They Will Be Cheerfully Liberated: Mason & Slidell To Be Freed!

December 26, 1861 (Thursday)

The celebrations of Christmas had not stood in the way of Lincoln’s Cabinet meetings and the discussion of what to do with James Mason and John Slidell, Confederate envoys to England and France, taken prisoner aboard the British vessel Trent. The incident had sparked much controversy and threatened to plunge the United States into a war with England.

Secretary of State William Seward had drafted a reply to England’s demand that the prisoners be released within seven days, in which he agreed to free the envoys. Still, the Cabinet thoroughly went over the ramifications of their release, as well as their detainment.

In the end, the Lincoln administration could dream up no way to legally keep them in prison. However, the public, as well as the politicians, could find no way to release them while still retaining dignity and pride.1

Though differing opinions were vented during the meetings on both the 25th and 26th, when put to a final vote, it was unanimous. James Mason and John Slidell would be freed. Some believed that Seward, who put his name to the document, had just sacrificed his career. The public, however, would soon see that this was the right course to take.2

Secretary Seward’s final response, freeing the prisoners, gave the United States the dignity and pride needed to release the envoys without having to eat so much humble pie. While he conceded that Captain Charles Wilkes, commander of the ship that overtook the Trent, acted without orders from Washington, Seward framed their liberation in the turbulent history between England and America.

Prior to the War of 1812, British ships would stop American ships and confiscate suspected British citizens for impressment into the Royal Navy. This practice, according to the American interpretation of the maritime law of neutrals, was highly illegal. A neutral ship could not be halted and searched, her crew taken prisoner, by a British vessel. England, of course, disagreed with this policy and continued the practice, which, in part, led to the war with England. Now, it seemed, the shoe was on the other foot.

Captain Wilkes, agreed Seward, had violated maritime law by taking the prisoners. It was the duty of the United States “to do to the British nation just what we have always insisted all nations ought to do to us.”

If the United States were to keep Mason and Slidell, it would be admitting that the actions of England prior to the War of 1812 were perfectly legal. If the prisoners were freed, just as England now demanded, it would not only be keeping in line with the American policy since Thomas Jefferson, but it could been seen as Britain’s admission that they had been wrong in the early 1810s.

Seward’s response, though quite long, was a political masterpiece.3


Unionist Creeks Defeated at Battle of Chustenahlah

Nearly three weeks had passed since Confederate Col. Douglas Cooper and his band of secessionist natives had defeated the Unionist Creeks at the Battle of Chusto-Talasah, Indian Territory [modern day Oklahoma, just north of Tulsa]. Though victorious, Cooper could not pursue the Creeks, who traveled slowly with women, children, escaped slaves and families, north, due to lack of provisions.

Col. Cooper had pleaded with Col. James McIntosh for reinforcements, which soon came. McIntosh, a career Army officer who graduated last in his class at West Point in 1849, thought it would be advantageous to take the field himself in search of the Creeks led by Opothleyahola. McIntosh, Cooper, and their respective commands would travel separately, but planned to join together for the attack. 4

With McIntosh a few miles ahead of him, Cooper reached Tulsa only to learn that McIntosh had found Opothleyahola’s band and was engaged in battle at Chustenahlah in Osage County, near the Kansas border.

On Christmas day, Col. McIntosh learned the location of the Unionist camp and set off to attack without informing Cooper. Though outnumbered 1,300 to 1,700, the Confederates were better armed and better trained than Opothleyahola’s Creeks, who were more Union sympathizers than Union soldiers.

At noon, McIntosh found the Unionists dug in along Shoal Creek, a tributary of the Verdigris River, taking cover in the brush and nearby high ground. McIntosh divided his small Confederate force into three prongs, one to attack the Creeks’ right, one for their left and one to charge up the center.

Virtually surrounded, the weary Creeks began to fall back, making a final stand at their camp, as the Rebels charged again and again. The retreat, however, could not be stopped and soon became a route. The fleeing Unionists were pursued by some of McIntosh’s victorious men, while the others scavenged the abandoned Creek camp.

McIntosh reported that the Creeks lost 250 men in the short engagement. The figure is probably exaggerated, but the final outcome of the battle was certain. The Rebels lost only eight killed and thirty-two wounded.

For their plunder, the Confederates captured “160 women and children, 20 negroes, 30 wagons, 70 yoke of oxen, about 500 Indian horses, several hundred head of cattle, 100 sheep, and a great quantity of property of much value to the enemy.”

Opothleyahola’s Unionist Creeks were scattered and fleeing for their lives towards the Kansas border.5

  1. The Trent Affair by Thomas Le Grand Harris. []
  2. Reminiscences of a War-Time Statesman and Diplomat, 1830-1915 by Frederick William Seward. []
  3. Official Records, Series 2, Vol. 2, p1145-1154. []
  4. The American Indian as Slaveholder and Secessionist by Annie Heloise Abel. []
  5. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 8, p22-23. []
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They Will Be Cheerfully Liberated: Mason & Slidell To Be Freed! by CW DG is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 4.0 International


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One thought on “They Will Be Cheerfully Liberated: Mason & Slidell To Be Freed!

  1. “Seward’s response, though quite long, was a political masterpiece.”

    Well put, harkening back to the War of 1812…


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