The Moroccan Front
The Civil War arrived in Morocco in February of 1862, when two Confederate naval officers took a walk in Tangier. The men, Henry Myers and Thomas T. Tunstall, were on an errand to buy coal and bring it back to their ship, the Sumter, which was laid up for repairs nearby in Gibraltar, a British territory near the southern tip of Spain. Myers and Tunstall hoped to find coal in the Spanish city of Cádiz, but the steamer they took to Spain made a quick stop in Tangier en route.
Before the Sumter landed in Gibraltar, it had been destroying United States commercial ships on both sides of the Atlantic, burning them down to the water. The Sumter’s search-and-destroy missions were part of the Confederate navy’s strategy to weaken Union commerce. By this point in the Civil War, the naval battle had reached the Mediterranean.
Myers and Tunstall had barely set foot in Tangier when the United States consul and a small group of Moroccan police officers arrested the two men. To the consul, James De Long, the Sumter’s officers were pirates: traitorous secessionists attacking the only nation to which they legally belonged. De Long locked them up in a makeshift prison at the consulate.
Library of Congress The harbor of Tangier, Morocco, in the late 19th century.
De Long delighted in his bold patriotic gesture. He wrote in a letter to Secretary of State William H. Seward that “American citizens may talk and plot treason and rebellion at home, if they can, but they shall not do so where I am, if I have the power to prevent it.” (Seward, considerably closer to bloody battle, must have smiled at the consul’s swagger.)
But De Long’s peers in Tangier’s diplomatic community were outraged. They believed that De Long had no jurisdiction to imprison the officers, or to enlist the Moroccan police in capturing and guarding them. A few days after De Long arrested the officers, European expatriates formed a mob to raid the consulate and forcibly free the prisoners. De Long and the Moroccan guards at the consulate held off the rioters.
Rebuffed, several European diplomats took to more conventional channels and asked the sultan of Morocco to censure De Long in order to maintain neutrality in the American Civil War. De Long, on the other hand, demanded that the sultan side with his nation’s old ally and back the Union – Morocco and the United States had been on good diplomatic terms since 1777, when Morocco became the first foreign nation to recognize the newly declared United States. In 1786, Morocco and the United States signed a Treaty of Peace and Friendship to formalize diplomatic relations.
All that good will nearly disintegrated after the incident in Tangier, when De Long threatened a Moroccan foreign minister: “Shall 76 years of uninterrupted friendship that has existed between your government and that of the United States be brought to an end for the sake of pirates?”
In April 1862, the “pirates” Tunstall and Myers were shipped to Boston and imprisoned at Fort Warren. By June, De Long was replaced in Tangier by a new consul, Jesse McMath. McMath picked up the diplomatic volley, and eventually persuaded Morocco to side with the Union against the Confederacy. Sultan Sidi Mohammed IV of Morocco signed a decree on Sept. 23, 1863 prohibiting Confederate ships from entering Moroccan ports.
A sultan’s decree on port admission may seem like a tentative diplomatic gesture, but in such maritime protocol, nations are named and made, unnamed and unmade. The means by which Morocco became the first nation to “recognize” the United States back in 1777 was a similar document signed by an earlier sultan, guaranteeing American ships free admission to Moroccan ports. Every port is a border. To welcome a ship into port is to welcome its home nation into diplomatic relations. The sultan’s decree of 150 years ago, banning Confederate ships from port, disavowed the Confederacy.
Morocco’s importance for those Civil War naval ships was not merely symbolic. Morocco was a comparatively convenient place for North American ships to take on supplies, stop for repairs and monitor traffic in and out of the Mediterranean. In oceanic terms, Morocco is close.
The two nations are close in certain terms of history, too. Americans sometimes see in Morocco a hazy resemblance to their own country. Fifty-five years after the De Long incident, Edith Wharton visited Morocco as a guest of the French colonial administration. Wharton invoked immigration and diversity as the shared heritage of both countries: “For centuries, for ages, North Africa has been what America now is: the clearing-house of the world.”
Morocco also has an extensive history of slavery. Like the United States, Morocco traded in enslaved black West Africans, who came to Morocco across the Sahara. Slavery in Morocco took other forms, too. Morocco was one of the so-called Barbary States, where for centuries European and American sailors captured by pirates were enslaved and ransomed. In his 1853 book “White Slavery in the Barbary States,” the radical abolitionist senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts depicted North Africa as a disturbing analog to the American South, which he called the “Barbary States of America.”
Statehood and citizenship have always been slippery in Tangier, where even on foggy days you can look across the straits and see another continent and two nations, Spain and Britain. The consulate where De Long held his pirates still stands, although it has ceded its diplomatic function to the embassy in Rabat, the modern capital. Today the old consulate is open to visitors and houses a community center and museum full of treasures. Long a fixture in Tangier’s old city, the old consulate is the only National Historic Landmark outside the United States.
The view from the consulate’s roof terrace takes in the curving sweep of Tangier’s port and the straits beyond. One hundred and fifty years ago, De Long might have stood there to watch the Confederate Sumter burn Union ships. Today, you can stand on a roof in Tangier and watch as fast ferries loaded with tourists glide back and forth across the 14 miles that separate Tangier in Morocco from Tarifa in Spain. To those who attempt the deadly crossing in illegal boats, the straits must appear terribly wide and the watery line that separates nations as invisible as ever.