Peter Goolrick becomes a “diplomatic incident”


From John Hennessy (parts of the below are derived from a broader profile of Goolrick I did for the HFFI Journal of Fredericksburg History, which you can get from HFFI here. That article includes full documentation for what appears below.):

Few Fredericksburg civilians could boast a resume of influence to equal Peter Goolrick’s. The Irish-born merchant  had thrice been elected mayor, served on bank and corporate boards, and was the town’s most aggressive real estate speculator–owning in 1860 more than 30 properties worth $76,000. Indeed, if not for a spat with council in 1860, Goolrick and not Montgomery Slaughter would have been Fredericksburg’s wartime mayor. But the stubborn Goolrick resigned the mayoralty in a petty dispute over the appointment of police officers.

Still, Peter Goolrick  (whose son would found and build famed Goolrick’s Pharmacy, which still stands on Caroline Street) would inevitably find his way into the public spotlight during the war.  And he did it in a way that garnered the attention of the British Foreign office, the US  Secretary of State, and even President Abraham Lincoln.

In 1853, British consul for Virginia (and well-known novelist) G.P.R. James appointed Peter Goolrick vice-consul for the port of Fredericksburg and district of Tappahannock.  Much about this appointment is a mystery.   Why did the British government select the scion of an Irish nationalist to represent its interests? And why was a vice-consul necessary at all so close to the British embassy in Washington?  In any event, while the appointment was real, the British government never bothered to notify the U.S. Department of State. Whatever labors Goolrick undertook as vice-consul (they appear to have been slight), he did so without notice from virtually anyone—at least until the Yankees arrived in 1862.

Peter Goolrick's house at the corner of Caroline and Hanover. Today, Goolrick's spacious home encompasses both Irish Eyes (appropriately) and the Griffin bookshop.

When the Union army pulled up opposite Fredericksburg on April 18, 1862, a good number of men in town fled, but not Goolrick.  Instead, Goolrick asserted his post as British vice-consul, pulled out his Union Jack, and hoisted it over his house at the corner of Caroline and Hanover Streets, staking out what he hoped would be seen as a tiny part of the British empire, immune to molestation.

Peter Gooolrick

The gesture was at first lost on Federal soldiers (and many residents too), who mistook the flag for a Confederate banner and demanded that Goolrick pull it down.  Goolrick bid them to look again, and they quickly realized their mistake.  “They begged his pardon and left,” wrote a neighbor, with a clear sense of satisfaction.

Goolrick’s seemingly quirky display of the British flag would likely have been ignored by Union authorities if local civilians had not seized on his claim as vice-consul as a chance to protect their own property.  Betty Herndon Maury, who lived a block away on Princess Anne Street, recorded that her family deposited all their family’s silver with Goolrick.  Most provocatively, a British National by the name Gemmell deposited with Goolrick 1,000 barrels of flour, with the instruction to sell it later that year.  The flapping British flag and the accumulation of material in Goolrick’s basement inspired the Yankees to take a closer look. On June 2, 1862, Union General John F. Reynolds—generally highly regarded by Fredericksburgers for his reasonable demeanor during the occupation—ordered the flour seized.  Days later, more Union soldiers under General Abner Doubleday arrived.  They forced their way into Goolrick’s house and office, “were extremely rude to Mr. Goolrick and his wife” (so Goolrick would complain), searched his kitchen, stable, and cow barn, and questioned his slaves–breaking up, a Washington paper reported, “a finely feathered nest of traitors.”  The Union soldiers took only Goolrick’s Union Jack and some papers, but placed a guard over the place with orders to permit nothing to pass in and out of the property.

The Exchange Hotel, corner of Caroline and Hanover--also a Goolrick property.

Union authorities doubted Goolrick’s claim as vice-consul, and Goolrick had nothing in his possession to prove his status beyond question.  The Federals arrested Goolrick and sent him to Washington.   The unhappy Irishman managed to get leave of confinement long enough to take his case to the British embassy. He met with William Stuart, British Charge D’affaires, and asserted that he had been wronged.  Stuart promised him an investigation and sent him back to Fredericksburg with the suggestion that he not display his British flag until the matter had been resolved.

This affair came at a difficult time in British-U.S. relations, as European powers pondered the legitimacy of the Confederacy, and a few even considered the possibility of intervention.  It’s no surprise, then, that the seemingly trivial matter of Peter Goolrick’s Union Jack and his status as vice-consul attracted the attention of Secretary of State Seward, President Lincoln, and the press.  Seward declared to Charge D’affaires Stuart that the Federal government knew nothing of Goolrick’s status, and that in any event, it appeared that Goolrick was actively supporting the Confederacy.  Seward promised to handle the matter delicately, especially as it related to the much-debated Union Jack and any diplomatic correspondence Goolrick may possess.  He ordered the flag restored to Goolrick, and in late June he sent a representative to Fredericksburg to investigate the situation.

Seward’s envoy, Mr. Ruggles, arrived in Fredericksburg on June 30, 1862, greeted by Goolrick’s Union Jack flapping in the breeze.   Ruggles interviewed Goolrick, who claimed that he’d been neutral since the war had begun—that his three sons had been forced into Confederate service, that he had “restrained many British subjects from entering the Confederate service,” and that he had not supplied the Confederate forces in any way.

At least a couple of the buildings visible in this famous view were owned by Peter Goolrick.

But, the envoy reported, there was much to belie Goolrick’s claims, and Ruggles rattled off a litany of acts and testimonials that firmly (and probably rightly) established Goolrick’s loyalty to the Confederacy.  He had indeed held supplies for the Confederate army and had secretly moved them.  He actively sought appointment of one of his sons in the army and “had travelled under the favor and safeguard of Confederate military authorities.” He had sworn his oath of allegiance to Richmond.  In Ruggles’s report back to Secretary Seward, he concluded that the acts taken by the Union army against Goolrick were “justifiable and necessary [as] military precaution, and his exemption from the penalty of military execution is solely attributable to the leniency with which the government of the United States deals with treason.”  Only because of the Union government’s inclination to treat with “comity and respect” the request from the British government for leniency would and should Goolrick be left alone.

Seward took the report to President Lincoln, who for a few minutes one afternoon pondered the fate of Peter Goolrick of Fredericksburg.  He concluded that, regardless of the validity of Goolrick’s claim to vice-consular status, the rebellious Irishman should not be permitted to continue in the post.  Seward so informed Stuart, the British diplomat.  No doubt it seemed the whole thing was a tempest about little, and Stuart agreed that Goolrick’s “consulate” in Fredericksburg should be closed.  Peter Goolrick’s role in a near “diplomatic incident”–and one of Fredericksburg’s most bizarre wartime episodes–came to a quiet close.

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