Burnside Plans His Own Amphibious Assault; Buell Has a Better Idea in Kentucky

December 29, 1861 (Sunday)

Since the Union defeat at the Battle of Bull Run, Ambrose Burnside had been promoted from colonel to brigadier-general and placed in command of the rawest recruits in the Army of the Potomac, under General George McClellan. Quickly growing bored of being little more than a glorified drill sergeant, Burnside, along with many others, noticed McClellan’s lack of forward motion and began to develop a plan of his own.1

Burnside wanted to create a few brigades made up specifically of men from the coast of New England to act as an amphibious assault team. Many of these men were sailors whose lives revolved around the ocean and boats. McClellan, who would later take credit for the idea, was sold, as was the War Department. Burnside was authorized to raise fifteen regiments, and went to New York City to do so.2

The months of November and December were mostly spent in the city raising and accepting regiments into his command, as well as securing vessels for the forthcoming assault. After General Thomas Sherman launched his amphibious attack upon Port Royal, at the end of October, Burnside began moving his regiments to Annapolis, Maryland. The naval arm of his command was assembling at the New York Naval Yard.

For a time, he considered attacking the Texas coast, but then the idea of hitting North Carolina crept into the picture and such an objective sent Burnside on a straight course. By December 20th, he, and the rest of his staff, were in Annapolis celebrating an early Christmas as the three brigades of Burnside’s Amphibious Division drilled on the Naval Academy’s parade grounds.

He had wanted the expedition to be under way before the holiday, but delays in New York dictated otherwise.

On this date, General Burnside met in Washington with President Lincoln and General George McClellan, who was suffering greatly from typhoid fever. There, they hammered down the specific plans of the landing. The final orders would be issued by McClellan, as he was the Army’s commander-in-chief, but while Burnside was ready to move out, McClellan was not.3

What McClellan really wanted was to confuse the Rebels to his front, around Washington. To accomplish this, he wished to use Burnside’s assault, as well as General Don Carlos Buell’s army in Kentucky as feints, hoping to spread the enemy out a bit. He wanted both of these operations to happen simultaneously.4

Since before the eastern Tennessee bridge burnings in early November, both Lincoln and McClellan had been clamoring for a Union advance from Kentucky to come to the aid of the Unionists burning the bridges. Just as General Sherman did before him, General Buell balked at sending a force into Tennessee.

McClellan had repeatedly asked him when such an attack would come, but Buell always gave excuses as to why it couldn’t happen. McClellan wired him again on this date, the same date as the meeting with General Burnside and President Lincoln.

“Can you tell me about when and in what force you will be in Eastern Tennessee?” asked McClellan, passing the buck as he explained that Tennessee senators had “President Lincoln’s sympathies excited.” Buell was also urged to “get the Eastern Tennessee arms and clothing into position for distribution as soon as possible.”5

Buell, who had not yet even begun to move, seems to have been making some preliminary plans to do so. He sent a dispatch to General Schoepf, commanding in Lebanon, Kentucky, that he planned to intercept the Rebels, who he believed were moving north towards Columbia. To Schoepf’s division commander, General George Thomas, also in Lebanon, he sent a detailed map showing the moves that needed to be made to cut off the Rebels. The Confederates in question were, more or less, blocking the advance into eastern Tennessee.

To McClellan, Buell wired that he had 12,000 poised to invade eastern Tennessee, but complained of transportation and that the enemy was not idle.

Later that night, Buell wrote a longer letter to his old friend explaining again why it was taking so long. “It startles me to think how much time has elapsed since my arrival and to find myself still in Louisville,” confessed Buell. While still holding the advance into eastern Tennessee as important, he began to shift his focus upon Columbus and the Tennessee and Cumberland Rivers in the central and western portions of the state.

“It is my conviction that all the force that can possibly be collected should be brought to bear on that front of which Columbus and Bowling Green may be said to be the flanks,” countered Buell. “The center, that is, the Cumberland and Tennessee where the railroad crosses them, is now the most vulnerable point. I regard it as the most important strategical point in the whole field of operations.”6

The area that was becoming the focus for Buell was guarded by Confederate Forts Donelson and Henry. Buell was not alone in this theory, but General McClellan and President Lincoln still wished to aid the Unionists in eastern Tennessee. Their desire to do so would not soon abate.

