States of Confusion
In this episode of Consolation Prize we explore the long and complicated relationship between the United States and the Papal States, the political-religious home of the Roman Catholic Church. The Papal States were ruled by the Pope from his seat in the Vatican until the city fell in 1870 and became the capital of a new nation called “Italy.” In this episode, we follow the careers of consuls William Stillman and Edwin Cushman, who served in the 1860s. Stillman and Cushman had the hard task of representing the United States during an era of intense conflict for both their home nation and the location of their consulate. For as the war in Italy between the Pope and the Italians escalated, so did the fight across the Atlantic ocean that became the American Civil War. As we focus in on Stillman and Cushman’s experiences, we see how supposedly internal conflicts involve people and governments around the world.
Nichols Sawicki, a native of Lackawanna, N.Y., is Associate Director of Development for the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston. Most recently, Nick spent the last five years as Special Assistant to the President & Editor in Chief of America Media. Nick is a graduate of Fordham University (2016) and Fordham Law School (2021). Nick has served as a Summer Fellow with District Attorney of New York, was the recipient of a U.S. State Department Internship with the U.S. Embassy to the Holy See, and is currently an inaugural James Duffy Fellow in Religion & Culture at Fordham University. His writing has appeared in America magazine. In addition to his work and academic pursuits, Nick served on the City Bar Association of New York’s Committee on European Affairs, and currently serves as the Vice Chair of the advisory board of the Francis and Ann Curran Center for American Catholic Studies at Fordham University, the Board of Advisors of the Fordham University Alumni Association, and is chair of the programs committee for the Centennial Celebration of Our Lady of Victory Basilica National Shrine and Our Lady of Victory Charities. In 2020, Nick was awarded by Pope Francis the title of Knight of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem, and in 2021 was appointed as a member to the pontifical foundation Centesimus Annus Pro Pontifice.
Don Doyle is Professor Emeritus from the University of South Carolina and has taught at various universities in Europe and Brazil. He is the author of The Cause of All Nations: An International History of the American Civil War and is currently finishing a book tentatively titled Viva Lincoln on the international history of the Reconstruction Era.
ABBY MULLEN: On September 20, 1870, Rome fell.
[low, intense music]
MULLEN: There were no barbarians or caesars–we’re not talking about ancient Rome or the Roman empire. We’re talking about Catholic Rome: the kingdom of the Popes who had reigned there for over a thousand years.
MULLEN: In 1870, that Rome was besieged by Italian troops pushing for the unification of what would become ‘Italy.’ The U.S. consul in Rome, David Armstrong, witnessed the growing warfare between the Pope and the Italians. He was there when the Italian forces took the city. This is how he described the scene in a dispatch to the secretary of State, Hamilton Fish:
David Armstrong (read by Jim Ambuske): [W]e met no travelers, no one was at work in the fields and we saw nothing of the Italian troops, until within about five miles from Rome, a small encampment was seen on a distant hill. A little further on the railway bridge had been destroyed by the Romans, near this we crossed the River Annio…which was guarded by the first papal troops we had met, and in a little while we entered Rome by the Porta Pia, where earth barricades had been erected and a deep trench dug outside of the gate, the gate itself was being padded with sand bags and other preparations made to receive the enemy…From this time until the attack began on the 20th, Rome was in a state of quiet expectancy, almost, it seemed of apathy, the streets were comparatively deserted, most of the shops closed, all telegraphic and postal communication cut off, from the 12th until the 23d of September the mails were not received. On the walls were posted proclamations declaring the city in a state of siege…on the 16th the Italian troops began leisurely to assemble and by the 18th they completely surrounded Rome. In the mean time such preparations as the papal troops wished to make, had been made, and they anxiously looked forward to an attack…The enemy were 60,000 strong, the Romans 13,000 with an immense extent of wall to defend…On the 20th Sept., at 5 A.M the attack began, by a sharp fire of musketing and a heavy cannonading of about 40 shots to the minute along about one third of the whole city wall.Leo Francis Stock, Consular relations between the United States and the Papal States : instructions and despatches (American Catholic Historical Association, 1945), 353-354.
