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Sovereignty at Sea

U.S. Merchant Ships and American Entry into World War I

Rodney Carlisle

Publication Year: 2010

While numerous studies have examined Woodrow Wilson's policy of neutrality prior to U.S. entry into World War I, none has focused on the actual merchant ship losses that created the final casus belli. This work focuses on what the president knew and when he knew it concerning the loss of ten ships between February 3 and April 4, 1917. By looking at the specifics, Rodney Carlisle offers new explanations for the reasons that led the president, the cabinet, the public, and Congress to decide for war.

Sovereignty at Sea not only adds much to our understanding of maritime and diplomatic history during the First World War period but also speaks to contemporary concerns with issues surrounding the U.S. justification for wars.

Published by: University Press of Florida

Title Page

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List of Figures

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pp. vii

List of Tables

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pp. ix

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pp. xi-xv

Water is unquestionably the most important natural feature on earth. By volume, the world’s oceans compose 99 percent of the planet’s living space; in fact, the surface of the Pacific Ocean alone is larger than the combined surface area of all land bodies. So vital to life is water that NASA looks for signs of water as carefully as it does ...

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pp. xvii-xviii

As in any work of this kind, the writer accumulates debts for the assistance provided by colleagues, archivists, and librarians. I want to especially thank colleagues James Muldoon and Andrew Lees at Rutgers University; Philip Cantelon, Brian Martin, Jamie Rife, and Keith Allen at History Associates Incorporated; Bill Thiesen at the Coast Guard Historical Office; and attendees at conference presentations at North American ...

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pp. 1-8

For the American merchant marine, the decade before World War I was an age of hardship and transition. Since the Civil War, American shipping had been in decline, and the low wages and harsh conditions aboard the privately owned schooners and coal-fired steamers of the era often made work aboard such ships a last resort for workers in seaport cities and towns. ...

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1. The Voyage of the Vigilancia

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pp. 9-15

The freighter Vigilancia steamed steadily eastward across the Atlantic on the clear and cold morning of Friday, March 16, 1917. Bound for Le Havre from New York, the 4,115-gross-ton steamship carried a general cargo including goods for France that Germany had declared contraband. In the hope that America’s neutrality in the Great War would offer some protection, the American flag was painted directly ...

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2. From Falaba to Sussex

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pp. 16-30

The sinking of U.S. merchant ships like the Vigilancia that carried the U.S. flag got the United States into World War I. However, the flag and sovereignty at sea issues that were the legal casus belli for American entry into the war have been obscured from view by contemporary and later concern over the loss of lives of American passengers aboard foreign ships during the period 1915–16. ...

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3. The Flag under Fire: From Frye to Pass of Balmaha

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pp. 31-47

A few days before President Wilson announced his official neutrality policy, his first secretary of state, William Jennings Bryan, quietly told the banking community through J. P. Morgan that “in the judgment of this Government, loans by American bankers to any foreign nation which is at war are inconsistent with the true spirit of neutrality.” Bryan’s informal loan ban remained in place from August 1914 until September 1915, and meant that any belligerent had to draw on existing resources ...

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4. The Flag under Fire: From Leelanaw to Chemung

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pp. 48-62

Another of the ships owned by the Harriss-Irby-Voss Company, the oil-burning steamer Leelanaw, ran into trouble off the Orkney Islands, north of Scotland, immediately after the capture of the Pass of Balmaha. The Leelanaw, under the command of Captain Eugene Delk, had left New York on May 17, 1915, carrying a cargo of cotton consigned to Russia via Gothenburg, Sweden. ...

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5. Meetings at Pless Castle and on Pennsylvania Avenue

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pp. 63-74

On January 31, 1917, the German government delivered a note to the United States stating that the next day, February 1, German submarines would sink ships of all nations, without warning, within a designated war zone around Britain and France in the Atlantic and around France and Italy in the Mediterranean. The note detailed other arrangements, such as a safety lane to the Netherlands and another to Greece, and provisions for one clearly marked ...

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6. Housatonic and Lyman M. Law

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pp. 75-90

By one of the mysterious coincidences so often encountered in tales of the sea, the first American ship sunk by the Germans under their unrestricted submarine warfare policy had the same name as the first ship ever sunk by a submarine in warfare. Almost exactly fifty-three years before the sinking of the merchant ship Housatonic on February 3, 1917, the Confederate submarine Hunley sank the USS Housatonic off Charleston, South Carolina (February 17, 1864). ...

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7. A Telegram, Algonquin, and an Abdication

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pp. 91-105

On January 17, 1917, William Reginald “Blinker” Hall, director of the Intelligence Division (DID) had worked his way through a docket of papers with an associate in Room 40 of the British Admiralty building. At about half past ten, Lt. Commander Nigel de Grey, one of the cryptanalysts, ran in, excited. ...

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8. The Tipping-Point Ships: Vigilancia, City of Memphis, Illinois

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pp. 106-121

From Friday, March 16, 1917, through Sunday, March 18, 1917, three more U.S.-registered ships were sunk by German submarines. The news of the three losses arrived in the United States on Sunday and was widely published on Monday, March 19. ...

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9. The Agony of Woodrow Wilson

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pp. 122-140

Although it is clear that the cabinet was convinced at their meeting on March 20, 1917, that a declaration of war was needed, the second party to the decision process for war in 1917, the president, presented a far more enigmatic response to his associates and to the press. Wilson left no memoir of his time in office, nor any personal diary or daily account. ...

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10. Aztec, Missourian, Marguerite, and Congress

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pp. 141-160

As Woodrow Wilson delivered his address to Congress on the evening of April 2, word spread through the chamber that another U.S. ship—the freighter Aztec—had been sunk, off Brest, on the north coast of France. The president had already made up his mind before reports of this loss arrived, so Aztec was not part of his decision process. ...

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pp. 161-166

As the nation moved into the war and into the well-known period of suppression of civil liberties and the harassment of all who opposed the war, the arguments in the Senate and House of Representatives were largely forgotten. The details of the overt acts, or casus belli, became almost entirely irrelevant to the grand engagements and the high excitement of the war itself. ...

Appendix A. Loss of the Healdton

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pp. 167-172

Appendix B. Casualty Lists

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pp. 173-174

Appendix C. Table of Ship Losses

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pp. 175


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pp. 177-203


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pp. 205-211


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pp. 213-232

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About the Author

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Rodney Carlisle is professor emeritus of history at Rutgers University and cofounder of History Associates, Inc. He is the author or editor of more than ...

Series List

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E-ISBN-13: 9780813040219
Print-ISBN-13: 9780813037622
Print-ISBN-10: 081303762X

Page Count: 240
Illustrations: 20 b&w photos, 5 tables
Publication Year: 2010