Cardiff’s Lincoln letter

Historian Chris Evans explores consular condolences from the coal kings

In early 2015, the board of Cardiff Business Club were intrigued to receive a copy of a letter sent by their predecessors, 150 years ago, to the US Consul. Uncovered in the rich archives of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library, the elegantly worded dispatch expressed the sympathy of the merchants of Wales’s great coal port for the loss of a president.

The assassination of Abraham Lincoln on 14 April 1865 was a global event, eliciting astonishment and revulsion around the world. The US government received messages of condolence from Chile to Tunis, and from Liberia to Japan. Wales contributed its mite too. Members of the Cardiff business community addressed Charles Burch, the local US consul, to express their ‘sympathy, indignation, and horror’ at Lincoln’s death.

The shock and regret were no doubt sincere but Mr Burch must have had mixed feelings as he read the words of ‘the merchants, brokers, and others at this port’. He had spent the last four years monitoring commercial activity in Cardiff, which then ranked third as an outlet for British-American trade behind London and Liverpool. When he scanned the long list of signatories to the letter he saw the names of Cardiff’s leading coal exporters, and many of them, he would have reflected, had until recently been quietly thwarting the Lincoln administration in America’s bloody Civil War.

Messrs Nixon, Taylor & Cory, one of Cardiff’s leading coal exporters and subscribers to the letter of condolence, had taken an unexpected interest in the Bahamas during the war years. Another eminent commercial house, that of George Insole & Son, sent an abnormal number of collier ships to Havana. Burch knew the reason; they had been supplying Confederate blockade runners. 

The President’s demise was to be regretted but the war he had fought had yielded business opportunity that no commercial gentleman dealing in coal could ignore. The sentiment, however, was genuine: the warm relationship between Wales and the US has continued to grow long after Cardiff’s coal supremacy waned.

About the author: Professor Chris Evans is Professor of History at the University of South Wales and a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society, and author of books including Slave Wales: The Welsh and Atlantic Slavery 1660-1850. You can follow Chris on Twitter and find out more about studying History at University of South Wales.