- “Clouds Involved the Land”: Melville, “Donelson,” and the Transatlantic Aspects of National War News
“Donelson,” Herman Melville’s Civil War poem about the Union army’s successful attack on the Confederate fort of that name, begins in a strange place. First published in Melville’s 1866 Civil War collection, Battle-Pieces and Aspects of the War, the poem nominally recounts a battle that occurred within the vast landlocked US interior, yet its first lines point toward the sea. The ocean, of course, was where Melville had made his name as an author, and Battle-Pieces contains several naval poems. Fort Donelson, however, was in Tennessee. Readers might wonder, then, why the poem’s first lines refer not to the war’s western theater but rather to a famous incident that began in the West Indies in a saltwater strait between Cuba and the Bahamas.
There, in an encounter British and American newspapers would label the Trent Affair, Union Navy Captain Charles Wilkes fired on and then boarded the British mail steamer Trent in order to capture two Confederate emissaries, James Mason and John Slidell. Mason and Slidell had just set sail from Havana to champion the Southern cause in Europe and had assumed that they would be secure traveling under the British flag.1 But Wilkes refused to accept the precedents of international law and naval practice. Armed with a fresh [End Page 515] argument and the guns of his own San Jacinto, he determined to treat Mason and Slidell as “the embodiment of dispatches” and seized them as contraband of war.2 These were “the Envoys” to whom “Donelson”’s third line refers, and the debate over their removal from a British ship on 8 November 1861 would roil the transatlantic press for months.3
Tellingly, Melville does not bother reminding his readers of this international controversy. The poem begins:
The bitter cup Of that hard countermand Which gave the Envoys up(BP, 33)
Melville does not actually mention the Trent or the dashing Captain Wilkes who had so audaciously prodded the sleeping tiger of a nominally neutral Britain. In fact, the poem originates with news of the affair’s disappointing conclusion: Lincoln’s agreement to free the Southern captives in early 1862. This resolution followed many tense weeks during which bombastic boasting on the Union side—in newspapers more than in official communiqués—had shocked British readers and politicians. The latter responded with outrage and threats to internationalize what Britons were still content to call the American War.4
Of course, by the time the Trent Affair began, many Britons assumed that they were no longer contending with a single American nation. Seven violent months, several Confederate victories, and a functioning Confederate government meant that there would be many sides to what quickly became a transatlantic controversy over national identity. While excited Confederates hoped that the crisis would secure full national recognition, Unionists felt their own national power swelling as they defied their old British nemesis. But finally, fearing above all Britain’s military and economic might, the Lincoln administration surrendered the commissioners, humbling the United States before Britain [End Page 516] and the eyes of the world, or at least all the world that had eyes to see—which is to say, the parts with newspapers. Thus, the “bitter cup” where “Donelson” begins was actually the popular Anglophone press, a cauldron brimming with overheated international communication and competing nationalist commitments. The Trent Affair would have been unimaginable apart from the disjointed and often contradictory experience of transatlantic news, a critical arena of wartime journalism that Civil War scholarship has nevertheless left largely unexamined.
“Donelson,” a complex poem that has resisted both anthologization and easy interpretation, has likewise been largely unappreciated for nearly all of the one-hundred-fifty years since Battle-Pieces’ publication; if Melville’s twentieth-century admirers mentioned the poem, they often dismissed it as an unsuccessful experiment.5 More recently, critics interested in popular print’s relationship to poetic production have made “Donelson” more difficult to ignore. Faith Barrett, for example, whose broader scholarship has demonstrated how popular Civil War poetry “worked to both constitute and subdivide national audiences” partly...