[SFX: cannons begin to fire as concrete and brick walls crumble]
David Armstrong (read by Ambuske): The most severe cannonading was at, and near, the Porta Pia, and the Porta San Giovanni, at eight o’clock the firing was about twenty five to the minute, it then slackened materially, the guns at Porta Pia were soon after dismounted, and a little later the gate at San Giovanni was entirely gone, but the guns were manned and discharged until the enemy were within a few feet of them. The old walls generally proved utterly useless against heavy artillery, in four or five hours they were in some places completely swept away, a clear breach was made near the Porta Pia fifty feet wide, and the Italian soldiers in overwhelming force flowed through it and literally filled the city, simultaneously the Porta San Giovanni was carried by assault. A white flag was then seen flying from the dome of St. Peter’s, and the city was known to have surrendered.Stock, Consular Relations, 354.
[war sounds fade]
MULLEN: Our story today is about how Rome, the United States, and the strange resonances between them during this era of war.
[theme music begins]
MULLEN: I’m Abby Mullen, and this is Consolation Prize, a podcast about the United States in the world through the eyes of its consuls. Before we get to the very complicated relationship between the United States and Rome, I want to ask you to become a member of R2 Studios. For a donation of just a few dollars a month, you can help us create great historical audio stories–not just here at Consolation Prize, but also as we develop new shows. So if you like our show, and you want to hear other great history, please consider becoming a member of R2 Studios and helping us out. You can find out more about membership at R2Studios.org. OK, let’s get back to Rome.
MULLEN: Actually, one more thing: there’s some confusing terminology in this episode–the area that we’re talking about gets called a lot of different things by a lot of different people. So let me see if I can sketch out those differences for you. Let’s start with the smallest area: The Vatican. The Vatican is where the pope lives. It’s the geographical center of the Roman Catholic Church. The Vatican is still a city today–and it’s still where the pope lives. Now, you’re also gonna hear the term “the Holy See.” The Holy See is the sovereign state that the Vatican is the capital of. So even though the term is often used interchangeably with “the Vatican,” the Holy See is broader–it’s the temporal home of the entire global Catholic church.
MULLEN: And lastly but not leastly, “Rome” is often used as a term to mean “where the Roman Catholic Church emanates from.” The Vatican is a city within the city of Rome. Because of the confusion that could arise from using Rome as a metonymy for “the Catholic Church,” we’ll try to be really clear when we mean “the Catholic church” and when we mean the actual city of Rome.
MULLEN: One thing you may have noticed when I was just explaining all that terminology: the Holy See is kind of a weird thing. The State Department now defines it as “the universal government of the Catholic Church and [it] operates from Vatican City State, a sovereign, independent territory.” So it’s a religious entity–but it’s also a political one. A political one that has had diplomatic and consular relations with the United States–in fits and starts–for a long time. The United States’ relationship with the Holy See…
NICK SAWICKI: As with, as with all good things, it begins with Ben Franklin and a myth.
MULLEN: That’s Nick Sawicki, who works for Archdiocese of Galveston, Houston and has worked with the United States Embassy to the Holy See.
SAWICKI: So there’s there’s a lot of there’s a lot of uncertainty about how this relationship begins. I people assert that Ben Franklin was approached by a papal emissary in Paris. However, that couldn’t have happened, the timeframe is wrong. They usually say it’s around 1788, just as the Washington administration begins will Franklin hadn’t been in Paris for three years and would die the next year.
MULLEN: Some people claim Franklin’s interest in the Church grew out of a personal relationship between Benjamin Franklin and John Carroll, the man who became the first Catholic bishop in America in 1790. We can’t confirm a lot of that story, but what we can confirm is that an official consular relationship began in 1797 under the Adams administration when a consul was appointed to the Vatican.
MULLEN: 1797 is really early in terms of the United States’ diplomatic efforts around the world. So the question is, why? What did the US get out of this relationship?
