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Full text of "James Murray Mason and John Slidell in Fort Warren, Boston Harbor, with other matter relating to the war of the rebellion"

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From the 

Proceedings of the Massachusetts Historical Society 

FOR December, 1911 

/ ) 



f^^i) 1912 








At a meeting of the Massachusetts Historical 
Society held in Boston on Thursday, December 14, 
1911, Dr. Samuel A. Green read the following paper: 

Agreeably to the suggestion of Mr. Adams that I should 
give at this meeting my recollections of Messrs. James Murray 
Mason and John Slidell, and other prisoners confined at Fort 
Warren, near the beginning of the War of the Rebellion, I will 
try to do so, though they are dimmed by the mists of time. 
These reminiscences, in the main sifted through the lapse of 
half a century, are both few and faint, but certain incidents 
were impressed in detail so deep in my memory that a life- 
time is not long enough to forget them. 

During the War I witnessed many events that have become 
of historic interest, but from the want on my part of a due 
appreciation of their influence on the great questions of the 
day, I paid little attention to them at the time of their occur- 
rence. But not so in my intercourse with the two commis- 
sioners of the South, whom I met several times a day in a social 
and informal manner. They both were gentlemen of educa- 
tion, and of great political prominence in their section of the 
country. While I could not smooth the roughness nor in any 
way soften the asperities of the situation, I had it in my power 

in some slight degree to relieve the friction that necessarily 
existed. All parcels sent from this city to the Fort, particularly 
such packages as were supposed to contain bottles, were ex- 
amined by a proper officer at the landing where the steamer came 
twice a day, bringing food and other necessary articles for a 
large number of men. Anything addressed to me or the Medi- 
cal Department — of which I was then at the head ^ was 
passed without delay or examination. I knew that the com- 
missioners, while leading their customary life, used stimulants 
which cheer but not inebriate, when taken in moderation; and 
I felt it to be my social duty, as well as professional, to keep 
them in their usual and regular habits. 

In going my rounds each morning I used to make a long 
visit in their quarters, as I took much pleasure in talking with 
them. Often I would spend an hour there. They both had 
been United States Senators and had seen much' of public life 
in Washington and elsewhere, and were familiar with the great 
questions of the day. While they were rampant rebels, and 
never ceased in their violent denunciations of the govern- 
ment, for unaccountable reasons I enjoyed my relations with 
them. Perhaps it was the fascination exerted by two men, then 
very much in the public eye, over a young man who had never 
before heard treason talked so openly and who at that time was 
studying the question from a student's or a psychological point 
of view. 

I remember that Mr. Slidell once mentioned to me that he 
was a Northern man by birth, and that he was educated at a 
Northern college, at which I was somewhat astonished. This 
statement I found, later, to be strictly correct; though a few 
years after graduation he removed to Louisiana, where he 
became eminent as a lawyer and prominent as a politician. 
He was always an ardent supporter of the doctrines of State- 
rights, and he dechned a cabinet appointment under President 
Buchanan. I remember well he told me one morning that, just 
as soon as the Enghsh government heard of the "outrage " — 
as he called it — on the steamer Trent, the authorities in Lon- 
don would demand the immediate surrender of the two com- 
missioners with an apology from the American govermnent 
for the act. If this demand was not complied with at once by 
the authorities here, war would be declared by Great Britain. 

He said furthermore that he expected by the beginning of the 
new year to be on his way to England, together with Mr. 
Alason, his colleague, after being released from the Fort by 
orders from Washington. If war was declared by England, a 
naval force would be sent to our shores, and the blockade along 
the Southern coast would be raised in less than six weeks; and 
then the Confederacy would become an acknowledged fact. 
He thought that Mr. Lincoln's administration would foresee 
this state of alTairs and release them at once. 

To all this I listened attentively and respectfull}-, but made no 
reply. I had no knowledge of international law, and I could 
give no satisfactory answer to his statements. The newspapers, 
however, were discussing the question freely, and their columns 
were full of leaders on the subject. So far as I had any opinion 
on the law, it was gained from the public prints; and, of course, 
that was not the view taken by the commissioners. 

The newspapers hereabouts very generally, unanimously so 
far as my recollection goes, upheld the stand taken by Captain 
Wilkes, of the San Jacinto ; and they reflected accurately 
public sentiment in the matter. A complimentary dinner was 
given at the Revere House to Captain Wilkes and his officers, 
at which the Governor of the Commonwealth, the Mayor of 
the city, and the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, together 
with other prominent citizens, spoke and all warmly applauded 
the act of Captain Wilkes. They seemed to vie with each other 
in giving praise to the daring naval officer and in bestowing 
compliments on him. 

