Federals Take Port Royal Sound, SC; Trent Affair Begins: November 1861

150 Years Ago in the Civil War

As November 1861 began, both sides in the Civil War continued to shuffle commanders in various locations. Major General George McClellan succeeded 75 year old Winfield Scott as general in chief of the Union Army. Scott had a distinguished military career extending back to the War of 1812, but old age and health problems had caught up with him. His retirement was partly voluntary–he knew he was no longer up to the task of commanding the army in a large war–but political pressure from McClellan’s friends and allies forced the issue. Though Scott continued to informally discuss military issues with President Abraham Lincoln throughout the war, his official duties were over.

The commander of the Federal Department of the West, Major General John C. Fremont, was relieved of his command on November 2nd. Besides his questionable ability as a field commander, Fremont overstepped his bounds by declaring martial law in Missouri and authorizing the confiscation of secessionist property, including the emancipation of their slaves. Lincoln believed that such heavy handed (and unauthorized) tactics would push Missouri into the Confederate camp.

The Department of the West was broken up into smaller departments later in the month, with Major General Henry W. Halleck given  command of the important new Department of the Missouri (Missouri, Arkansas, Illinois, and western Kentucky) . Another new department was formed by merging the Departments of Ohio and the Cumberland into the Department of the Ohio. Brigadier General Don Carlos Buell assumed command, relieving Brigadier General William T. Sherman. Sherman could not deal with the pressure of a regional command, suffering what was perhaps a nervous breakdown. After Buell assumed command, Sherman reported to Halleck, who sent him home to recuperate.

In the South, General Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson took over as commander of the Shenandoah Valley District on November 4th, and on the 5th, General Robert E. Lee assumed his new duties as commander of the Department of South Carolina, Georgia, and East Florida. President Jefferson Davis named Judah P. Benjamin as Secretary of War, replacing Leroy Pope Walker on November 21st.

On November 6th, Brigadier General Ulysses S. Grant and two brigades of Illinois and Iowa troops left Cairo, Illinois on transport boats and headed south down the Mississippi River. They were accompanied by the gunboats Lexington and Tyler. Grant’s force was to make a demonstration against the fortified Confederate position at Columbus, Kentucky. Upon learning that some Confederate troops had crossed the river and occupied a post at Belmont, Missouri,  across the Mississippi from Columbus, Grant decided to attack Belmont. He landed his troops early on the morning of November 7th, three miles above Belmont and out of sight of the Confederate artillery on the high bluffs at Columbus. Grant marched his men to the site of the Confederate camp and attacked, while the gunboats engaged the Columbus artillery.

Grant’s force overran the camp, and destroyed the supplies there. Confederate reinforcements arrived from Columbus and Grant withdrew his men to the transports and headed back north.  The demonstration turned raid had been successful from the Union point of view. In the Civil War, the side that held the field at the end of the day was often declared the winner of a battle. Since Grant had been driven off, the Confederate commander at Columbus, General Leonidas Polk, declared it a Confederate victory.

The only other fighting of significance in the month also occurred on November 7th. A large U.S. Navy force under the command of Flag Officer (the term used for naval squadron commanders at that time)  Samuel DuPont attacked the forts guarding Port Royal Sound on the South Carolina coast. These forts were Fort Walker on the northern end of Hilton Head Island, and Fort Beauregard on the southern end of Phillips Island. DuPont’s warships pounded the Confederate shore defenses with cannon fire, until the forts’ defenders were forced to withdraw. The Federals took control of Hilton Head Island with a landing force of 12,000 soldiers. The North had established a foothold on South Carolina soil, and held the island for the rest of the war.

There was one other event in the month that led to a major diplomatic incident. Back in October, the Confederate commissioners to England (James Mason) and France (John Slidell) had slipped past the Federal naval blockade and reached Cuba as they made their way to Europe. The frigate U.S.S. San Jacinto, under the command of Captain Charles Wilkes, had stopped at Havana, where Mason and Slidell were awaiting passage to Europe aboard the British mail packet R.M.S. Trent. Wilkes took the San Jacinto out to sea and waited for the Trent to depart, which it did on the afternoon of November 8th.

San Jacinto fired two shots across the bow of the Trent, halting the British ship. An armed boarding party went aboard the Trent and arrested Mason and Slidell over the protests of the captain and crew of the Trent. The diplomats  were brought aboard the San Jacinto, and the frigate sailed for the U.S. Navy base at Hampton Roads, arriving on the 15th. The ship then sailed to Boston, arriving on the 24th. Mason and Slidell were held at Fort Warren in Boston harbor.

The capture of the two was hailed in the north–until the incident was examined more closely. Wilkes had seized the diplomats by forcibly stopping a ship belonging to a neutral nation. There was outrage in England when word reached that country near the end of the month. The U.S. government began looking at the legality of the incident under international law. Influential Americans began calling for the release of Mason and Slidell. The incident, known as the Trent Affair, would be a major diplomatic headache for the Lincoln Administration into December.

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