December 7, 1861 (Saturday)
The USS Santiago de Cuba, a wooden, ten-gun, side-wheel steamer, had left Havana on November 29, in pursuit of the British ship Eugenia Smith. Under the command of Daniel Ridgeley, the Santiago had been patrolling the waters between Southern ports and Cuba. By the end of November, Ridgeley and his ship had discovered several English ships, supposedly laden with ammunition and heading to Matamoras, Mexico.
Small “fore-and-aft schooners” flying the British colors would often sail towards Matamoras with the hope of running the Union blockade. If that was impossible, they would dock in Mexico and transport the contraband across the Rio Grande into Texas.
Along with the probable armaments, a Rebel purchasing agent named J.W. Zacharie was said to be on board. Zacharie, from New Orleans, had been in Havana purchasing arms from the British to be used by the Confederacy. Ridgeley was determined to track down the Eugenia Smith.1
Immediately, they set sail for the mouth of the Rio Grande, but somehow passed the Eugenia Smith, before reaching it. Figuring that she took an indirect course, he continued onward until the evening of December 3rd, when he spotted a different British ship coming out of Port Isabel. It was the Victoria, which was trying to run the blockade until she was stopped by the Santiago de Cuba. The Victoria was captured with eight passengers from the Confederacy, and was sent to the Union outpost at Galveston, Texas under a Union crew.
This was all done according to law. The British ship was sailing out of a port closed by an act of Congress. Since Britain didn’t officially recognize the Confederacy as a sovereign nation, she had to abide by United States law when entering her ports.
With the business of the Victoria out of the way, Commander Ridgeley made for the coast of Texas, dropped anchor and waited for the Eugenia Smith, suspected of carrying arms for the South and Zacharie, the Rebel purchasing agent.
Finally, around 2pm on this date, he saw a sail standing in for land. He steamed the Santiago three or four miles south of the mouth of the Rio Grande, pulling along side of the Eugenia Smith and fired a shot across her bow, ordering her to halt so that she could be boarded. A US Naval Lieutenant called to the British vessel, asking if Zacharie was on board. Zacharie himself replied, and asked what they wanted with him. It was relayed that Commander Ridgeley wished to see meet with him on the deck of the Santiago. Zacharie then asked if it were a courteous invitation or one to entrap him.
The US Lieutenant told Zacharie that the Santiago had been dispatched specifically for him. Assuming this meant that the United States was attempting to arrest him, Zacharie reminded the Lieutenant that they were only three miles off shore and in Mexican waters. Such a seizure would be illegal.
According to Zacharie, he did not argue this point, but figured that “might makes right,” and asked if he could change into better clothes to board the Santiago. After a quick wardrobe change, Zacharie was escorted to the deck of the US vessel, where he demanded to know why he was being arrested. Commander Ridgeley, who had again been reminded that they were in Mexican waters, refused to explain.
Zacharie was then taken below where he was thoroughly searched and then allowed to go back to the Eugenia Smith to retrieve his luggage. While he was doing so, the US sailors were desperately searching the ship, looking for the munitions suspected of being on board. Upon inspection, the Eugenia Smith was carrying not one article of contraband.
At some point, Thomas Rogers, another suspected Rebel agent, was found on board and also arrested. Since the Eugenia Smith had been recognized as a true British vessel a few weeks prior, in New York, and because she was carrying no contraband, she had to be set free. With the two prisoners in the hold, Commander Ridgeley decided make for Key West, but first stopped at Galveston to check on the Victoria.
Though the Confederates would try to make something of this, the Trent Affair gained all the headlines due to the near-celebrity status of the Confederate envoys. Zacharie denied that he worked for the Rebel Government, though he enthusiastically stated that he supported the cause.
Eventually, Zacharie and Rogers would be taken to Fort Taylor on Key West, held for nine days before being transferred to the USS Baltic, which took them to Fortress Lafayette, New York. They stayed there another six days before being told that they were both free.
Two weeks later, Zacharie was in Richmond, trying to make this another international incident. Perhaps “The Eugenia Smith Affair” didn’t roll so easily off the tongue, as did “The Trent Affair.” Or perhaps there just wasn’t much of a story to be had in this interesting tail.2