During the next few weeks, however, I noticed that Mr. 
SUdell's prediction came true. This was owing to the foresight 
of ^Ir. Seward, which involved a master stroke of diplomac)' 
on his part. When the demand was made by the English govern- 
ment for the surrender of the commissioners, the Secretary of 
State in substance replied, that they should be liberated most 
readily, and that our action in this matter was in accordance 
with principles which the United States had always held and 
long maintained. He furthemiore said that it was a matter of 
special congratulation that the British government had dis- 
avowed its former claims, namely, the right of search of foreign 
vessels in time of peace; and that it was now contending for 
what the United States had always insisted upon. 

At this juncture the United States was in a tight fix. If Mr. 
Seward had not taken the course he did, the alternative was 
war with England, and the raising of the blockade of the 
Southern ports. This meant success for the seceding States. 
He displayed great wisdom in his poHcy. He showed that his 
action in this matter was entirely consistent with the great 
underlying principles long held by the American goverimient; 
and thus he forestalled the criticism that was sure to be made 
by his own countrjonen. 

It so happened that some years previously I had known Mr. 
SHdell's secretary, George Eustis, in Washington, when he was 
a member of Congress from Louisiana. His father was a native 
of Boston and a nephew of Governor William Eustis. As 
George Eustis was now held in military custody, I tried to 
make iiis position as agreeable as possible under existing cir- 
cumstances. We talked of our former acquaintanceship; and 
our present relations under unforeseen conditions were mutually 

It also happened that I had had a slight bowing acquaintance 
with Mr. Mason's secretary, James Edward Macfarland, who 
was a student in the Harvard Law School, where he took his 
LL.B. in the Class of 1849, while I was an undergraduate in 
college. It seemed to me very odd and strange that the ex- 
igencies of war should have brought together, now under vastly 
different circumstances, three chance acquaintances of a former 
period within the solid walls of a strong fort, but such is the 
whirligig of Time, and the irony of Fate! 

The membership of the college as well as of the professional 
schools then was much smaller than it is now, and the inter- 
course between the young men of the various communities 
correspondingly closer than at present. The classes nowadays 
are more than ten times as large as in my day; and the dis- 
parity in numbers accounts for the greater intercourse at that 
period. Under the present circumstances it was my pleasure 
as well as duty to smooth the rough places and to soften the 
hard spots that lay in the paths of these two young men. They 
were fresh from Cuba, and well supplied with cigars — genuine 
Havanas — and I could supplement an evening's entertain- 
ment with other luxuries in keeping with the occasion. It was 
pleasant for me to do so, and presumably for them also. 

So far as my knowledge goes, these prisoners never complained 
of the restraints under which they were held. They were al- 
lowed opportunity to take air and exercise as their health re- 
quired; and they were permitted to write and receive unsealed 
letters, which were examined by proper officers, who were to 
see that they did not contain seditious sentiments. Personal 
intercourse with outsiders was not allowed except by permission 
from the authorities in Washington. 

Less than two years later I was brought often into personal 
contact with Lieutenant D. jNL Fairfax,' who had taken the 
two rebel commissioners from the English steamer Trent. In 
the early spring of 1863 my regiment (the 24th Massachusetts) 
had occupied Seabrook Island which commanded Seabrook Inlet, 
sometimes called North Edisto Inlet, very near Charleston 
harbor, subsequently a place of rendezvous for half a dozen 
monitors which were to take part in the assault on Fort Wagner 
and Fort Sumter. During the month of June, a hot season ofif 
the coast of South Carolina, life on an iron-clad was as uncom- 
fortable as it could well be, and in any description of the weather 
it might be compared to what Sherman said war was. In con- 
sequence of this extreme heat the naval officers passed much of 
their time ashore, where I met them often. Of the several 
commanders one was Fairfax, now in charge of a monitor. 
In our frequent intercourse we spoke of the Trent episode, 
but never spent much time on the subject, as it was then a 
back number. 

On another occasion I dined at the same table with Charles 
Bunker Dahlgren,- eldest son of Rear Admiral Dahlgren, who 
in a ship's cutter accompanied Lieutenant Fairfax, going from 
the San Jacinto. In this way I heard anew the description 
of the scene which took place aboard the Trent when the 
commissioners were transferred. 

