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The Return Of The Resolute

July 2024
6min read

A rudderless derelict, she had drifted 1,100 miles through polar ice. Her return to England was a tribute to Anglo-American amity

Many have been the occasions when the two English-speaking peoples on opposite sides of the Atlantic have expressed their mutual friendship through some dramatic gesture. But one of the most unusual took place a little over one hundred years ago, when the United States presented to Her Majesty Queen Victoria, in perfect condition, a fully rigged British man-of war. This ship was the H.M.S. Resolute, and the story of how she came into American hands—and why it was decided to return her to England—is a curious one.

Its origins lay in the famous but ill-starred Arctic expedition that sailed from Britain in May, 1845, under the command of Sir John Franklin. His two ships were the Erebus and the Terror, and their object, as laid down by the British Admiralty, was to discover “the best prospect ol accomplishing the [Northwest] Passage to the Pacific.”

By July of that year the ships had reached the entrance to Lancaster Sound in the Arctic and were observed by a whaler to enter it. From that time on, not a man of the expedition—which numbered well over one hundred—was ever seen again, and fourteen years were to pass before their tragedy amid the ice off King William Island became known.

But if the solution to this greatest of Arctic mysteries was long delayed, expeditions in search of it were not. From both sides of the Atlantic, ships and, indeed, squadrons went north in search of Franklin. And even though they failed in their main purpose, the mapping of vast areas of hitherto unknown territory made these searches immensely valuable.

One of the busiest “rescue seasons” was that of 1850–51, when ten search vessels—two of them American—were sent out. But by 1852 the British government was reaching the end of its willingness to underwrite further rescue operations. One last effort was decided upon. Five ships were equipped, and equipped well. They were the Assistance, Pioneer, Resolute (Captain Henry Kellett, R.N.), the steam tender Intrepid, and the North Star. Each was commanded by an experienced captain, the only weakness lying in the person of the commander in chief, Sir Edward Belcher, of “no Arctic experience and the reputation of being the most unpopular man in the navy.”

For a time the Belcher expedition fared well enough. Reaching the western end of Lancaster Sound it divided: Belcher himself took the Assistance and the Pioneer northward to search for Franklin in the Wellington Channel; the Resolute and the Intrepid sailed farther west to Melville Island, where they wintered. The North Star remained at Beechey Island as a depot ship. Thereafter followed an incredible series of mischances, blunders, and losses.

During their second winter (1853–54) the two Melville Island ships, immobilized by the ice, were “snugged down” to await spring. Stores were plentiful, however, and nobody was in any danger. It was to their astonishment and disgust, therefore, that the captains of the Resolute and the Intrepid received orders from Belcher to abandon their ships and proceed, over hundreds of miles of ice, to the depot ship.

Unwillingly they did so, knowing that their vessels, though ice-locked, were likely to be perfectly seaworthy when the thaw set in. And their distrust of Belcher’s leadership was only increased when, arriving at the North Star, they found Sir Edward awaiting them, having likewise abandoned his two ships, similarly trapped in the ice of Wellington Channel. So the expedition returned to England in the North Star and two other transports sent out at the last moment.

Sir Edward Belcher’s men were safe but disgusted, four entirely sound ships were abandoned in the Arctic, and for Sir Edward himself, a court martial was awaiting. True, it acquitted the commander in chief on the ground of his right to exercise his own discretion. But the frigid atmosphere in which the court returned him his sword more than hinted at a very different verdict, and he was never again commissioned in naval service. Captain Kellett received his sword back with a compliment; he had acted under orders.

Time now moves to September 10, 1855, when, thirty miles off Cape Mercy in Davis Strait, the American whaling vessel George Henrydrifting with the ice floes—began to overtake a warship whose crew made no reply to the whaler’s signals. Overtaking was not difficult, for the warship was proceeding under bare poles and listing badly. Eventually, Captain Buddington, the whaler’s master, sent two mates and two men across the ice pack to board her. By right of salvage, he now found himself owner of the derelict—but otherwise complete and sound—H.M.S. Resolute!

