The Delafield Commission.

The Crimean War was one of the first to be widely photographed. The first as far as anybody with a degree knows was the Mexican American War. An anonymous artist took several daguerreotypes of US soldiers on campaign. Then a Hungarian with the per usual unpronounceable name of Carol Pop de Szathmari took over 200 images, now mostly lost, of the Russian Turkish conflict that lead up to the Crimean War. While searching around to see if I’d missed anything I found an interesting one called the American Commission, so here’s a brief adventure in Historyland about it.


Left to Right. Maj A Mordecai (Seated), Lt Col Obrescoff (Satanding), Maj R Delafield (Sitting) Cpt G.B. McClellan.
Left to Right. Maj A Mordecai (Seated), Lt Col Obrescoff (Satanding), Maj R Delafield (Sitting) Cpt G.B. McClellan (Standing). The Delafield Commisison and their Russian Patron.

In 1854 when the British and French got the willies about the Russians turning the Med into the Tsar’s swimming pool they sent troops to prevent it. After a year of fighting on the Crimean Peninsula attempting to take the Black Sea Fleet’s base at Sebastopol, the allies had finally gotten close to achieving their goal. The more legendary feats of arms had become widely known across the world; news of the incidents at Balaclava, (Those classic tales of the Thin Red Line and the Charge of the Light Brigade) had gotten the attention of the Americans. They had been trying to update their army since the war of 1812, but the annoyingly peaceable habits the Europeans had gotten into since the fall of Napoleon had deprived them of a war sophisticated enough to bother observing. The American obsession with the French military had led to several US officers going to see the action in Algeria. In 1855 Secretary of State Jefferson Davis (Future President of the Confederate States of America), decided that the war had been going on long enough to warrant a look see into how the fellows over the pond where killing each other. He put a team together of scientific soldiers, originally of five men that included Robert E Lee (who later admitted he regretted not going) but whittled down to three. A 57 year old Engineer Major called Richard Delafield, valedictorian of the West Point class of 1818 and superintendent from 1838-1845 was in charge. The 51 year old Major Alfred Mordecai, head of the class of 1821 another engineer but also an artilleryman, with a background in science and treatise writing. The last was the youngest and most junior officer, 28 year old George B McClellan graduated 2nd in his class at the Point and commissioned in the Engineers as a 2nd Lieutenant and then joined the sappers and miners before being posted to Mexico, where he saw action at Vera Cruz, Contreras, Churubusco and Chapultepec. In 1855 McClellan (who would go on to be a General during the Civil War) was a captain in the cavalry and had been a assistant professor at West Point, had written a treatise on Bayonet Drill. Like most West Pointers of the day he could speak French but he had also taught himself German.

Jefferson Davis called the team to Washington in April, were he gave them a list of things to investigate. Practical stuff like how good was the new British Lancaster Gun and to find out just how good was a Camel was for transport, especially in cold and mountainous terrain. They where ordered to proceed to Sebastopol and then once they had seen European Warfare in action they were to conduct an inspection of the military facilities in Russia, Prussia, France, Britain and Austria, and to return by November 1855 it didn’t quite turn out that way.

If the objective of the Delafield Commission was to take a look at the Crimean War then it was close to an abysmal failure. They arrived in Liverpool on 22 April and went straight to London. After 6 months of travel from London to Paris to Berlin (Were they met Lt Col Obrescoff) to St. Petersburg (Possibly where they got the picture taken) and Moscow, back to Berlin and then to Vienna and Constantinople, chasing official permission to go to Sevastopol, they finally managed to get passage to Balaclava and arrived on the 8th of October. During this time they had met Queen Victoria, Napoleon III, Mustapha Pasha, and the Tsar but had achieved nothing but “Humbug”, to quote a word McClellan used, except to almost completely convert them from focusing on the French, to centring on the superiority of the Russian’s. The war was all but over when they arrived and the delegation worked feverishly to make up for lost time gathering data on artillery, supplies, medical facilities and equipment. Major Mordecai got to see the advances in nursing first hand when he succumbed to Diarrhoea and was tended by Florence Nightingale. The Commission arrived back in America on the 29th of April 1856 having travelled almost 20,000 miles in over a year.

I might go a little more in depth some other time, this was really just a summary to go with the picture. So for now thanks for reading, I’ll see you again for another Adventure in Historyland.



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