January 16th, 1861
Smoke trailed lazily out from the opening of Henry Hamilton's rosewood pipe, with a hint of pepper that tinged the otherwise acrid smell of tobacco. He inhaled deeply as his eyes scanned the front page of the Maryland Recorder, a pro-abolitionist paper that was printed out of the heart of the industrial quarter in Baltimore, Maryland. The latest story told of a man by the name of Ulysses S. Grant, recently appointed Commander of the Northern Armies in the most likely event of war between the increasingly tense factions of the Abolitionist States and the Secessionists. The headline was emblazoned in deep, thick black lines, with print so large it took up half of the page:
Grant vows to "put paid to" the dream of Southern sedition!
In a fiery speech delivered upon his acceptance of the Command of the Northern Armies from President Abraham Lincoln, Ulysses S. Grant vowed to bury the ideal of sedition from the Union, and the abhorrent custom of slavery that is presently practiced by the "traitorous dogs of the Southern Dixie". In the closing of his statements, General Grant has urged every Good American man to search deep in his heart for the spark of loyalty, of patriotism, and to do their righteous duty against any and all aggressions of the immoral. With Grant at the helm, surely the South could not dare to hope for a triumph...
Henry smiled at the words, his heart lifted at the thought of a seasoned veteran such as Grant being given the appointment of the armies. He had only been a child during the General's campaigns against Mexico during the Mexican-American war, but even then had found himself poring over each report in newspaper, though knowing with some small degree of sharpness to his mind that they were weeks old at a time. Military conflicts had always fascinated him, a fact not easily escaped from his father's eye, and had been seen through the United States Military Academy of West Point before a steady transfer at eighteen to a Naval College situated closer to home, in Annapolis. A formal education, albeit without any real action yet seen afterwards, Henry had promptly returned home to help oversee his family's shipping company Hamilton And Sons.
"Little brother, you know how I feel of this propagandist drivel, written with the blackest regard for our families oldest of friends," a deep baritone voice called from the doorway that led into the drawing room. Henry glanced upwards for a few moments, startled momentarily from his thoughts by the abrupt entrance of his brother, George. He stood at the open door of the reading room, dressed as though he had just come in from riding in a double-breasted waistcoat, a long flowing jacket to protect him from the rains that had been flooding Maryland for the last two weeks, and woolen trousers belted high above his waist. Water and mud dripped from his tall Hessian boots - he hadn't even bothered to wipe them down upon his return.
Henry grimaced, his lip curling slightly at the suggestion given by his brother's words. "You speak as though the Union had already fallen to their knees, when instead they sit strong and proud not more than fifty miles from our Baltimore." The more practical of the two, Henry Hamilton held no false hopes that the Confederacy would emerge victorious over the Northern Union. "I imagine a great feat akin to the Labour's of Hercules would be required of the South to acquire a victory, and were something so unlikely to come to pass I would find myself thoroughly shocked, I assure you."
George showed his palms in a placating gesture to his brother and, shaking his head, exited back out through to the drawing room and on towards his changing rooms. Henry returned his attention instead to the Maryland Reporter (sic) and thought of the many victories he had heard of Grant achieving in the Mexican-American wars. Whatever his brother felt in his own heart, Henry couldn't think of there being any war of the South bringing to bear a general of the same calibre as Ulysses S. Grant, the hero of Resaca de la Palma.
The other articles were nothing very important to Henry, besides the nearly week old news of Florida's secession. A meagre Navy by any account, surely, but a Navy nonetheless, which in Henry's mind meant that the Union should be on their guard, especially so close to the border as they were in Maryland. It would be the pragmatic thing to fortify the harbour, but it was known that Lincoln would have to fight Congress for weeks for anything effectual to be brought about for their defenses. Unpreparedness left a bitter taste in his mouth, one that Henry hoped to wipe clean with all haste.
The elder Hamilton brother stomped into his chambers with a sigh, throwing his cloak to one of the many ever constant slaves that tended his needs and wondered where he had gone wrong in his task of being a role model to Henry. Even with an addled brain a man should possess the clear and good sense to read the writing that had been lain before him. With more and more States seceding to Southern ambitions every week, it was only a matter of time before the Confederates - as they favoured calling themselves now - closed their grip in a stranglehold over the valuable cotton exports back to Europe, and George meant to keep himself aligned to the masters of trade no matter the cost to himself.
