Defending Residents Abroad: The Almost Abduction of Martin Koszta in Smyrna

Defending Residents Abroad: The Almost Abduction of Martin Koszta in Smyrna

Since 1950, the United States has maintained the Sixth Fleet in the Mediterranean, headquartered today in Naples, to protect U.S. interests. The fleet has been instrumental in recent struggles against ISIS. However, the U.S. presence in the Mediterranean is as old as the country. Thomas Jefferson had dispatched ships to the region to deal with the Barbary Pirate state of Tripoli in 1801. When Europe’s great power framework briefly disintegrated during the Crimean War (1853-1856), the United States seemed poised to take advantage of this European distraction and make the country’s presence felt in the region, defending its citizens abroad.

We often think today of the United States’s role and involvement in the world as a modern phenomenon, as its aircraft carrier groups plow the world’s oceans to project the country’s imperial ambitions. However, the United States was not as isolationist in the nineteenth century as popular myth wants us to think. What almost transpired in the port of Smyrna (modern Izmir) in 1853, when a U.S. warship attacked the warship of another country in violation of international law, may sound familiar to Civil War era historians. In October 1864, the commander of the Wachusett attacked and captured the C.S.S. Florida in Brazil’s neutral port of Salvador, Bahia province.[1] We tend to treat the Bahia incident as unusual, but the events in Smyrna illustrate the continuity of a belligerent U.S. gunboat diplomacy to protect U.S. interests and citizens/residents abroad.

Furthermore, the current administration has done little to protect U.S. nationals overseas. There is the recent reluctance to defend U.S. citizens and permanent residents abroad and to bring assassins to justice, such as in the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, a U.S. permanent resident. The current COVID-19 pandemic has brought many news stories regarding the failure of the State Department to repatriate U.S. citizens stranded abroad. However, it might be worth remembering the lengths to which the United States went to defend and protect citizens and residents abroad in the 1850s. History can illustrate the normal and abnormal of our modern situation.

Smyrna (Izmir, Turkey), c. 1860-1890. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

On June 21, 1853, Martin Koszta, having recently returned from a trip to Constantinople, was attacked and abducted from Cristo’s café in Smyrna by a group of armed ruffians hired by the Austrian consul general, Peter Ritter von Weckbecker. They threw Koszta into a boat waiting at the quay and rowed to the Austrian brig E. K. Hussar. Koszta was in a peculiar situation, since only two years earlier, a similar incident had ended with the “bullet-ridden body” of an abducted Hungarian appearing in an alley in Trieste.[2] Abductions were a scheme the Austrians had developed shortly after the Hungarian uprising (1848-1849).

During the uprising, Koszta had joined the Hungarian nationalists and served in the Hungarian army. After the revolution’s defeat, Koszta went into exile in the United States. He made his declaration of intention to become a U.S. citizen in July 1852. For about a year, he worked various jobs around New York. Then, before obtaining a passport and citizenship, he went on this fateful trip to the Ottoman Empire.[3]

When he heard of Koszta’s abduction, Edward S. Offley, the U.S. consul in Smyrna, faced a dilemma. He knew that Weckbecker had orchestrated the abduction, but Offley had no U.S. naval support to demand Koszta’s release.[4] Nevertheless, he had to find a way to protect the Hungarian from Austrian repressions.

Watercolor of the sloop U.S.S. St. Louis by Gunner Moses Lane. Painted between 1852 and 1855. Courtesy of the Hissem-Montague Family Genealogy Page.

Luckily, the next day, the U.S.S. St. Louis under the command of Duncan N. Ingraham arrived in Smyrna. Only a few days earlier, the St. Louis had assisted U.S. Minister to the Ottoman Empire George P. Marsh in Athens, protecting the interests of a U.S. missionary.[5] Once the ship put into port, Offley came on board and informed Ingraham of the recent developments.[6] The consul and the naval officer went to Captain August von Schwarz of the Hussar to interrogate Koszta. They were uncertain if his documents stating his intention to become a citizen of the United States were sufficient for them to demand his release from the Austrians.[7] They decided to await instructions from Constantinople.

