December 12, 1861 (Thursday)
It had taken the better part of two weeks for the demands of England’s Foreign Secretary John Russell to reach the shores of America. Confederate envoys to England and France, James Mason and John Slidell, had been taken off a British ship on November 8th, over a month ago. With news traveling from England to the United States only as fast as the swiftest steamer, this could indeed be a long process.
But on the morning of this date, the Hansa glided into New York Harbor.1 She carried the letters from Foreign Secretary Russell to Lord Richard Lyons, the British minister to the United States. Lyons was to convey to Seward that England was giving the United States one week to release Mason and Slidell. If the demands went unanswered, Lyons was to leave the states for London.
Along with the demand came letters from Charles Frances Adams, United States ambassador to England, to Secretary of State William Seward, informing him of Britain’s reaction to the Trent Affair. Other letters arrived as well, and soon the press turned its whole attention to the international crisis.2
For the time being, however, the press on both sides of the Atlantic would beat the drums of war and indignation, while neither Secretary Seward nor Minister Lord Lyons said a word about such matters. Since the seizure, both had been tight-lipped, waiting for the official British response. Though it was now on the American continent, it would not arrive in Washington for another seven days. The waiting would wear on Seward.3
Skirmish in Western Virginia – Preparations for the Next Day
General Stonewall Jackson had requested the assistance of General Lorning and his Army of the Northwest over three weeks past. Jackson, wanting a winter campaign against Romney, possibly taking it to the hills of western Virginia, desperately needed more men to pull it off. Loring had agreed, though reluctantly, and was slowly moving out of his camp east of the Greenbrier River.
With Loring headed towards Jackson, he left a small force of 1,200 under Col. Edward Johnson at the summit of Allegheny Mountain, along the Staunton-Parkersburg Turnpike. Opposing him was a Union force of 2,000 under General Robert Milroy at Cheat Mountain, twenty miles west.
Since the Battle of Greenbrier River, Confederate and Union pickets had done little more than take a few pot shots at each other. General Milroy was not content in simply building winter quarters while the pickets amused themselves. He had devised a plan to drive the Rebels from their camp for good.
On this date, he sent two companies of Indiana troops to secure the abandoned Confederate fort along the Greenbrier. Waiting for them, however, were 106 Confederates. After a quick ambush, with the Federals sustaining minor casualties, the Rebels scurried from the old fort into the hills. From there, they could see Milroy’s entire force marching down the pike. The scouts quickly made their way back to Camp Allegheny to tell Col. Johnson the news.4
Meanwhile, General Milroy had secured the former Confederate fort, finding it full of the discarded personal effects of its recent inhabitants. Inscribed Bibles, letters from home and other such items humanized the enemy to the Union soldiers this cold evening.
They would not, however, be encamping here. Milroy’s plan, which was, thus far, going according to schedule, allowed for but a rest and a meal before the march towards the Rebels. He had decided to split his force, sending three regiments in a direct assault against the Confederate right, while the other two took a longer route, falling upon the enemy’s left and rear.
The march, which would be either eight or sixteen miles, depending upon the route, would take all night. Milroy’s Federals would be in position to strike at 4am. The Confederates, however, would be waiting.5