Union Fleet off of Port Royal, SC! Can R.E. Lee Visit His Wife and Save the Port?

November 5, 1861 (Tuesday)

As the sun lit up the Atlantic sky over Port Royal, South Carolina, the masts of the Union Naval fleet under Flag Officer Du Pont appeared like a forest growing out of the sea. Two Rebel forts, Beauregard and Walker, guarded the inlet. The Union wanted a port on the Southern coast for the purposes of refueling the ships blockading the Confederacy. If Port Royal was to be taken, those forts had to fall.

Also guarding the port was a four ship fleet under Confederate Flag Officer Josiah Tattnall. Three of the ships had attacked part of the Union fleet, thinned out a bit by a treacherous storm a few days previous, but still far outnumbering the Rebels.

In the morning, the Union gunboat Ottawa again ventured towards the inlet, trying to draw fire from the forts to reveal their strength. General Horatio Wright accompanied the ship. It was his infantry that would be making the amphibious assault. The Ottawa was also accompanied by five other gunboats, including the Pawnee. This movement drew the attention of Flag Officer Tattnall’s fleet, which attacked. After an hour and a half, however, the Rebels again withdrew into the sound.

Unlike the previous evening, the Union vessels pursued the Rebel fleet, coming under the fire of the forts. The ships focused upon Fort Beauregard on Bay Point, opposite Hilton Head. They put round after round into it, once striking an artillery caisson, exploding it in a great plume of white smoke.

At noon, Tattnall’s fleet ventured out once more, but a shot well-placed near the starboard wheelhouse of the flag ship Savannah, sent them scurrying back to safety.

All skirmishing aside, the reason for the expedition was to take the forts and the harbor. That afternoon, Du Pont called for a council of war aboard the flagship Wabash. It was decided that the entire fleet should be used, attacking Fort Beauregard first and then Fort Walker. With Fort Beauregard out of the way, communications with Charleston would be severed and a Rebel retreat would be nearly impossible.

It was widely held that naval force could take a fort without the use of infantry. However, due to the storm, the smaller steamers that were to be used to land the troops had to return north. In a bizarre case of bad planning, someone decided that the ammunition for the landing was best stored in the belly of several ships, under everything else. It would require the ships to be entirely unloaded to reach it. Other ships carrying infantry ammunition had been delayed by the storm and wouldn’t arrive until well after the scheduled time for the attack.

General Thomas Sherman, commanding all of the infantry, at first refused to land his troops at all and it appeared as if the entire expedition would be a failure. Du Pont, a navy man, suggested that the bayonet be used instead. Finally Sherman agreed. The attack would begin the next day, but the navy would be responsible for doing most of the work. The infantry was now just the clean up crew.

It was decided. At 3:30pm, the fleet formed for attack. As the Wabash moved closer, she became grounded. Two hours were spent freeing the flag ship and another ship, the Susquehanna. With dusk quickly approaching, Du Pont called off the attack until the next day.1


Another Chance for General Lee

Since arriving in Richmond on the 31st of October, Lee had been trying to meet up with his wife, staying at Shirley on the James River. He tried to leave on the 2nd, but Secretary Benjamin held him up until 11pm, probably discussing Port Royal. By then, all the boats had gone and it was too late to go by horse.

Writing to his wife on this date, he gave no impression at all that he knew he was leaving for the Southern coast. Lee attempted to visit her again on this day, but Davis needed him in Richmond, so Lee could not go. “I must see what can be done to-morrow,” wrote Lee, promising that he “will come, however, wherever you are … as soon as possible, and if not sooner, Saturday at all events.”2

By this time, Richmond was well aware of the Union advance upon Port Royal. Confederate Secretary of War Judah P. Benjamin actually knew of the expedition on November 1st, and was sure that Port Royal was the target. This created quite a problem. If Port Royal fell, not only would it give the North a refueling station, it would probably lead to the capture of Savannah and Charleston, as well as cut a vital rail line. Port Royal had to be held.3

In its current condition, under its current leadership, that was probably impossible. In an attempt to make the impossible possible, Secretary Benjamin established a military department embracing the coasts of South Carolina, Georgia and eastern Florida. General Robert E. Lee was assigned to its command.4

Lee, having been thoroughly defeated in Western Virginia, and bemoaned in the press as “Granny Lee,” was yet trusted by President Davis. General Lee would quietly leave Richmond the next morning.