It was a fantastic passage that she had made in the sixteen months since she had been abandoned off Melville Island. Not only had she survived the terrible grip of the Arctic ice, but with the breakup of the pack she had drifted through Barrow Strait, Lancaster Sound, Baffin Bay, and down Davis Strait—well over a thousand miles. And here she was, thickly encrusted with ice on the port side (which had faced away from the sun) and with water in the hold, but otherwise as seaworthy as the day she left the shipwright’s yard.

A far less alert seaman than Captain Buddington could have seen that here was a prize worth more than a whole school of whales. Taking with him ten men and the ship’s carpenter, he set out with the Resolute on the eventful voyage that was to last two months. Shorthanded, without proper navigating instruments or charts, he was driven by storms as far south as Bermuda, but on Christmas Eve, 1855, he brought his prize into New London, Connecticut. She was moored near the railroad station and attracted thousands of sightseers, brought by special excursion trains.

But even a century ago, the salvaging and capitalization of a warship owned by a foreign power, and by Britain in particular, was not a simple transaction; inevitably the government took over the whole affair.

Thus it happened that on June 24, 1856, a bill was introduced by Senator James M. Mason of Virginia—later to play one of the title roles in a famous Civil War incident, when he and John Slidell, Confederate commissioners on the way to England, were removed from a British steamer by a Federal warship—authorizing the purchase of the Resolute and its return to England. This measure was heartily approved by the senator from Connecticut, Lafayette S. Foster, who had originally raised the question of what was to be done with the ship, and on August 28 Congress put its final approval on a resolution that turned the salvaging of the Resolute into an act of great good will.

For this laudable purpose, Congress appropriated forty thousand dollars, and the work of refitting the vessel was put in hand at once. So it happened that on November 13, 1856, under the command of Captain Henry J. Hartstein, U.S.N., and flying the Stars and Stripes, the old warship, new-found in more senses than one, set sail across the Atlantic and a month later reached Cowes, on the Isle of Wight.

Her arrival was made a royal occasion. Queen Victoria, the Prince Consort, the Prince of Wales, and others of the royal family went aboard, and were delighted—and moved—to find that not only was all the ship’s normal equipment restored or replaced, but that in each cabin the individual effects of the officers —books, pictures, and so forth—were all intact, refurbished, and in their original positions.

When Captain Hartstein addressed the Queen, he spoke of his happiness in being able to “restore [the Resolute] to you, not only as an evidence of a friendly feeling to your sovereignty, but as a token of love, admiration and respect to Your Majesty personally”—a gallant speech which was probably not forgotten when, shortly afterward, Hartstein was invited to visit the Queen at Osborne House, her Isle of Wight home. Other invitations followed, both for Hartstein and his crew, from shipowners, the Prime Minister, and—most pathetic and moving of all—from Lady Franklin, still clinging to some faint hope for her lost husband.

On the thirtieth of December the formal handing-over of the U.S.S. Resolute—once again to become “H.M.S.”—took place at Portsmouth. Somebody possessed both of authority and imagination decreed that the “take-over” party which went aboard should be in the charge of Captain George Seymour, captain of Nelson’s old flagship, H.M.S. Victory. To him, Captain Hartstein said, “The remembrance of the old Resolute will be cherished by the people of the respective nations long alter every timber in her sturdy frame shall have perished. I now, with a pride totally at variance with our professional ideas, strike my flag, and to you, Sir, give up the ship!”

It was exactly one o’clock. On the Resolute the Stars and Stripes was lowered. On the Victory, nearby, the American flag was hoisted. A 21-gun salute was fired—and a chapter of history seemed to have been closed.

But it was not quite the end. The sturdy timbers of the Resolute have not perished; in fact, they may have been seen—without their knowing it—by many who read these words. The ship herself—with indecent haste, and in the sacred name of economy—was dismantled by the Admiralty and reduced to a hulk. But from her teak timbers a desk was made, and presented to the President of the United States by the Queen of England. It has been placed on the second floor of the White House, in the room reserved for the President when he addresses the nation by television—and there the last remains of the Resolute have found a home.

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