June 21, 2018
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History repeats: My ancestor wrote home about Crimean War in 1856

People are reflected in a shop window near a portrait of Russia's President Vladimir Putin in the Crimean city of Simferopol April 8, 2014.
By Karen E. Holmes, Special to the BDN

Events in and around the Crimean province of the Ukraine are escalating tensions between Russia and western nations, especially the United States. Russia with its aggressive military occupation has violated another nation’s sovereignty. It has gained the strategic and easy access to the straits between the Black Sea and the Mediterranean and to the Balkan region of Europe.

Past history has shown this is not the first attempt by Russia to seize control over the area. I learned about this from a letter written by my ancestor in 1858.

His name was James M. Miller, and he called Westport Island, in Lincoln County, his home port. But he was a seafarer, a world traveler. His ships left Maine with crews and various cargoes. Being a shrewd businessman as well as a sailor, he chartered or purchased cargoes he knew he would sell for a hefty profit in various world ports. Once the cargoes were delivered, he would invest the money in new cargoes and go off to other locations in North America, Europe, Asia and Africa.

In 1856, while at Genoa, Italy, he “chartered the Sardinian government at a good rate to carry government stores to the Crimea.” Sardinia is an Italian island.

Around that time, Italy, Great Britain, France and Turkey had formed a coalition and were at war with Russia. This Crimean War had begun in 1853 over who would gain control over the Balkan region of Europe and the Black Sea.

In November 1853, Russia had destroyed a fleet of Turkish ships. But Turkish troops defeated the Russians on land near the Alma River in 1854. Great Britain in a battle defeated the Russians but lost many men at the famous “Charge of the Light Brigade.”

Miller decided to carry war supplies for the coalition. His ship delivered the supplies to what was then Constantinople, which later became Istanbul, Turkey. During other trips, he was able to see the battlefields and witness the months-long siege by the Russians of the city of Sevastopol in Crimea.

Later in 1856, the Russians admitted defeat and withdrew from there and the entire Crimean area. The coalition had won. Miller described the jubilant and loud celebrations of the free Crimean people. Being an American, he understood.

But also being, as always, the opportunist businessman, Miller chartered to the French government to carry the equipment, soldiers and horses from Crimea.

He wrote: “I have the honor to be able to say that I commanded the first American merchant ship that ever visited Sevastopol.”

My ancestor’s presence in 1856 Crimea indicates people were participating in an emerging interdependence of worldwide economics. Also, locations such as Crimea were recognized as geographically and economically strategic for all time.

Peaceful international relationships must be maintained. This should be accomplished by diplomacy and not warfare. But during the Crimean War, the coalition fought Russia on land and sea. Hopefully, in 2014, regional and global conflict can be avoided.

When reading Miller’s letter, one gains an appreciation that outstanding individuals and ordinary people create history. Others can see my ancestor’s original letter at the Maine Maritime Museum in Bath.

Karen E. Holmes lives in Cooper.


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