  1. Success is All that was Expected: the South Atlantic Blockading Squadron by Robert M. Browning. []
  2. Letter from Robert E. Lee to Mary Lee, November 5, 1861, as printed in Recollections and Letters of General Robert E. Lee, Volume 3 edited by his son, Captain Robert E. Lee. []
  3. Robert E. Lee: a Biography by Emory M. Thomas, W. W. Norton & Company, 1997. []
  4. Official Records, Series 1, Vol 6, p309. []

Mason and Slidell Arrive in Cuba; More Troops for Kentucky

Thursday, October 17, 1861

The Union Navy was quickly realizing that it stood no chance of catching up with the CSS Nashville, the steamer they thought was carrying Confederate envoys to Europe, James Mason and John Slidell. Two ships, the USS James Adger and USS Curlew had been dispatched to intercept the Nashville. While the Curlew was too short on coal to do anyone any good, the Adger was well on her way to England to await the Rebel ship.

The USS Connecticut was also dispatched with orders to proceed to Bermuda. She was mostly sent to gather information about the Nashville. If nothing could be found out, she was to return to port at the New York Navy Yard.1

Mason and Slidell were actually in Cuba. Their ship, the CSS Theodora (not the Nashville, as suspected by the US Navy), had been bound for Havana when she ran short on coal. She was forced to dock 100 miles east, at Cardenas. Though they were accompanied by a Spanish steamer (the same steamer that showed them the way around the waters off the Bahamas), their papers of clearance allowed them to dock in Havana, not Cardenas. It took a day to sort things out, during which the Theodora sat in the Cardenas docks next to several Yankee ships. On this date, Mason and Slidell finally stepped foot on Cuban soil.

To their dismay, they had missed a ship bound for England (via St. Thomas) by a day. The next steamer wouldn’t leave for another three weeks. For the time being, they were to stay with an acquaintance of Slidell’s named Mr. Casanova, who had married a Virginian and owned several plantations.2

Meanwhile, the USS San Jacinto, commanded by Captain Charles Wilkes, was at St. Thomas in search of the CSS Sumter, a Confederate raider that was preying on United States shipping in the Caribbean. Soon, Wilkes would receive much more specific orders.3


Troops and Guns for Kentucky

Secretary of War Simon Cameron had left Missouri and traveled to Kentucky to see for himself the condition of General Sherman’s men. After an interview with the General in Louisville, Cameron shot off a telegram to Lincoln:

Matters are in a much worse condition than I expected to find them. A large number of Troops & arms are needed here immediately.

He also wired the War Department:

Arms and re-enforcements needed here immediately. How many muskets, pistols, and sabers can be had? Is Negleys brigade ready to march, and where is it?4

On this date5, Secretary Cameron, Adjutant-General Lorenzo Thomas and General Sherman were in Lexington. The situation was much the same.

All in all, Sherman “gave a gloomy picture of affairs in Kentucky, stating that the young men were generally secessionists and had joined the Confederates, while the Union men, the aged and conservatives, would not enroll themselves to engage in conflict with their relations on the other side.”

He expressed his concerns, which bordered on fear, that the Confederates under General Buckner were expected to attack Louisville any day now. Across the state, the Rebels were preparing to attack, Sherman believed. When Cameron asked him how many men would be needed to hold Kentucky, Sherman, who now commanded nearly 20,000 men, replied that it would take 200,000.

Cameron was skeptical, thinking that Sherman was overestimating the Confederate force and was, more than anything, tired of waging a defensive war. “The troops must assume the offensive and carry the war to the firesides of the enemy,” Cameron told Sherman, begging him to take the offensive. Since the campaigning in Western Virginia was winding down, troops could be pulled from that front and used in Kentucky.6

On this date in Lexington, Secretary Cameron ordered General James S. Negley, who commanded about 10,000, to move from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania to Lousiville via the Ohio River.7


Conflicting Reports of a Missouri Fight

Missouri State Guard General Jeff Thompson’s 2,500 infantrymen were near Fredericktown. Thompson himself, along with 500 cavalry, had burned the Big River railroad bridge, killed some Yankees and were nearing Fredericktown.

