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.