Travels of a Teenage Prince

English Channel, Nov. 14, 1860

 Handkerchiefs waved as the prince graced New York with his royal presence.

Amid heavy fog, a red signal rocket flashed across the night sky, and the captain of the HMS Himalaya breathed a sigh of relief. The queen would rest easier now.

Victoria, waiting at Windsor Castle for word of her eldest son, had felt her anxiety turning slowly into panic. His little squadron, crossing the storm-wracked North Atlantic from Portland, Me., was more than a week overdue. Several days earlier, she had asked the Admiralty to send out search vessels; the first one had returned without success. But now all was well: at breakfast, the queen received news of the rocket sighting. By then the ship carrying her beloved Bertie was safe inside the breakwater at Plymouth.

Punch In an English cartoon from Punch, meanwhile, young Bertie is shown transformed into a typical American boy, much to the consternation of his father, Prince Albert.

The doughy-faced teenager, known more formally as Prince Albert Edward, had just become the first British royal to visit the United States since the Revolution. (In 1782, his great-uncle, Prince William Henry – later King William IV – had been stationed as a Royal Navy midshipman in New York, where he eluded a plot by George Washington to kidnap him as a hostage.) At an endless round of balls and receptions – in Detroit, St. Louis, Harrisburg, Albany and other unlikely locations – the once-defiant colonials had fallen over themselves to bow and curtsy at this rather nondescript twig on the world’s most famous family tree.

Even Harriet Beecher Stowe, hardly a royalist, gushed about him as “an embodiment, in boy’s form, of a glorious related nation” – going on to mention Milton, Spenser, Bacon and Shakespeare, all in the same breath, as if these luminaries were stuffed into Bertie’s vest pockets. His tour eclipsed even that of the Japanese envoys earlier in the year, and pushed news of the presidential contest into the back pages of the major papers. (Abraham Lincoln, then still a candidate, however, declined to meet the prince when the royal train passed through Springfield, Ill.; he felt it would be presumptuous.)

There had been a few glitches, to be sure. In Richmond, Va., paying his respects to a statue of Washington, Bertie was greeted with jeers of “He socked it to you in the Revolution!” and “He gave you English squirts the colic!” In New York, the 69th Regiment of state militia – soon to win fame in the Civil War as part of the “Irish Brigade” – refused to turn out for a parade in his honor.

On the return crossing, headwinds and heavy seas left the royal entourage wallowing in the mid-Atlantic troughs. The dignitaries passed the time as best they could; Viscount Hinchingbrooke later fondly recalled dancing in the evenings “with the midshipmen for partners.” On Nov. 9, the prince turned 19, an occasion marked with double rations of grog and a festive dinner – but dampened, literally, when a large wave drenched the birthday boy in ice-cold seawater.

Among the souvenirs that Bertie was bringing home from the New World were two gray squirrels and a mud turtle, gifts for his animal-loving mother. All of them survived the journey safe and sound – like the prince himself, who would live to succeed Victoria more than 40 years later, and reign as King Edward VII.

Sources: Ian Radforth, “Royal Spectacle: The 1860 Visit of the Prince of Wales to Canada and the United States”; Stanley Weintraub, “Edward the Caresser: The Playboy Prince Who Became Edward VII”; The Independent, Oct. 18, 1860; New York Times, Oct. 8, 1860 and Nov. 17, 1860.

Adam Goodheart is the author of the forthcoming book “1861: The Civil War Awakening.” He lives in Washington, D.C., and on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, where he is the Hodson Trust-Griswold Director of Washington College’s C.V. Starr Center for the Study of the American Experience.


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