In the early morning, Thompson’s infantry pickets saw Union cavalry advancing on their position (Thompson reported that there were 1,200). Unseen by the Federals, the Rebel pickets were able to ambush them, killing a few in one volley, and then scurry back to their main line.

The two opposing forces each formed line of battle with a small river flowing between them. They were less than 1,000 yards away from each other. Just as the Union troops were marching upon the secessionists, Thompson arrived.

My horsemen came with me at full gallop, yelling like Indians. My infantry received us with three cheers, and, as we thundered over the bridge with 500 horses, it had the effect of a Chinese fight, and the enemy retired at a double-quick. My horses were entirely too much worn-out to take advantage of their retreat, but we nevertheless followed them for several miles.8
-Jeff Thompson

The Union report continued, telling how the Federal cavalry retreated back to a line of 600 infantrymen under Col. Alexander. They waited in ambush for Thompson’s men, and, when they unknowingly rode into the trap, “they suffered severely and rode back with heavy loss.”9

  1. Official Naval Records, Series 1, Vol. 1, p116. []
  2. Official Naval Records, Series 2, Vol. 3, p282-283. []
  3. Official Naval Records, Series 1, Vol. 1, p119-120. This piece required a bit of help from: Gunsmoke Over the Atlantic by Jack Coombe and The Burden of Confederate Diplomacy by Charles M. Hubbard. Mostly for purposes of clarification. []
  4. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 4, p308 – These were sent the previous day, I’m playing a bit of catch-up. Sorry! []
  5. The report filed by Adjutant-General Lorenzo Thomas seems to skip the 17th (this day). It has he and Cameron arriving in Louisville on the 16th, then traveling to Lexington on the 16th and then to Cincinnati, again, on the 16th. They then left Cincinnati on the 18th, making no mention of the 17th. However, Cameron sent two telegrams from Lexington on the 17th, which makes me believe that they spent the night in Louisville (or maybe Lexington). I’m going to be a bit vague on the details here, sorry. []
  6. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 3, p313 – 314. []
  7. , Series 1, Vol. 3, p309. []
  8. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 3, p225-226. []
  9. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 3, p205. []

Jeff Thompson Arrives Early, Burns a Bridge, Kills Some Yankees

Tuesday, October 15, 1861

General Jeff Thompson, of the Missouri State Guards, planned a northward push towards St. Louis, Missouri. His main goal was to destroy the Ironton Railroad and distract some Union forces away from General Sterling Price in the southwest corner of the state.

Thompson and 3,000 troops (500 cavalry, 2,500 infantry, including some from Mississippi and some Indians) left Piketon on the 12th and arrived at Blackwell Station, on the Big River almost two days earlier than he expected. He attributed the speed to his cavalrymen “being more anxious to fight” than he anticipated. Riding through the night, they reached the large, three-span railroad bridge they wanted to destroy at daybreak. The infantry was in the vicinity of Fredericktown.

Guarding the bridge was a small Union force commanded by Captain Elliot. Most of his men were behind a stone redoubt on the north side of the bridge. Thompson sent a regiment around the bridge to attack it from the north, while another regiment stormed the bridge from the south.

Within ten minutes, Thompson’s men took the redoubt by a frontal assault and charged over the bridge, sending Elliot’s Union troops scrambling for a safer spot. They killed a few Yankees and captured forty-five, while only suffering two killed and six wounded. They were also able to procure sixty-six muskets and more than enough overcoats thanks to the Union commissary.

Thompson hustled his prisoners, wounded and booty to the other side of the bridge and then burned it down.

While the bridge burned, he and his troops divided up their haul inside the train station at Blackwell. As they were decided which soldiers got new muskets and overcoats, they were attacked by a company of Elliot’s men who had apparently regrouped.