MULLEN: For the United States, a relationship with the Vatican meant information and moral authority. Or, as Nick put it:
SAWICKI: This is a listening post. This is a place where you can hear everything. It’s the buzz of the world. And Henry Cabot Lodge, Jr. When he was President Nixon’s representative in the 1970s. Famously, would tell a story of representatives from the Middle East, from predominantly Muslim countries. And they said, Why are you here? Your governments clearly have very little interest in the church. There’s no theological, compelling reason, there’s no economic reason, why are you hearing so well, we don’t want to miss anything. In essence, the there’s a great moral authority there as a public force that the United States can rely on in the public in the international arena. There is the practical components of partnering with the Holy See on these pressing issues even though there are great divergences in policy and a number of areas, there are a similar number of overlapping areas where we can produce a lot of good. And third, its information. The Holy See probably has one of if not the most extensive diplomatic corps behind the United States. And they are where we’re not. If you want to know what’s going on in Syria, you go to the papal ambassador, because we don’t have one. If you want to know what’s happening on the ground, in certain parts of Africa, there are bishops there, there are– women religious are the most tuned in and capable group of people in any situation. And you can find out what’s going on through them. So the church has people everywhere, and it knows it knows how to marshal that information to be of use.
MULLEN: On the other side of this relationship was the Vatican, who gained a kind of spiritual, and possibly political, oversight in the United States.
SAWICKI: In the 19th century, the goal is to have a formal relationship with the government of the United States to help protect church interest in North America.Which for them is is obviously salvation of souls is the utmost goal of the church. But in more practical terms, more earthy terms. That means protecting property protecting juridical rights, management in style, religious freedom. And so to nurture and continue, this relationship of protecting the church’s legitimate interests, was probably a principal key. They also realized that there was a huge amount of territory in the United States and a vast number of people who would occupy it at some point. So if they could maintain that presence from their own missionary standpoint, to be able to enter into these territories with the protections of the American state would be vital.
[begin transition music]
MULLEN: From the Adams administration to 1848, the link between the Vatican and the United States continued to grow. More and more Americans visited Rome and the Italian peninsula. You might think that only Catholics would go to the Vatican, but in fact Americans of all kinds went. They wanted to see the art, explore the history. They stopped in at Rome on their grand tours of Europe. So as European travel became more common for upper class people, more people came to Rome and to the Vatican.
MULLEN: In 1848, President Polk decided to make the link even stronger by sending a resident minister to the Holy See.
SAWICKI: Mind you, the timing is kind of strange, because 1848 is the is the year of the great revolutions throughout Europe. The old world order is kind of falling apart, although not really, because none of those revolutions really worked out for the revolutionaries. And it was not uneffective on the Papal States as well. Pope Pius IX, who was actually seen as this great liberal reformer when he took over the papal throne, was radicalized by the assassination of his Minister of the Interior. So he’s kind of radicalized from there. And then he’s actually forced out of Rome, by Mazzini. And so he’s fleeing and he’s out in the in the Neapolitan states, he’s with King Ferdinand of the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies. They’re kind of hanging out in Naples, and they go to Gaeta one day, and it just so happened that the US consul to the Kingdom the Two Sicilies was visiting the court there, and at the same time, the USS Constitution had pulled up to port. And so the consul invited the king because he expressed interest in visiting the ship, invited him to come out and of course, felt duty bound to invite Pius IX. So they get in a boat, they row out there. What they don’t know is that Captain John Gwyn, the commander of the ship, was explicitly ordered not to let them on. And because the US wanted to keep strict neutrality in all situations involving these revolutions, even though it was already 1849, but Pius was still in flight. And so but he kind of said, you know, whatever, who’s going to really find out and Pius IX came aboard and spent three hours on there and they got seasick. So they refreshed him in the cabin, which– in the captain’s cabin, which I can only imagine involved a lot of Madeira, and then put them on a boat back to to Naples, or Gaeta rather, with a 21 gun salute. So it’s actually the first time a Pope steps on US territory. So we have the development of the legation in 1848, 1849. The Papal States are restored, although they weren’t really dissolved at this point. Pius IX returns to Rome, and relations, kind of, you know, continue to bop along until the American Civil War.
SAWICKI: OK, we’ve got another term here that we need to define: what are the Papal States?
SAWICKI: So the Papal States were a geographical entity under the jurisdiction of the Pope, directly owned by the Catholic church since the Donation of Pepin the short in the sixth century. So, the Papal States themselves were created by Pepin the Short’s donation to give the pope political insularity, the very existence of them were meant to protect the church from outside political forces, so it can maintain and develop its theological doctrine on its own, then it wouldn’t just go about making these proclamations due to outside political forces. Now, whether that did anything to stall the interior political forces, I couldn’t say. But the Papal States themselves existed essentially up until 1870. So that’s almost 1200 years, 1300 years or so. Where they were existed rule directly by the pope as a monarch as an absolute monarch, which the pope remains to this day.
