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French Naval Chart of the Atlantic Depicting a Storied Naval Career, Including the November 1861 Voyages of the Foudre and the SS Arago – Major Diplomatic Missions at the Outset of the American Civil War

Spectacular, heavily annotated chart of the Atlantic issued by the Depot de la Marine, France’s hydrographic authority. No less than fourteen voyages are meticulously marked on the chart, including the diplomatic voyages of the Arago and the Foudre at the beginning of the Civil War and the invasion of Mexico under Napoleon III.

The voyages include:

Seine, 1845, La Rochelle to Indian Ocean

RMS Berkshire, 1847, from Indian Ocean to Cherbourg

Pomone, n.d. (but likely related to the Olivier voyage), Brest to Gibraltar

Olivier, 1850, Mediterranean via Gibraltar to Martinique to northern coast of South America to Puerto Rico to Martinique

Élan-Anacréon, 1851, Guadeloupe to Azores to Brest

Sesostris, April 1860, L’Orient to St. Pierre; October 1860, St. Pierre to Cape Breton to L’Orient

Foudre, July 1861, From Mediterranean via Gibraltar to Cadiz to Cape St. Vincent to St. Pierre

n.d. or ship name: exploratory/coastal trip around Newfoundland

SS Arago, Nov. 1861, New York to Portsmouth to Le Havre (after what looks to be an overland trip in New England and Quebec)

Imperial, July 1862, Algiers to Tenerife to Martinique to Mexico

Louisiane, October 1862, Mexico to Martinique to Nantes   

Seine, 1865, La Rochelle to Indian Ocean   

Victoire, 1870, La Rochelle to Martinique; April 1871, Martinique to La Rochelle         

Eurydice, 1874, early in the year: Brest to Cornwall to St. Pierre; August: trip of east coast of Newfoundland; later in the year: St. Pierre to Brest.    

No name, 1875-76, from Indian Ocean to Brest, includes a variation measurement

There are thirteen named ships in all with at least fourteen separate voyages ranging between the 1840s and the 1870s. While several of the voyages were historically significant, as will be outlined below, the sheer number of the voyages, the fact that most were ships of the French Navy, and the fact that they do not overlap in time suggests that this chart depicts the travels of a career naval man who served throughout the Atlantic and the world.

The Foudre, the SS Arago and French involvement in the American Civil War

When the American Civil War broke out, European nations had choices to make. Would they side with the South, which provided much of the cotton for European textile manufacture, or the North, with whom they had long-standing diplomatic and economic ties?

Britain, France, and Spain all offered to help mediate the crisis, but President Abraham Lincoln refused. In April 1861, Lincoln ordered a blockade of Southern ports, limiting the cotton and other goods which shipped to Europe. This was matched by a Confederate embargo on selling cotton in an attempt to coerce European support. All three European powers respected the blockade and declared their neutrality while recognizing the South as a belligerent actor (but not necessarily as a nation state). The South also actively sought to convince a European power to support their cause.

With the blockade causing ripples in diplomatic circles, regular naval activities continued despite the tensions on the American mainland. In the summer of 1861, a French squadron set out to reinforce the West Indies fleet which, at this time, included the coast of North America within its areas of patrol. The fleet was reported upon in the Northern newspapers and was thought to be an opportunity for the Union to express their gratitude for France’s neutrality and respect of the blockade. One of these ships was the Foudre, who track is marked for July of 1861. The author finishes the track at St. Pierre, a French holding off the coast of Newfoundland, which implies that he did not continue with the squadron as it toured American ports before reaching its final destination of the Caribbean.

The blockade continued to cause controversy. In November 1861, the USS San Jacinto, commanded by Charles Wilkes (who had also commanded the famous U.S. Exploratory Expedition) intercepted a British mail steamer, the Trent. On board, Wilkes found two Confederate diplomats destined for stations in London and Paris. The Union officer declared the Confederates contraband and had them imprisoned. The British were incensed, as this act was tantamount to impressment, and threatened retaliatory action against the Union.

The Trent was stopped at sea only days after the beginning of another consequential journey chronicled on this chart, that of the SS Arago in November of 1861. This voyage was touted as a vacation for General Winfield Scott and the publisher Thurlow Weed, but the men were also to convince the French to back the Union should Great Britain enter the conflict in support of the Confederacy.

Once news of the Trent Affair reached them, they had to placate both British and French officials that Wilkes’ actions were not approved of by the Union government. Scott signed a letter to that effect, thereby aiding Secretary of State William Seward as he continued negotiations into 1862. Seward ultimately released the Confederate diplomats and avoided Britain entering the war.

The Imperial and French intervention in Mexico, 1862-67

At the same time as France was considering intervention in the American Civil War, it was also considering expansion into America’s neighbor, Mexico. During the Second Empire, Napoleon III sought overseas colonies wherever they could be found, from the Pacific to Southeast Asia to the Caribbean. Mexico was mineral-rich and a valuable prospect for expansion, even though it was a sovereign nation.