He shed more rain drenched clothes to the oaken hardwood floor as he paced back and forth, mind racing while he attempted to come up with a solution for his brother's newfound patriotism for the Union. Slaves busied themselves taking away first his bowler top hat, then his long trimmed jacket, a favourite among his wardrobe for the elegant but subtle red hue that been dyed into the dark grey material. Next came his tall black Hessian boots, cut just below the knee to allow for easily bending of his joints - in combat or otherwise - and sent them away with his personal attendant Jediah, to be cleaned and scraped of the muck that had accumulated like thick molasses along the edges of the sole.
"See to it they come back shining, Jediah, or it will be half meals for a week," his words were received by Jediah with a smile, because George was not known for exceptional cruelty to his slaves, even if there was a small bite of truth attached to them. He had a particular love for cleanliness, despite his currently disheveled appearance, hair still tossed about from the wind and the rain.
George was known for taking many evening rides with his horses, but though this trip was like any other, it had been for a wholly new purpose - the meeting of Southern sympathizers here in the heart of Baltimore. There were many who felt as he did here in the capital, that the South were bound to end up on top for no other reason than the sheer trading power of cotton that they possessed. And this most recent meeting only further reinforced in George's mind that the South was far more prepared than anyone in the Union thought they were, not least of whom concerned was his brother.
The Confederate States, though seceding in slow succession, had amassed in Florida alone twenty-five frigates for raiding, a staggering number when coupled with previous scouting estimates, which had placed not more than fifteen frigates ready for sail in the entirety of the Southern States. The leader of the Confederate Freeman Militia here in Baltimore, Winston Davies, had received intelligence by courier pigeon that these frigates had been sailing since the celebration of the New Year at a hard pace for Maryland, and were set to arrive in the capital by the end of the week with an ultimatum to be delivered.
If Maryland refused to secede - a ludicrous improbability in George's mind, when one considered that the twenty-two men that had attended this meeting represented not just hundreds of supporters, but thousands across the entire state - then these frigates were under direct orders from the Provisional Confederate Command to shell the city of Baltimore into submission. A grim prospect, one which George hoped to avoid at all costs, but he signed a gentleman's agreement to commit himself to this operation, and in turn commit himself to the inevitable war itself.
George only prayed now for God's Grace to be given unto him, and that it may not be too late to convince his brother Henry of the folly of supporting the Union.
The evening sun dipped low in the sky over Baltimore, reflecting off the surface of mirrors left to lean against a few market stalls that had yet to pack up from the day's sales. Men and women called out to potential customers the prices of their wares, trying desperately to squeeze as much coin out of the people in the Lombard Street Square.
Henry Hamilton pushed his way through the remaining throng of people whilst being shadowed by his servant Willis, who carried with him a stack of papers and shipping receipts for Hamilton and Sons. He had nearly forgotten to deliver them to his warehouse foreman Bill Wright, as it was a task that had normally been assigned to his elder brother George, who generally oversaw the shipping company in its day to day business dealings.
"Come Willis, we mustn't tarry a moment longer. I have fears I am already too long overdue with these documents, and there is no more reason to keep Mr. Wright waiting than he has to." Henry huffed out, anxious to get the day over with. He wasn't especially worried that Bill would have anything to say about the matter, but there was no reason Henry should force him to miss a decent man's supper.
"Yes, master," was his servant's only reply.
They passed a shop with open windows, the owner's voice carrying into the street as he called out the price of rifles, pistols, and all manner of bullet cartridges. A sign above the door read "Matthew's Long Barrels". Henry knew the man who owned the storefront, and felt the weaponry sold there was overpriced for the lesser quality he knew them to be.
Everyone knows that war is reaching us soon, Henry thought to himself absentmindedly. Nothing would drive the price of goods up to the ceiling like a long and drawn out war, and though the Hamilton Brothers allegiances and ideals were often at odds with each other, they meant to capitalize on the changing times as good as any other. Even more-so if their shipments ran on time.
Henry and Willis rounded the corner as Lombard Street came to an abrupt end, and from there it was a mere minute's walk down to the dockyards, where the Hamilton warehouse stood proud at the forefront of a dozen ships. His family had been trading with Europe since the days of the colonies, and the wealth they had acquired over the years had paid for massive cotton plantations in the South, a trade good that had proven time and again as lucrative for America.
"Mr. Hamilton, Mr. Hamilton!" A shrill voice called out from the warehouse's front window. The door swung open wide as the two men approached, with a short and portly man presenting himself before them.
"Ah, Mr. Wright, it is always a pleasure to see you. How fares our routes today?" Henry greeted Bill Wright warmly.
"We've received word from the captains of High Tide and The Neptune, with reports of smooth sailings over the Atlantic. They've made their berths in Portsmouth and Liverpool this last week respectively, as is to be expected. Barring any storms, they expect to make the journey back to us here in Baltimore by the end of the month, with fresh velvet and spirits weighing them down," Bill smiled at Henry, no doubt pleased that he was soon to be relieved of his duties for the day.
