Trent Affair Likened to War of 1812; CS General “Stupid, but Easily Controlled”

November 17, 1861 (Sunday)

The capture of James Mason and John Slidell, Confederate envoys to England and France, was being spread by word of mouth, via the telegraph, all up and down the east coast. Since the news came too late the previous day to go to print, and because this date was a Sunday, most papers would have to wait until Monday the 18th to print anything about the seizure.

The New York Times, on the other hand, printed every day. The paper could offer little more than the retelling of the story, which came exclusively from their correspondents at Fortress Monroe and Baltimore. At this point, while there was celebration in the city, the paper did no editorializing, reprinting the dispatches verbatim.1

While some of President Lincoln’s Cabinet were unsure how to best handle the situation, Secretary of State William Seward was certain that they must remain prisoners. He may have even cracked a smile of appreciation when he received a letter from an old friend and Massachusetts statesman, Philo S. Shelton, concurring fully with the action.

“I have conversed with many of our leading merchants,” wrote Shelton, “heard the opinions of many of our ablest lawyers, and all agree that the action of Captain Wilkes in seizing these men is commendable and that the Administration ought to sustain him and hold them at all hazards.” He warned that there would be English sympathy in New York, but it “ought not to be heeded.”

Shelton touched on the crux of the matter when he wrote that “the results will justify the act of Wilkes and there are precedents in abundance in the records of the British courts to sustain it.”

What Shelton was referring to was the War of 1812. Wilkes, hinted Shelton, did to the British what the British did to the Americans in the early 1800s. The British Navy seized their own citizens (and sometimes the citizens of other nations) from US merchant vessels in order to impress them into the Navy. At first glace, the two situations appear to be similar. The English, however, might not view it that way, especially coming from the Americans who fought a war to stop it.2


Unionists in Eastern Tennessee Nearly Whipped; CS Colonel Calls CS General “Stupid, but Easily Controlled.”

In Eastern Tennessee, Confederate General Zollicoffer had moved to Knoxville in order to be closer to the scene of the Unionist uprising that resulted in five crucial railroad bridges being burned. Many were understandably in a panic over it. Zollicoffer, on the other hand, thought most of the news was simply rumor. He planned to stay in Knoxville for but a day since there was “no necessity for remaining longer.”

Zollicoffer had taken precautions, blocking roads into Virginia and Kentucky, and sending several detachments to disarm Unionist men. These newly-acquired guns were used to outfit some of his men who were still without arms. All Unionist uprisings aside, Zollicoffer wanted General William H. Carroll’s brigade, currently chasing after the Lincolnites, to join him in a push northward to attack the actual Union soldiers.3

The idea that the Unionists in Eastern Tennessee were nearly whipped held some clout. On the 14th, Tennessee’s Governor, Isham Harris, who was overreacting just as much as Zollicoffer was underreacting, ordered his state to “Muster all the armed forces possible without calling on Zollicoffer, and capture Clift and his men, dead or alive.”4 William Clift was “a leading tory of Hamilton County,” who had raised a regiment of 200 Unionists.

A few days earlier, the Unionists held a council of war to decide how to handle the influx of the Confederates in the region specifically to hunt them down. There were three choices. First, they could stay and fight in Eastern Tennessee. Second, they could join the main Union army in Kentucky. And third, they could disband completely and fade into the woodwork.

William Clift was of the mind to stay and fight. Unfortunately, he was only one of ten or so who felt that way. Over 100 wished to join the Union troops in Kentucky, while the remainder just wanted to disperse. And so that’s what they did, each group going their separate ways.

Confederate Col. Sterling Alexander Martin Wood, a lawyer before the war, and his 7th Alabama Regiment, just in from Pensacola, discovered this information. He reported to Judah P. Benjamin, Confederate Secretary of War, and to General Bragg, his commander in Florida. To each, he gave different figures. For example, he told Benjamin that there were 200 Unionists at the council of war, while telling Bragg that there were 300. Benjamin was told that sixty-five Unionists were heading north to join the main army, but Bragg received word that there were 100.

Wood told Benjamin that he had captured twelve armed Unionists with rations for six days of travel. He was of the opinion that a small force, perhaps a regiment, could keep the area secure. He, however, neglected to tell the Secretary of War that he “put the town under martial law; shut up the groceries; forbade any exit…; had every avenue guarded; arrested about 12 persons who were talking Lincolnism before I came.”

Prior to his arrival, General William H. Carroll was overseeing the hunt for Unionists. Col. Wood was not the least bit impressed by General Carroll. “He is stupid, but easily controlled,” wrote Wood to General Bragg. “He knows nothing, and I believe I can do with him pretty much as I please.”

In his dispatch to Bragg, which has been collected in the Official Records, Wood writes that there was an additional “letter enclosed for some of my private views.” Apparently, calling a General “stupid, but easily controlled,” was perfectly fine for the public. Sadly, his letter of “private views” has been lost.

Not knowing that the Secretary of War had already received a version of Wood’s report, General Bragg thought that it was a fine idea to forward the version he received to Richmond.5

  1. New York Times, November 17, 1861. []
  2. Official Records, Series 2, Vol. 2. 1094. []
  3. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 4, p244. []
  4. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 4, p243. []
  5. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 4, p247-250. []
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Trent Affair Likened to War of 1812; CS General “Stupid, but Easily Controlled” by CW DG is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 4.0 International


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