The Perkins Claim

by Brock Pate

Shortly before the end of the war, in June of 1855, a man seeking munitions for Russia approached 31-year-old Benjamin W. Perkins in New York City.[1] This meeting took Perkins down a winding path of embarrassment, financial bankruptcy, and a long court battle for the rest of his life. That man was named Charles Rackelwicz and according to Perkins, he displayed sufficient documentation to appear credible. Rackelwicz encouraged Perkins to consider the deal, but Perkins hesitated. Perkins then told Rackelwicz that he would agree to it only if he were to be in the council of the Russian Minister Baron de Stoeckl.[2]

     Eventually, Perkins and his associate Dr. Walter Kidder were invited to a hotel where they would meet both Rackelwicz and de Stoeckl.[3] Perkins claimed that de Stoeckl assured him of the legitimacy and profitability of their request and asked Perkins to look into the deal and come up with several plans for how much it would cost. Perkins returned with two plans and, reportedly, de Stoeckl guaranteed that Russia would accept one. De Stoeckl also explicitly requested the plans in writing as he planned to return to Russia. Before de Stoeckl left, he encouraged Perkins to begin manufacturing.[4] Perkins then began working to fulfill the order.

Why Perkins?

Scholars know very little known about Benjamin Perkins and even less about his wife Anna outside of the context of this lawsuit. Why a “master mariner,” who “never owned a barrel of powder or a gun for sale in his life” attracted attention of Russian agents remains unknown.[5] It certainly begs the questions of “why” and “how”. How does a man who had never manufactured or sold gun powder or guns for that matter, turn into a dealer seemingly overnight? Also, if Perkins never had any experience, why would he be willing to invest so much into something he knew so little about? Perkins’ lawyer William Evarts argues that “for reasons quite sufficient, they desired such a man, being a practical ship-captain, to embark in this business, in order to secure the prompt and speedy delivery of such munitions of war at the earliest day, in Russia.”[6] The fact that these questions have no answer and that the merits of the case are often confusing, challenges credibility. Also, one wonders why the Russian government would seek out a man of Perkins’ stature for help with such a task, when there are far more qualified munitions dealers in the United States.

An additional problem still remains with the ordeal. France and England had both committed to a blockade for the very reason of people like Perkins. Evarts asks why, if Perkins “was a man of a particle of sense… would [he] have undertaken to ship munitions of war through the hostile fleets of England and France…without some pre-existing contract with someone authorized to buy, so as to know what disposition to make of such articles when he should arrive in Russia?” [7] Evarts argued that there would have to be a contract or else Perkins would not commit to such a task. However, it seems ill-conceived that Perkins would sail with such munitions through those conditions even with a contract. Nothing guaranteed that he could pass the blockade and the allied powers would surely take all his munitions without reparations. It certainly raises some level of doubt as no person with a “particle of sense” would have accepted the plan in the first place. This perspective undoubtedly added to the mounting skepticism during his suits.

The Deal

Russia had requested one hundred fifty-four tons of black powder, an amount that eventually was broken down to seventeen cents per pound by the supplier. The supplier was “Oriental Powder Company” and had been headed by G. G. Newhall.[8] Newhall told Kidder who had been the initiator of the agreement that the powder would be ready before sixty days. The total cost of this trade cost Perkins close to sixty thousand dollars.[9] Having no way to ship the powder, Perkins decided to purchase his own vessel, the Sea Breeze. Perkins bought the barque vessel to ship the order of powder to Russia.[10] Around this time, Perkins met with de Stoeckl again, who had no answer for which plan would be accepted, but reaffirmed that one would be.[11]

From here, matters only got worse for Perkins. Manufacture of the powder was completed and ready to be shipped. Again, de Stoeckl assured Perkins of the agreement and that he would see no problem once his powder left port. Then, without warning, de Stoeckl removed himself from the negotiation altogether. He left Rackelwicz and a new character, Captain Otto Lilienfeldt, to continue the negotiations.[12] Again, with great reservation Perkins decided to meet with Lilienfeldt as he now had the black powder to be sold and was at this point becoming inpatient. Lilienfeldt immediately tried to alter the terms of the verbal agreement that Stoeckl had promised.