  1. Burnside by William Marvel, UNC Press, 1991. []
  2. The Civil War in North Carolina by John G., Barrett, Chapel Hill, 1963. []
  3. Burnside by William Marvel, UNC Press, 1991. []
  4. Army of the Potomac, McClellan Takes Command by Russel H. Beatie. []
  5. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 7, p926. []
  6. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 7, p520-521. []

The Eugenia Smith Affair?

December 7, 1861 (Saturday)

The USS Santiago de Cuba, a wooden, ten-gun, side-wheel steamer, had left Havana on November 29, in pursuit of the British ship Eugenia Smith. Under the command of Daniel Ridgeley, the Santiago had been patrolling the waters between Southern ports and Cuba. By the end of November, Ridgeley and his ship had discovered several English ships, supposedly laden with ammunition and heading to Matamoras, Mexico.

Small “fore-and-aft schooners” flying the British colors would often sail towards Matamoras with the hope of running the Union blockade. If that was impossible, they would dock in Mexico and transport the contraband across the Rio Grande into Texas.

Along with the probable armaments, a Rebel purchasing agent named J.W. Zacharie was said to be on board. Zacharie, from New Orleans, had been in Havana purchasing arms from the British to be used by the Confederacy. Ridgeley was determined to track down the Eugenia Smith.1

Immediately, they set sail for the mouth of the Rio Grande, but somehow passed the Eugenia Smith, before reaching it. Figuring that she took an indirect course, he continued onward until the evening of December 3rd, when he spotted a different British ship coming out of Port Isabel. It was the Victoria, which was trying to run the blockade until she was stopped by the Santiago de Cuba. The Victoria was captured with eight passengers from the Confederacy, and was sent to the Union outpost at Galveston, Texas under a Union crew.

This was all done according to law. The British ship was sailing out of a port closed by an act of Congress. Since Britain didn’t officially recognize the Confederacy as a sovereign nation, she had to abide by United States law when entering her ports.

With the business of the Victoria out of the way, Commander Ridgeley made for the coast of Texas, dropped anchor and waited for the Eugenia Smith, suspected of carrying arms for the South and Zacharie, the Rebel purchasing agent.

Finally, around 2pm on this date, he saw a sail standing in for land. He steamed the Santiago three or four miles south of the mouth of the Rio Grande, pulling along side of the Eugenia Smith and fired a shot across her bow, ordering her to halt so that she could be boarded. A US Naval Lieutenant called to the British vessel, asking if Zacharie was on board. Zacharie himself replied, and asked what they wanted with him. It was relayed that Commander Ridgeley wished to see meet with him on the deck of the Santiago. Zacharie then asked if it were a courteous invitation or one to entrap him.

The US Lieutenant told Zacharie that the Santiago had been dispatched specifically for him. Assuming this meant that the United States was attempting to arrest him, Zacharie reminded the Lieutenant that they were only three miles off shore and in Mexican waters. Such a seizure would be illegal.

According to Zacharie, he did not argue this point, but figured that “might makes right,” and asked if he could change into better clothes to board the Santiago. After a quick wardrobe change, Zacharie was escorted to the deck of the US vessel, where he demanded to know why he was being arrested. Commander Ridgeley, who had again been reminded that they were in Mexican waters, refused to explain.

Zacharie was then taken below where he was thoroughly searched and then allowed to go back to the Eugenia Smith to retrieve his luggage. While he was doing so, the US sailors were desperately searching the ship, looking for the munitions suspected of being on board. Upon inspection, the Eugenia Smith was carrying not one article of contraband.

At some point, Thomas Rogers, another suspected Rebel agent, was found on board and also arrested. Since the Eugenia Smith had been recognized as a true British vessel a few weeks prior, in New York, and because she was carrying no contraband, she had to be set free. With the two prisoners in the hold, Commander Ridgeley decided make for Key West, but first stopped at Galveston to check on the Victoria.

