- Alabama's C.C. Clay, Jr.:A Not-So-Secret Agent for the Confederacy
It was a presidential election year in which us troops were in harm's way, international borders were porous, acts of terrorism on the home front added to the public's fears and anxieties, and the campaign rhetoric between the surrogates of the Republican and Democrat candidates was extremely bitter. The winner would be in position to appoint a justice to the United States Supreme Court. Rumors abounded that a hostile power was planning to interfere in the election on behalf of one of the candidates, and neither party saw a clear path to victory. This was not 2016; it was 1864.
By that election year, the heady days following the Confederate victory in the First Battle of Manassas in July 1861 were a distant memory. A few months after that battle, forty-five-year old Huntsville lawyer-secessionist Clement Claiborne Clay (also known as C.C. Clay, Jr.) was elected by the Alabama legislature as one of the state's two senators to the Confederate Congress. Clay was loyal to the administration of Confederate president Jefferson Davis, even when the war went sour in 1862 and 1863 with a cascade of Confederate military setbacks at places like Forts Henry and Donelson, Shiloh, Memphis, New Orleans, Corinth, north Alabama, Memphis, Perryville, and Murfreesboro. The public's desire for change following additional catastrophic losses at Gettysburg, Vicksburg, and Chattanooga in [End Page 83] 1863 placed all political incumbents in jeopardy of losing their offices; this was especially true with regard to Davis men like Clay. When the Alabama legislature convened in late 1863, Clay lost his bid for reelection to the Confederate Senate.1
Davis did not forget his old friend. After the Confederate Congress appropriated five million dollars for secret service activities, one million of which was earmarked to fund covert operations in the North during the months leading up to the 1864 presidential election, Davis sent Clay and several other Confederate agents to Canada to orchestrate those operations. It was a mission Clay reluctantly accepted and would later regret. He sailed for Canada on May 6, 1864, shortly before the spring offensives by Union generals Ulysses S. Grant and William Tecumseh Sherman. By the time Clay arrived in Canada on May 19, he was probably relieved to learn that Confederate generals Robert E. Lee and Joseph E. Johnston had not suffered any monumental losses.2
The scope of Clay's authority and assigned tasks in Canada remain a mystery because the instructions given to him by Jefferson Davis upon his departure were verbal, and Clay destroyed the relevant portions of his diary. By this point in the war, the option of negotiating a peace acceptable to loyal Confederates---one that would preserve slavery and assure political independence---was seemingly as chimerical as that of European intervention and northwestern secession had so far proven to be. Northern outrage over the Fort Pillow Massacre in April 1864 still lingered, and the southern press had just begun to publish a history of the incident more sympathetic to the Confederacy. The institution of slavery, it was said in the North, was at the heart of the atrocity and must forever be abolished. Therefore, [End Page 84] it is unlikely that Davis instructed Clay to contact the federal government and attempt to seek a peace accord.3
Davis and others intended to conquer a peace. They believed that if the Confederacy could perpetuate the illusion that it would never give up and that this bloody war was interminable, the Yankees, like the British during the Revolutionary War, might finally, miraculously, just give up and, if necessary, oust President Lincoln in the upcoming presidential election or by force thereafter. As a Mobile, Alabama, editor candidly put the Confederacy's position in early June, "[We] have no hopes of peace from the North, so long as the belief or the hope exists with them that it is possible to subjugate us, steal our possessions and force us to the attitude of inferiors and slaves. Peace and independence gleam for us nowhere, except from the points of...