In 1862, Benito Juarez, Mexico’s first leader of indigenous descent, proclaimed that Mexico would no longer be paying its considerable foreign debts. This angered not only France, but Britain and Spain as well. Napoleon III used resentment over the Trent Affair to convince his fellow European nations to exert a show of force against Mexico, although the British and Spanish quickly dropped their support for what amounted to an invasion.

In the first months of 1862, French troops landed in Veracruz. With two years, they had taken over large parts of Mexico. The Imperial, whose track is included here, took part in the landing of troops in the summer of 1862 (June to August), in the early days of the conflict.

Napoleon III, head of his own Second Empire, set up Mexico’s Second Empire with Archduke Maximilian as emperor. Maximilian attempted several reforms and political changes but was disliked by the Mexican politicians who wanted to control their own affairs. After the cessation of hostilities in America, Washington could finally voice its disdain for the French regime and urged Maximilian, and Napoleon III, to withdraw.

Napoleon III acquiesced, calling back French troops in 1866. Juarez led his own troops to retake the land they had lost; they overran Maximilian’s forces and captured the Emperor. Maximilian was executed June 19, 1867.

Other voyages

There are still more interesting voyages recorded on this chart. For example, headed south and into the Indian Ocean is the track of the Seine in 1845. This ship would sink in New Caledonia the following year, although all hands were saved. It would seem the author returned on the British mail ship Berkshire in 1847; the Berkshire’s track is marked on the chart in red ink.  

Several of the voyages terminate at or stop over at St. Pierre, near the coast of Newfoundland. St. Pierre and Miquelon became French possessions in 1536. However, in the late seventeenth century, the British began to put pressure on the sparsely-populated islands. They were ceded to the British in 1713 under the Treaty of Utrecht, only to be returned to France under the Treaty of Paris of 1763. The British continued to harass the islands during the Revolutionary War and the Napoleonic Wars, but the islands were again declared French in 1802 under the Treaty of Amiens. Britain retook them a year later and returned them yet again under the Treaty of Paris of 1814. The islands were used as a fishing center and naval stop over in the nineteenth century and are still French possessions today.

This chart tells many stories about French maritime and diplomatic operations in the mid-nineteenth century. They attest to the importance of ports like tiny St. Pierre and Martinique in the Caribbean. The tracks of the ships reveal little-known histories about France’s diplomatic relations with the Union during the Civil War and about their invasion of Mexico. This is an important representation of French imperial expansion and policy during the Second Empire and would be a fascinating addition to any collection of French or nineteenth-century hydrography.



Condition Description
Extensive pencil annotations showing sailing routes. Minor soiling.
Daniel B. Carroll, Henri Mercier and the American Civil War (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1971); William Earl Weeks, The New Cambridge History of American Foreign Relations, vol. 1 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013); Tyler Stovall, Transnational France: The Modern History of a Universal Nation (Boulder: Westview Press, 2015); Rif Winfield & Stephen S. Roberts, French Warships in the Age of Sail 1786-1861 (Barnsely: Seaforth Publishing, 2015); Etienne Taillemite, L’Histoire ignore de la marine francaise (Paris: Librairie Academique Perrin, 1988); Louis Nicolas, Histoire de la Marine Francaise (Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1973); Claude Farrere, Histoire de la Marine Francaise (Paris: Flammarion, 1956).
Depot de la Marine Biography

The Dépôt de la Marine, known more formally as the Dépôt des cartes et plans de la Marine, was the central charting institution of France. The centralization of hydrography in France began in earnest when Jean-Baptiste Colbert became First Minister of France in 1661. Under his watch, the first Royal School of Hydrography began operating, as did the first survey of France’s coasts (1670-1689). In 1680, Colbert consolidated various collections of charts and memoirs into a single assemblage, forming the core of sources for what would become the Dépôt.

The Dépôt itself began as the central deposit of charts for the French Navy. In 1720, the Navy consolidated its collection with those government materials covering the colonies, creating a single large repository of navigation. By 1737, the Dépôt was creating its own original charts and, from 1750, they participated in scientific expeditions to determine the accurate calculation of longitude.

In 1773, the Dépôt received a monopoly over the composition, production, and distribution of navigational materials, solidifying their place as the main producer of geographic knowledge in France.  Dépôt-approved charts were distributed to official warehouses in port cities and sold by authorized merchants. The charts were of the highest quality, as many of France’s premier mapmakers worked at the Dépôt in the eighteenth century, including Philippe Bauche, Jacques-Nicolas Bellin, Rigobert Bonne, Jean Nicolas Buache, and Charles-François Beautemps-Beaupré.

The Dépôt continued to operate until 1886, when it became the Naval Hydrographic Service. In 1971, it changed names again, this time to the Naval and Oceanographic Service (SHOM). Although its name has changed, its purpose is largely the same, to provide high quality cartographic and scientific information to the France’s Navy and merchant marine.