By Bob Uphues
Riverside resident and former village president Paul Stack had no idea, back in 1999 when his wife, Nea, bought for him a book about a 19th-century steamship for a quarter from the Riverside Public Library discard bin, that it would turn into a two-decade obsession resulting in a 524-page historical novel.
On Thursday, July 18, Stack will talk about that obsession, his novel, and a little-known chapter of the Civil War during his presentation, "The Leviathan," at 7 p.m. in the Public Meeting Room of Riverside Public Library, 1 Burling Road.
The Leviathan in question was a British ironclad steamship — the largest built in the 19th century and one that would still dwarf most ships today — called The Great Eastern. Built originally to sail from England to Australia and back without having to refuel, the ship never made it to that continent.
"By tonnage, it was five times larger than anything ever built," said Stack in an interview in his home library, where an 1860s English lithograph of the ship hangs above the fireplace.
The book, bought for him in 1999, spurred Stack to research the ship, but he really got interested in 2001 when he purchased a sea shell from an Australian dealer. The Great Eastern was engraved on the gleaming white shell, and above it an engraving of the first tomb of Abraham Lincoln. Above that engraving of the tomb was a pair of crossing wings.
Stack wondered what the ship had to do with Lincoln; there didn't appear to be a connection. So he was determined to find out.
However, Stack learned through historical documents during years of research conducted online, both here in the U.S. and in England, that the ship might have played a pivotal and disastrous role in the U.S. Civil War had those plans not been scuttled by an unknown person aboard ship in the fall of 1861.
A Confederate sympathizer in the U.S. State Department who later would be CSA's emissary to England, entered into a conspiracy to use The Great Eastern to breach the U.S. Navy's blockade of the South, an action that would have triggered Great Britain's entry into the War Between the States.
"The South had secretly entered into a treaty with England called the Declaration of Paris, and in that treaty it said that if a blockade was not effective, it was not legal. If it was not legal, then the British had the right to lift the blockade," said Stack. And the way you showed a blockade was not effective was that you brought in a large ship into the blockaded port."
While the premise of the book is based on historical documents, including letters, ship's passenger lists, newspaper articles and diplomatic correspondence, the book is classified as a novel because Stack had to fill in some gaps in the record, particularly the role a specific but unknown passenger on the ship, who died while disabling the ship before it could get to the U.S.
Stack has concluded he was a fugitive slave recruited by those loyal to the U.S. for that purpose.
Stack also commissioned a website for the book september1861.com, where you can see images of the ship, the main players in the story and the seashell — did it belong to one of the U.S. patriots who foiled the South's plan? — which got the whole research project started, as well as 1,200 pages of source documents Stack used as the foundation of the book.
Self-published through Archway Publishing, The Leviathan is also available online through Amazon and Barnes and Noble.