Though the Confederates would try to make something of this, the Trent Affair gained all the headlines due to the near-celebrity status of the Confederate envoys. Zacharie denied that he worked for the Rebel Government, though he enthusiastically stated that he supported the cause.

Eventually, Zacharie and Rogers would be taken to Fort Taylor on Key West, held for nine days before being transferred to the USS Baltic, which took them to Fortress Lafayette, New York. They stayed there another six days before being told that they were both free.

Two weeks later, Zacharie was in Richmond, trying to make this another international incident. Perhaps “The Eugenia Smith Affair” didn’t roll so easily off the tongue, as did “The Trent Affair.” Or perhaps there just wasn’t much of a story to be had in this interesting tail.2

  1. Official Naval Records, Series 1, Vol. 1, p220. []
  2. Official Naval Records, Series 1, Vol. 1, p232-238. This was taken from three different accounts of the incident. That of Commander Ridgeley, Zacharie and the Master of the Eugenia Smith. []

Bridge Burners Executed; England Gives the US a Week to Reply; Rebels Advancing in Missouri

November 30, 1861 (Saturday)

“Two insurgents have to-day been tried for bridge-burning, found guilty and hanged.”
-Col. Danville Leadbetter to Confederate Secretary of War Judah Benjamin.1

On the same day that Secretary Benjamin gave the order that those who were found guilty of burning bridges in Eastern Tennessee must be put to death, Col. Leadbetter, originally from the northern state of Maine, perhaps to prove that he was as Southern as any slaver owner or aristocrat, executed Jacob M. Hensie and Henry Fry. They were found guilty by a military court martial for burning the Lick Creek Bridge.2

Their trial, if it can be called that, was short and to the point. They were declared guilty and hanged within hours of the verdict. Secretary Benjamin had hoped to hear that the Confederates “hung every bridge-burner at the end of the burned bridge.”3 The bridge in question, however, was fifteen miles away. Not wanting to waste any more time on these treasonous Unionists, Leadbetter hanged them near a working railroad bridge near Greenville; one that they didn’t destroy, as a final insult to their cause.

As the trains passed, the passengers could see their rag doll, lifeless bodies. This would serve as a warning to anyone foolish enough to defy the Confederacy in Eastern Tennessee.4


England Gives the US a Week to Reply

While the British citizens were in an outrage over the Trent Affair, the British Government was quickly taking steps to put an end to the crisis. England’s Foreign Secretary John Russell wrote to Lord Richard Lyons, the British minister to the United States, with a series of demands for Secretary of State William Seward.

The Queen, said Russell, was willing to accept that Captain Charles Wilkes of the San Jacinto, “the U. S. naval officer who committed the aggression was not acting in compliance with any authority from his Government.”

Russell trusted that once “this matter shall have been brought under the consideration of the Government of the United States, that Government will of its own accord offer to the British Government such redress as alone could satisfy the British nation, namely, the liberation of the four gentlemen [Mason, Slidell and their two secretaries] and their delivery to your lordship in order that they may again be placed under British protection and a suitable apology for the aggression which has been committed.”

Lyons was to give this message to Secretary Seward, allowing seven days to comply with the orders. If those demands were not met, Lyons was to “repair immediately to London.”

The Royal Navy, the arm of England’s military that reached the farthest towards America, also had a set of instructions. Russell directed all ships to refrain from any hostile act against the United States, unless it was done in self-defense. Russel felt that the need for such defense was likely.

Russel warned that “the act of wanton violence and outrage which has been committed makes it not unlikely that other sudden acts of aggression may be attempted. Vice-Admiral Sir A. Milne will take care not to place his ships in positions where they may be surprised or commanded by batteries on land of a superior force.”

The key to Russell’s olive branch centered around the idea that Captain Charles Wilkes acted without instructions and that the United States Government did not officially condone his actions. On the same day that Russell proposed such a condition, the United States Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles, a member of President Lincoln’s Cabinet, sent a letter of congratulations to Captain Wilkes.

