The White Elephants, Mason and Slidell, Arrive at Fortress Monroe

November 15, 1861 (Friday)

It took a week for the USS San Jacinto to steam from the Bermuda Channel to Fortress Monroe in Hampton Roads, Virginia. On board were the prisoners James Mason and John Slidell, Confederate envoys to Europe, who had been captured aboard the British ship, Trent, amid protests of the British officers.

Their voyage north had been more or less uneventful, but even they admitted that they had “uniformly been treated with great courtesy and attention.”

As the San Jacinto pulled into the harbor at 2pm, a wire was sent to Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles informing him that Mason and Slidell were on board. Though nearly the entire country knew that the Confederate diplomats had broken through the blockade at Charleston Harbor, nobody except those aboard the San Jacinto and Trent, which was bound for England, knew of their capture. Welles was also informed that they were taken off of an English streamer.

Captain Charles Wilkes, of the San Jacinto, was hoping to take them directly to New York, but had to stop over at Hampton Roads for fuel. Knowing that Secretary Welles would have myriad questions for him, Wilkes sent Commander Alfred Taylor of the USS Saratoga, part of the African Squadron, to Washington to personally meet with Welles. Taylor had been suspected of doubting his loyalty to the Union, but Wilkes vouched for him, telling Welles that Taylor could “answer you all and every question relative to the subject of my dispatch.” 1

The fact that the Confederate envoys had been taken by force (though symbolic) from a neutral English ship, flying English colors was not lost on Captain Wilkes. Originally, he had ordered that the Trent herself be seized. That his second-in-command had refused to do so was probably a very good thing. Wilkes met with General John Ellis Wool, commander of Fortress Monroe, and discussed the concerns over his actions. Wool personally thought that Wilkes did the right thing, but added, “right or wrong, he could only be cashiered for it.”2

By nightfall, many in the major cities of the North would know that Mason and Slidell had been captured, including President Lincoln, who met with Secretary Welles that evening. According to John Hay, Lincoln’s assistant, a “well-known writer” had also met with the President shortly after he received the news. This mystery author reported that Lincoln quickly took in the gist of the situation:

“I fear the traitors will prove to be white elephants. We must stick to American principles concerning the rights of neutrals. We fought Great Britain for insisting, by theory and practice, on the right to do precisely what Captain Wilkes has done. If Great Britain shall now protest against the act, and demand their release, we must give them up, apologize for the act as a violation of our doctrines, and thus forever bind her over to keep the peace in relation to neutrals, and so acknowledge that she has been wrong for sixty years.”3

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Buell Assumes Command from an Exhausted Sherman

General William Tecumseh Sherman was every bit as mentally and emotionally exhausted as was his predecessor, General Robert Anderson, the former commander of the Department of the Cumberland. Sherman, who had been reluctant to take command in the first place, and had petitioned Lincoln to send another commander as soon as possible, was replaced by General Don Carlos Buell.

The press had been no fan of either Anderson or Sherman. “Anderson was a gentleman of no mind,” printed the Chicago Tribune, “Sherman is possessed of neither mind nor matter.” Of Buell, however, they were gracious, “We are thankful we have a man who combines both.”4

Sherman was ordered to report to General Henry Halleck, in command of the newly-created Department of Missouri. He would carry with him stigma of being labeled in the press, and thus the public mind, as insane. Sherman would later admit that it was only the thoughts of his children that prevented him from committing suicide during these dark times.

During the morning of this date Sherman introduced General Buell to the officers of his staff. Turning to them, he declared, “Gentlemen, I have assumed the command.”5



  1. Official Naval Records, Series 1, Vol. 1, p141-143. Information about Taylor, who Wilkes only calls “Commander A. Taylor” from New York Times, November 16, 1861. []
  2. Turning On The Light by Horatio King, J.B. Lippincott Co., 1895. []
  3. Abraham Lincoln: A History, Vol. 5 by John Nicolay and John Hay, American Historical Foundation, 1914. []
  4. Chicago Tribune, November 9, 1861. []
  5. Days of Glory: The Army of the Cumberland, 1861-1865 By Larry J. Daniel. []
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The White Elephants, Mason and Slidell, Arrive at Fortress Monroe by CW DG is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 4.0 International

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