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.
Hon. William H. Seward, Secretary of State, &c.
Mr. Marsh to Mr. Venosta
Legation of the United
July 11, 1863.
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
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
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
His Excellency Chevalier Visconti
Venosta, Minister of Foreign Affairs,