October 11, 1861 – Confederate envoys James M. Mason and John Slidell boarded a steamship in the hopes of eluding the Federal blockade and reaching Europe to gain Confederate recognition.
Mason and Slidell, two former U.S. senators, had recently been appointed as envoys to England and France respectively, with a mission to persuade those countries to recognize Confederate independence and provide supplies for the war effort. U.S. State Department officials were aware that the men would try to leave the country to fulfill their mission, and they hoped that the blockading fleet would prevent their departure.
U.S. Secretary of State William H. Seward received daily reports on the envoys’ whereabouts and knew that Mason and Slidell had arrived at Charleston on October 1. That harbor was patrolled by three Federal steamers and a sloop-of-war, making it difficult for Mason and Slidell to find a captain willing to risk capture by running the blockade.
Seward was informed that the men would try leaving aboard the C.S.S. Nashville, a ship fast enough to escape and strong enough to reach Europe. However, Mason and Slidell chartered the private steamer Theodora, formerly known as the Gordon, for $10,000. This 500-ton side-wheeler could not reach Europe, so the envoys planned to go to Havana, Cuba, and from there charter a British ship to take them to England.
Boarding a neutral British ship would allow Mason and Slidell to travel to Europe with no fear of U.S. interference. If a U.S. vessel tried seizing the ship as contraband of war, the Confederacy would be granted belligerent status under international law, which the U.S. would be forced to acknowledge. If a U.S. vessel tried seizing the ship for carrying traitors, boarding a neutral ship to get to them would violate international law.
Mason and Slidell, with their secretaries and families, boarded the Theodora on the 11th and waited for nightfall to try leaving. The ship steamed out of Charleston at 1 a.m. through a dark storm that shielded her from the view of Federal blockaders. Confederate statesman William H. Trescot telegraphed the Confederate State Department that afternoon:
“Charleston, October 12, 186(1). Our friends left here last night at 1 o’clock. A fast steamer, good officers, and very dark night, with heavy rain. The guard boat reported that they crossed the bar about 2 o’clock, and that they could neither have been seen nor heard by the fleet. A strong northwest wind helped them, and the fleet this morning seems not to have changed position at all. As soon as we hear further I will telegraph. The steamer ought to be back in about a week, and nothing said until her return. Communicate to Mrs. Mason.”
The Theodora was bound for Nassau in the Bahamas, the first leg of the envoys’ journey. She arrived two days later, when Mason and Slidell discovered that they had missed connecting with a British steamer. The Theodora then took them to Cuba, where Spanish authorities informed them that a British mail packet had just left Havana. The next ship, the paddle-steamer R.M.S. Trent, would not arrive for three weeks.
Meanwhile, U.S. officials still believed that Mason and Slidell had boarded the Nashville. Navy Secretary Gideon Welles cabled Flag Officer Samuel F. Du Pont commanding the blockading squadron: “It is reported that the steamer Nashville has run the blockade at Charleston, with Messrs. Mason and Slidell on board. Have you a fast steamer that can be spared? If so, let her be dis-patched to intercept the Nashville.” Du Pont dispatched the U.S.S. James Adger and Curlew, unaware that the envoys had taken the Theodora instead.
As Mason and Slidell waited for the next British steamer to arrive at Havana, the Curlew stopped her search for the Nashville due to lack of coal, and the James Adger patrolled around Queenstown, Ireland. Both crews remained unaware that 1) the envoys never boarded the Nashville, and 2) the Nashville was still in Charleston Harbor.
Hiram Paulding, commander of the Federal Navy Yard at New York, received intelligence on October 30 that Mason and Slidell had reached Havana aboard the Gordon, now known as the Theodora. That same day, the U.S.S. San Jacinto docked in southern Cuba where her commander, Captain Charles Wilkes, learned that Mason and Slidell were in the country. He refueled and steamed northward.
The next day, Wilkes was informed that Mason, Slidell, their wives, and their secretaries had reached Cuba via the Theodora and were awaiting the arrival of the Trent on November 7. Since he was unable to seize the envoys from a neutral port, Wilkes resolved to refuel the San Jacinto and capture them once they entered international waters.
CivilWarDailyGazette.com (multiple dates); Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 87; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War, A Narrative: Fort Sumter to Perryville (New York: Vintage Books, 1958), p. 136; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 72; Linedecker, Clifford L. (ed.), The Civil War A to Z (New York: Ballantine Books, 2002), p. 252; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 126; Official Records of the Union and Confederate Navies in the War of the Rebellion, Series I, Vol. VI, p. 738; Time-Life Editors, The Blockade: Runners and Raiders (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 116