Though they were caught unprepared, and though most of the officers were nowhere to be seen, Thompson rallied his force and put up, as he described it, “one of those bush whacking fights which proved the mettle of my men.” As the enemy fell upon them, Thompson ordered his men “to go in on their own hooks.” It was every man for himself and in ten minutes they had the Union assailants in full flight.

The fight at Blackwell Station was deadlier for Thompson than the skirmish at the bridge. He suffered four killed and several more wounded, “but we killed another lot of the enemy and took 10 prisoners.”

Thompson’s Missouri State Guard had no means for conveying fifty-five prisoners, so he “swore them to refrain from fighting the Missourians or our allies until regularly exchanged.” They did, however, keep the officers.

This week, promised Thompson, they would take Ironton.1


How to Lose Mason and Slidell

The CSS Nashville, was not carrying James Mason and John Slidell, Confederate envoys to Europe. Nevertheless, that’s the ship the United States Navy was looking for.

It is reported that the steamer Nashville has run the blockade at Charleston, with Messrs. Mason and Slidell on board. Have you a fast steamer that can be spared? If so, let her be dis- patched to intercept the Nashville.
-Gideon Welles, Secretary of the Navy to Flag-Officer S. F. Du Pont

Immediately Du Pont dispatched the USS James Adger and USS Curlew. “The Department is anxious to have this vessel intercepted and taken,” wrote Du Pont to the commander of the Adger, “the speed of your steamer and her supply of fuel and your own intelligence offer the best chance of doing this of any vessel at my disposal.”

Du Pont sent the Adger east with orders to dock at either an English or French port for refueling.2

Mason and Slidell, however, were not aboard the CSS Nashville headed (directly) to Europe, but aboard the CSS Theodora, heading towards Cuba. On this date, they were somewhere around the Bahamas being helped through the waters by a Spanish ship.3


Harpers Ferry Wheat for the Union

Along the Potomac River, north of Washington DC, sat the much-coveted Harpers Ferry. Since Bull Run, the town had been sort of a no man’s land, sometimes occupied by the South, sometimes the North. By mid October, the farms around Harpers Ferry were harvesting their wheat. Over 20,000 bushels sat unguarded in a mill owned by Abraham Herr on Virginius Island, just south of town.

Herr contacted Union General John Geary, telling him of rumors that Confederate infantry under Turner Ashby were about to swoop down and steal it for themselves. If it was going to be taken, figured Herr, he’d rather see it go to the Union.

Geary was determined not to leave town until he collected all 20,000 bushels. His 600 men worked tirelessly refining the wheat and loading it on a barge in the Shenandoah River. As word of Ashby’s advance spread through the ranks, Geary realized that he would need his men to take up defensive positions around the town. He sent a detail door-to-door, impressing any able-bodied men they could find into the service as millers.

By the evening of the 15th, Herr’s Mill was completely cleaned out. Geary decided that at daybreak, he and his 600 men would recross to the Maryland side of the river, missing Ashby’s men completely.4


Sherman Returns Escaped Slaves

The Confiscation Act of 1861, signed by President Lincoln on August 6, granted a sort of freedom to slaves that had been impressed into service by the Confederate government. It did not, however, concern the slaves held by private citizens who had nothing to do with the war effort. In those cases, federal and state laws were still to be upheld.

When General William Tecumseh Sherman heard that escaped slaves were being sheltered in the camp of one of his regiments, he quickly put a stop to it by writing to the regiment’s Colonel.

The laws of the United States and of Kentucky, all of which are binding on us, compel us to surrender a runaway negro on application of negros owner or agent. I believe you have not been instrumental in this, but my orders are that all negroes shall be delivered up on claim of the owner or agent. Better keep the negroes out of your camp altogether, unless you brought them along with the regiment.5

  1. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 3, p224-225. []
  2. Official Naval Records, Series 1, Vol. 1, p113-114. []
  3. Official Naval Records, Series 2, Vol. 3, p282. []
  4. Six Years of Hell; Harpers Ferry During the Civil War by Chester G. Hearn. []
  5. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 4, p307. []

Mason and Slidell are Off to Europe!

