December 23, 1861 (Monday)
It was a very mild day for being so deep into December. In fact, the past week had been pleasantly dry and warm in Washington. For President Lincoln and his Cabinet, the lovely weather had been all but ignored as they squirreled themselves away in their offices and meeting rooms to discuss the Trent Affair and whether or not they should release the prisoners James Mason and John Slidell, Confederate envoys to England and France, captured aboard a British vessel.
While the British and American people both clamored for war, most of the level-headed men in Washington and London understood the horrors it would bring. General Winfield Scott, recovered from the illness that coaxed him into retirement, had even sailed to England as an envoy to try to smooth over relations.
British Minister to the United States Lord Richard Lyons had unofficially delivered an ultimatum to Secretary of State William Seward giving the US seven days to release the prisoners. Lyons called upon Seward again, a week later, but was turned away, told that an answer couldn’t possibly be given until after Christmas.
Lyons was a very friendly gentleman, but this was going too far. He left in an irritated huff, visibly upset as he marched down the steps from the State Department.
On this date, eight days after the ultimatum was unofficially given to Seward, Lyons finally made it official as the weather turned balmy and clouds rose in the sky to prepare for their deluge. Washington took shelter from the cloudbursts with rumor and more cries for war.
It was heard on the street that General Scott was on his way back from England to lead an invasion into Canada. The mood turned bitterly patriotic. It was the sort of patriotism that only incoherent bravado and lust for blood could bring.
Meanwhile, Lincoln spent the day in deep thought. He had, at first, wanted to keep Mason and Slidell as prisoners, but was now thinking more in alignment with Seward, who had pitched towards their release since the beginning. The President was prepared to draft an argument in favor of holding them indefinitely, but could not make one that would satisfy his own mind.
Throughout the day, Secretaries Seward, Gideon Welles of the Naval Department and Simon Chase of the Treasury conferred with Lincoln. Senator Charles Sumner pleaded with Lincoln to give them up, but when Lincoln would say nothing, he cursed the President’s “natural slowness.”
Finally, Lincoln called for the Cabinet to meet the next day in hopes of hashing out the affair for good. 1
Halleck Expands the Call to Kill or Capture Bridge Burners in Missouri
A storm of bridge burning and sabotage had broken out against Union interests in northern Missouri. Perhaps they received their inspiration from the Unionists in Eastern Tennessee who took to destroying the bridges used by the Confederates. And perhaps General Henry Halleck, Union commander in Missouri, channeled the Rebel’s reaction when he called for the Missouri bridge burners to be shot on sight. Even more likely, however, is the truth that war, even the American Civil War, is far from glamorous, romantic and honorable.
The previous day, Halleck issued orders to Union troops in Montgomery County, eighty miles west of St. Louis, to send a strong force to the town of Warrenton to disperse the secessionists.
On this day, he expanded the horizons. Union troops had entered Warrenton and were busily repairing the railroad. Bridges near Mexico and Wellsburg had been burned and there was a solid rumor of 1,500 secessionists on their way to attack the Federal force.
In Palmyra, a small town 130 miles northeast of St. Louis, ten saboteurs had been killed and seventeen more captured. The Rebels had also been scattered in Fulton, 100 miles west of St. Louis.
In areas along the Missouri River, which is where most of the destruction was wrought, Union troops were finding themselves on the wrong side of the water. With all the fords across the Missouri, this would hardly be a problem in summer or fall, but in the middle of December, the water was ice and crossing was nearly out of the question.
Union General Thomas McKean in Jefferson City, for example, wanted to send more troops to Fulton, but could not on this date because “the ice has interfered today.”2
Ice on the Missouri River or not, Halleck was determined to stop what he called “the most annoying features of the war.” In a letter to General George McClellan, Halleck described that the bridge burnings were “effected by small parties of mounted men, disguised as farmers, but well armed. They overpower or overawe the guards, set fire to the bridges, and escape before a force can be collected against them. Examples of severe punishment are the only remedies.”3
To enact this “severe punishment,” Halleck ordered General Benjamin Mayberry Prentiss to take command of the troops moving on the Rebels from Jefferson City, Hermann, Warrenton and Troy. “Kill or capture them,” closed Halleck, caring little how Prentiss put an end to this most annoying feature.
Wasting no time, Halleck then issued orders to fourteen different commanders in fourteen different towns and cities: “Look out for bridge-burners. It is reported that concerted attempts will be made to destroy railroads and telegraph lines. Shoot down every one making the attempt.”
Meanwhile, General John Pope, just returned from his expedition along the Black River, sent his cavalry to Lexington, where Rebel recruits had been crossing the Missouri River to join with General Sterling Price’s force, now retreating towards Springfield. In Lexington, the Union troops burned two steam ferries and a foundry, making certain that many fewer secessionists could cross.4
The Return of General Sherman
General William Tecumseh Sherman, overtaxed and near the point of breaking, had been given a twenty day leave of absence to recover. Since he had met with Secretary of War Simon Cameron in October and suggested that it would take 200,000 soldiers to hold Kentucky, the press had been calling Sherman insane.
Sherman, in over his head in Kentucky and Missouri, did himself no favors and was clearly in need of a break.
Refreshed, Sherman reported to General Halleck in St. Louis and received his orders. General Samuel Curtis had been in charge of the troops at Benton Barracks just north of St. Louis, but was being transferred to command southwestern Missouri.5 General Sherman was ordered to take his place.
Benton Barracks, a camp of instruction, housed about twelve regiments of infantry and cavalry, as well as General Stephen Hurlbut, who would be a brigadier under Sherman.
General Sherman was ordered to “have every armed regiment and company in his command ready for service at a moment’s warning.” This was his second chance, and he would take great care to prove his worthiness to the Army.6