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

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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.

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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. []
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Bridge Burners Executed; England Gives the US a Week to Reply; Rebels Advancing in Missouri by CW DG is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 4.0 International

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

  1. Once again, my compliments on the extraordinary detail of your history. A detail I would like to mention is that the original diplomatic note would very likely have led to war between the U.S. and Great Britain. But there was a formality to be observed. The diplomatic note was submitted to Queen Victoria for her approval. The British monarch already had little actual legal power, but Queen Victoria still held enormous social influence. (The British government was and still is referred to as “Her Majesty’s Government”.)

    The Queen in turn set great store in the judgement of her husband, Prince Albert. He was gravely ill with what was then diagnosed as typhoid fever (but may have been kidney failure), and in fact would die in just two weeks. But when Victoria gave him the note to review, the Prince realized it would mean war. He therefore made some changes, including the key word “suitable” apology. Seward seems to have interpreted this creatively.

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