MULLEN: In the middle of the nineteenth century, both the papal states and the United States were in a lot of turmoil. On the Italian peninsula, many states were starting to band together–they were trying to break free from the control of the pope and become a sovereign nation of Italy. This effort was called the “resorgimento.” In the United States, the opposite was happening–states who had been officially unified were heading for fracture.
MULLEN: Some people in Italy who were part of the resurgence against the papal states were pro-American. So much so that it actually looked like some of them might come and join in on the American war when it broke out in 1861. The hero of the resorgimento, Guiseppe Garibaldi, talked about coming to fight in the Civil War, according to Don Doyle, who has written about this era of American and Italian history.
DON DOYLE: He has just completed the successful reunification of Southern Italy with this resurgent Italian state, and everyone knows who he is, very popular. And there’s great enthusiasm. In New York, they organize the Garibaldi guards, a regiment of people who are dressed, the soldiers are dressed like Italian soldiers, the bersaglieri, with, you know, those balloon pantalones and the big red shirt and black hat with a wonderful plume out the back. And Garibaldi, he says, I will come and and fight for your, for the Union on two conditions. One is I want the power to declare the war against slavery. If it’s not to enfranchise, it’s just another civil war. It’s just about territory and sovereignty, it’s not, it has no moral purpose, is what he meant. And the other condition was, he said, I want full command of the entire union army. He said, I’m no good as a lieutenant, I must be the captain to steer the ship through the storm.
MULLEN: Needless to say, the US couldn’t meet either of those conditions in 1861. Besides, Garibaldi was sick and infirm; he wasn’t really in any physical condition to come and lead a battalion of troops. The United States was really going for a positive PR angle. They thought that if they could get Garibaldi on their team, no other European nation would ally with the Confederacy against Garibaldi.
[genteel sounding music starts in the background]
MULLEN: At the same time as the United States was trying to recruit Garibaldi, Southern Americans were becoming an increasingly common sight in Rome.
DOYLE: There’s a whole colony of Rome in the 1860s. Of course, it was real popular with artists and writers and, and just expatriates who wanted to go and visit the the antiquities of Rome and study ancient Roman history. And during the Civil War, there was a predominance of Southerners there that had gathered in different European capitals, some of them just to wait out the war, and some of them to enjoy one another’s society. And this was something that wealthy people did, you know, they, they had their grand tour, and then many of them became at least temporarily expatriates in Paris or Rome or London. And so Rome was one of the favorites of American expatriates.
MULLEN: Because there were so many Americans in Rome, Rome was going to be roped into the conflict in the United States. When the American Civil War did break out, it put the Vatican and the Papal States in an awkward spot between the United States and the new Confederate States of America.
SAWICKI: So then comes Abraham Lincoln in 1860. And he actually maintained very friendly relations with Pope Pius the ninth and the Holy See, there are these really fawning letters over each other in their, in their respective state entities. But there’s this flashpoint also for the church, because as the United States is divided between North and South, Union and Confederacy, so was the church, then from a ministerial component because there are chaplains in both armies, right, many of them from the same religious orders. But there are also a bishops and archbishops on opposite sides. So the Archbishop of New Orleans, for example, was a was a heavy proponent of the Confederacy, and of what he saw is the states’ rights to maintain their institutions of slavery. Archbishop John Hughes of New York is sent as an emissary on behalf of President Lincoln to the courts of Europe, trying to shore up support there. So you have this really interesting dynamic, and then you have the Holy See doing what it does, which is inserting a ridiculous amount of puffery into letters that almost caused diplomatic crises. So they actually sent a letter to Jefferson Davis, calling him the illustrious president of the Confederacy. Well, there was a bit of a tiff about this, although it ended up really the Confederacy didn’t consider it formal recognition. The Union ended up didn’t considering it formal recognition. The holy See was like “our bad.” So although I’m sure they said it in Latin and much more eloquently with a little bit of puffery.
MULLEN: This quickly became a problem for William Stillman, who became consul in 1861. Almost as soon as the war started, the state department voided all passports that were issued before 1861. They required an oath of allegiance in order to get a new one. It fell to Stillman to administer these oaths. We found a lot of other consuls who had to renew their own oaths of allegiance–some didn’t and got booted from the State Department–but this was the only instance we’ve found where a consul had to readminister the oath to other citizens.
