The Trent affair begins

Sunday, Nov. 3: Maj. Gen. David Hunter assumed active command of the Western Department from Gen. Fremont at Springfield, Missouri. In Richmond, President Davis wrote Gen. Joseph Johnston of his concern over what he called the false reports that the president prevented Gen. Beauregard from following the Federals after Manassas. Davis asked Gen. Johnston for his support.

In the Shenandoah Valley Nov. 4, Maj. Gen. Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson assumed command of the new Shenandoah Valley District with headquarters at Winchester, soon to be the scene of his greatest triumphs. At Port Royal Sound, S.C., a U.S. Coast Survey vessel prowled the area escorted by two Navy vessels. They were fired on by small vessels of the Confederate naval squadron while the main Federal fleet assembled outside the Sound.

On Tuesday, Nov. 5, Gen. Robert E. Lee was named by the Confederate government as commander of the new Department of South Carolina, Georgia and East Florida. His reputation was somewhat tarnished by the fruitless western Virginia campaigns but he remained influencial with the people of the South. Federal forces under Brig. Gen. William Nelson occupied Prestonburg, Ky. In South Carolina, four Federal naval vessels fought the small Confederate flotilla at Port Royal Sound and forced it into inland streams.

Jefferson Davis and Alexander H. Stephens were unanimously elected permanent President and Vice President of the Confederate States in elections held Wednesday, Nov. 6. Voters also elected members of the first regular Confederate Congress. Until now, the Confederate government and its leaders had been a “provisional” government. As yet, there was only one political party – Democratic – although within it several factions were rising.

Hundreds of miles apart, two noteworthy military events broke upon the citizens of the warring nations on Nov. 7. At one, an important base was won for the Federals; at the other, a Northern general received a course in offensive action that he would long remember.

At the Battle of Port Royal, S.C., the combined army and navy expedition forced the surrender of Confederate troops at Hilton Head. Plantation owners fled the region and left Union forces with thousands of abandoned slaves. The Federals established an important base of operations at Port Royal, and would soon shut off ports from Charleston to St. Augustine to all but the bravest blockade runners. Confederate troops from other fronts would have to be pulled out of line and sent to plug the punctured coastal defenses.

At Cairo, Ill., the same day, 3,500 Federal troops under Brig. Gen. Ulysses Grant left in a flotilla of two gunboats and four other vessels, intending to occupy Belmont, Mo., opposite a heavily defended position at Columbus, Ky., under Maj. Gen. Leonidas Polk. Grant and the troops occupied Belmont when the Confederates crossed the Mississippi River and attacked. Grant and the Union troops withdrew north on the river. Strategically, the engagement at Belmont was of little value, but to Grant, it was a lesson in offensive warfare and would prove valuable to him in the months and years to come.

On Friday, Nov. 8, Capt. Charles Wilkes, formerly an explorer of some reputation, was in command of the USS San Jacinto, when he and his men stopped in Havana, Cuba, looking for the Confederate commissioners John Slidell and James M. Mason. He found that the two had sailed for Europe aboard the British mail ship Trent.

With orders from Washington to stop the commissioners, Wilkes forced the British ship to stop in the open waters of Old Bahama Channel. The two Southerners were seized, and the San Jacinto steamed back to Hampton Roads, Va. The Trent sailed on to England with the families of Mason and Slidell still aboard. In a matter of days, the British government screamed in protest, nearly sparking an international incident and open warfare between Great Britain, France, and the United States. The repercussions of the Trent affair would go on until Dec. 27.

In South Carolina, Federal forces from their new base at Port Royal captured the city of Beaufort on Saturday, Nov. 9, without a fight.

Arthur Candenquist
About Arthur Candenquist 193 Articles

A long-time historian, researcher, lecturer and author, Arthur Candenquist serves as secretary-treasurer of the Rappahannock County Sesquicentennial Committee. He can be reached at AC9725@cs.com.