What is absolute vital to know about this situation is that there was at no point a written contract to be had between any of those involved. The only thing that was ever explicitly written was the plans that Perkins delivered to de Stoeckl in the beginning. This lack of proof would the ultimate downfall of Perkins and his claim. The fact that Perkins would agree to such a deal without ever having a written contract is telling. However, the reason the two parties never signed one is because Stoeckl guaranteed that a plan would be agreed to and that he just needed the powder so they could pay him and receive as soon as he was able to ship.

The Second Deal

Captain Lilienfeldt quickly made apparent to Perkins that he would not receive compensation for the investment he had made in the powder. Nonetheless, Lilienfeldt offered Perkins a new deal. The second deal tasked Perkins to supply thirty-five thousand rifles to Russia. It is believed that Perkins agreed to the terms of the second deal in order to get his original investment back from Russia.[13] This new plan ultimately ended in failure. Perkins invested an additional three hundred thousand on the arms for Lilienfeldt.[14] The second deal was different though, as Perkins claimed that he learned from the mistake with de Stoeckl and had a written contract with Lilienfeldt.[15] Once again, Russian agents promised Perkins would be paid once he had his weapons ready and shipped.

Until the moment of Perkins and Lilienfeldt signing the second contract, Perkins had still been solely focused on getting reparations from the first contract. In the suit, Perkins claims he did finally meet Stoeckl but well after de Stoeckl had obviously dodged him. When he finally did meet with him again, de Stoeckl came across as though he wanted nothing to do with Perkins and their contract.[16] This pushed Perkins to the point he seriously considered traveling to Russia to make an outlandish attempt at preserving the deal. This attempt would be abandoned once the second contract was signed.

As soon as he signed the second contract, Lilienfeldt began backing out. He wrote a letter telling Perkins to halt the deal, but soon after renewed it. [17] One would imagine that the events surrounding the first contract and now the rising uncertainty in the second, would prompt a sound businessman to cease all dealings. Perkins was clearly not a sound businessman. Perkins then filled the order, but to his surprise the peace treaty settling the Crimean War was signed in April 1856. Russia no longer needed any munitions, and certainly not munitions from Benjamin Perkins.

Lilienfeldt then left the United States with the war over. Perkins’ only recourse was to take his problem to court. 


[1] David Hunter Miller, The Alaska Treaty (Washington, DC: National Archives and Records Administration, 1985), 168.

[2] William Maxwell Evarts, In the Matter of Benjamin W. Perkins Against the Russian Government (Washington, DC, 1860), 2.

[3] Baron Eduard de Stoeckl (1804-1892), Russian Minister to the United States who negotiated the sale of Alaska.

[4] Ibid, 2-3.

[5] Ibid, 38-39.

[6] Ibid, 2.

[7] Ibid, 39.

[8] Gilbert Grafton Newhall (1801-1863), gunpowder merchant based in Salem, Massachusetts.

[9] David Hunter Miller, The Alaska Treaty, 167- 169.

[10] Benjamin W. Perkins, Claim of Captain Benjamin W. Perkins Against the Government of Russia, in the Matter of Two Contracts Entered into the Years 1855 and 1856 (G.S. Gideon, printer, 1858), 6-7.

[11] Ibid, 7.

[12] Ibid, 8-9.

[13] Norman E. Saul, Distant Friends: The United States and Russia: 1763-1867 (Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas, 1991), 254-255.

[14] David Hunter Miller, The Alaska Treaty, 169.

[15] [15] Benjamin W. Perkins, Claim of Captain Benjamin W. Perkins Against the Government of Russia, 15.

[16] Lee Farrow, “A Reexamination of the Perkins Claim,” in New Perspectives on Russian-American Relations, vol. 1 (New York, NY: Routledge, 2016), pp. 74-87.

[17] Benjamin W. Perkins, Claim of Captain Benjamin W. Perkins Against the Government of Russia, 16

[18] Saul, Distant Friends, 255-256

[19] Anna B. Perkins, The Claim of Anna B. Perkins Against the Russian Governmnet (Intelligencer Printing House, 1867).

[20] Benjamin W. Perkins, Claim of Captain Benjamin W. Perkins Against the Government of Russia, 22

[21] Lee Farrow, “A Reexamination of the Perkins Claim”

[22] ED: Cassius Clay (1810-1903), former slave-owner from Kentucky turned abolitionist, Clay served as ambassador to Russia during the 1860s.

[23] William H. Seward (Washington, DC, n.d.).

[24] Lee Farrow, “A Reexamination of the Perkins Claim”

[25] Ibid

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