November 16, 1861 (Saturday)
Washington, DC was awash in the rumors that the Confederate envoys to Europe, James Mason and John Slidell, had been captured en route to England. Captain Charles Wilkes, who had seized and was delivering the diplomats to New York, had dispatched a messenger, Captain Albert Taylor, to meet with Naval Secretary Gideon Welles. He passed through Baltimore in the morning, letting slip some of the news, before taking a special train to Washington.1
By noon, the train carrying Taylor chuffed into Washington Depot. With him arrived the first word of how Mason and Slidell had been captured aboard the British vessel Trent.2 Though the weather was dreary and overcast, the spirits of the people were ecstatic with the news. With the exception of the little campaign in Western Virginia, the North was being handed defeat after defeat at Big Bethel, Bull Run, Wilson’s Creek, and Ball’s Bluff. The capture of Mason and Slidell nearly made up for it.
In fact, it almost seemed like the tide was turning, especially in the capital, where General McClellan’s Army of the Potomac was fully ready for battle and sure to march out any day now. This news, coupled with the Union victory at Port Royal, was exactly what the nation needed.
While some in Lincoln’s Cabinet, like Secretary of War Simon Cameron, rejoiced at the news, others saw dark clouds on the horizon. Postmaster General Montgomery Blair, accompanied by Senator Charles Sumner, met with Lincoln, hoping to convince him to let Mason and Slidell go. This whole event reminded the President of a story and the Secretary and Senator left in a huff.
Lincoln, a lawyer by profession, was well aware of these dark clouds. The War of 1812 had been fought over a similar event. There was every reason to believe that England, who already officially given the Confederacy the recognition of a belligerent (stopping short of recognizing them as a sovereign state), would be compelled to side with the South.
Still, it was clear that the North needed a boost of morale. It was decided. Mason and Slidell would remain prisoners of the United States and be confined at Fort Warren, a newly-completed star-shaped fort in Boston Harbor.3
The San Jacinto had left Fortress Monroe the previous evening with the prisoners on board. Wilkes had wired Welles during the stop over to let him know that Mason and Slidell had been captured and that he was taking them to New York. Welles replied to the New York Navy Yard that the San Jacinto was to be sent to Fort Warren. In a joint telegram, Secretary of State William Seward and Secretary Welles dispatched a US Marshal to board the ship, disallowing anyone to leave, and to convey it to Boston.4
Floyd Beaten, but Not Destroyed
After a series of slight skirmishes, Confederate General John Floyd had retreated nearly forty miles in the previous week. His supposedly impregnable artillery position overlooking the Union army of General Rosecrans had been given up with very little effort. He and his small Army of the Kanawha were digging in at yet another impregnable position, just south of Raleigh, Western Virginia.
Originally, Floyd had hoped to winter his army at Raleigh, but since he arrived, he noticed that the area surrounding it had been stripped bare of forage by the Virginia Militia and, more recently, by his own men. To make matters worse, the road heading southeast was “almost impassable.”
Floyd’s land of plenty existed, but it was twenty miles farther, on the banks of New River. He would be starting for it in short order.5
The Union forces pursuing were recalled by Rosecrans, who had been frustrated that Floyd’s entire army wasn’t captured, as it could have been if orders had been followed.
“Floyd’s forces, though beaten and demoralized,” reasoned Rosecrans, “are not destroyed, and must be watched.” 6