The U.S. chargé d’affaires John P. Brown, and Austrian minister Karl Ludwig Freiherr von Bruck in Constantinople, had to negotiate the delicate citizenship question involved with Austria claiming that Koszta had “never ceased to be a subject.”[8]

Ever since the creation of the United States, the country had to protect its naturalized citizens abroad against European assumptions that a person never ceased to be a subject. These legal problems underlay the impressment issue that eventually contributed to the War of 1812. By the mid-nineteenth century, U.S. representatives often had to protect citizens against unfulfilled military service demands in their home states. These legal questions of citizenship remained contentious and required much work of U.S. representatives.

However, Brown quickly realized that the Austrian minister stalled to remove Koszta on the next Lloyd steamer to Trieste. As a precaution, Ingraham moved the St. Louis between the Hussar and the Lloyd steamer, loading his cannons in a blatant violation of Ottoman neutrality.[9] Ingraham issued an ultimatum to Schwarz to hand over Koszta, or the St. Louis would open fire and forcefully remove the Hungarian. To avoid such an outcome, Offley and Weckbecker came to a last-minute agreement placing Koszta in French custody until the legations in Constantinople could sort out the legal question of Koszta’s citizenship.[10]

Photograph of George Perkins Marsh of Vermont. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Desiring a quick settlement, on August 4, 1853, Marsh, who had recently returned from Athens, suggested to the Austrian minister that the consuls should put Koszta on the next vessel departing for the United States. If Koszta left the ship in any European port and terminated his passage, he would forfeit the protection of the United States and Austria could do with him as she desired.[11] The Austrian legation submitted the offer to Vienna for consideration, and on September 14, Marsh reported their approval.[12] After a brief delay, Koszta was on a ship to the United States.[13]

In the 1850s, trigger-happy naval commanders and diligent diplomatic representatives stood ready to defend U.S. citizens and their rights abroad. Where usually the defense of citizen rights involved lengthy diplomatic exchanges and elaborate legal arguments of the difference between subject and citizen, rarely did naval commanders bring the United States to the brink of war with another European country. Considering his origin, Koszta was lucky that the U.S.S. St. Louis prevented his abduction and murder by the Austrian authorities. Unfortunately, more recently, Jamal Khashoggi was not so lucky, nor are thousands of U.S. citizens stranded abroad. In times of great aberration, it is worth remembering that there was a time where the United States was willing to take on a great power to protect the life and liberty of its people abroad.

 

[1] Craig L. Symonds, The Civil War at Sea (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012), 102-103.

[2] Griffith to Brown, June 24, 1853, Despatches from U.S. Ministers to Ottoman Empire/Turkey, National Archives and Records Administration, Washington, D.C.; Andor Klay, Daring Diplomacy: The Case of the First American Ultimatum (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1957), 20-36.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Klay, Daring Diplomacy, 40-44.

[5] Angelo Repousis, “‘The Devil’s Apostle’: Jonas King’s Trial against the Greek Hierarchy in 1852 and the Pressure to Extend U.S. Protection for American Missionaries Overseas,” Diplomatic History 33 (November 2009): 807-37.

[6] Griffith to Brown, June 24, 1853, and Ingraham to Dobbin, June 24, 1853, Despatches from U.S. Ministers to Ottoman Empire/Turkey, NARA. While John Griffith writes in his report that he informed Ingraham of the developments, Ingraham relates that he arrived on June 23 and not June 22 as the consul implies, and that he sent for the consul to get accurate information. These inconsistencies do not distract from the main narrative, which is similar.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Bruck to Brown June 27, 1853, Despatches from U.S. Ministers to Ottoman Empire/Turkey, NARA.

[9] March to Webster, August 21, 1852, Despatches from U.S. Ministers to Ottoman Empire/Turkey, NARA.

[10] Offley to Brown, June 30, 1853, Offley and Weckbecker to Pichon, July 2, 1843, Despatches from U.S. Ministers to Ottoman Empire/Turkey, NARA.

[11] Marsh to Marcy, August 4, 1853, Despatches from U.S. Ministers to Ottoman Empire/Turkey, NARA.

[12] Marsh to Marcy, September 14, 1853, Ibid.

[13] Marsh to Marcy, October 20, 1853, Ibid.

Niels Eichhorn

Niels Eichhorn is an assistant professor of history at Middle Georgia State University. He holds a Ph.D. in History from the University of Arkansas. His first book, Liberty and Slavery: European Separatists, Southern Secession, and the American Civil War, was published by LSU Press in 2019. He has published articles on Civil War diplomacy in Civil War History and American Nineteenth Century History.

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