Saturday, October 12, 1861

At this point in the War, Confederate President Jefferson Davis was clear about several things. For one, the quick victory that many expected after Bull Run was not going to happen. For another, as the War tarried on, the Union blockade of Southern ports would only grow tighter. Also, the Confederacy needed guns, ammunition and ships, and England could provide all three.

For her part, however, Queen Victoria claimed neutrality and refused to recognize the Confederate States as anything more than an official “belligerent,” which gave the South the right to buy arms and seize ships, but stopped short at recognizing it as a sovereign nation. That recognition was important, without it, most European countries would shy away from any actual support.

Early in the War, Davis sent three envoys to Europe (William Yancy, Ambrose Mann, and Pierre Rost) who were completely unsuccessful in their mission to convince England and France to throw in their lots with the South. Davis, believing a change was necessary, selected two former Senators, James Mason and John Slidell, to replace the three former envoys.1

Both Mason and Slidell were respected negotiators and Southern statesmen. Mason, who would be the envoy in London, had been the US Senate Chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, a defender of States Rights and slavery, going so far as to author the Fugitive Slave Law. Slidell, who was to reside in Paris, had been President James K. Polk’s envoy to Mexico towards the end of the Mexican War (though Mexico refused to see him). Their goal was to convince both England and France to recognize the Confederacy and oppose the blockade.

The two envoys had been in Charleston, South Carolina for a couple of weeks and were finding it incredibly difficult to break out of the blockade. Three Union steamers and a sloop-of-war guarded the harbor. At first, they considered chartering the steamer Nashville, a ship fast enough to beat the blockade and large enough to make the entire voyage to England. Word of this plan, however, spread quickly throughout Charleston and it had to be abandoned. For a time, they batted around the idea of leaving via Mexico, but, keeping urgency in mind, kept looking for another ship.

At last, they found a fast steamer named the Gordon, a 500 ton sidewheeler that had already run the blockade several times. It could not, however, make it to England. This was seemingly a blessing in disguise. If the Gordon could make it to Havana, they could take a British ship to England. Once aboard the neutral British ship, they would basically be untouchable by the Union Navy. If the Union captured them from the neutral ship as contraband of war, the Confederacy would be automatically recognized as an official belligerent (something the United States refused to recognize). On the other hand, if the Union captured them as treasonous American citizens while sailing in neutral waters under the British flag, it would be a violation of international law. Either way, it wouldn’t look good for the United States. 2

On the 9th, Mason and Slidell chartered the Gordon for $10,000, changing its name to the Theodora. By the 11th, James Mason and John Slidell (along with his wife and four children, plus his secretary’s entire family), boarded the steamer and waited for nightfall.

At 1am on this date, the Theodora cast off from Charleston Harbor though rain and clouds. The passengers sat silently as the ship passed within a mile and a half of a Union vessel.3

That afternoon, Southern statesman, William Henry Trescot, wired the Confederate Secretary of State:

Charleston, October 12, 186[1].
Our friends left here last night at 1 o’clock. A fast steamer, good officers, and very dark night, with heavy rain. The guard boat reported that they crossed the bar about 2 o’clock, and that they could neither have been seen nor heard by the fleet. A strong northwest wind helped them, and the fleet this morning seems not to have changed position at all. As soon as we hear further I will telegraph. The steamer ought to be back in about a week, and nothing said until her return. Communicate to Mrs. Mason.4


The Plans of Missouri’s Own General Jeff Thompson

Missouri State Guard General Jeff Thompson had been planning operations against Union interests in eastern Missouri for some time now. In late September, he had been ordered by Confederate General Albert Sidney Johnston to “relieve the pressure of the Federal forces on General Price… and if possible to embarrass their movements by cutting their Ironton Railroad.” By the beginning of October, he had moved to New Madrid, but had more recently set up camp near Piketon in Stoddard County.

Thompson’s plan was to leave with 3,000 in the morning of this date. The force would consist of 2,500 infantry and 500 dragoons (basically mounted infantry). He hoped to be at the railroad bridge over the Big Black River near Blackwell with his dragoons, a distance of about 120 miles, by the 16th. By that time, his infantry should be able to make Fredericktown, about halfway to the bridge.

