Friday, November 16, 2007

ON THIS DAY: Friday, Nov. 15, 1861

Shortly after noon, two very angry diplomats step from the U.S. Navy frigate San Jacinto onto a dock near Fortress Monroe, Virginia, and into the center of what will become an international crisis. In the excitement today, however, the trouble these two will cause the Union is scarcely recognized. Instead, Northerners, who are hungry for a victory of any kind, are exultant at the capture of the Confederate envoys, James Murray Mason and John Slidell.

The two were aboard the British mail steamer Trent and heading for England to seek British recognition of the Confederacy when the San Jacinto intercepted them. While the British captain swore furiously at the American boarding party, Mason and Slidell were forcibly removed from the Trent.

The Trent affair will quickly turn into a huge embarrassment for the United States. Halting the vessel of a neutral nation and arresting two of its passengers smacks of piracy. An infuriated Britain will threaten war as British public sympathy sides with Mason and Slidell and the Confederacy stirs the pot for all its worth. Within a few weeks, a badly embarassed United States will ditch this hot potato, having learned that force of arms is not always the best substitute for diplomacy.

So the United States will reap the bitter fruit of hasty action. Hundred of miles to the west, meanwhile, there occurs a change of long-term significance for the Army, particularly some Ohioans. On this date, a rising star in the Union army will take over command of the Department of the Ohio, relieving a frazzled William Tecumseh Sherman. The new commander (pictured at upper right) is Brig. Gen. Don Carlos Buell (named for an uncle, for whose name no good explanation has been found). Born near Marietta, Ohio, the 43-year-old Buell is a West Pointer who fought bravely in the Mexican War and who has made the army his career.

Within a few days, Sherman will head to St. Louis to join the command of General Halleck, from whom he will get a less onerous assignment in hopes of calming his rattled nerves. Sherman will eventually emerge a strengthened commander and become one of the Union’s greats. Buell, on the other hand, will turn into one of the war’s paradoxes: a brave, professionally trained soldier, a great organizer and strong disciplinarian who will prove incapable of leading volunteer soldiers. He will join the unhappy company of failed commanders from both sides.

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