“I congratulate you on your safe arrival, and especially do I congratulate you on the great public service you have rendered in the capture of the rebel emissaries. Messrs. Mason and Slidell have been conspicuous in the conspiracy to dissolve the Union and it is well known that when seized by you they were on a mission hostile to the Government and the country. Your conduct in seizing these public enemies was marked by intelligence, ability, decision and firmness and has the emphatic approval of this Department.”5

The “seven days” wouldn’t start until the letter was in Seward’s hand, of course. This, itself, would take the better part of two weeks.


Halleck Ignores His Generals

“There can be no doubt that the enemy is moving north with a large force,” wrote Union General Henry Halleck, commander of the Department of Missouri, to General George McClellan in Washington. Not twenty-four hours prior, Halleck had been informed by three of his division commanders who had scouts watching the enemy that the rebels under General Sterling Price were, in no uncertain terms, not moving north with a large force.

Northern Missouri, said Halleck, was “in a state of insurrection.” The Rebels, however, were so scattered that he couldn’t attack them. Since no civil authority existed, Halleck reasoned that he must use his military authority to establish martial law. “The safety of Missouri requires the prompt and immediate exercise of this power,” he warned, adding, “if the President is not willing to intrust me with it he should relieve me from the command.”

Though General Fremont before him had established martial law, Halleck couldn’t find any written order from Lincoln allowing it. Wanting to be by-the-book, Halleck was hoping Lincoln would acquiesce.

To bolster Halleck’s fears, Acting Brigadier-General J.B. Wyman reported from Rolla that one of his scouts had been to the southwestern part of the state. There, he discovered that the Rebels occupied Osceola, Stockton and Chester with a total of 15,000 men. General Price, said the scout, was “determined to ravage and burn Kansas even if peace was declared to-morrow.” The Rebels apparently planned to attack the Union troops, 5,000-strong, near Fort Scott. Wyman also informed Halleck that Price had no plans to attack the Union troops in Missouri.6

General Sterling Price, however, was not in command of 15,000. He was not planning to move north to Sedalia or Rolla; he had no designs upon Kansas. The scattering of his army was, for the most part, bands of Missouri State Guards traveling north on furlough. The terms of enlistment for many of his men were up. A large percentage of them would reenlist, but to coax them in that direction, Price offered them a few weeks off.

The idea that scores of secessionists were rising up in northern Missouri, however, was not the work of imagination. Price knew that many were eager to join his army, but had no way to safely cross the Missouri River. To fix this, Price sent 1,100 towards Lexington, hoping to gather the recruits.7

  1. Official Records, Series 2, Vol. 1, p851. []
  2. East Tennessee and the Civil War by Oliver Perry Temple. []
  3. Official Records, Series 2, Vol. 1, p849. []
  4. East Tennessee and the Civil War by Oliver Perry Temple. []
  5. Official Records, Series 2, Vol. 2, p1110-1112. []
  6. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 8, 395-396. []
  7. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 8, p730. []

Mason & Slidell Arrive in Boston; Jackson’s Winter Offensive Gains Speed

November 24, 1861 (Sunday)

The storm of the previous night had kept Captain Charles Wilkes and the USS San Jacinto just outside of Boston Harbor. Their cargo, the prisoners, James Mason and John Slidell, Confederate envoys to England and France, stored inside under the guard of a US Marshal.

The voyage from Fortress Monroe to Fort Warren on Georges Island had been a rough one. Though the prisoners had been given full run of the ship, they mostly kept to their quarters, passing the time with games of backgammon. They took their meals with the Captain himself, and though he was friendly, he disallowed any talk of politics.

By morning, the storm had lifted and the envoys were walked from the dock to the gates of Fort Warren. Mason, dressed in Virginia homespun, appeared first. According to the New York Times, he presented “the most forlorn picture of chop-fallen chivalry ever witnessed.” Then came Slidell, “with a somewhat less timid air, but still his knees every now and then betraying by their shaky motions the trepidation which their owner strove to conceal.”