Thompson’s plan was to destroy the bridge and the nearby tunnel on the 16th, ride to Fredericktown, collect his infantry and take Ironton on the 20th.

After writing to two fellow Missouri State Guard Generals for assistance and to General Johnston, he departed with his band of Rebel Missourians.5

  1. Gunsmoke Over the Atlantic by Jack Coombe, Random House, 2003. []
  2. The Burden of Confederate Diplomacy by Charles M. Hubbard, University of Tennessee Press, 2000. []
  3. The Diplomatic History of the Southern Confederacy by James Morton Callahan, The Johns Hopkins Press, 1901. []
  4. Official Naval Records, Series 1, Vol. 6, p738. []
  5. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 3, p223-224. []

The Capture of Another “English” Ship; Sherman’s New Command

Sunday, October 6, 1861

As the morning sun rose over Charleston, South Carolina, Captain John Marston of the USS Roanoke spied a schooner sailing towards land, flying the Palmetto Flag. Marston immediately signaled for the USS Flag, a screw steamer, originally named the Phineas Sprague, to give chase.

As the Flag pulled closer to the schooner, the Palmetto Flag was hauled down and the British flag, turned upside down as a signal of distress, was run up in its place. Neither fooled nor daunted the Flag as it pulled along side her and boarded. Her name was the Alert, captained by James Carlin, who claimed that she was in fact a British ship from Nassau, sailing for St. John, New Brunswick. As he pointed to the flag above, the ship’s mate was caught trying to hide both Confederate and Palmetto Flags.

The Flag brought the Alert along side the Roanoke where Captain Marston questioned her cook, a Spaniard by birth. The cook, who had little to gain or lose at this point, told Marston that the Alert was originally from Charleston and named the Adelaide. She was taken to Nassau and then sold to her present owner. While in Nassau, told the cook, she flew only the Confederate and Palmetto Flags, never hoisting the British ensign. She was not bound for St. John, as her Captain asserted, but for Charleston, as Marston figured.

A foremast hand questioned by Marston, confirmed the cook’s version, adding that just before her capture, the mate burned her original papers and quickly drew up new ones, claiming that she was English and bound for New Brunswick.

Both the cook and the foremast hand were released without charge, while the Captain, mate and two others were sent to Fortress Monroe. The Alert‘s cargo consisted of molasses, salt and fruit, “the whole of which remains untouched, not even a banana having been taken.”1


Sherman to Replace Anderson in Kentucky

Brigadier-General Robert Anderson had withstood the strain of the bombardment and surrender of Fort Sumter as well as anyone could. As a reward, Lincoln gave him command of the Department of the Cumberland (formerly the Department of Kentucky). More than any other state, except, perhaps Missouri, Kentucky was being torn in two by the war. She wished to remain neutral, but neither side expected that to be possible. After moving his headquarters from Cincinnati to Louisville, the crisis escalated as both sides skirmished and fortified a line that ran from one side of the state to the other. Lincoln had issued a plan of attack on the 1st that was too much for the aging, weary Anderson.

The previous day, he called General William Tecumseh Sherman to come to Louisville. Sherman was in command of the troops on Muldrough’s Hill (near Elizabethtown), was just about to receive reinforcements and was preparing to march south towards Bowling Green. Both Generals had been in daily communication with each other and it was becoming clear to both that Anderson had taken all he could and needed to leave, that if he stayed, it would kill him.2

Together, they wired General-in-Chief Winfield Scott in Washington and on this date, Scott replied with a direct order:

Brigadier-General ANDERSON: To give you rest necessary to restoration of health, call Brigadier-General Sherman to command the Department of the Cumberland. Turn over to him your instructions, and report here in person as soon as you may without retarding your recovery. WINFIELD SCOTT.

Anderson received the telegram and prepared to leave in two days.3

  1. Official Naval Records, Series 1, Vol. 6, p295-296. []
  2. Memoirs by William T. Sherman. []
  3. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 4, p296. []