MULLEN: Stillman thought of his time as consul in Rome during the Civil War as “social warfare.” Apparently, there were some Confederates in Rome. They hated the fact that their passports were now frozen and that they had to take an oath of allegiance to the United States. Stillman describes one particular woman who took every opportunity to insult him and the consulate. In hopes of avoiding the oath, she went to the police in Rome several times. They all turned her back to Stillman in order to receive her passport. Finally she was forced to take the oath in order to leave Rome.
MULLEN: The battle over the passports wasn’t Stillman’s last Civil War skirmish as consul. Next, there was the battle over ships. In 1861 a U.S. ship had boarded the English ship Trent and had taken Confederate ambassadors as prisoners. The Vatican pushed Stillman and the United States to release the prisoners. Then, in 1862, a Confederate commerce raider, the CSS Sumter, attempted to dock at the nearby port of Civita Vecchia. Stillman went to the Pope and his Cardinal Secretary, and asked them to deny the Sumter entrance to the port and not give them any supplies. However, the Cardinal Secretary informed Stillman that the Sumter was going to be treated like any other ship and so it would be allowed to dock. Stillman decided to take matters into his own hands. He sent agents to the port to try to “thwart their purposes,” as he explained it to William Seward. In this case, it meant that Stillman’s agent tried to entice the Sumter’s crew to desert.
MULLEN: Stillman’s battle against Confederates got increasingly difficult because of the deteriorating political situation in Rome. There were riots in the streets both for and against the Pope; many of these turned violent. In one instance several local priests were killed, and in another several American citizens were “beaten” by local police when they supposedly disrespected the passing “Host,” or the sacramental elements of the eucharist, as they were proceeding through the city.
[intense music begins]
MULLEN: By 1865, Rome was heating up, but the American conflict was drawing to a close. But the assassination of Abraham Lincoln had ripple effects all the way to the Vatican. One of the conspirators in Lincoln’s assassination, John Surratt, found his way to Rome in 1866. He even joined the papal army, called the Zouaves. But Surratt was not very good at fading into the woodwork–he talked about his role in the assassination to a lot of people. One of those people was an American, who reported his presence to Rufus King, the minister in the Vatican.
DOYLE: Before he knows it, Rufus King is told that they went out and captured Surratt, they put him in prison. And, um, that they were concerned about sending him back because the Catholic Church did not believe in capital punishment. And they knew that Mary Surratt had been hanged. And they did not want to do that without some kind of some kind of promise that he would not be pained, he would not be put to death.
MULLEN: Surratt soon escaped Rome, possibly with the help of other Zouaves. He was finally captured in Egypt–at least in part due to the help of an American consul–and sent back to the United States for trial. He was eventually acquitted.
SAWICKI: This becomes a fracture point. And especially after the 1840s and 1850s, with mass immigration from Eastern Europe, and Ireland, in particular, and the Mediterranean, there’s a strong anti-Catholic sentiment on the rise. It had existed before the war, there had always been issues between Catholics and Protestants in the United States. But in 1867, Congress takes the opportunity to deliver a harsh blow to President Andrew Johnson, who they hated for a variety of reasons. But they want to strike a blow to him. And so one of the ways to do it, while also feeding the anti-Catholic sentiment popular amongst their constituents is to pass a bill that essentially says we will not permit funding of any sort of diplomatic relations with the Papal States and the Holy See. So that begins, really kind of this long drought. Now, so that’s the beginning of the fracture.
MULLEN: The fracture only widened over the next few years. Once Surratt left, there was yet another American conspirator in Rome. But this one was there to overthrow the Pope.
MULLEN: By 1867, the American consul to the Papal States was Edwin Cushman. The United States did not have any official diplomacy toward the Papal States after 1867. They recalled their ambassador, but Cushman was instructed to stay put. And Cushman had to deal with a new conspiracy in Rome’s own civil conflict.
MULLEN: Giulio Posi was an American citizen who had papers issued from South Carolina. He was arrested in Rome “on a charge of conspiring against the pontifical govt,” according to Cushman’s report. Posi was found guilty of conspiracy and of being an active member of “the revolutionary party.” Now, Cushman didn’t particularly care for Posi. He didn’t understand his “displeasure” with the Pope, but he successfully intervened to secure his freedom and send him back to the United States.
