A Confederate in King Ismail's Court
By Jimmy Dunn
A Tale from Cairo, Biography of a City by James Aldridge.
One of the most interesting periods of Cairo's history was near the completion of the Suez Canal. This was a period of great celebrations, and while the period would put an end to Khedive Ismail eventually, it was fun while it lasted.
Ismail, who built the Suez Canal, was struggling with debt to Europe, and a possible takeover of Egypt by European interests. If, for instance, he could have depended on his army he would at least have had some sort of support against the European embrace and against rising popular hatred. If he'd been a Mameluke sultan he would simply have purchased a new supply of Mamelukes to replace his corrupt Turkish and Albanian officers. But the Mameluke system was dead, so he looked around for other outsiders and he found them in the United States of America.
There was a lot of sense in this idea because American officers in the 1860's knew more about modern war then any soldier in Europe. The Civil War, the first modern war, was just over, and the Southern states were full of officers and gentlemen who were penniless and futureless but not yet finished with soldiering. In 1869, Ismail employed an American officer, Captain Thadeus P. Mott of the late Union army to engage American officers for the Egyptian army. Within the year, Mott brought to Cairo an Indian figher named General W. Loring, two more generals, nine colonels, two majors and a doctor and a professor of geology. All but four of the soldiers had served in the Confederate army, so they were mostly Southerners.
They brought a different flavor to Cairo, and a since of the American wild west, even though they most often dressed in an Arab style. It would seem that one of the most colorful characters was a Mjaor Morgan. One night, for instance, he was at the Theatre Francais with General Loring and another American officer, Colonel Chaillesion. The prefect of Cairo's police, Ali Bey, who was wearing a very fancy uniform, came into the buvette and ordered Major Morgan, who was after all a junior officer in service to the Khedive, to get him a glass of water. Morgan was incredulous. He carefully filled his glass with water and threw it in Ali Bey's face, and then slapped the Bey hard to make sure the insult was understood. Ali Bey hurried up the steps to the royal box, furious, and reported the matter to Ismail, who more or less said, "Serves you right," and added, "I did not bring Americans here to wait on you... Go and ask his pardon," which Ali Bey did.
Morgan, who was only twenty-five, had been a midshipman at Annapolis and he was a remarkable horseman. On one occasion he was out riding in the usual society parade on the Shubra road when a ladies' coupe with the Khedivial crown on the door passed him, followed by two mounted eunuchs with drawn swords. The rule was that men, at least gentlemen, should look away when a lady's carriage passed, but Morgan rode close enough to take a look inside and saw a pretty girl who suddenly gave him some roses and a kerchief, which so surprised Morgan that he let them fall. Everybody in the street was now aware that someone of the royal harem had just flirted with an American officer. Morgan did not hesitate, however. He snatched the flowers off the ground without getting out of his saddle and then took off on his horse, which happened to be the thoroughbred being trained to carry the Empress Eugenie when she came form Paris for the canal celebrations. Morgan was instantly chased by the two guards, with scimitars in the air, and they wanted his head.
At the point where the Shubra road crosses the railway line there used to be a double railway gate (now there is a bridge), and these gates happen to be closed as Morgan arrived at the gallop. He dug his spurs in and cleared the first gate. In the true style of the Wild West, a train also happened to be coming along. So Morgan dug his spurs into his horse again, and though the run was short he cleared the other gate, putting the train between himself and his pursuers. He got away, but he had to hide in the Russian Embassy for days, where he burned the kerchief and the roses and enjoyed himself with his Russian friends until it had all blown over.
In the end, the American's were not able to save Ismail from his growing debt to the Europeans, but they certainly spiced up life in Old Cairo for a while. For additional information, see the William Wing Loring Website.