After all, the world is rather small, and in any quarter of 
the globe one is apt to run across somebody he has met some- 
where or has known before. But Mason and Slidell were not 
the only men of distinction who were in custody at the Fort. 
There was Mr. Charles James Faulkner, who had been United 
States Minister to France, where he was appointed by President 
Buchanan. He had been prominent as a politician in Virginia 
• Donald MacXeill Fairfa.^. " Died, January 10, 1912. 



and a member of Congress from that Commonwealth. He 
was a man of education and refinement, and an agreeable person 
to meet. It was said that he had influenced the French emperor 
to sympathize with the South in their struggle, for which 
reason he was recalled by President Lincoln. On his return to 
this country he was arrested as a disloyal citizen and confined 
in Fort Warren. At a later period he was exchanged for a 
member of Congress, Alfred Ely, of New York, who had been 
confined in Libby Prison, at Richmond, after his capture at 
the first Battle of Bull Run. 

Other political prisoners were George W. Brown,' Mayor of 
Baltimore, Governor Charles S. Morehead,- of Kentucky, and 
Marshal George P. Kane,^ of Baltimore, all prominent in the 
early days of the Rebellion as sympathizers with the South, but 
who hved to see their hopes crushed. There were also a thousand 
men, more or less, who had been captured at Hatteras Inlet, 
when the two forts there had been taken. They were about 
as motley a crew as could easily be collected, varying in their 
ages from sixteen to sixty years. Their clothing was anything 
but uniform, and in their appearance might well be compared 
to FalstafT's soldiers near Coventry. These men, I remember, 
were very proud of the name "rebel," and wished to be known 
as rebels. They never would give up the struggle and were 
ready to die in the last ditch. During the campaign of the 
next year in North Carolina, after some of the battles and 
skirmishes in that State, I met several of these men again who 
had been duly exchanged for Union soldiers held by the rebels 
as prisoners. 

During the time of my service at the Fort I received a note 
from a distinguished citizen of Boston,^ and a member of this 
Society, whose loyalty to the government was undoubted and 
whose liberality was unlimited, authorizing me to buy for Mr. 
Eustis anything needed for his comfort or pleasure. After 

' George William Brown, who served as mayor less than one year, having 
been elected on a "reform" ticket. He was one of the Founders of the Mary- 
land Historical Society in 1S44. 

- Charles Slaughter Morehead (1S02-1868). He lived in England during 
the war, and passed his last years on liis plantation near Greenville, Mississippi. 

' George Proctor Kane (1817-1878), a merchant, who had been collector of 
customs at Baltimore. He was mayor of the city at the time of his death. 

' William Appleton. 

the receipt of the note I called on the writer and told him what 
in my opinion would be most acceptable to the gentleman in 
question, who in this matter represented the group from the 
Trent. I was then given a carle hlancltc to procure whatever was 
wanted by them and to distribute the articles as I saw fit. In 
accordance with these liberal instructions I bought fruit, 
flowers and other luxuries that were conducive to their comfort 
or pleasure; and at the same time I was careful to let the 
recipients know the source of the bounty. 

While there was not one drop of blood in my veins sympa- 
thizing with the attempt to break up the Union, I did feel a sort 
of compassion and pity for these prisoners, — they were men of 
education and refinement, and now bereft of all the pleasures 
that go with Thanksgiving cheer; and I tried to treat them as I 
would have wished my friends to be treated in a similar situa- 
tion. It was a source of some satisfaction to me that I was 
able to enliven in a slight degree the tedious hours of their 
monotonous life. When I took my leave of them, they wished 
me health and happiness; and I watched the outcome of the 
arrest with much interest. The two commissioners died within 
z. few weeks of each other some years after the end of the war. 

The two following papers are copied from the Executive 
Letter Files at the State House; and they give the reasons why 
the 24th Massachusetts Volunteers were ordered to Fort Warren : 

September 28, [1861.I 
Colonel Thomas A. Scott, 

Assistant Secretary of War, Washington, D. C. 

Sir, — I am instructed by His Excellency Governor Andrew to 
acknowledge the receipt of your communication of 24th inst., and 
to state that iMassachusetts is now organizing eight regiments 
of infantry, one of cavalry and three batteries of artillery, besides 
which recruiting is going on here for the regular army to fill vacan- 
cies in the regiments from this State now in the field and for the 
regiments of other States. 