"The telegraph lines have been set up already? I thought I'd heard from John not two nights past that they wouldn't be installed until the end of the week," Hamilton and Sons was one of the few companies able to boast the service of a telegraph machine, capable of receiving news via the Trans-Atlantic Telegraph Cable from Europe within minutes, when before news could be left for weeks, if not months by ship. Though an expensive service, it was well worth it in Henry's opinion to keep ahead of his competition in the shipping routes.
"Of course sir, the engineers left not an hour ago, and us receiving the word shortly after. Remarkable machine, truly remarkable," by his tone, Bill was clearly impressed by the technology.
Henry was inclined to be just as impressed, both with the speed of installation and the sheer trade power he would possess now that his fleets would not be waiting months to hear back from their head office. "Mr Wright, if you have no further cause to be kept here, nor any further news for me, I will require your signatures on these receipts, and for them to be filed away proper, if you please."
"Ah, yes, right, of course," Bill stammered on, ushering the men inside with a wave of his hand. He strode to his desk, opening a drawer to his left swiftly and produced a pen. He was handed the documents in question and with a few flourishes of his wrist the signatures were completed.
"Thank you very much, Mr. Wright. You go on home to your family now, I've decided I wish to remain at the docks a moment longer. I do so enjoy the sight of our fleet's masts over the backdrop of the open ocean." Henry sighed, gazing out the back window of Bill's office with satisfaction. Bill mumbled his thanks, shook Henry's hand and was on his way to his house within a few practiced seconds of pleasantries.
Lantern light provided from a few street lamps around the docks illuminated most of the ships for Henry, a most impressive view of his stock. 4 frigate-classed ships, 18 transport-classed and a re-purposed battleship that was now used as a barge for his largest acquisitions and trades of heavy machinery for the Americas. Gold and silver gilding was stamped into the sides of Mercy, the Hamilton brothers' largest trading ship. A mermaid had been carved into the bow of the boat, expertly shaped from the trunk of a cedar tree.
"A beautiful sight, wouldn't you say Willis?" Henry beamed at the slave, proud of his families wealth and power. Willis smiled slightly with an upturn of his lips, a toothless grin that didn't reach his eyes. Henry continued his smiles unperturbed, a confusing happiness he hadn't felt since he heard first the whispers of war.
"FIRE! FIRE ON THE DOCKS!" Bellowed somebody from below, amplified through a horn to reach everyone's ear. "CLEAR AWAY FOR THE BRIGADE!" Henry searched for the fire, attempting to make something out in the darkness. It didn't take long. A dull orange glow, growing misshapen from wind and the dark figures he could see fanning it, sparked and crackled off in the military district of the docks.
"My god, the-there's a fire in the military ward. They've set fire to the frigates, Willis..." Henry stared, dumbfounded by the events unfolding before him. Boots stomped on the hard wooden planks of the dockyard as men scrambled towards the blazing ships. The ocher conflagration roared into life as four more fires were started in quick succession all along the dockyards. Of the nine military frigates docked in the Baltimore harbour, Henry could see that at least five of them were in various stages of being devoured by the blaze.
"T-treason, here in Maryland..." Horror threatened to engulf Henry, his mind spinning as he contemplated the ramifications of the actions here. An inferno fully engulfed the first ship to have gone ablaze, its powder stores exploding and ricocheting charred bullets of wood and steel in every direction. He could hear the screams of the brave men of the Baltimore Fire Brigade, but he knew it was far too late. Once powder caught a flame, there was nothing to extinguish it but time.
Though he did not want to believe it, Henry suspected the South had finally struck their long-awaited first blow against the Union. "A cowardly move if ever there was one, Willis." His face was set in grim lines, the initial horror he felt steeling into a burning anger. "One that they will most assuredly regret." The words were biting, but sounded hollow even to himself. What could Henry do against the South if not even his fleets in Baltimore were safe from the instability and tribulations of war.
As Henry looked out over the water and the ebony night sky, backlit by the orange and yellow sparks and flames below, he could make out a flag flying from an unknown ship in the distance. His mouth was agape with shock as the flags design came fully into view: A navy blue cross on a red field that was dimpled and stiched with star after star. There were seven of them in total, and it was all the proof he needed to know it was the burden of the South that bore down on them tonight.
His true shock had come from what he saw on either side and even behind the flagship. Over a dozen similar ships sailed into view through the smoke, and nearly as one began their slow and deliberate turn to face their guns toward the port.
Doom had come for them. And with it, a blockade had been arranged for Baltimore.