(Friday Night History) Episode 31: To Whom does the Stonewall Belong?

Let me open this episode with a question: where do the weapons of ended wars go?

Think about that for a moment. Where do the ships, the guns, the planes, the knapsacks, and the miscellanea of military equipment go, when a war ends? They don't just vanish, so where do they go?

This week, we're going to be talking about one case of a war's aftermath, which is the fate of the Rebel ironclad Stonewall. It was a ram built in France, commissioned on the open ocean, and only then-- at the tail end of the American Civil War, did its story begin. And yes, yes indeed, it found its way to Japan smack dab in the middle of the Boshin War, where it proceeded to cause a diplomatic incident owing to American neutrality, and I should probably back up and start from the beginning.

Plan of CSS Stonewall. (source)

The ironclad ram Stonewall was built at Bordeaux, by Arman Brothers. Its keel was laid in 1863, and it was commissioned at sea in 1864. For podcast listeners, check out the image-- a colorized one that's new to me-- on the blogpost version-- to get a sense of the shape and scale of the thing.

Stonewall some time later under Japanese colors. (source)

It was a very advanced ship for its time, and along with its armor and armament, it also had a ram in its prow, which equipped it to ram and sink less heavily protected vessels. Under the command of Rebel skipper Thomas Jefferson Page, it sailed across the Atlantic but by the time it got to North American waters its crew discovered that the Civil War was over. Page handed the ship over the Spanish colonial authorities in Cuba, who bought it for $16,000, selling it to the US authorities for the same amount. After some repairs, a US crew sailed Stonewall north to US waters, where it was laid up in the Washington Navy Yard, and where it sat until 1867.

Ono Tomogoro on visit to Washington. (source)

In 1867, a Tokugawa Shogunate military delegation under Ono Tomogoro and Matsumoto Judayu visited the US in search of military equipment to add to the Shogunate's growing arsenal in service with its modern Army and Navy. Over the course of their visit, they met with President Johnson, Secretary of State William H Seward, and influential Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts, who chaired the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. The delegation found the Stonewall in Washington Navy Yard and an agreement was struck by which the Shogunate would pay half the price then, and the other half upon delivery of the ship in Japan. Under a Japanese flag but crewed by a US Navy crew, Stonewall set off for Japan. It arrived at the anchorage of Shinagawa on 24 April 1868, after a long and eventful cruise which included getting refueled at Honolulu on credit. Those of you who have been longtime listeners of this podcast might already have guessed it: this was in the early days of the Boshin War. There was something of a power vacuum in terms of a recognized national government in Japan at the time.

Shortly after the outbreak of war outside Kyoto at the Battle of Toba-Fushimi, the US declared its neutrality. To underline this, I think the declaration merits quoting in full here.

Having been officially informed that war exists in Japan between his Majesty the Mikado and the Tycoon, and being desirous of taking measures to secure the observance of a strict neutrality on the part of citizens of the United States of America, I give notice to such citizens that active participation in this war, by entering into service, the sale or charter of vessels of war or transport ships for the transportation of troops, the transportation of troops, military persons military dispatches, arms, ammunition, or articles contraband of war, to or for either of the contending parties, and similar acts, constitute according to international law, a breach of neutrality, and may therefore be treated as hostile acts.
Persons in such military service would subject themselves to the rules of war, while ships and other means of conveyance engaged in a breach of neutrality would render themselves liable to capture and confiscation, which rule may extend to cargo belonging to neutrals.
Such breaches would also involve the citizen and vessel in the danger of forfeiting claim to the protection of their government as well as the rights and privileges granted by the treaty between the United States and Japan.

Minister Resident of the United States in Japan.

Legation of the United States in Japan,
Hiogo, (Kobe,) February 18, 1868

This should give you a fuller sense of the difficult position of Minister-Resident Robert Bruce Van Valkenburgh when the Stonewall arrived. (sidebar: Minister-Resident is the title of the US diplomat who later became the Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary to Japan) Van Valkenburgh himself was a Union Army veteran, and had commanded the 107th New York Infantry Regiment at the Battle of Antietam, so I wonder what was on his mind when the news of this ship's arrival reached him. At any rate, he was in an impossible position. The ship was powerful, and cutting-edge-- literally, if you think about how it was a ram-- and to hand it over to either the ex-Shogun's navy or the nascent imperial navy would have tipped the balance and thrown the outcome of the war. In the weeks that followed the ship's arrival and the outbreak of the Boshin War, this increasingly became a bone of contention. Van Valkenburgh received delegates from the imperial government insisting on the handover of Stonewall to their side, especially once Edo was handed over, later in the spring. Meanwhile, the Shogunate Navy, under the operational command of Admiral Enomoto Takeaki, had left Shinagawa to take refuge in Tateyama across Edo Bay, but had not forgotten about the warship that was slated to join their own fleet. Enomoto himself called on Van Valkenburgh more than once to press for the Stonewall's handover.

