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