Following the American Civil War Sesquicentennial with day by day writings of the time, currently 1863.

My Diary North and South – William Howard Russell

As soon as General McClellan commenced his movement, he sent a message to me by one of the French princes, that he would have great pleasure in allowing me to accompany his head-quarters in the field. I find the following, under the head of March 22nd:—

“Received a letter from General Marcy, chief of the staff, asking me to call at his office. He told me General McClellan directed him to say he had no objection whatever to my accompanying the army,’ but,’ continued General Marcy, ‘you know we are a sensitive people, and that our press is exceedingly jealous. General McClellan has many enemies who seek to pull him down, and scruple at no means of doing so. He and I would be glad to do anything in our power to help you, if you come with us, but we must not expose ourselves needlessly to attack. The army is to move to the York and James Rivers at once.’”

All my arrangements were made that day with General Van Vliet, the quartermaster-general of headquarters. I was quite satisfied, from Mr. Stanton’s promise and General Marcy’s conversation, that I should have no further difficulty. Our party was made up, consisting of Colonel Neville; Lieutenant-Colonel Fletcher, Scotch Fusilier Guards; Mr. Lamy, and myself; and our passage was to be provided in the quartermaster-general’s boat. On the 26th of March, I went to Baltimore in company with Colonel Rowan, of the Royal Artillery, who had come down for a few days to visit Washington, intending to go on by the steamer to Fortress Monroe, as he was desirous of seeing his friends on board the Rinaldo, and I wished to describe the great flotilla assembled there and to see Captain Hewett once more.

On arriving at Baltimore, we learned it would be necessary to get a special pass from General Dix, and on going to the General’s head-quarters his aide-de-camp informed us that he had received special instructions recently from the War Department to grant no passes to Fortress Monroe, unless to officers and soldiers going on duty, or to persons in the service of the United States. The aide-de-camp advised me to telegraph to Mr. Stanton for permission, which I did, but no answer was received, and Colonel Rowan and I returned to Washington, thinking there would be a better chance of securing the necessary order there.

Next day we went to the Department of War, and were shown into Mr. Stanton’s room—his secretary informing us that he was engaged in the next room with the President and other Ministers in a council of war, but that he would no doubt receive a letter from me and send me out a reply. I accordingly addressed a note to Mr. Stanton, requesting he would be good enough to give an order to Colonel Rowan, of the British army, and myself, to go by the mail boat from Baltimore to Monroe. In a short time Mr. Stanton sent out a note in the following words :—” Mr. Stanton informs Mr. Russell no passes to Fortress Monroe can be given at present, unless to officers in the United States service.” We tried the Navy Department, but no vessels were going down, they said; and one of the officers suggested that we should ask for passes to go down and visit H.M. S. Rinaldo exclusively, which could not well be refused, he thought, to British subjects, and promised to take charge of the letter for Mr. Stanton and to telegraph the permission down to Baltimore. There we returned by the afternoon train and waited, but neither reply nor pass came for us.

Next day we were disappointed also, and an officer of the Rinaldo, who had come up on duty from the ship, was refused permission to take us down on his return. I regretted these obstructions principally on Colonel Rowan’s account, because he would have no opportunity of seeing the flotilla. He returned next day to New York, whilst I completed my preparations for the expedition and went back to Washington, where I received my pass, signed by General McClellan’s chief of the staff, authorising me to accompany the head quarters of the army under his command. So far as I know, Mr. Stanton sent no reply to my last letter, and calling with General Van Vliet at his house on his reception night, the door was opened by his brother-in-law, who said, “The Secretary was attending a sick child and could not see any person that evening,” so I never met Mr. Stanton again.

Stories had long been current concerning his exceeding animosity to General McClellan, founded perhaps on his expressed want of confidence in the General’s abilities, as much as on the dislike he felt towards a man who persisted in disregarding his opinions on matters connected with military operations. His infirmities of health and tendency to cerebral excitement had been increased by the pressure of business, by the novelty of power, and by the angry passions to which individual antipathies and personal rancour give rise. No one who ever saw Mr. Stanton would expect from him courtesy of manner or delicacy of feeling; but his affectation of bluntness and straightforwardness of purpose might have led one to suppose he was honest and direct in purpose, as the qualities I have mentioned are not always put forward by hypocrites to cloak finesse and sinister action.

The rest of the story may be told in a few words. It was perfectly well known in Washington that I was going with the army, and I presume Mr. Stanton, if he had any curiosity about such a trifling matter, must have heard it also. I am told he was informed of it at the last moment, and then flew out into a coarse passion against General McClellan because he had dared to invite or to take anyone without his permission. What did a Republican General want with foreign princes on his staff, or with foreign newspaper correspondents to puff him up abroad?

