This Week in the Civil War

November 11, 2011 - 10:05 AM

This Week in The Civil War, for week of Sunday, Nov. 13: Port Royal aftermath, Seizure of Southern envoys.

Detailed accounts by The Associated Press and others of the Battle of Port Royal, S.C., are reaching newspapers in mid-November of 1861. AP reports Union forces off the South Carolina coast had captured 55 cannons, some 500 muskets and "any quantity of ammunition" in the attack. AP adds: "Thirty dead rebels have been found, and more are being found, having been hastily buried in the sand." The New York Times reports on Nov. 14, 1861, that Union Brig. Gen. Thomas Sherman landed at Port Royal and issued a proclamation to "the people of South Carolina," the state where a Confederate artillery attack on Union-held Fort Sumter opened the war in April 1861. Sherman writes that federal forces have arrived "with no feelings of person animosity; no desire to harm your citizens, destroy your property, or interfere with any of your lawful rights." Yet the proclamation adds: "The civilized world stands appalled at the course you are pursuing! .. You are in a state of active rebellion against the laws of your country ... "The Times reports federal warships used "raking broadsides" to punish the two Confederate-held forts lining Port Royal Sound. It adds: "All our accounts concur in testifying that the rebels fought bravely and well. But our broadsides were overwhelming." This month sees another key development in the federal capture of two Southern envoys, James Mason and John Slidell, taken off a British steamer intercepted at sea by the Union warship San Jacinto. The detention of the envoys — sent by the Confederacy to Britain in hopes of boosting support for the South — heightens British tensions with Washington for weeks.

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This Week in The Civil War, for week of Sunday, Nov. 20:

Federal forces this week in 1861 continue to press their blockade of the Southern coast. Two Union men-of-war, the USS Niagara and the USS Richmond, turn their guns on Confederate defenses rimming Florida's northern panhandle — targeting Fort Barrancas, Fort McRee and the Pensacalo Navy Yard. After a bombardment spanning two days, there is little loss of life after an attack that will have little impact on the larger conduct of the war. Nonetheless the bombardment has damaged Fort McRae, where many women and children took refuge, several Navy Yard buildings, and a nearby village. In 1862, Pensacola will ultimately be surrendered to Union troops who will use it as a staging point for Naval actions in the South the rest of the war. The Associated Press reports, meanwhile, that wintry weather has begun nipping at the Northern cities where many are alarmed at the high wartime price of coal used to heat homes and buildings. In Philadelphia, AP reports, "The coal question has been agitating residents of this city ever since the cold weather has set in." It adds some seek coal at lower prices directly from "Good Samaritans" at a Pennsylvania mine refusing to profit exceedingly from wartime scarcity. This same week AP reports from Washington that more pressing issues are emerging in Congress over how the Union should handle questions of slavery — and particularly escaped or liberated slaves known as "contrabands" who reach the federal side. "Inasmuch as many slaveholders in Virginia and in other quarters abandon their plantations when menaced by the Federal armies, and necessarily leave their slaves behind them, a practical question is forced up on the government as to what is to be done with the "contrabands," the AP dispatch notes.

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This Week in The Civil War, for week of Sunday, Nov. 27: The Trent Affair — Britain and U.S. in crisis.

The Trent Affair, a diplomatic crisis involving the doctrine of freedom of the seas that brought Britain and the United States to their closest point of possible hostilities early in the Civil War, reaches a boiling point this week 150 years ago. Word that the Union warship USS San Jacinto had stopped the neutral British ship Trent east of Cuba on Nov. 8, 1861, and seized two Confederate diplomats bound for Britain, inflames tensions between the two nations. The Trent steams on without the pair, arriving with its remaining passengers in London on Nov. 27, 1861. An emergency British Cabinet meeting is called. Britain demands an apology and the release of the seized Confederates, arguing the San Jacinto acted in violation of international law. Northerners overwhelmingly laud the detention of Confederate envoys James Mason and John Slidell, then on a mission to seek British and French support for the Confederacy. Southern authorities condemn the detentions. The Times-Picayune of New Orleans proclaims Nov. 23, 1861: "The act of the San Jacinto was in flagrant violation of the law of nations." After heated Cabinet meetings, President Abraham Lincoln adopts a conciliatory approach, seeking to avert any armed conflict with Britain. In December, the U.S. government concedes in a note to Britain that the San Jacinto captain erred in failing to bring the Trent to port for a court ajudication of the matter. The U.S. releases Mason and Slidell in January 1862 to continue their mission to Europe. But European powers decline to intervene in the Civil War on behalf of the Confederacy and the successful resolution of the Trent Affair builds confidence between the British and U.S. governments.

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This Week in The Civil War, for week of Sunday, Dec. 4: The Union moves to enforce its blockade.

President Abraham Lincoln announced a blockade of Southern seaports months earlier in 1861. Enforcing it is another matter, requiring many more Union warships to police thousands of miles of coast against gunrunners and profiteers aiming to supply the less industrialized South with arms, weapons and troop supplies. The Associated Press reports in early December that work proceeds quickly on construction of several naval side-wheel steamers to be armed with powerful 11-inch guns and 150-pound rifled cannon. AP also announces six fast screw sloops-of-war are being built for the Navy: the Shenandoah, Sacramento, and Ticonderoga among them. And the Union has more than just the Confederate ports and coasts to watch. AP reports a Canadian steamer has been seized off the coast of Maine by a revenue cutter. The report ads: "The steamer had on board about ten thousands Springfield muskets, clothing, boots, bank paper and munitions of war ... the cargo was consigned to parties in the Southern States." The so-called Anaconda plan calls for squeezing off Southern supply lines both at seaports and interior rivers such as the Mississippi. A naval blockade will be a key to the eventual Northern victory. But ultimately, the war's outcome will depend chiefly on the bloody land war and its grinding battles to come. With winter near there is no major fighting. AP reports on Dec. 8, 1861, that Union soldiers are setting up winter camps in Maryland and elsewhere, the roads muddy and almost impassable for army baggage wagons. Elsewhere, some 31 "contrabands" — a phrase coined for escaped slaves — are reported to have found freedom this week by reaching federal outposts in Virginia. A trickle now, the "contraband" tide will become a flood of liberated slaves later in the war.