Military history

Chapter 39

THE TIME HAD COME FOR the mission to Richmond. Bunch made his way along Meeting Street, then down through the covered market, which was packed with people on a Friday afternoon. His old friend William Henry Trescot had an office nearby on East Bay Street. After the usual exchange of pleasantries and the offered drink, Bunch asked, “How well do you know Jefferson Davis?”

“Why, we have very cordial relations.”

So Bunch went to the heart of the matter. He said that he and Monsieur de Belligny, the acting French consul in Charleston who had replaced the Count de Choiseul, had received dispatches that morning from their respective governments that were “of the most delicate and important character.”

“We’re instructed to make contact with the government in Richmond—but to do so through an intermediary,” Bunch said. “I cannot explain more fully except in the presence of my French colleague, but we have agreed to meet you, to give you the instructions, and ask you to become the channel of communication between us and Richmond.” According to Trescot’s notes on the conversation, Bunch said this was a step of “great significance and importance.”

That night, Trescot met with Bunch and de Belligny. Bunch read aloud the initial dispatch from Lord Russell sent in May, an official letter Lyons had sent him in early July, and a long private letter from Lyons as well, outlining the need to have the Confederate government sign on to the three key provisions in the Declaration of Paris. “And now you know all that I know myself,” he said.

Trescot tested the consuls to see just how far they might go. “Are you prepared for the Confederate government to make an official declaration based on your request, thus giving it implied recognition in the eyes of the world?”

“No, no,” said the consuls, almost in unison. “This has to be a spontaneous declaration,” said Bunch.

“I don’t see how you can ask that,” replied Trescot. He also failed to see how the supposedly spontaneous commitment to the terms of an international treaty by an as yet unrecognized state would be binding. But the consuls were adamant about secrecy.

“If this becomes public, the United States government will revoke our exequaturs and will dismiss Lyons and Mercier from Washington,” Bunch warned. The consuls might, as private citizens, say this was an important step toward recognition, but even assuming the aim of the British and French governments was to reach recognition, they wanted to do it so as not to provoke a break with Washington. Lyons had been perfectly explicit about that. “This indirect way is the only way,” said Bunch.

Trescot didn’t like the sound of it. “All this secrecy that you say is essential to the negotiations takes away from the Confederate government the very same incentive you say you’re giving it.”

“We can’t make any commitments in that respect,” said Bunch. “You will find the consequences most agreeable and beneficial to the Confederate government,” de Belligny assured Trescot.

Finally Trescot agreed to accept the mission, but with an explicit understanding that when he met with Davis he would be free to advise him to accept the proposal or reject it, “as I think right.”

The ball was now in play.

TWO DAYS LATER on the morning of July 21, 1861, William Howard Russell was running late for a battle. Confederate troops under Gen. P. G. T. Beauregard, whom he knew from Charleston, and the Union Army under Gen. Irvin McDowell, whom he’d met several times, were massed around a little rivulet called Bull Run near the Manassas Gap Railroad junction. Everybody in Washington seemed to think this first major battle would be a Northern victory. It might be the beginning of serious fighting. It might be the end of it. Whatever happened, there was no question, Russell had to be there to see it.

Since Russell’s return from the South to the Federal capital, nothing had gone right for him. While he’d been away, and despite his reams of reporting, Delane and the other editors of the Times of London had taken a stand of clear sympathy with the secessionists. They reflected the interests of an elite with commercial concerns about cotton and contempt for the American notion of a republic. They also embraced the idea that, because Lincoln and Seward insisted this war was not about freeing the slaves, then truly that was the case. And for the masses, there was the appeal of the Southerners as underdogs struggling against the subjugation of Washington. The Times editors had become just the apostles of the fait accompli that Seward had feared. So even though the paper still ran Russell’s articles about the inadequacies of the Southern military position, the arrogance of King Cotton, and the monstrosity of slavery, its editorials were such that Russell found the Times “assailed on all sides as a Secession organ, favorable to the rebels and exceedingly hostile to the Federal government and the cause of the Union.” The net result for its correspondent was that he no longer had the kind of access to the Union military that he’d wanted and expected. Seward would still see him, but U.S. War Department passes were hard to come by, and on the eve of combat no one would give him the countersign so he could get through checkpoints to see the battle begin at dawn.