Judging from the stealthy, secret way in which Mr. Stanton struck at General McClellan the instant he had turned his back upon Washington, and crippled him in the field by suddenly withdrawing his best division without a word of notice, I am inclined to fear he gratified whatever small passion dictated his course on this occasion also, by waiting till he knew I was fairly on board the steamer with my friends and baggage, just ready to move off, before he sent down a despatch to Van Vliet and summoned him at once to the War Office. When Van Vliet returned in a couple of hours, he made the communication to me that Mr. Stanton had given him written orders to prevent my passage, though even here he acted with all the cunning and indirection of the village attorney, not with the straightforwardness of Oliver Cromwell, whom it is laughable to name in the same breath with his imitator. He did not write, “Mr. Russell is not to go,” or “The Times correspondent is forbidden a passage,” but he composed two orders, with all the official formula of the War Office, drawn up by the Quartermaster General of the army, by the direction and order of the Secretary of War. No. 1 ordered “that no person should be permitted to embark on board any vessel in the United States service without an order from the War Department.” No. 2 ordered “that Colonel Neville, Colonel Fletcher, and Captain Lamy, of the British army, having been invited by General McClellan to accompany the expedition, were authorized to embark on board the vessel.”

General Van Vliet assured me that he and General McDowell had urged every argument they could think of in my favour, particularly the fact that I was the specially invited guest of General McClellan, and that I was actually provided with a pass by his order from the chief of his staff.

With these orders before me, I had no alternative.

General McClellan was far away. Mr. Stanton had waited again until he was gone. General Marcy was away. I laid the statement of what had occurred before the President, who at first gave me hopes, from the wording of his letter, that he would overrule Mr. Stanton’s order, but who next day informed me he could not take it upon himself to do so.

It was plain I had now but one course left. My mission in the United States was to describe military events and operations, or, in defect of them, to deal with such subjects as might be interesting to people at home. In the discharge of my duty, I had visited the South, remaining there until the approach of actual operations and the establishment of the blockade, which cut off all communication from the Southern States except by routes which would deprive my correspondence of any value, compelled me to return to the North, where I could keep up regular communication with Europe. Soon after my return, as unfortunately for myself as the United States, the Federal troops were repulsed in an attempt to march upon Richmond, and terminated a disorderly retreat by a disgraceful panic. The whole incidents of what I saw were fairly stated by an impartial witness, who, if anything, was inclined to favour a nation endeavouring to suppress a rebellion, and who was by no means impressed, as the results of his recent tour, with the admiration and respect for the people of the Confederate States which their enormous sacrifices, extraordinary gallantry, and almost unparelleled devotion, have long since extorted from him in common with all the world. The letter in which that account was given came back to America after the first bitterness and humiliation of defeat had passed away, and disappointment and alarm had been succeeded by such a formidable outburst of popular resolve, that the North forgot everything in the instant anticipations of a glorious and triumphant revenge.

Every feeling of the American was hurt—above all, his vanity and his pride, by the manner in which the account of the reverse had been received in Europe; and men whom I scorned too deeply to reply to, dexterously took occasion to direct on my head the full storm of popular indignation. Not, indeed, that I had escaped before. Ere a line from my pen reached America at all—ere my first letter had crossed the Atlantic to England—the jealousy and hatred felt for all things British—for press or principle, or representative of either—had found expression in Northern journals; but that I was prepared for. I knew well no foreigner had ever penned a line—least of all, no Englishman— concerning the United States of North America, their people, manners, and institutions, who had not been treated to the abuse which is supposed by their journalists to mean criticism, no matter what the justness or moderation of the views expressed, the sincerity of purpose, and the truthfulness of the writer. In the South, the press threatened me with tar and feathers, because I did not see the beauties of their domestic institution, and wrote of it in my letters to England exactly as I spoke of it to every one who conversed with me on the subject when I was amongst them; and now the Northern papers recommended expulsion, ducking, riding rails, and other cognate modes of insuring a moral conviction of error; endeavoured to intimidate me by threats of duels or personal castigations; gratified their malignity by ludicrous stories of imaginary affronts or annoyances to which I never was exposed; and sought to prevent the authorities extending any protection towards me, and to intimidate officers from showing me any civilities.

In pursuance of my firm resolution I allowed the slanders and misrepresentations which poured from their facile sources for months to pass by unheeded, and trusted to the calmer sense of the people, and to the discrimination of those who thought over the sentiments expressed in my letters, to do me justice.

