Item #7194 [Copy of order relating to the Enchantress Affair, calling for the execution of certain imprisoned Union officers.]. Judah Benjamin.

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[Copy of order relating to the Enchantress Affair, calling for the execution of certain imprisoned Union officers.]

Richmond, Virginia, 9 November 1861. 8vo manuscript document, 1 p., in a secretarial hand, apparently signed by Col. Milton Cogswell, for whom it was made. CONDITION: Very good, light chipping to left margin, old folds; no losses to the text.

An important copy of an extraordinary retaliatory order issued by the Confederate Government during the Enchantress Affair, instructing the head of prisons in Richmond to select for possible execution a number of captured Union officers being held as prisoners there. This copy was obtained by Col. Milton Cogswell in an effort to apprise his commanding officer of the perilous situation in which he and his fellow officers found themselves. The order ultimately proved a rare tactical victory for Jefferson Davis over Abraham Lincoln.

Issued by Confederate acting Secretary of War Judah P. Benjamin, the order reads in full:


You are hereby instructed to choose by lot, from amongst the Prisoners of War of highest rank, one who is to be confined in a Cell appropriated to Convicted Felons, and who is to be treated in all respects as Convict: and to be held for Execution in the same manner as may be adopted by the enemy for the execution of the Prisoner of War Smith recently condemned to death in Philadelphia.

You will also select thirteen other Prisoners of War, the highest Rank of those captured by our forces, to be confined in the Cells reserved for Prisoners abused of Infamous Crimes, and will treat them as such so long as the Enemy shall continue to treat the like number of prisoners of War Captured by them at and now held for trial in New York as Pirates.

As these measures are intended to repress the infamous attempt now made by the Enemy to commit Judicial Murder on Prisoners of War. You will execute them strictly as the mode best calculated to prevent the Commission of so heinous a Crime.

Your Obedient Servant,

J. P. Benjamin,

Acting Secretary of War, Richmond VA.

To Brig. Gen. John Winder. True Copy M. Cogswell Col. Tam. 7 Reg’t.

One day after the Union Army suffered a disastrous defeat at the First Battle of Bull Run in July 1861, the Confederate privateer Jefferson Davis captured the Union merchant ship Enchantress. This early in the Civil War, the Confederate Government lacked any naval capability—forcing them to rely on privateers. A Confederate crew was placed on board the Enchantress and took charge of the ship and crew. Just two weeks later, however, the Enchantress was recaptured by a U.S. Navy warship. The Union, stinging from the defeat at Manassas, took the Confederates of the Enchantress (and others from the Petrel, a second captured Confederate privateer) to Philadelphia. Immediately following another Union defeat in Oct. 1861 near Washington, D.C. at Ball's Bluff, a total of fourteen Confederates, including Enchantress Capt. Walter W. Smith, were tried and convicted as pirates on 22 Oct. 1861 and sentenced to death. Captured enemy military have historically by International Law been considered prisoners of war—with some degree of leniency. As the Union did not recognize the Confederacy as legitimate, the captured Confederates were deemed pirates and thus deserving of the harshest treatment.

The incident sparked great outrage throughout the Confederate States, especially the trial verdicts. President Jefferson Davis retaliated in early November, via his Acting Secretary of War, Judah P. Benjamin (1811–1884), by ordering the selection of fourteen Union officers of the highest rank, then held in prison in Richmond, for possible execution. The fourteen chosen Union officers included Col. Michael Corcoran of the 69th NY (selected as the first to be executed); Col. Milton Cogswell, 42nd NY (the Tammany Regiment); Col. Orlando B. Willcox of the 1st Michigan; Col. William Lee and Maj. Paul J. Revere, of the 20th Mass.; Capt. Hugh McQuade of the 38th NY; Capt. James Ricketts of the 1st U.S. Artillery, and others. Because two of these officers—Ricketts and McQuade—were suffering from terrible wounds, they were replaced by Capt. Henry Bowman, 15th Mass., and Capt. Francis Keiffer, 71st PA.

On 11 Nov. 1861, Col. Milton Cogswell wrote to his commanding officer Brig. Gen. Lorenzo Thomas (1804–1875), apprising him of the intended rebel retaliation, and telling him he would request a copy and forward the 9 Nov. 1861 order by Judah Benjamin (which had been sent for implementation to Brig. Gen. John Winder, as noted here). The present document is an actual copy obtained by Cogswell; however, it is unclear whether it was sent to Thomas or is a retained copy. In any event, both the Cogswell letter to Lorenzo Thomas and the attached order are included in Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies Vol. 128, published by the Federal Government in 1880. The Official Records include a transcription of the Cogswell copy but list it as "not present."

During the winter of 1861–62, the U.S. Government reconsidered the case and ultimately decided to treat the captured Confederate privateers not as pirates, but as prisoners of war. Their sentences of execution were thus voided. By categorizing the Confederates as Prisoners of War rather than Pirates, President Lincoln in a way gave recognition of legitimacy to the Confederate States of America as a State Entity, and in this one case Jefferson Davis won a diplomatic battle with his presidential counterpart. Eventually, all the prisoners were released with the exception of two men—one a Confederate and the Union Capt. Hugh McQuade, who died while being held as prisoners of war.

Born in Indiana, Milton Cogswell (1825–1882) graduated from West Point in 1849. In 1850 he was assigned to duty on the frontier, serving with the 8th Infantry, but was recalled and detailed to teach math at West Point until 1856. In 1861, after the Civil War broke out, he became Colonel of the 42nd NY Volunteers, and at the Battle of Ball's Bluff was captured by the rebels and incarcerated in Libby Prison—until being exchanged. At the close of the war he was assigned to garrison duty at Baltimore, and then served as Acting Judge-Advocate of the Department of North Carolina. In 1865, he was brevetted Brig. Gen., U.S. Volunteers for “gallant and meritorious services at the Battle of Ball’s Bluff, Virginia,” and Brig. Gen., U.S. Regular Army for “gallant and meritorious services during the war.” In 1868 he was appointed Provisional Mayor of Charleston, South Carolina from March to July. He later performed various duties in the South and on the Western frontier until 1871, when he retired on account of a disability sustained during service.

A rare and evocative artifact of the Enchantress Affair.

REFERENCES: Coffey, Walter. “The Enchantress Affair” at The Civil War Months online; The War of the Rebellion: Correspondence, orders, reports and returns… (Ann Arbor, MI: The National Historical Society, 1971), pp. 130–131, 738–739; Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies, Vol. 128 (Federal Government, 1880); “Milton Cogswell” at Find a Grave online.

Item #7194

Price: $1,750.00

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