Tlie Governor is therefore anxious to avoid any steps which 
might delay the filling up of these regiments by starting any new 
organization at present, and if a company is to be raised especially 
to guard the prisoners at Fort Warren it would in effect take so 
many men from these regiments. 


It would seem to him moreover that raw recruits entirely un- 
drilled and undisciplined ought hardly to be entrusted with this 
delicate duty. And again one company could not furnish a suiScient 
guard, with the proper relief, for so large a work: as when it was 
garrisoned by Massachusetts volunteers a whole company was 
required for the guard each day. 

The Governor therefore would suggest that instead of raising a 
new company for this duty he should be allowed to place in Fort 
Warren one of the regiments he is now raising. The 24th Mass. 
Volunteers, Colonel Thomas G. Stevenson, would answer admirably 
for this duty. Colonel Stevenson was in command of Fort Inde- 
pendence, Boston Harbor, for two months last spring, and dis- 
tinguished himself by the neatness, order and discipline he enforced 
as well as by the drill of his battalion. This battahon is being now 
increased to a regiment — it numbers at present but 400 men; 
but these are well uniformed, equipped and drilled, and commanded 
by officers who are gentlemen of education and experience. The 
regiment while guarding the prisoners could go on with its own 
organization, and when ready to march its place might be supplied 
by another. 

By this plan the expense of a new company would also be saved. 

I am further to request that if this plan meets your approval 
you will please answer by telegraph. Very respectfully, 

Harrison Ritchie, 
Lt. Col. and A. D. C 

Executive Department. 
Telegram. Boston, Oct. 16, 1861. 

To Lieut. General fWinfield] Scott, 
Washington, D. C. 

Failing to receive authority for muster of Colonel Stevenson 
into service, have ordered Lieutenant-Colonel Francis A. Osborn, 
Twenty-foiurth Regiment Massachusetts Volunteers, with two 
hundred men, into Fort Warren, where he will be ready to receive 
prisoners on and after Saturday [the nineteenth]. Have also noti- 
fied Col. Loomis. 

A. G. Browne, Jr., 
Lieut. Col. and Military Sec'y.^ 

The following letter will explain itself. When I called on 
the writer, as already mentioned, I found him in feeble 
health, and he lived only a short time afterward. He died at 
■ Executive Letter Files, v. 481-483. ^ lb., vi. 318. 


LongAvood, on February 15, 1862, at the age of seventy-five 

Boston Nov 23'^ 1861 

Dear Sir, — I asked you to ascertain what was required and 
essential to the comfort of those confined at Fort Warren. My son 
Charles tells me, you said that fruit would be very acceptable. 
The season for fruit, as you are aware, has not been good; and we 
have almost none at this time except apples. 

Among the prisoners daily expected, is Mr. Eustis in whom I have 
much interest from personal acquaintance and a long intimacy with 
Ivis family to whom I am untlor many obligations. I wrote him 
some days since, proflering my services in any way consistent with 
our position, and the unhappy state of our Country. I have no 
knowledge of what is allowed to be communicated between those 
once intimate, and now severed and struggling for the destruction of 
each other. 

It must be very troublesome to the Commander to examine so 
many communications as must be brought to his eye; but lest I 
aggra\-ate the evil, I will to the point. 

When attending Congress in July, as I was told, Mr. Eustis and 
wife were on their way to Washington, and again that he was de- 
tained in Alabama by fever, and that afterwards they were at the 
White Sulphur Springs in Virginia, for his health; whatever may 
have been his success in gaining health the transition to our climate 
must be fearful. Please see him, and inform me on the subject. 
I have said to him, that he would want some warm clothing &c., 
and to send to me for it and it should be attended to. I sent him 
some wine, and newspapers, some days since. The periodicals, such 
as the London Westminster and Edinboro Reviews, I would cheer- 
fully send him if desired. You are aware my health would not 
allow me to visit the Fort were I permitted so to do. 

Should you get this in time to write me in reply on Monday, I 
\Aish you particularly so to do, as I expect to be absent from Boston 
for some days. Sincerely yours 

Wm. Appleton. 

T)' Green, Fort Warren. 

