|William Henry Trescot|
Sunday, July 19, 2015
July 19, 1861 - The secret mission to Jefferson Davis in Richmond begins
Our Man in Charleston: Britain's Secret Agent in the Civil War South will be published July 21. As it happens, that is also the 154th anniversary of the Battle of Bull Run or, if you will, First Manassas. While William Howard Russell, the great war correspondent for the Times of London, was in Washington D.C. examining preparations for the battle everyone knew would be coming soon in northern Virginia, his friend Consul Bunch in Charleston began laying the groundwork for secret talks with the Confederate government (which he loathed).
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.