“It was a supper of lobsters, not Eclipse, that beat us.”
— Honorable John Randolph of Roanoke
We Have Lost the Battle, But Are Not Vanquished
“I now embrace the earliest opportunity to inform you of the result of the Great Match,” wrote Colonel William Ransom Johnson to the Virginia Times from Long Island on 28 May 1823, the day following the race between the South’s Sir Henry and the North’s American Eclipse.
“We Southerus all assembled here in fine spirits and joined in the contest with strong resolution. – We have lost the battle, but are not vanquished – could we have had an open course to run upon, and not upon the crowd, as was the case, we should have beat the race, as ours is the best horse. The first heat was taken by Henry, and he closely contested the 2d and 3d.”
Johnson’s letter to the Virginia Times was reprinted by the New York Evening Post the week following the race. “We are somewhat surprised, we must confess, to find such a letter as the above running the rounds of the Southern papers,” said the Post.
“The course, we are free to admit, was not as clear as we would have wished to have seen it, but it is denied in the most direct manner that it was so obstructed at any time as to prevent Henry from winning either heat,” the Post noted about the state of the Union Course.
“It has been admitted on all hands, that the whole business was conducted in a manner fair and honorable.”
The Statesman echoed these sentiments, stating that any such obstruction to the course “must have operated equally to the disadvantage of Eclipse.”
Johnson’s hometown newspapers wrote graciously about the South’s devastating loss.
Although it must be acknowledged that the result is somewhat mortifying to Virginia pride, yet the pain of defeat is rendered less poignant by the recollection that the palm of victory is won by no foreign country, but by a member of our great family of confederated Republics – and the cup of our humiliation loses half its bitterness, when we observe, as in the instance before us, that our successful adversaries know how to make a generous use of victory.
— Petersburg Intelligencer
“The Southern Racers may say, ‘They have lost every thing besides their honor,'” wrote the Richmond Enquirer. “But for a combination of circumstances, it is probable that Henry would have been victorious.”
“He has lately run a four mile race at Petersburg – he had then to travel 400 miles to Long Island,” continued the Enquirer. “He had to carry eight lbs. more than at Petersburg. Eclipse too runs upon his own sands, and breathes his own air. Purdy rode him, who seems to share the palm: and Mr. Johnson was not present.”
It was not the state of the course or the amount of weight carried that was most often lamented by the Southern supporters of Sir Henry, but rather the missing expertise and management of the horse by the magnificent Napoleon of the Turf.
“I believe we lost by the absence on the occasion of one of Virginia’s best sons, who had a ‘rascally ague’ at the time,” the Honorable John Randolph of Roanoke said during a session of Congress.
From the day of the Great Race onward, Randolph “could never endure the sight of a lobster, because, as he stated, ‘it was a supper of lobsters, not Eclipse, that beat us. If Johnson had been there the day would have been ours.
As it is – Eclipse will gain more fame for beating such a horse as Henry than for winning the race.’”
The defeat of Southern pride was accompanied by profound gambling losses. More than $200,000 was estimated to have been bet at the Union – aside from the $20,000 lost by the Southern backers of Sir Henry, according to turf writer Cadwallader Colden – although the Enquirer’s more conservative estimate topped out at just $75,000 in total betting, including the stakes.
Niles’ Weekly Register compared the expense of the sectional race to that of a timely $7 million construction project: “The money expended or lost, and time wasted on the present occasion, is not far short in its value of half the cost of cutting the Erie Canal.”
Napoleon’s Next Challenge
On the day following the match – and possibly in the same sitting as he penned the letter to the Virginia Times – Johnson proposed a sectional rematch between Henry and Eclipse during the upcoming fall meeting over the Washington Course, increasing the stakes to “any sum from twenty to fifty thousand dollars.”
In his letter to John Cox Stevens, Esq., of the Northern syndicate, Johnson offered “the liberty of substituting at the starting post, in the place of Eclipse, any horse, mare, or gelding, foaled and owned on the northern and eastern side of the North River; provided, I have the liberty of substituting in the place of Henry, at the starting post, any horse, mare, or gelding, foaled and owned on the south side of the Potomac.”
Although the Post declared that the outcome of the Great Match “has shewn that the challenge may be again fearlessly repeated – ‘Long Island Eclipse against the World,’” Stevens, however, declined Colonel Johnson’s offer for a rematch.
For Mr. Van Ranst I answer, that he owes it to the association who have so confidently supported him, to the state at large, who have felt and expressed so much interest in his success, and to himself as a man, not totally divested of feeling, never, on any consideration, to risk the life or reputation of the noble animal, whose generous, and almost incredible exertions, have gained for the north so signal a victory, and for himself such well earned and never failing renown.
— John C. Stevens
Twists of Fate for Both Retirees
American Eclipse was immediately retired from the running turf and returned to the stud for a second and final time. By 1825, ownership of the celebrated horse was passed to John C. Stevens and his brother-in-law, Walter Livingston – at the price of $10,000, in order to keep him in the North.
“That is as it should be,” the Post remarked. “Eclipse would have been a loss to the State of New York and New Jersey that could have been difficult, if not impossible, to repair.” Livingston would later acquire full ownership of Eclipse at auction in 1827.
Yet in that same year, Sir Henry was lost to the North. John C. Stevens’ son, R.L. Stevens, purchased the stallion; Henry had trained one more season following the Great Match and was then retired to stud.
One of Henry’s most notable racers was Post Boy, “the great lion of the North.” As a five-year-old, he competed in the second Great Match Race between the North and South, held the following decade over the Union Course in May 1836. The South’s five-year-old John Bascombe, under the tutelage of none other than Colonel Johnson, defeated Post Boy in the four-miler in two heats.
In the stands of the Union that day sat Eclipse’s former owner C.W. Van Ranst, who awarded to the winner a fitting trophy: the saddle “worn by Eclipse in the first great strife between the northern and southern horses,” as well as the bridle and jockey’s cap, jacket and spurs.
As Sir Henry, the star of the South, went into the hands of the North, so would Eclipse eventually meet a similar fate.
“It may be stated that Johnson, more conservative than Randolph, did not place all of the responsibility for Henry’s defeat on the supper of lobsters,” wrote James Douglas Anderson, journalist and author of Making the American Thoroughbred. Colonel Johnson himself came to own a number of American Eclipse’s best stock in the years following the match.
And the great Napoleon of the Turf would ultimately purchase the champion of the North, bringing American Eclipse to stand in Virginia during the 1830’s.
Wrote Anderson of the Southern colonel, “Being a general of great sagacity and skill he turned to gathering in his own hands the armor of warfare with which he had been scourged.”
If you’ve missed any of the preceding parts in this series, read them here: Part I., Napoleon Challenges the North; Part II., Which Hero of Napoleon’s Southern Army Will Face Eclipse? and Part III. — See, the Conqu’ring Hero Comes!