I need not enlarge on the dangers to which I was exposed. Those who are acquainted with America, and know the life of the great cities, will best appreciate the position of a man who went forth daily in the camps and streets holding his life in his hand. This expression of egotism is all I shall ask indulgence for. Nothing could have induced me to abandon my post or to recoil before my assailants; but at last a power I could not resist struck me down. When to the press and populace of the United States, the President and the Government of Washington added their power, resistance would be unwise and impracticable. In no camp could I have been received—in no place useful. I went to America to witness and describe the operations of the great army before Washington in the field, and when I was forbidden by the proper authorities to do so, my mission terminated at once. On the evening of April 4th, as soon as I was in receipt of the President’s last communication, I telegraphed to New York to engage a passage by the steamer which left on the following Wednesday. Next day was devoted to packing up and to taking leave of my friends—English and American—whose kindnesses I shall remember in my heart of hearts, and the following Monday I left Washington, of which, after all, I shall retain many pleasant memories and keep souvenirs green for ever. I arrived in New York late on Tuesday evening, and next day I saw the shores receding into a dim grey fog, and ere the night fell was tossing about once more on the stormy Atlantic, with the head of our good ship pointing, thank Heaven, towards Europe.

March 19th.—I applied at the Navy Department for a passage down to Fortress Monroe, as it was expected the Merrimac was coming out again, but I could not obtain leave to go in any of the vessels. Captain Hardman showed me a curious sketch of what he called the Turtle Thor, an iron-cased machine with a huge claw or grapnel, with which to secure the enemy whilst a steam hammer or a high iron fist, worked by the engine, cracks and smashes her iron armour. “For,” says he, “the days of gunpowder are over.”

The illness which had prostrated some of the strongest men in Washington, including General McClellan himself, developed itself as soon as I ceased to be sustained by the excitement, such as it was, of daily events at the capital, and by expectations of a move; and for some time an attack of typhoid fever confined me to my room, and left me so weak that I was advised not to return to Washington till I had tried change of air. I remained in New York till the end of January, when I proceeded to make a tour in Canada, as it was quite impossible for any operation to take place on the Potomac, where deep mud, alternating with snow and frost, bound the contending armies in winter quarters. On my return to New York, at the end of February, the North was cheered by some signal successes achieved in the West principally by gunboats, operating on the lines of the great rivers. The greatest results have been obtained in the capture of Fort Donaldson and Fort Henry, by Commodore Foote’s flotilla co-operating with the land forces. The possession of an absolute naval supremacy, of course, gives the North United States powerful means of annoyance and inflicting injury and destruction on the enemy; it also secures for them the means of seizing upon bases of operations wherever they please, of breaking up the enemy’s lines, and maintaining communications; but the example of Great Britain in the revolutionary war should prove to the United States that such advantages do not, by any means, enable a belligerent to subjugate a determined people resolved on resistance to the last. The long-threatened encounter between Bragg and Browne has taken place at Pensacola, without effect, and the attempts of the Federals to advance from Port Royal have been successfully resisted. Sporadic skirmishes have sprung up over every border State; but, on the whole, success has inclined to the Federals in Kentucky and Tennessee.

On the 1st March, I arrived in Washington once more, and found things very much as I had left them: the army recovering the effect of the winter’s sickness and losses, animated by the victories of their comrades in Western fields, and by the hope that the ever-coming to-morrow would see them in the field at last. In place of Mr. Cameron, an Ohio lawyer named Stanton has been appointed Secretary of War. He came to Washington, a few years ago, to conduct some legal proceedings for Mr. Daniel Sickles, and by his energy, activity, and a rapid conversion from democratic to republican principles, as well as by his Union sentiments, recommended himself to the President and his Cabinet.

The month of March passed over without any remarkable event in the field. When the army started at last to attack the enemy—a movement which was precipitated by hearing that they were moving away— they went out only to find the Confederates had fallen back by interior lines towards Richmond, and General McClellan was obliged to transport his army from Alexandria to the peninsula of York Town, where his reverses, his sufferings, and his disastrous retreat, are so well known and so recent, that I need only mention them as among the most remarkable events which have yet occurred in this war.

I had looked forward for many weary months to participating in the movement and describing its results. Immediately on my arrival in Washington, I was introduced to Mr. Stanton by Mr. Ashman, formerly member of Congress and Secretary to Mr. Daniel Webster, and the Secretary, without making any positive pledge, used words, in Mr. Ashman’s presence, which led me to believe he would give rne permission to draw rations, and undoubtedly promised to afford me every facility in his power. Subsequently he sent me a private pass to the War Department to enable me to get through the crowd of contractors and jobbers; but on going there to keep my appointment, the Assistant-Secretary of War told me Mr. Stanton had been summoned to a Cabinet Council by the President.

