This Week in the Civil War

AP News
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Posted: Nov 25, 2011 9:00 AM
This Week in the Civil War

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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.

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This Week in The Civil War, for week of Sunday, Dec. 11: Charleston fire, Soldiering on, firing squad.

In April 1861, the Civil War's first shots were fired in Charleston, S.C. Another tumultuous event befalls Charleston on Dec. 11, 1861, when a fire sweeps a wide swath of its downtown. The cause of the fire is never determined and The Mercury of Charleston reports a low-tide impeded easy access to coastal waters to douse the flames. When the fast-moving fire finally is put out, about a third of the city is in ashes. Blackened stonework of a scorched Catholic cathedral is left standing, but many businesses and shops of wood are gone. The so-called "Great Fire of 1861" would do nearly as much damage, if not more, to Charleston than war itself. Early months of war saw ill-trained, raw volunteers from the North go off to fight green and poorly equipped Confederate rivals. It was a time when many expected a short conflict. But the bloodshed at the First Battle of Bull Run in the summer of 1861 hinted at the bigger, deadlier battles to come. The Union, seeking to raise a professional fighting force, announces this week that appointed superintendents will oversee recruiting, organizing and drilling of Union soldiers. Volunteer officers are to be relieved of duty on Jan. 1, 1862, The Associated Press reports: "After that time, volunteers will be mustered for pay ... for the regular army." In other news, AP reports the first execution of a Union deserter from the Army of the Potomac. The account states that a private, William H. Johnson, seeking to escape was captured and "taken back to his own camp a prisoner." About 700 soldiers watched his death by firing squad in mid-December of 1861. "Eight of them fired when Johnson fell on his coffin, but life not being extinct, the other four in reserve fired with the required effect," AP reported.

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This Week in The Civil War, for week of Sunday, Dec. 18: Trent Affair _ Diplomatic Crisis Defused.

At the close of 1861, President Abraham Lincoln finds himself at war at home _ and fending off a diplomatic crisis with Britain that threatens hostilities if not handled delicately. Though outrage lingers in London after the Union warship USS San Jacinto stopped the neutral British ship Trent east of Cuba on Nov. 8, 1861 _ seizing two Confederate diplomats bound for Britain _ an end to the impasse is near. An outraged British government has been demanding an apology for what is seen as a violation of its neutrality. And London also insists on the immediate release of the two Confederate envoys. But after tempers flare, cool heads prevail. A message is sent by the British minister in Washington to Lincoln's secretary of state on Dec. 19, 1861, demanding a reply. Yielding to British demands is a difficult step for the Lincoln administration, but Lincoln cannot afford another fight. On Dec. 27, the U.S. secretary of state would send back a carefully worded reply announcing that the Confederates would be freed and reparations paid _ defusing the standoff. Also this week, The Associated Press reports that Confederates are able to run their own limited blockade of waters leading to Washington, D.C., much as the Union blockades Southern seaports and inland rivers. Rebel batteries menace the Potomac River along bluffs lining the banks in spots where it lazily wends toward Washington. But Union boats still get past. "Some eight or ten schooners have run the blockade on the Potomac during the past forty-eight hours," The AP reports on Dec. 18. But the threat is real, AP notes: "The new batteries, which the rebels have recently disclosed, show that is it their intention to make the blockade effectual if they can."