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First Sergeant
Aug 6, 2016
How did a gentleman born in France in 1822 become involved in an incident that would cause an international crisis during the civil war? Meet Charles Camille Heidsieck - - - - -


**Photograph - Vinespair

He was the son of a flamboyant champagne merchant and was a “chip off the old block”. In the mid-1850’s, Charlie Heidsieck, an expert marketer in his own right, saw a potential business opportunity in the United States. He landed in New York and his business grew. He was met with such great success, that he acquired the moniker “Champagne Charlie”. However war was coming and in 1861, when he heard that the Civil War had begun, Charlie (then in France) made a hasty trip to New York to collect money due him, but he would never expect what would happen to him and the diplomatic crisis he would be involved in.


From Pinterest - (Montage Madness)

Charlie Attempts To Collect His Money

There are many different versions of what happened when he got to New York, but one thing everyone agrees with, Charlie had a difficult time collecting his money. With the war gearing up in the country, his New York Sales agent was not going to be ready to hand over money, especially money that was due him from his sale of champagne in the states that were in rebellion, First, the agent claimed Congress had passed a new law that absolved Northerners from having to pay any debts incurred while doing business in the south (that was not a true statement). There was a claim that his American partner just out-and-out lied to him to avoid any payments due him and another report claimed that it was actually a competitor that “convinced” the sales agent to tell Charlie a lie in an attempt to destroy Champagne Charlie.

But one thing was clear!! Charlie is in trouble - Charlie needs his money.

Charlie had no other option than to head south and try to collect his money there. Of course with the situation that the war created, he had to travel in secrecy and arrived in the spring of 1862. Upon arriving in New Orleans, imagine his disappointment when he saw the condition the city was in and he soon discovered that his debtors had no money to pay him, and they had bigger issues threatening them - the Union Navy and the Union Army.

Charlie Goes to Mobile Alabama

One of his merchants offered to give Charlie the only payment he could - a warehouse full of cotton in exchange for payment, the only problem - it had to be smuggled out of Mobile, Alabama. However, that sounded like a good deal as cotton was valuable, except for those Union ships that were patrolling in the Gulf of Mexico watching for Rebel ships. Charlie decided that he would split the cotton and had 2 Confederate ships carry them out. To his further disappointment, both Confederate blockade runners his cotton was packed in could not outrun the Union ships; and alas all his cargo was destroyed.

Charlie wanted to get back to New Orleans, but with no money from the sale of his champagne and no cotton to pay his debts, he had problems. At this point he just wanted out of the United States and go home to France.

“The Heidsieck Incident”

The French Consul in Mobile devised a plan that was appealing to Charlie. Why not carry a diplomatic pouch when you leave Mobile, and deliver the package to the consulate in New Orleans and they would secure passage there? The hope was to get Champagne Charlie to Cuba or Mexico and then eventually make he could make his way home. It must have seemed the perfect solution - what could possible go wrong?

Unfortunately for Champagne Charlie, good luck was not working out for him.

On April 29, 1862, Union Naval Commander David Farragut, along with 250 marines from the USS Hartford, planted the “stars and stripes” in New Orleans, and on May 1, 1862, political and Union General, Benjamin Butler along with 5,000 Union troops occupied New Orleans. Charles Heidsieck arrived in New Orleans - May 5, 1862.


Photo - New England Historical Society

Charlie was discovered carrying his diplomatic pouch and its’ content could get him killed, for, among the many little "gems" he carried documents from French textile manufacturers expressing their desire to supply the Confederate army with uniforms. Mr. Heidsieck is arrested and General Butler orders him held at Fort Jackson - the charge - a Confederate spy.

The French Consul demanded his immediate release, General Butler is forced to explain what was going on to the Secretary of State William Seward, and we have developing what will be known as “The Heidsieck Incident”. It was reported that Napoleon III personally wrote to President Abraham Lincoln regarding the “Incident.”

General Butler communicates to Washington

“I arrested him as a spy – I confined him as a spy – I should have tried him as a spy, and hanged him upon conviction as a spy, if I had not been interfered with by the government at Washington. He had when arrested a canvas wrapper of the size of a peck measure firmly bound up with cords covering letters from the French, Swiss, Prussian, and Belgian consuls, also a great number of letters to persons mostly rebels, or worse, intermeddling foreigners containing contraband intelligence.”**

In November, 1862, Champagne Charlie is released and returned to France in frail “health, bankrupt and demoralized”. He claimed, until his dying day, that he was unaware of what he was carrying when General Butler arrested him. He said he was innocent of all charges of spying - he only wanted his money.

Champagne Charlies Always Lands On His Feet

There is one more chapter in Champagne Charlie’s life. It seems his New York sales agent had a brother that felt guilty about the unpaid debts. He discovered some missionaries traveling to France and he gave them an envelope to deliver to Charlie.

At first it appeared the envelope only contained worthless paper - a deed to some land that was located in the Colorado territory. However, after the war, this worthless deed, proved to be a gold mine - or should I say a “silver” mine, and the sale of this “worthless deed” would produce a small fortune for Champagne Charlie. He sold the deeds and with the money was able to re-build his business. Charles Heidsieck died in 1893 with his business among the worlds leading producers of champagne. All thanks to the land he sold in what we know today as - - - Denver, Colorado.

So a toast to Champagne Charlie - a man that always lands of his feet!!


Wikipedia - The Battle of New Orleans

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Forum Host
May 7, 2016
Great Story, especially dealing with the beast or as we call call him here in the South "Spoons Butler" but that name is for another tread.
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Fewer ads. Lots of American Civil War content!