Waiting at the gates was Col. Justin Dimick, Fort Warren’s commander. Accompanying the envoys, aside from two secretaries, were six trunks, six valises, several cases of brandies, wines and liquors, a dozen or more cigars, and two casks of bottled Scotch ale.1

As for Captain Wilkes, his job was finished. After Mason and Slidell left the San Jacinto, he put into Boston Harbor and sent a few telegrams, hoping to pay off his crew. He was already being hailed a national hero.2


Jackson’s Winter Offensive Gains Speed

Stonewall Jackson had been given a (mostly) independent command in the Shenandoah Valley. Not wishing to remain idle throughout the winter months, he conceived of a plan that involved acquiring General Loring’s Army of the Northwest, attacking Romney, and then setting off into the hills of Western Virginia.

General Joe Johnston, Jackson’s superior, agreed that Loring’s small army would render more valuable service with Jackson than in its winter quarters along the Greenbrier River in Western Virginia. Johnston, however, had some reservations.

In Jackson’s plan, submitted to Secretary of War Judah Benjamin through Johnston, he attested that through the blessing of God, the troops could withstand the winter. “Admitting that the season is too far advanced, or that from other causes all cannot be accomplished” was not only showing a lack of faith in Jackson, but also in the Almighty. Johnston’s faith, it seems, may have quivered as he wrote that the plan proposed “more than can well be accomplished in that high, mountainous country at this season.”3

General Johnston wasn’t too shy to share these feelings with Jackson himself, telling him that his plan would overextend his lines. He argued that Jackson should allow Loring to take Romney while the Stonewall Brigade busied themselves by destroying the B&O Railroad. More specifically, Johnston wished for Jackson to stay close to home. “The troops you prepare to employ farther west, might render better & more immediate service elsewhere,” wrote Johnston before thinking of his own front, “especially on the lower Potomac – or in this district.”4

Secretary of War Benjamin, however, had been thinking along the same lines as Jackson. He sent Jackson’s plan, in its entirety, to General Loring along the Greenbrier River. Benjamin had “for several weeks been impressed with the conviction that a sudden and well-concealed movement of your [Loring’s] entire command up the valley towards Romney, combined with a movement of General Jackson from Winchester, would result in the entire destruction, and perhaps capture, of the enemy’s whole force at Romney.” Expounding upon Jackson’s ideas, he asserted “that a continuation of the movement westward, threatening the Cheat River Bridge and the depot at Grafton, would cause a general retreat of the whole forces of the enemy from the Greenbrier region to avoid being cut off from their supplies.” If the move west wasn’t possible, “a severe blow might be dealt by the seizure of Cumberland [Maryland].”

Though he urged it, he left the final discretion to Loring. If the General thought it too risky, that was alright. If, on the other hand, he thought it a fine idea, he was to “execute it as promptly and secretly as possible.” 5

It would take the dispatch several days to reach the Western Virginia front.

  1. New York Times, November 26, 1861. []
  2. Official Naval Records, Series 1, Vol. 1, p147. []
  3. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 5, p965-967. []
  4. Stonewall Jackson by James I. Robertson, Jr. []
  5. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 5, p968-969. []

The “Grand and Sublime” Duel Continues; Rebels Moving North in Missouri?

November 23, 1861 (Saturday)

The Union guns at Fort Pickens, barely cooled from the previous day’s fighting, sounded again this morning. Col. Harvey Brown and his Federal force had already done much damage to Fort McRee and wished to drive the Rebels from their fortifications at Pensacola, Florida.

The US Naval ship Niagara stood in and opened fire upon the Rebel fortifications. Her shots, however, fell short and did no damage at all. The Confederates in Fort Barrancas and the shore batteries responded, flinging shells all around the vessel. To get a better shot, the Niagara would have to get closer.1

Though Confederate General Braxton Bragg referred to the Union fire of the first day as “wild firing,” they had been able to take Fort McRee completely out of the game. Likewise, the Rebels had grounded the USS Richmond. On this day, the Union artillery fire was less rapid, but more accurate. By noon, the Rebel flags from both Forts McRee and Barrancas had been shot away. Union shot and shell riddled the shore batteries and even the lighthouse.2