We had some conversation respecting the subject matter of my application, which the Assistant-Secretary seemed to think would be attended with many difficulties, in consequence of the number of correspondents to the American papers who might demand the same privileges, and he intimated to me that Mr. Stanton was little disposed to encourage them in any way whatever. Now this is undoubtedly honest on Mr. Stanton’s part, for he knows he might render himself popular by granting what they ask; but he is excessively vain, and aspires to be considered a rude, rough, vigorous Oliver Cromwell sort of man, mistaking some of the disagreeable attributes and the accidents of the external husk of the Great Protector for the brain and head of a statesman and a soldier.

The American officers with whom I was intimate gave me to understand that I could accompany them, in case I received permission from the Government; but they were obviously unwilling to encounter the abuse and calumny which would be heaped upon their heads by American papers, unless they could show the authorities did not disapprove of my presence in their camp. Several invitations sent to me were accompanied by the phrase, “You will of course get a written permission from the War Department, and then there will be no difficulty.'” On the evening of the private theatricals by which Lord Lyons enlivened the ineffable dullness of Washington, I saw Mr. Stanton at the Legation, and he conversed with me for some time. I mentioned the difficulty connected with passes. He asked me what I wanted. I said, “An order to go with the army to Manassas.” At his request I procured a sheet of paper, and he wrote me a pass, took a copy of it, which he put in his pocket, and then handed the other to me. On looking at it, I perceived that it was a permission for me to go to Manassas and back, and that all officers, soldiers, and others, in the United States service, were to give me every assistance and show me every courtesy; but the hasty return of the army to Alexandria rendered it useless.

The Merrimac and Monitor encounter produced the profoundest impression in Washington, and unusual strictness was observed respecting passes to Fortress Monroe.

Lord Lyons has evinced the most moderate and conciliatory spirit, and has done everything in his power to break Mr. Seward’s fall on the softest of eider down. Some time ago we were all prepared to hear nothing less would be accepted than Captain Wilkes taking Messrs. Mason and Slidell on board the San Jacinto, and transferring them to the Trent, under a salute to the flag, near the scene of the outrage; at all events, it was expected that a British man-of-war would have steamed into Boston, and received the prisoners under a salute from Fort Warren; but Mr. Seward, apprehensive that some outrage would be offered by the populace to the prisoners and the British Flag, has asked Lord Lyons that the Southern Commissioners may be placed, as it were, surreptitiously, in a United States boat, and carried to a small seaport in the State of Maine, where they are to be placed on board a British vessel as quietly as possible; and this exigent, imperious, tyrannical, insulting British Minister has cheerfully acceded to the request. Mr. Conway Seymour, the Queen’s messenger, who brought Lord Russell’s despatch, was sent back with instructions for the British Admiral, to send a vessel to Providence town for the purpose; and as Mr. Johnson, who is nearly connected with Mr. Eustis, one of the prisoners, proposed going to Boston to see his brother-in-law, if possible, ere he started, and as there was not the smallest prospect of any military movement taking place, I resolved to go northwards with him; and we left Washington accordingly on the morning of the 31st of December, and arrived at the New York Hotel the same night.

To my great regret and surprise, however, I learned it would be impracticable to get to Fort Warren and see the prisoners before their surrender. My unpopularity, which had lost somewhat of its intensity, was revived by the exasperation against everything English, occasioned by the firmness of Great Britain in demanding the Commissioners; and on New Year’s Night, as I heard subsequently, Mr. Grinell and other members of the New York Club were exposed to annoyance and insult, by some of their brother members, in consequence of inviting me to be their guest at the club.

December 28th.—The National Intelligencer of this morning contains the despatches of Lord Russell, M. Thouvenel, and Mr. Seward. The bubble has burst. The rage of the friends of compromise, and of the South, who saw in a war with Great Britain the complete success of the Confederacy, is deep and burning, if not loud; but they all say they never expected anything better from the cowardly and braggart statesmen who now rule in Washington.

December 27th.—This morning Mr. Seward sent in his reply to Lord Russell’s despatch—”grandis et verbosa epistola.” The result destroys my prophecies, for, after all, the Southern Commissioners or Ambassadors are to be given up. Yesterday, indeed, in an under-current of whispers among the desponding friends of the South, there went a rumour that the Government had resolved to yield. What a collapse! What a bitter mortification! I had scarcely finished the perusal of an article in a Washington paper,—which, let it be understood, is an organ of Mr. Lincoln, —stating that “Mason and Slidell would not be surrendered, and assuring the people they need entertain no apprehension of such a dishonourable concession,” when I learned beyond all possibility of doubt, that Mr. Seward had handed in his despatch, placing the Commissioners at the disposal of the British Minister. A copy of the despatch will be published in the National Intelligencer to-morrow morning at an early hour, in time to go to Europe by the steamer which leaves New York.

