Gideon Welles Printed Order Court Martial Finds Naval Commander at the Center of the Trent Affair Guilty of Insubordination and Disobedience in Later Conduct
GIDEON WELLES, Printed Order signed in type regarding results of court-martial of Commodore Charles Wilkes, May 3, 1864, Washington, D.C. 2 pp., 5.5ʺ x 8ʺ. Excellent.
The USS San Jacinto under Captain Charles Wilkes seized Confederate emissaries James M. Mason and John Slidell from the British mail packet RMS Trent off Cuba on November 8, 1861. The San Jacinto arrived at Hampton Roads, Virginia, on November 15, and reported the capture to Washington. Authorities ordered Wilkes to proceed to Boston to place Mason and Slidell in Fort Warren with other captured Confederates. The ship arrived in Boston on November 24.
The public and the northern press hailed Wilkes as a hero, and many attorneys justified the detention of the ambassadors. Some dissenting voices recalled that the seizure of Mason and Slidell resembled the search and impressment practices that led the United States into war with Great Britain in 1812. In addition, the British government demanded an apology for the violation of its neutral rights and insult to its national honor, as well as the release of the prisoners. The British public called for war. Initially enthusiastic about Wilkes’s actions, President Abraham Lincoln soon realized that the incident could result in British recognition of the Confederacy, or worse, war with Great Britain.
Declaring that Wilkes had acted on his own authority and that releasing the prisoners was consistent with the traditional American position on neutral rights, American authorities released Mason and Slidell at the end of the year. They boarded a Royal Navy ship for St. Thomas, where they took a British mail packet to England. Their release eased tensions and ended the crisis.
Wilkes continued in the service of the U.S. Navy and was promoted in rank from captain to commodore and placed in command of an important squadron in the West Indies to combat privateers. However, his combative personality and open conflict with Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles resulted in his court-martial in 1864. The nine members of the court martial included Rear Admiral Francis H. Gregory, Rear Admiral Silas H. Stringham, Rear Admiral Hiram Paulding, Rear Admiral Louis M. Goldsborough, four commodores, and a captain.
After the court-martial found him guilty of all five charges, including disobedience of orders and insubordination, the judges sentenced him to be publicly reprimanded and suspended from duty for three years. President Lincoln reduced the sentence to one year, at the end of which Wilkes retired from the Navy.
Order No. 33, May 3, 1864
“At a Naval General Court Martial, recently convened in the city of Washington, Commodore Charles Wilkes, of the Navy, was tried upon the following charges, preferred against him by the Department:
“Charge I.—‘Disobedience of the lawful orders of his superior officer, while in the execution of his office.’
“Charge II.—‘Insubordinate conduct and negligence or carelessness in obeying orders.’
“Charge III.—‘Disrespect and disrespectful language to his superior officer whilst in the execution of his office.’
“Charge IV.—‘Refusal of obedience to a lawful General Order or Regulation issued by the Secretary of the Navy.’
“Charge V.—‘Conduct unbecoming an officer, and constituting an offense made punishable by Article VIII of the Articles adopted and put in force for the government of the Navy of the United States.’
“Of each of these charges the accused was found by the Court ‘Guilty,’ and was sentenced in the following terms:
“‘And the court does hereby sentence the accused, Commodore Charles Wilkes, to be publicly reprimanded by the Secretary of the Navy, and to be suspended from duty for the term of three years.’”
Gideon Welles (1802-1878) was a Connecticut native, journalist, Democratic state legislator, Hartford Postmaster, and Chief of the Bureau of Provisions and Clothing for the Navy early in his career. In the 1848 presidential election, Welles left the Democratic Party over the issue of the expansion of slavery. Welles founded an influential Republican organ, the Hartford Evening Press, in 1856. Abraham Lincoln appointed Welles as Secretary of the Navy, and Welles was highly effective in mobilizing the resources of the country for an extensive blockade and offensive operations against the Confederacy. Abraham Lincoln nicknamed Welles his “Neptune,” and Welles served as Secretary of the Navy from 1861 to 1869.
Charles Wilkes (1798-1877) was born in New York City, attended Columbia College, and entered the Navy as a midshipman in 1818. Fifteen years later, Wilkes took command of the Navy’s Department of Charges and Instruments, from which the Naval Observatory and Hydrographic Office developed. From 1838 to 1842, he commanded the U.S. Exploring Expedition of six ships with a variety of scientists and artists aboard, which discovered the Antarctic Continent and charted 1,500 miles of its coastline. The expedition continued into the Pacific Ocean, traveling to Hawaii, Fiji, and the western coast of the United States. It then departed for Polynesia, the Philippines, Borneo, Singapore, and rounded the Cape of Good Hope to return to New York in June 1842. The voyage was the last all-sail naval mission to encircle the globe, and Wilkes published a five-volume Narrative of the United States Exploring Expedition with an accompanying atlas in 1844. He also edited 30 volumes of scientific reports and atlases of the expedition published between 1844 and 1874. Wilkes received promotion in the U.S. Navy to commander in 1843 and to captain in 1855. When the Civil War began, he was placed in command of the USS San Jacinto to search for Confederate commerce raiders. His seizure of Confederate commissioners James M. Mason and John Slidell from the British mail packet HMS Trent set off an international affair that nearly brought Great Britain to war with the United States. After being placed on the retired list briefly, Wilkes was put in command of a squadron in the West Indies to intercept blockade runners. His conflicts with Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles led to Wilkes’s court-martial in 1864, followed by a suspension from service and retirement.
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