Meanwhile, the Niagara moved closer to the shore, her keel bumping up against the bottom of the sound. She struggled for an hour to lob a shell into the Rebel batteries. Being given so close a target, the Confederates concentrated their fire upon the Niagara. Realizing that it was hopeless, and after taking two hits of her own, she withdrew from the fight.3

The steady Union barrage, by 1pm, had largely silenced Fort Barrancas. Other opportunities, however, arose. From the shore batteries, the Rebels were keeping up with the Union fire. To give them something else to think about, some of the Federal guns were loaded with hotshot, a cannonball that had been heated in a furnace. When they landed near Warrington, the village next to the Rebel navy yard, buildings burst into flames. First, the southwest part of town was ablaze, but soon, the Union mortars focused upon the northeast section nearest the navy yard. By 4:30, the church was on fire, flames licking the steeple and spreading to the navy yard.4

With darkness quickly falling and the navy yard illuminated by fire, Union gunners hammered away through the fleeting minutes of dusk. Though most of the Union guns had ceased, the mortars continued to fire hotshot into the town and navy yard throughout the night. Several fires engulfed most of the village, reducing it to ashes.5

The Rebels, however, would not be moving any time soon. It would have been nearly impossible to have driven them from their fortifications with only the fire from Fort Pickens and two ships. General Bragg considered it a Confederate victory. “We have crippled his ships and driven them off,” announced Bragg to his men, “and forced the garrison of Fort Pickens, in its impotent rage, to slake its revenge by firing into our hospital, and burning the habitations of our innocent women and children, who had been driven there from by an unannounced storm of shot and shell.”6

Union Col. Brown didn’t quite call it a victory, but claimed that “the attack on ‘Billy Wilson’s’ camp [Battle of Santa Rosa Island], the attempted attack on my batteries, and the insult to our glorious flag have been fully and fearfully avenged.”7


Rebels Moving North in Missouri?

Union General Henry Halleck had taken over command of General Fremont’s old department, now reorganized as the Department of Missouri, still headquartered in St. Louis. His field of vision had to be kept as wide as possible.

Fortunately for him, the Confederates opposing General Grant along the Mississippi seemed to be settling down and the Rebels under both Sterling Price and Ben McCulloch were reported to be slinking south into Arkansas after having retaken Springfield once Fremont was relieved.8

Everything changed on this date. Union forces had pulled back towards Rolla, 110 miles northeast of Springfield, and Sedalia, 110 miles north. A colonel from Sedalia telegraphed Halleck that he obtained “reliable information that Price is marching north with a large army at the rate of 30 miles a day. Force estimated at from 33,000 to 50,000.”

Halleck, though he was still of the mind that Price was in Arkansas, ordered him to make “armed reconnaissances in sufficient force in the direction of the enemy’s reported movements” and to keep him up to date on the findings.9

In reality, General Price was in Osceola, sixty miles southwest of Sedalia. He and his Missouri State Guards pursued the Union army, falling back from Springfield, but decided that he wouldn’t be able to catch up with them before winter. Mostly, he was concerned about recruiting and going into winter quarters. He had no thought at all of moving much farther north.10

General William Tecumseh Sherman, recently relieved from command of the Department of the Cumberland, reported to St. Louis. On this date, General Halleck ordered him to visit each of the separate commands in the Department of Missouri. He was to report their strengths, available supplies, and discipline. Sherman was also to report on the condition of the roads.11

Sherman would also, no doubt, be able to sniff out what, if any, movements the enemy was making.

  1. Official Naval Records, Series 1, Vol. 16, p776. []
  2. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 6, p470; 475; 477; 482; 489. []
  3. Official Naval Records, Series 1, Vol. 16, p776. []
  4. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 6, p478; 482-483; 484-485. []
  5. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 6, p478; 482. []
  6. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 6, p494. []
  7. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 6, p470. []
  8. Civil War on the Western Front by Jay Monaghan. []
  9. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 8, p374. []
  10. General Sterling Price and the Civil War in the West By Albert E. Castel. []
  11. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 8, p374. []