The Mason and Slidell Case, and Its Effect on the AmericansThe Illustrated London News, vol. 40, no. 1125, p. 19.
January 4, 1862
(From our Special Artist and Correspondent.)
A few hours after dispatching my last letter I heard of an act which had I known of sooner would probably have induced me to suppress much that I had written favourable to the Union cause. A people's conceit had been overlooked by me in my belief in a principle, and I had smothered much of that feeling which most Englishmen are prone to after a probationary course of American arrogance. Anxious to do my duty to your readers, and honestly to publish my convictions, I have never for a moment allowed myself to be carried away by acrimoniousness, and personally I have heard much that is bitter for an Englishman to hear. As I have said before, I have looked upon the Union as a principle that should and ought to be preserved—as an edifice, great and wonderful of its kind, built at the cost of infinite intellect, wealth, and labour. Though the architecture that has served for model in its construction may be contrary to our notions of perfection, yet we cannot see a noble pile destroyed without some feeling of compunction at its ruin. In this spirit have my former letters been written.
Your readers are long before this aware that an English Royal Mail steamer has been boarded by a United States' ship of war, and from beneath the folds of the British flag four gentlemen belonging to the "Southern Confederacy" have been forcibly removed. As to the legality of this act I have nothing to say; it rests with the authorities on international law to decide the question between the two Governments, though as a subject of Great Britain I, with the captain of the Trent, must protest against the violation of that flag which it is an Englishman's creed to believe inviolable. But I have much to say in reference to the bearing of the people of the Northern States since they have been informed of this, according to their journals, "most heroic achievement." It will make us all blush, when we turn back to our chronicles of the sea, to find how utterly insignificant are the deeds of our own naval commanders when compared to the brilliant exploit of the Captain of the San Jacinto and her crew in boarding an unarmed passenger-ship. I am not writing idly while giving utterance to this sentiment. I am prompted to do so by the panegyrics pronounced by one and all here on the deed which is to form "the brightest page in contemporaneous history;" and, being in the minority, I must needs bow deferentially to the opinions of the mass. But if, in the minority, I might presume to express my own notions of what has been done, I should suggest the idea that, if Captain Wilks be an honest, true-hearted sailor, he must repudiate thoroughly, and with feelings of something more than disgust, the vile and maudlin adulation of those who would seek to magnify into Nelsonian proportions an event which he, probably, estimating at its proper value, would soon have forgotten. I am not going to quarrel with Captain Wilks for placing himself in the position which has elevated him, through the absurdity of his countrymen to the somewhat ludicrous pedestal on which he finds himself. He no doubt considered he was doing his duty; and it remains for Crown lawyers and other learned authorities to determine whether he has done so or not.
When the first intelligence reached here of the capture of Slidell and Mason, with their secretaries, the public excitement was greater than anything I have witnessed throughout my experience of the campaign. The arguments at the American Bar (rooms) went fast and furious; the pros and cons (few of the latter) were bandied from one stump orator to another, and most of the discussions ended in any amount of smashes (brandy-smashes, I mean), while numerous skins (whisky skins) were roughly handled by judge and jury. "Waal now, Mister, I guess that the overhauling of that thaar Britisher is a big thing anyhow, and I'll be dogged if Cap'n Wilks ain't been right smart to lay a hand on them skunks" (meaning the Southern Commissioners). This opinion was of course received with unanimous applause, when another gentleman moved "That now Uncle Sam had got'em in his fist he should squeege 'em pretty tight, and not mind nary international laws." Amongst the better classes the feeling is just as strong in favour of what has been done, and I have heard persons of consideration say that they would rather see Slidell and Mason hanged in the face of an English fleet than have them given up should international treaties place England in a position to demand their surrender. But the other day I overheard the following conversation in reference to the possible recognition of the South, and the probable demand of England for reparation to her flag:—"Now, just look here: can't Pennsylvania raise 800,000 men?" "Well, she can whip France, and I reckon New York can fix England, and tother States can easily whip the South."
There is hardly a corporation in New York or Boston that has not given a public reception to Captain Wilks. City halls have been turned into josshouses, and the guest has been made the joss before whom all have bent in wondering admiration. Historical societies have thrown wide their portals, their members have assembled in solemn conclave to welcome to their midst the hero of the hour, and with the leaves of their ponderous tomes spread open, and goose-quills neatly nibbed, they have told the rough seaman that such men as he made history, and that theirs was the task in the present instance of inscribing one of the brightest pages in the chronicles of centuries. Can the momentous drama now being acted in the New World be so travestied? Can an intelligent people be duped by such mockeries and not perceive their shallowness? The system of raising a golden calf one day and falling prostrate in blind worship before it, then breaking it to pieces the next because the prayers offered have not been answered, is very much the fashion here just now. First we see the veteran Scott removed from the high pinnacle beneath which thousands chanted their hymns of praise. Numerous minor idols of popular or political belief follow in his wake, while only latterly Fremont the chosen has been summarily dismissed from his command to make way for a successor whose career may be more short-lived still. And, if the signs of the times may be accepted as an omen, "the coming man, the modern Alexander, the young Napoleon," as journalists have delighted to term M'Clellan, with oceans of other adulatory titles—he, too, has nearly run his course. Already strong parties are sapping at the foundations of the pedestal on which he stands, and a bitingly-sarcastic pamphlet has appeared bitterly attacking him for his want of energy and the sluggishness of his movements. How long, let me ask, will Captain Wilkes maintain his position in the niche which he at present occupies in the Walhalla of Northern heroes? Well, in the discussions that have been created by this all-absorbing topic of Slidell and Mason, much has been elicited that is antagonistic to England; and I, who have been a strong partisan of the North, lament that it should be so. The arrogance and selfishness of those whose cause in my Liliputian manner I had espoused has been portrayed as I never saw it before, and I feel I have only been doing my duty in expressing myself as strongly as I have.
With regard to the conduct of the war I can say but little; matters on the Potomac remain nearly in statu quo, The vast accumulation of troops, much better drilled and disciplined then they were, are lying idle within their lines, though it is impossible to say whether they will go into winter quarters where they are or advance. With the exception of a few reconnaissances, no movement whatever has taken place, and this torpid condition of matters is raising a great outcry throughout the North; the capitalists who have been furnishing Government with funds expressing loudest of all their discontent. It appears to me that the plan of the Cabinet is to operate on the Southern seaboard by means of naval expeditions, and I suspect they hope to draw off from the centre the troops of the Carolinas, Louisiana, &c., for the protection of their various States. The success of such strategy would have the effect of weakening the Confederate forces at Centreville and Manassas, where it is reported they have an army of over 70,000 men, strongly intrenched, and perhaps enable M'Clellan to make a dash towards Richmond. However this may be, I am getting tired of this continual "Wait another week and you will see something done,' [sic] which I am constantly being told by officers high in command. At present I am almost at a standstill for subjects for illustration, and I shall have shortly, in case of nothing transpiring here, to look around me seriously for another field. The only persons who appear to me to display any amount of activity are the greedy hordes of hungry contractors, who are determined to have their pound of flesh from the sorely-pressed Union. They flock here in myriads, and it was only last evening that I had pointed out to me a gentleman with a gracefully-curved proboscis who, by a lucky stroke of "Pishness, my tears," had succeeded in bagging a hundred thousand dollars of the public money.