Not until midday did Russell finally get close enough to the fighting to hear “the thudding noise, like taps with a gentle hand upon a muffled drum” of artillery in action. Along with congressmen and other dignitaries, many of them accompanied by their wives, he watched from atop a hill above Centreville as distant wisps of smoke marked the opposing lines. He ate a sandwich. He drank some Bordeaux he’d packed in his case. By the time he drew closer to the fighting, the Union forces were pulling back; then, suddenly, they were fleeing in a rout so complete that he could hardly believe his eyes.

Russell was on a borrowed nag threading his way toward the action when he heard loud shouts ahead of him and saw several wagons coming from the direction of the battlefield. The drivers were trying to force their way past the ammunition carts coming up the narrow road. A thick cloud of dust rose behind them. Men were running beside the carts, between them. “Every moment the crowd increased, drivers and men cried out with the most vehement gestures, ‘Turn back! Turn back! We are whipped.’ They seized the heads of the horses and swore at the opposing drivers.” A breathless officer with an empty scabbard dangling by his side got wedged for a second between a wagon and Russell’s horse.

“What is the matter, sir?” Russell asked. “What is all this about?

“Why, it means we are pretty badly whipped,” said the officer, “and that’s the truth.” Then he scrambled away.

The heat, the uproar, and the dust were “beyond description,” Russell wrote afterward. And it all got worse when some cavalry soldiers, flourishing their sabers, tried to force their way through the mob, shouting, “Make way for the general!”

Russell made it to a white house where two field guns were positioned, when suddenly troops came pouring out of the nearby forest. The gunners were about to blast away when an officer or a sergeant shouted, “Stop! Stop! They are our own men.” In a few minutes a whole battalion ran past in utter disorder. “We are pursued by their cavalry,” one told Russell. “They have cut us all to pieces.”

After a while there was nothing the world’s greatest war correspondent could do but fall in with the tide of men fleeing the fighting. In all his battles, he had never seen anything like this: “Infantry soldiers on mules and draught horses, with the harness clinging to their heels, as much frightened as their riders; Negro servants on their masters’ chargers; ambulances crowded with unwounded soldiers; wagons swarming with men who threw out the contents in the road to make room; grinding through a shouting, screaming mass of men on foot, who were literally yelling with rage at every halt and shrieking out, ‘Here are the cavalry! Will you get on?’ ” They talked “prodigious nonsense,” Russell said,“describing batteries tier over tier, and ambuscades, and blood running knee-deep.” As he rode through the crowd, men grabbed at Russell’s stirrups and saddle. He kept telling them over and over again not to be in such a hurry. “There’s no enemy to pursue you. All the cavalry in the world could not get at you.” But, as he soon realized, he “might as well have talked to the stones.”

It was a long way back to Washington that day. But after several brushes with violent deserters, drunken soldiers, and more panic-stricken officers, Russell made his way in the moonlight to the Long Bridge across the Potomac and into the capital. He told anyone who asked him that the Union commander would regroup and resume the battle the next morning. But when he awoke in his boardinghouse on Pennsylvania Avenue, he found the city full of uniformed rabble. “The great Army of the Potomac,” he wrote, “is in the streets of Washington instead of on its way to Richmond.”

The Federal capital was essentially defenseless. “The inmates of the White House are in a state of the utmost trepidation,” Russell wrote, “and Mr. Lincoln, who sat in the telegraph operator’s room with General Scott and Mr. Seward, listening to the dispatches as they arrived from the scene of the action, left in despair when the fatal words tripped from the needle and the defeat was already revealed to him.”

For the South, “here is a golden opportunity,” said Russell. “If the Confederates do not grasp that which will never come again on such terms, it stamps them with mediocrity.” But the rebels stayed where they were, and the fact that they did not march on Washington suggested this would be a long war.

As Russell studied the city, its politicians, and its dispositions in the aftermath of the battle, he did not agree with “many who think the contest is now over.” He figured the Northerners had learned a lesson about “the nature of the conflict on which they have entered” and would be roused to action. But when the Times ran Russell’s article on the battle, his balanced judgment about the lessons learned got no play. The whole effect of his account of the rout was to reinforce the editors’ image of a South that not only would fight, but could fight better than the North and, therefore, should soon be free of it.

Obviously now the Palmerston government could recognize the Confederacy and would and should. And yet it did not.

