Henry Decie

This vignette of British yachtsman Henry Decie is excerpted from Ch. 5 of The Best Station of Them All

The British yacht Camilla was originally the America, built in New York in 1851 expressly to whip the British at the game of yacht racing. The America did her job, beating all comers and winning the unique silver cup that has since been the symbol of victory for the world’s racing yachts.1

Yacht America

America's Cup

At the end of the season she was sold, then sold again. Her third owner changed her name to Camilla, and in 1858 she was lying abandoned on the mud flats at Cowes, Isle of Wight. Shipyard owner Henry Piltcher took her to his yard on the Thames, rebuilt her from bilge to deck,2 and sold her to a man who called himself Henry Decie, and claimed to be an Irish lord. He may have been both or either, but more likely he was neither. Decie registered the Camilla in Portsmouth in the summer of 1860, identifying himself as Henry Edward Decie of Clipstone House, Northamptonshire. In reality, the Harrisons, not Decie, lived at Clipston (no e) House in the village of Clipston, Northamptonshire.3

Decie appeared from nowhere and moved easily into British yachting’s mainstream. He was a thoroughly likeable fellow—a charmer with a knack for misleading his acquaintances and covering his trail. In the late summer he was known to be racing the Camilla in England and cruising the Mediterranean…at the same time. To different people he showed different personalities. Some thought him an excellent seaman. Others thought he was careless and lacked good sense. He was formerly of the Royal Navy, he said, and it was whispered that his naval career had ended in disgrace.4

In the fall of 1860 Decie set sail, with considerable fanfare, on an extended cruise to the West Indies. In the Cape Verde Islands he heard of the secession of the Southern states, and set sail west to see the show, making port at Savannah on April 25. Somewhere he had acquired a buxom English girl named Henrietta, and four children.5 He introduced Henrietta as Mrs. Decie, and everyone assumed the children were his.

Decie sought out Savannah’s upper class, and attached himself to Englishman Charles Green, the wealthiest of Savannah’s cotton merchants. He dined with Savannah’s elite at Green’s splendorous in-town mansion, and heard it suggested he might sell his yacht, the old racer America, to the new Southern Confederacy.

Decie followed British newspaper reporter William Howard Russell to Montgomery and there, in secret negotiations, sold his yacht, the old champion America, to the Confederate States of America for $26,000. And he contracted to captain the vessel (and retain all appearances of English ownership) and carry Confederate officers to England. The Departments of State, Navy and War all had a share in buying the Camilla, but she would be the navy’s to manage.6

A few weeks later the newly-commissioned Major Edward Anderson found Captain Decie back in Savannah, lounging around the Pulaski House, looking dapper and nautical, taking his ease. He was dressed in a suit of white duck, said Anderson, and seemed to me about as well satisfied with himself as anybody I had seen.7

1. For background on the America see Charles Boswell, The America: The Story of the World’s Most Famous Yacht (New York: David McKay Company, Inc., 1967), pp. 124-25, and Charles H. Jenrich, The Schooner America: Mistress of Many in Boating, Vol. 36, no. 3 (September, 1974).

2. Jenrich, “Mistress”, pp. 41, 84.

3. Boswell,America, p. 118.

4. Ibid., pp. 119, 120.

5. Hoole, Foreign Agent, pp. 21-22; Thomas R. Neblett letter, Civil War Times Illustrated (Oct., 1996), p. 10.

6. On July 6, 1861 W.F. Alexander wrote Secretary Mallory: Mr. Browne requests me to ask you as you have charge of the purchase of the Camille (sic) if you would be kind enough to see that the Secretary of War has his payment ready today, that the recipient may not be kept waiting in town." Mallory’s endorsement reads: "Mrs. Dacie (sic) is in town awaiting payment the Navy and state have attended to their part. NARA, RG 45, Confederate Vessel Papers, microfilm M-909, C-206, Roll 8, # 181. See also Hoole, Foreign Agent, pp. 21-22.

7. Hoole, Foreign Agent, p. 19.