MULLEN: This brings us back to the second civil war that was going on in the 1860s. The Posi conspiracy was a part of the larger battle between the Italian ‘Risorgimento,’ those who wanted to unify Italy apart from the Pope, and the Papal States, who wanted to remain loyal to the current Pope, Pius IX.
MULLEN: Don told us that this political battle began to escalate quickly until it finally became a military conflict.
DOYLE: Pope Pius IX was the King, the monarch, the pontiff of the Papal States, and in 1862, he announced plans for a Vatican conclave. In 1864, he issued the Syllabus of Errors, and it lists some 80 some different heresies. Among them was the outrageous idea of religious toleration and the idea that people should govern themselves, and should follow their own beliefs on matters of, of civil society as well as the religious beliefs. Then he held the first Vatican and unblock the word, the the first Vatican Council, and it brought in the bishops from all over Europe and the United States and Latin America. centrally to validate the the syllabus of errors and to agree to a fundamental principle that that Pope Pius wanted and that was the infallibility of the Pope. And so they all gathered there and he’s brought in to St. Peter’s Basilica on a sedan chair and gets off. And they’re you know, they’re all groveling all the bishops are coming up and kissing his ring and kissing his robes and so on. It’s his kind of medieval world in which he is the, the, the, the, the temporal representative of God. And he says at one point when one of the, I think it was an impertinent Italian bishop who had the nerve to question whether it was wise for him to claim infallibility. You know, what, what would the church think or what was it? He said, I am the church, kind of like, who is the French Kenya said I am the state. But Pope Pius was just he was not giving an inch. And of course, his main enemy in the Syllabus of Errors was the Risorgimento, was Italy that challenged his temporal power.
MULLEN: You remember that Rome got roped into the American Civil War–now the tables were turned. Americans were about to get roped into the civil war going on in Rome and the surrounding regions.
MULLEN: There were plenty of Americans in Rome. You can still see evidence of them in the landscape of the city.
SAWICKI: There’s the Protestant cemetery, which is really, really, it’s Protestants. It’s Jews in Rome. It’s Orthodox Christians. Basically, anyone who isn’t Catholic, they kind of throw into this really fantastic Victorian cemetery. Keats is buried there. And I think Percy Shelley’s also buried there. But if you would, if you wander through, you will actually find Americans in there who were members of the Confederate Army. And it’s very clear that they moved here in 1864 or 1865. And, gee, I wonder what causes that. And then they died. Many of them died defending Rome, against Garibaldi and his forces. And prior to that in the papal armies, and then many of them also just live out their lives in Rome throughout those days.
MULLEN: After the American Civil War consul Cushman began to receive inquiries from American back in the United States asking if they could raise a regiment and bring it to Rome to fight for the Pope.
[quite, martial music begins]
Edwin Cushman (read by Kris Stinson): I am in receipt of several communications from citizens of the US requesting information with regard to the possibility of forming companies in the US for the purpose of entering the papal army…I have not replied to any of them as the laws of the US I believe forbid the enlistment of our citizens for service in foreign countries.Stock, Consular relation, 331.
MULLEN: As an example, Cushman included a letter sent to him from Charles B. Gillespie, a former Civil War officer from Pennsylvania.
Charles B. Gillespie (read by Jason Heppler): Dear Sir, I write to you for information. Is there any possibility of a company or two of men fully officered being accepted by the government of his Holiness and incorporated into the army? I would like to serve in the Roman army being a Catholic and having commanded as an officer during three years of our own Civil War. I can easily raise a company of men all old and seasoned soldiers and whose religious feelings would be in harmony with their service…Please communicate with the authorities and see if a company of American soldiers would be accepted – if so let me know all that is required.Stock, Consular relations, 331.
MULLEN: As you might imagine, the state department was less than thrilled to hear about these letters. The secretary of state reminded Cushman that it was actually against the law for American citizens to enlist in foreign conflicts.
MULLEN: But Cushman wasn’t just advocating for others. Consul Cushman himself was getting a little too involved in the conflict at Rome for America’s comfort.
