Friday, November 11, 2011

Sesquicentennial, Part XVIII: Foreign Affairs


In the modern era, we're accustomed to fast-moving, quick-paced conflicts. The interval between the initial invasion of Iraq and the fall of Baghdad in 2003 could be measured in weeks. The interval between the beginnings of unrest in Libya and the death of Quaddafi could be measured in only months. This, you have to understand, is a fairly new development, especially in American military history. Specifically, it was a response to what happened in the 1973 Arab-Israeli war. One of our take-aways from that conflict is that we wouldn't have time to gear up for any future conflict ... and the new watch-words became "come as you are" and "win the first fight." We appear to have more or less learned the lesson.

But in 1861, we were still over a century away from that revelation. The fall of 1861 moved very, very slowly. This was a deliberate pause on both sides. One of the things clear to everyone after the Battle of Bull Run was that no one was really ready for any of this. Everyone needed time to raise, equip, and train fresh troops. A whole lot of fresh troops.

The Union wasn't having a tremendously difficult time doing any of this. To raise and outfit an army, you need a supply of manpower, ready cash to buy weapons and ammunition, more ready cash to expend ammunition in training, and skilled men to lead and direct the training of your new troops. The Union ran down its list: Manpower? Check. Cash? Check. More cash? Check. Skilled men? Well, sort of. But still check.

The Union was beginning to shake out its pre-War old guard. Some of the retirements, if somewhat unfair, were also necessary. Lieutenant General Winfield Scott, the Army's commanding general, was an old man, and not in the best of health to begin with. If he were younger and more vigorous, he'd probably be the man for the job; but young and vigorous he most assuredly was not. His retirement was expected, and surprised no one. As his replacement, Lincoln selected the brightest of his rising stars: General George McClellan. His earlier success was one of the few bright spots for the Union so far. And if there's anything a former railroad engineer knew, it was organization. And it does have to be said: that fall and that winter, General McClellan molded the broken, dispirited soldiers that slouched around Washington into a tight, disciplined unit: the Army of the Potomac. And he strengthened the defenses surrounding Washington to the point that the Federal capital was now the most heavily-fortified city on Earth. Whatever else you may have to say about General McClellan, you must give him credit for laying the groundwork and forging the tools. He was, in many ways, a perfectly splendid officer.

Down South, a similar story was playing out. The Confederates had the same four needs for army-building. And they ran down the same checklist: Manpower? Check ... for now. Cash? Check, with the same proviso. More cash? Well, we may have to get back to you on that one. Skilled men? Oh yes, plenty! But, without arms and ammunition, what can they do?

The Union blockade was beginning to pinch the Confederacy's coffers. They had virtually no native industry of their own. They knew this going in. Their big plan all along was to gain enough support abroad, from foreign merchants who needed their cotton, so that they could use a powerful foreign fleet to force the Union blockade aside. At which point, they could buy all the arms they needed from the English and French. But ... that consummation was still a long, long way from being concluded.

England, you see, wasn't exactly eager to leap into a military alliance with the Confederacy.

Oh, there's one reason why they might. It'd poke a sharp stick in the Yankees' eyes, and no mistake. London might well be up for that. But, there were two issues lurking in the background that cloud those waters. First, as we said before, war with the Union would mean war with the US Navy. It's a war England would probably win, but it would cost. England wasn't eager to pay that cost. And secondly, the Confederacy was explicitly a slave power. There was an organization in London, the Anti-Slavery Society, headed by a German immigrant named Albert. Ordinarily that would have meant little. But, since Albert's wife was Victoria, by Grace of God Queen of England, Scotland, and all the rest; it mattered a great deal indeed. What the Sovereign wants, the Sovereign tends to get; and Prime Minister Palmerston was going to have to have an outstanding reason if he was going to go before her and ask her to support a slave-holding Power.

The Union damn near gave it to him.

William Yancey, the current Confederate representative in London, was sick and unable to fulfill his duties. So, President Davis had to appoint a couple of replacements: John Slidell of Louisiana and James Mason of Georgia. Their job was to get as much support, official and unofficial, as they possibly could. A direct ship to England couldn't be had, so they made their way out to where they could catch a ship for England. Originally, they made for the Bahamas, but they'd missed an England-bound ship by mere days. Then they heard that an English mail ship would be leaving Cuba soon. So, they sailed for Cuba, and got a ride on the RMS Trent. At that point, they thought they were safely England-bound.

It's more or less at this point that the USS San Jacinto intervenes, and stops the Trent for a cargo inspection. And by "cargo", I mean Messrs. Mason and Slidell, since the captain of the San Jacinto had heard while he was laid up in Cuba following an Atlantic patrol that two Confederate ministers were England-bound on the Trent. (Did anyone bother keeping secrets back then?)

Now, strictly speaking, Captain Wilkes had no legal right to stop the Trent. This seizure was a violation of international law. But, Captain Wilkes took it upon himself to detain the Trent and its passengers, so as to disrupt the Confederacy's diplomatic efforts. It apparently escaped Captain Wilkes' calculations that such an action might well enrage England, and provoke them to enter the War on the Confederacy's side.

This mess would take several months to unwind, over the winter of 1861-1862. Several times, things looked like they might flare up into open war. But, owing to skillful diplomacy by President Lincoln and his ambassador in London, Charles F. Adams, no such war took place. England did embark on a naval construction program. They did strengthen their garrison in Canada. But, after an admission of wrongdoing that wasn't really an admission, Mason and Slidell were released from custody and allowed to board a Royal Navy ship in Provincetown, Massachusetts. So, Captain Wilkes merely delayed the two men for six months or so.

In the end, very little changed. The Confederacy wasn't going to get the recognition it wanted, not yet anyway. But, they did win one key concession from the British: recognition of the Confederacy as a belligerent party. While this meant nothing as far as Her Majesty's Government was concerned, it meant that Confederate ships could use British ports to re-provision, and they could contract with private suppliers for arms and munitions.

Half a loaf was better than none. The Confederacy would have as much arms as it could buy and smuggle through the Union blockade. That would allow them to field an army. For how long, no one knew yet. President Davis hoped it would be long enough.

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