Samuel Pellman Boyer, a US Navy doctor attached to the USS Iroquois which was then in Japan, wrote the following in his diary on the subject:

Therefore to whom does the Stonewall belong? Does she belong to Satsuma or the Tycoon? Were the Minister to deliver her up to Satsuma, and should it happen that the Tycoon is successful in the end and flogs the Mikado's party, he might demand the Stonewall. The same case might happen were he, the Minister, to deliver up to the Tycoon. So the best plan is for us to claim her until the [Japanese] settle their little trouble.

Van Valkenburgh wrote to his superiors in Washington-- notably to Secretary of State William H. Seward-- to report on these developments. Seward had been there when the Shogunate delegation visited the Washington Navy Yard and selected Stonewall for purchase, so he was familiar with the situation. However, in an era when messages traveled slowly, there wasn't much of anything that Seward could urgently do with regards to the situation in Japan. The decision was Van Valkenburgh's to make, because as with most American diplomats of the time, distance meant he had broad latitude in what courses of action were available to him. So, with a civil war raging and a cutting edge weapon that could tip the balance, Van Valkenburgh chose neither side, opting instead to keep the ship under American control. But if it was going to operate under an American flag, it needed an American crew.

Given that the war was still dragging on by the mid summer, it would need a good officer to lead. And on 1 July 1868, it just so happened that an American warship had just arrived in Yokohama, with a one of a kind commander aboard, who was Van Valkenburgh's choice for the job.

Pictured: William Barker Cushing, captioned with his response to "ohayou."

Meet William Barker Cushing. He was the brother of Alonzo H. Cushing, noted for his stand at the Angle during Pickett's Charge. Will was famous in his own right during the Civil War for his naval exploits, and was what some have called the first SEAL, not least of why being his role in the operation to blow up the rebel ironclad Albemarle. He arrived in Japan as the commanding officer of the USS Maumee, an aging vessel whose command he nearly didn't accept. Cushing was put in nominal charge of Stonewall, and in order to save expenses, its original caretaker crew was dismissed and naval personnel were detached from the other US Navy ships then in port.

Now, Seward did have a lot to say in response to this, when Van Valkenburgh's reports finally made their way back to Washington. The ship had been sold to the Shogun's government before even leaving Washington, so the ship wasn't American anymore, and couldn't be re-appropriated or repossessed at all. But given prior antiforeign sentiment and recent incidents where foreigners were attacked, there was no guarantee that the nascent imperial government would respect the lives and property of American citizens in Japan, so, Van Valkenburgh counter-argued for the necessity of holding on to the ship. Eventually, Seward relented, and backed Van Valkenburgh's unilateral action. And for the rest of the war, while American sentiments in Japan-- as seen in the work of Boyer-- were decidedly pro-Shogun, the Stonewall stayed in Yokohama under an American naval ensign.

RB Van Valkenburgh (source)

The next March, with the imperial forces closing on the Ezo Republic and the war all but decided, Van Valkenburgh handed the ship over to the imperial navy, which immediately put it to work on the front lines. Word spread rather quickly-- and the ship, now named Kotetsu, took long enough that Ezo Republic forces tried one last, desperate attempt to take it, by capture. The ensuing battle, the Battle of Miyako Bay, was a daring attempt at capturing the ship on the high seas, and included troopers of the much vaunted Shinsengumi, but ended in failure partly owing to weather.

Kotetsu was there when Hakodate fell, and the war ended.

And that is how a ship built for one civil war fought in two.


  • Samuel Pellman Boyer. Naval Surgeon: Revolt in Japan. (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1963), pp. 38-42, 63.
  • Julian McQuinston. William B. Cushing in the Far East: A Civil War Naval Hero Abroad, 1865-1869 (Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2013), pp. 100,154.
  • Papers relating to foreign affairs, Part 1 (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1869), p. 672.
  • Seward, William H., and Seward, Frederick W. William H. Seward; an autobiography from 1801 to 1834 (New York: Derby and Miller, 1891), pp. 358-359. Archive.org, https://archive.org/details/williamhsewarda01sewagoog Accessed 5 Aug. 2021.

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