The Capture of Mason and Slidell; Bridges Burned in East Tennessee

November 8, 1861 (Friday)

Charles Wilkes, Captain of the USS San Jacinto, had been taking a keen interest in two Confederate envoys to Europe who had been biding their time in Havana. James Mason and John Slidell had run the Union blockade from Charleson in mid-October and made it to Cuba a few days later. There, they were waiting for the Trent, a British mail packet, to take them to England. The US Navy had tried to find them, but it was Wilkes who accidentally tracked them down in Cuba.

There, it was well known that the envoys were leaving on the 7th of November. Wilkes planned to bag them in international waters on the 8th.

Wilkes knew that the Trent would have to steam through the Old Bahama Channel, 240 miles from Havana. He picked a spot where the channel was only fifteen miles wide, which would allow him to plainly see the ship carrying the Confederate envoys. Wilkes’ second in command, Lt. Donald Fairfax, thought that boarding a British ship, seizing the envoys and taking the ship as a prize was an incredibly bad idea. It would, he believed, help bring England into the war on the side of the South. Captain Wilkes, however, paid him little mind.

The morning passed as the San Jacinto waited for her prey, as mild breezes floated from the north and east. Around noon, a plume of black smoke appeared over the horizon. Before long, the ship was positively identified as the Trent. Wilkes ordered all hands to quarters and readied two cutters full of Marines to board the British steamer.

As the Trent pulled closer, the San Jacinto raised her flag, identifying herself as a US vessel. The guns had been run out and Wilkes ordered a shot fired over the bow of the British ship. The Trent slowed, but did not halt, so a shell was fired, exploding 100 yards to her front. For this, the Trent stopped.

The Captain of the Trent, James Moir, called over to the San Jacinto, “What do you mean by heaving my vessel to in this manner?” Wilkes replied that he was sending over a boat. Lt. Fairfax reluctantly headed the boarding party, pulling along side the British ship. Fairfax, who had already resolved not to capture the Trent, told the armed men to wait in the boat while he spoke to Captain Moir himself.

When asked, Moir was polite, but refused to hand over the passenger list. Fairfax told him that he believed Mason and Slidell were aboard. As he said this, John Slidell walked over and introduced himself. Soon, Slidell was joined by Mason and their secretaries. Lt. Fairfax informed them that they were all under arrest. While Slidell and company remained calm, the English sailors were outraged. A loud argument spiced with threats ensued and in short order Fairfax was reinforced by the Marines from the cutter.

This, however, outraged the English sailors even more. Just before it came to blows, Fairfax ordered the Marines back. Mason and Slidell, then told him that they would not willingly surrender. They would “yield only to force.” At this, Fairfax called over the second cutter with another dozen Marines. When they arrived, he ordered six to board the Trent, again outraging the English. One Marine secured Mason, while Slidell retreated into the ship’s cabin. Fairfax and a few Marines, their bayonets pointed at the passengers, followed.

John Slidell’s seventeen year old daughter stood between her father and Fairfax. Either Fairfax stole a kiss from her (as was later asserted by the daughter) to get her to move, or, as Fairfax claims, the ship bobbed and tilted to one side, and he had to save her from falling (with his lips?). Either way, with the daughter removed, Slidell came peacefully.

Once arriving back on board the San Jacinto with the prisoners, Fairfax broke the news to Captain Wilkes that he wasn’t going to seize the Trent. He listed some practical, military and political examples (not wanting to endanger the passengers, the San Jacinto might still be able to join Du Pont’s expedition to Port Royal, and delaying the Queen’s mail might look iffy to the rest of the world). Wilkes took it all in stride and the two ships parted.1


The Plot and Plight of Eastern Tennessee Unionists

While Tennessee had seceded on May 20, eastern Tennessee remained mostly loyal to the Union. To check this rebellion against rebellion, President Davis demanded that all eastern Tennessee citizens swear an oath of allegiance to the Confederacy by October. If they refused, they could be seen as “alien enemies,” and subject to having their property seized.

As Confederates under General Zollicoffer moved into eastern Tennessee, worries of a Unionist uprising became very real. For the past week, Zollicoffer and others had written their commanders, as well as the Confederate Secretary of War and even President Davis that the Unionists were “as hostile to it as the people of Ohio and will be ready to take up arms as soon as they believe the Lincoln forces are near enough to sustain them.”2

In September, William Carter, a Presbyterian minister and loyal Unionist, developed a plan. He made a trip to Washington to propose it to McClellan and Lincoln

Carter had become a firm believer in direct action. He wanted to organize a group of fellow Unionist to burn nine important railroad bridges in and around eastern Tennessee. To join in the fun, he wanted a Union force from Kentucky to march on the Rebels. As the Union troops entered Tennessee, the Unionists citizens would rise up. With the railroad bridges destroyed, the Rebels would have no way of receiving reinforcements.

Lincoln and McClellan seemed to like the plan and General William Tecumseh Sherman was ordered to send General George Thomas into the region. Carter left for his home and then, along with his team of saboteurs, set off for the railroads.

After Thomas had advanced south, Sherman decided to focus upon central Tennessee, instead. The Union uprising in eastern Tennessee would have to wait. Rev. Carter, however, was already poised to destroy the bridges and could not be reached with the unfortunate news.

On this date, five railroad bridges were burned by Carter and his men. All over eastern Tennessee, Unionists gathered together to await the advance of Union troops that would never come.3

  1. Gunsmoke Over the Atlantic: First Naval Actions of the Civil War by Jack Coombe, as well as Lincoln and his Admirals: Abraham Lincoln, the U.S. Navy, and the Civil War by Craig L. Symonds. []
  2. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 4, p837. []
  3. East Tennessee and the Civil War by Oliver Perry Temple. []
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The Capture of Mason and Slidell; Bridges Burned in East Tennessee by CW DG is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 4.0 International


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2 thoughts on “The Capture of Mason and Slidell; Bridges Burned in East Tennessee

  1. Mason’s daughter Virginia, writing in 1906, said that the Confederate dispatch bag was held by a Commander Williams RN on the Trent, and later delivered to the Confederate envoys in while in London. If so, a member of a branch of the British government had violated Britain’s declared neutrality, which probably would have made seizure of the Trent legal –if the bag had been found. But if not, war between the Union and Great Britain would have been virtually inevitable.

    It is therefore an unknowable question whether Lieutenant Fairfax was a mutineer who recklessly endangered the United States, or a principled officer who saved his country.

    1. Thank you! There really is so much to the Trent Affair, it’s impossible to cover every detail in a blog such as this. Looking forward, I probably could have been more detailed in its coverage, but in the end, I’m satisfied with how it turns out (which you’ll be able to read in the month to come).

      Also, as far as the Eastern Tennessee direct action goes, I accidentally stumbled upon this and got somewhat obsessed with it. As with everything on this blog, I pick and choose according to my whimsy. 🙂

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