I am tempted to add to this paper a bit of personal matter 
which has no connection with the Mason and Slidell affair, 
though it relates to the War of the Rebellion. I was among 
the last persons that ever had any long conversation with 


Robert Gould Shaw, the brave and fearless Colonel of the 54th 
Massachusetts Volunteers (a colored regiment), who lost his 
life in the assault on Fort Wagner. His regiment was drawn up 
on the beach, together with other troops, directly in front of 
my tentx)n Morris Island. Havang known Bob Shaw and his 
father's family for many years, I stepped down to the beach 
and had a long talk with Mm. He was moving about at random 
among his officers and men, some of whom I knew; and the 
subject of conversation among them was anything but what 
was uppermost in their minds. Everybody knew that there was 
to be a fearful fight, and that each one stood on the edge of a 
perilous battle; but this was not talked about. Each one 
tried to be cheerful, but the clouds hung low. Sopn the column 
started to march up the beach; and it was not long before the 
roar of cannon and the rattle of musketry proclaimed the fact 
that the battle had begun in good earnest. In due time we 
had visible proof of it by the arrival of the wounded at the 
Post Hospital which was under my charge as Chief Medical 
Officer of the Island. 

To me July 18, the day of attack on Fort Wagner, was a 
memorable anniversary, as a sharp skirmish just two years be- 
fore took place in Virginia, which is now known as the fight 
at Blackburn's Ford, the forerunner of the first Bull Run, 
where I was present. A few days after the assault I accom- 
panied Dr. John J. Craven, Medical Director of the Depart- 
ment of the South, aboard the hospital ship Cosmopolitan, 
under a flag of truce, which sailed up under the guns of Fort 
Sumter, where we were met by another steamer coming from 
Charleston, with surgeons in charge of our wounded, when we 
exchanged prisoners. On that occasion we received more men 
than we gave, as so many of ours had fallen in Fort Wagner 
that the defenders had the advantage of us in the numbers 
captured. While engaged in this exchange of prisoners I im- 
proved the opportunity to swap late New York newspapers 
for those of Charleston with the Southern medical officers. 
In going back to Morris Island I examined with much in- 
terest the account there given of the assault on the Fort. 
One account said that a young officer with Colonel's shoulder 
straps was killed, and undoubtedly he was Colonel Shaw; and 
it added that they had buried him with his niggers. This ex- 

pression seemed to me, for various reasons, to be in bad taste. 
On my return to the Island I took this newspaper to General 
Gillmore and gave it to him. 

Two or three days before the attack on Wagner there was a 
skirmish on James Island in which Shaw's men met with some 
loss. It was the first time that this colored regiment had ever 
been in action, and they received great credit for their conduct 
under fire. The engagement was commanded by General Terry, 
on whose staff I was then serving. 

The skirmish was fought over a low piece of sandy land near 
the coast, covered with marsh grass of considerable height; 
and the ground was honeycombed with the holes of fiddler- 
crabs. Word came to me that the bodies of some of the colored 
men killed in this fight had been mutilated by the enemy; and 
I felt it to be my duty to look into the matter and find out the 
truth. With that object in view, after the action I walked over 
the field, examining carefully the ground and looking for the 
mutilated remains of soldiers. As a result I found several 
bodies, which were almost wholly concealed by the tall marsh 
grass; and, sure enough, the small crabs had eaten away the 
cuticle in spots off the faces of the dead men, leaving a grue- 
some sight. The little wretches had attacked parts under the 
eyes, behind the ears, and other tender places; and there were 
scores of the ravenous crustaceans still at work when I found 
them, which disappeared as if by magic, as soon as they were 
disturbed. This discovery explained satisfactorily the rumors 
then circulating among the men. I went at once- to Colonel 
Shaw and reported to him the facts, telling him at the same 
time that he had better return with me and see the exact state 
of affairs for himself, which he promptly did. The Colonel was 
soon satisfied that my statement was correct. I was afraid 
that some exaggerated account would get into the partisan 
newspapers of the North, and make a mountain out of a mole- 
hill. My only object was to settle the matter aright. So far 
as my knowledge goes, the subject was never mentioned in 
the pubHc prints. 

Shaw was a brave officer and was buried where he fell; and 
today he fills an unknown grave. His memory, however, is 
preserved both in bronze and marble elsewhere, and it is of 
little moment where his mortal remains lie. His name has been 


given to schools in different parts of the country, where it is 
cherished by the rising generation. He never thought of fame, 
but only of duty; and in his death he gained the one and did 
the other. 

Facts he at the foundations of history, and they are the raw 
material of all narrative writing; and this is my excuse for 
adding a bit of personal matter. 



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