After dinner, those who were in the secret were amused by hearing the arguments which were started between one or two Americans and some English in the company, in consequence of a positive statement from a gentleman who came in, that Mason and Slidell had been surrendered. I have resolved to go to Boston, being satisfied that a great popular excitement and uprising will, in all probability, take place on the discharge of the Commissioners from Fort Warren. What will my friend, the general, say, who told me yesterday “he would snap his sword, and throw the pieces into the White House, if they were given up?”

December 26th.—No answer yet. There can be but one. Press people, soldiers, sailors, ministers, senators, Congress men, people in the street, the voices of the bar-room—all are agreed. “Give them up? Never! We’ll die first!” Senator Sumner, M. De Beaumont, M. De Geoffroy, of the French Legation, dined with me, in company with General Van Vliet, Mr. Anderson, and Mr. Lamy, &c.; and in the evening Major Anson, M.P., Mr. Johnson, Captain Irwin, U.S.A., Lt. Wise, U.S.N., joined our party, and after much evasion of the subject, the English despatch and Mr. Seward’s decision turned up and caused some discussion. Mr. Sumner, who is Chairman of the Committee on Foreign Relations of the Senate, and in that capacity is in intimate rapport with the President, either is, or affects to be, incredulous respecting the nature of Lord Russell’s despatch this evening, and argues that, at the very utmost, the Trent affair can only be a matter for mediation, and not for any peremptory demand, as the law of nations has no exact precedent to bear upon the case, and that there are so many instances in which Sir W. Scott’s (Lord Stowell’s) decisions in principle appear to justify Captain Wilkes. All along he has held this language, and has maintained that at the very worst there is plenty of time for protocols, despatches, and references, and more than once he has said to me, “I hope you will keep the peace; help us to do so,”—the peace having been already broken by Captain Wilkes and the Government.

December 25th.—Lord Lyons, who had invited the English in Washington to dinner, gave a small quiet entertainment, from which he retired early.

December 24th.—This evening came in a telegram from Europe with news which cast the deepest gloom over all our little English circle. Prince Albert dead! At first no one believed it; then it was remembered that private letters by the last mail had spoken despondingly of his state of health, and that the “little cold” of which we had heard was described in graver terms. Prince Albert dead! “Oh, it may be Prince Alfred,” said some; and sad as it would be for the Queen and the public to lose the Sailor Prince, the loss could not be so great as that which we all felt to be next to the greatest. The preparations which we had made for a little festivity to welcome in Christmas morning were chilled by the news, and the eve was not of the joyous character which Englishmen delight to give it, for the sorrow which fell on all hearts in England had spanned the Atlantic, and bade us mourn in common with the country at home.

December 23rd.—There was a tremendous storm, which drove over the city and shook the houses to the foundation. Constant interviews took place between the President and members of the Cabinet, and so certain are the people that war is inevitable, that an officer connected with the executive of the Navy Department came in to tell me General Scott was coming over from Europe to conduct the Canadian campaign, as he had thoroughly studied the geography of the country, and that in a very short time he would be in possession of every strategic position on the frontier, and chaw up our reinforcements. Late in the evening, Mr. Olmsted called to say he had been credibly informed Lord Lyons had quarrelled violently with Mr. Seward, had flown into a great passion with him, and so departed. The idea of Lord Lyons being quarrelsome, passionate, or violent, was preposterous enough to those who knew him; but the American papers, by repeated statements of the sort, have succeeded in persuading their public that the British Minister is a plethoric, red-faced, large-stomached man in top-boots, knee-breeches, yellow waistcoat, blue cut-away, brass buttons, and broad-brimmed white hat, who is continually walking to the State Department in company with a large bulldog, hurling defiance at Mr. Seward at one moment, and the next rushing home to receive despatches from Mr. Jefferson Davis, or to give secret instructions to the British Consuls to run cargoes of quinine and gunpowder through the Federal blockade. I was enabled to assure Mr. Olmsted there was not the smallest foundation for the story; but he seemed impressed with a sense of some great calamity, and told me there was a general belief that England only wanted a pretext for a quarrel with the United States; nor could I comfort him by the assurance that there were good reasons for thinking General Scott would very soon annex Canada, in case of war.