MULLEN: In the winter of 1867, the state department received a letter from Mr. Richard Rothwell. He lived in Rome and had connections in America. Basically, Rothwell accused consul Cushman of actively engaging in the fight against the Italians. He went so far as to say Cushman was running around the streets of Rome with his rifle doing battle for the pope. The assistant Secretary of State, Frederick Seward, sent Cushman a copy of this letter and asked him to respond.
MULLEN: Cushman was not exactly happy about this. In his response, he vented for a long time about this Mr. Rothwell’s character…but then he basically admitted that it was all true.
Cushman (read by Stinson): I have before furnished you with an account of my endeavors to obtain information, with regard to events going on in Rome, and I would here add, that I did not ‘go out to join the Papal troops armed with my rifle.’ I received permission from the commanding general, to join, and accompany, the moving column of the pontifical troops, simply as a spectator…During the fight at Nerola I suddenly and unexpectedly, found myself under fire, and not being able to perceive the propriety of retreating, I remained where I was, until seeing an officer fall, as I supposed, mortally wounded, I endeavored to render a wounded man some assistance, in doing which, I was slightly wounded, and found myself the target, for a Garibaldian rifle. Twice I was fired at by the same person, and feeling that unpleasant results might ensue, I picked up a gun, for my own protection. Seeing which, my assailant retreated, and ceased to annoy me. Thus I became mixed up in this affair.Stock, Consular relations, 326.
MULLEN: Cushman’s account did not make the State Department feel better. Secretary of State Seward took it upon himself to reply.
William Seward (read by Scott Moore): I regret to find that your explanation, while it modifies the exaggerations which attend the complaint against you, nevertheless substantially justifies the complaint itself. No instructions from the Government required or authorized you to attend the pontifical army in the field…either as a belligerent or as a spectator, no interest of the United States could be served by such a proceeding. No motive could be reasonably assigned for it, except an interest in the cause in which the army was engaged, or mere curiosity. Either of those motives would be inconsistent with the consular character and relation. Had you been prudent you would have forecast and avoided the condition of finding yourself suddenly and unexpectedly under fire, and would have saved yourself from the necessity of considering the question of retreat. By appearing in the field, by remaining while under fire and by assisting a wounded combatant, by getting slighting wounded yourself in that proceeding, and by taking up a musket in self defense and thus driving away an assailant, you did indeed become ‘mixed up’ in the affair, – and not as an ideal spectator but in the precise character of a belligerent. Your conduct is for these reasons entirely disapproved. It will depend upon your own better conduct hereafter, and in some part upon circumstances not yet fully understood, whether the Department can be content to leave the case with this reprimand.Stock, Consular relations, 327-328.
MULLEN: In other words, the state department was putting Cushman on probation to determine whether or not he could actually remain as the consul in Rome. He was the only remaining embodiment of the United States. So he absolutely could not get involved in this war between the Pope and the Italians under Garibaldi. After all, the US was still healing from its own civil war. It could not afford to take sides in a foreign war. Especially when the American consul seemed disposed to a side that many Americans, in their hardening anti-Catholicism, were not likely to support.
[concluding music begins]
MULLEN: Ultimately, Cushman and the Papal army were fighting a losing battle. By 1870, the popular and military tide was in favor of the Italians. And that brings us back to the siege on September 20, the one that was witnessed by Cushman’s successor, David Armstrong. In September of 1870, Armstrong went from being the last American consul to the Papal States to the first American consul general to the United Kingdom of Italy–without ever having to relocate.
Producers: Kris Stinson and Abby Mullen
Experts: Don Doyle and Nicholas Sawikci
Voice actors: Jim Ambuske, Kris Stinson, Jason Heppler, and Scott Moore
Music: Andrew Cote
Don Doyle, The Cause of All Nations: An International History of the Civil War (Basic Books, 2017).
Nicholas Sawicki & Kenneth Hackett, “Explainer: The (complicated) history of U.S. ambassadors to the Vatican,” America (2021).
Leo Francis Stock, “American Consuls to the Papal States, 1797-1870,” The Catholic Historical Review (Catholic University of American Press, 1929).
Leo Francis Stock, “The Papal Consuls of Philadelphia,” Records of the American Catholic Historical Society of Philadelphia (American Catholic Historical Society, 1944).
William Vance, America’s Rome: Volume Two: Catholic and Contemporary Rome (Yale University Press, 1989).