Southerners, in full hubris, were continuing to withhold their cotton in order to inflict as much pain as possible on Britain for its evident reluctance to join their cause. Bunch sent a note to Lyons in cipher about these developments, then concluded, uncoded, with the ironic comment, “We are getting much ‘riled’ at not being recognized.” Lyons labeled the letter in his file, Wicked designs of the South.

WHY DID BRITAIN hold back? William Seward’s bluffs often are given credit, and, certainly, war with the Union was not something even Palmerston would embark on without some hesitation. But Seward’s combative diplomacy might just as easily have brought the British into the fight. Seward’s belligerence angered Palmerston and his cabinet much more than it awed them, especially after the Union’s dismal performance at Manassas, and the applause for the embattled South in British newspapers was thunderous. To read the London press of that time is to marvel that the Crown did not embrace the Confederates as brothers in arms struggling against Yankee tyranny. Yet there was an arrogance about this new Confederacy and the pride it claimed to take in its peculiar institution that Palmerston found deeply distasteful. The “private” and “confidential” reporting he saw from his own men, Lord Lyons and Bunch, gave him a picture of the South very different from that put forth by the leader-writers in London. The minister and the consul told him what he needed to know, what he wanted to know, and, perhaps most important, what he did not want to know about the unforgivable inhumanity of slave owners and their ambitions to build an empire on the backs of Africans. These were the inconvenient but ineluctable truths Palmerston could not forget.

Even the Confederacy’s most talented advocates in London had to recognize the deep British loathing for slavery and the trade. One of the best of them, James Spence, argued that secession was legal under the U.S. Constitution and, yes, a fait accompli and thus should be recognized, but he conceded to the British peers and public what he knew they already felt: slavery was “an evil in an economical sense, a wrong to humanity in a moral one,” and he did not stop there. “No reasoning, no statistics, no profit, no philosophy, can reconcile us to that which our instinct repels,” wrote Spence. Given this revulsion, Spence’s strongest argument was that this vile institution had been supported by the very constitution that the Union forces claimed to defend, while Lincoln and Seward continued to say their war was not intended to free the slaves—no, not at all.

Palmerston often seemed to be drifting toward recognition of the South for practical commercial reasons and because he could not conceive how it could be forced to return to the Union. But he remained undecided. How could he forget the treatment of free black British sailors under the hideous Negro Seamen Act? How could he condone a new nation of filibusters out to conquer territories in Central America that the Crown was determined to protect? Palmerston truly could not imagine, moreover, that the British people would accept Southern insistence that fugitive slaves be returned to their owners once they had made it to free soil (the Southerners even tried to get them returned from the British Bahamas), and he could not stomach the idea that he, the leader of Christendom in its opposition to the slave trade, might be aiding or abetting its expansion.

If such concerns had not lingered like a sinister shadow in the background of all its discussions, the British cabinet might well have opted to recognize the Confederacy. It was a close—a very close—thing. And at just this moment of decision in the summer of 1861 Bunch was reporting from Charleston that the American squadron was being pulled back from African shores to build the Federal blockade along the Confederate coast. As a result, he said, slave traders flying the American flag would step up their traffic to Cuba. Lord Russell, acting on Bunch’s note, demanded an explanation from Seward.

When Russell’s instructions reached Lyons weeks later, and he went to see Seward, the response was not the truculent one that he expected. Seward said that, yes, warships such as the San Jacinto had been recalled from the African coast to patrol American shores, but he hoped he would be able to put them back on anti-slaving duty soon. Then Seward added, in what seemed on its face a stunning reversal of policy, that the Lincoln administration “had none of the squeamishness about allowing American vessels to be boarded and searched which had characterized their predecessors.” Lyons, when he heard this, was stunned. He asked Seward to repeat what he’d just said. Seward told him that neither he nor anyone else in Lincoln’s cabinet would object to the Royal Navy searching American-flagged vessels off the African coast if it was done in a proper manner and based on reasonable suspicion.

Was this the breakthrough in the fight against the slave trade that it seemed? Lyons advised Lord Russell not to trust Seward, who might make such vague, informal assurances in a conversation and reverse them the minute there was a sign the public disapproved.

In fact, Seward already was hell-bent on confrontation about another issue involving the activities of that British official he considered a dangerous partisan of the Southern cause: Her Majesty’s consul in Charleston, South Carolina, Robert Bunch. The secret contacts with Richmond had been exposed.

If you find an error or have any questions, please email us at Thank you!