawful cruisers, and trust that they will not be treated by his Majesty’s government as ships-of-war, belonging to a power engaged in legitimate warfare.

The government of the United States does not admit that the rebellious States are entitled to the ordinary belligerent rights of independent nations; but waiving that question for the present, I contend that foreign-built vessels can be nationalized and vested with a military character only within the territorial jurisdiction of the state whose flag they bear. Vessels must retain their original nationality until it is changed by some act of the owners, or their lawful agents, and of the sovereign power to which they are transferred, performed at a point where that state has jurisdiction de jure, or, at least possession de facto; and they cannot acquire a new nationality without first entering territory owned or held by the government which purchased them.

The Italian government would certainly not admit that a vessel built in England for the late king of the Two Sicilies, or purchased by him, and sailing from that country as a merchant vessel, could, by hoisting the flag of that prince, and taking on an armament at a neutral port, without ever having been within territory actually possessed by him, become authorized to cruise against Italian commerce as a lawful vessel-of-war.

The case is, in many respects, analogous to that of the naturalization of persons in foreign states. An Italian subject cannot divest himself of his natural allegiance, and become a subject of another power, without submitting himself in person to the local jurisdiction of that power, nor can a foreigner acquire the rights of Italian nationality without setting his foot on Italian soil.

I forbear, Mr. Minister, to enlarge on the obvious danger of encouraging or permitting such proceedings as those of the Confederate States, and in an era when even regularly commissioned privateering is looked upon with disfavor. I believe that the enlightened government of Italy will afford no protection to a piracy which would have disgraced the most barbarous ages.

I beg you, Mr. Minister, to accept the renewed assurance of my high consideration.


His Excellency Chevalier Visconti Venosta, Minister of Foreign Affairs, &c.