Period Sketch of the Mason Family Home at Selma

The USS San Jacinto had been constructed in 1852 as an experimental frigate, designed to test steam powered screw propulsion. She had experienced varied success with the new technology, but had always had sail to fall back on. In August of 1861 command of the vessel passed to Captain Charles Wilkes. Early that month Wilkes had set sail for Cuba in hopes of replenishing his supply of coal. It was here, in the coastal city of Cienfuegos, that Captain Wilkes inserted himself and his ship into the sphere of international intrigue.

Captain Wilkes departed Cuba on November 8, 1861, and stationed his ship at a narrow point in the Old Bahama Channel, about 230 miles east of Havana. About noon he spotted a British steam powered mail packet named the Trent headed his way. An intercept course was quickly plotted and the USS San Jacinto bounded away on its mission to seize the vessel.

Captain Charles Wilkes “sighted the Trent and ordered one warning shot followed by a second shot across the bow. With this the Trent hove to.” Wilkes ordered his executive officer, Lieutenant Donald McNeill Fairfax, to board the British vessel with a contingent of armed marines. His instructions were to seize the ship and declare it “a prize to be taken to a prize court for adjudication.” Fairfax, however, came away with the subjects of his assault, the two Confederate commissioners, John Slidell and James Murray Mason. Their secretaries were also nabbed.


Capture of the Trent

Captain Wilkes immediately set course for Boston where he surrendered his captives to local authorities. The two prisoners were sent to Fort Warren where they were merged with other Confederate detainees. It did not take long for news of this diplomatic insult to reach London, however, over the newly laid Atlantic cable. The capture of Southern Diplomats, Mason and Slidell, quickly became a full-fledged international incident.

James Mason

James Murray Mason

As soon as November 28, British Prime Minister Lord Palmerston was aware of the incident and called an emergency meeting of his cabinet to discuss the situation. Palmerston was outraged and began the meeting by declaring: “I don’t know whether you are going to stand this, but I’ll be damned if I do!” War Secretary George Cornwall Lewis felt conflict was inevitable. “On November 29, Lord Palmerston outlined to Foreign Secretary Lord John Russell his requirements for a peaceful resolution—a formal apology and the release of the envoys.”

“On the day after Christmas Seward informed Lyons that the commissioners and their secretaries would be surrendered. On January 1, they were released and transferred to the British warship Rinaldo. Their transatlantic voyage, however, was interrupted once again. This time a winter storm caused the ship to reroute to Saint Thomas. From there they finally managed a successful voyage to Britain, arriving in London at the end of January.”

The two envoys the Confederacy had selected were national figures with extensive resumes, much of which would be a cause for alarm for northerners. James Murray Mason of Virginia had served in the United States Senate during the decade leading to secession and had pushed his states’ rights agenda of secession from the Union. His authorship of the Fugitive Slave Law, however, would be the proposal for which he would be most remembered by northern soldiers and for which he would soon suffer retribution.

Northerners were equally familiar with John Slidell of Louisiana. John had been sent as President James Polk’s special envoy to Mexico City in 1845 in a failed attempt to prevent war with Mexico. Like Mason, Slidell had also served in the Senate in the 1850s where he too had established himself as a “southern anti-Union extremist.”

James Mason would choose Winchester, Virginia, as the place to raise his family and to practice law. By 1828 Mason would achieve considerable success as an attorney which allowed him to purchase a “large stone house, built in 1828 for Judge Dabney Carr, about a mile from town.” They would call it “Selma.”

A description of the interior of the Mason home is attempted in the book Genteel Rebel. The author writes: “The rooms at Selma were smaller than those in more prominent houses, yet Eliza Mason decorated the room in the style that their budget could afford, using pieces she had brought with her from home as well.” Here, on outer Amherst Street, John and his wife Eliza, would raise their eight children.

Meanwhile, James Mason’s political career had begun to blossom. James was elected as a delegate to the Virginia constitutional convention in 1829, and to the State house of delegates from 1826-1832. He was selected as a Jackson Democrat to the Twenty-fifth Congress in March 1837. In 1847 he was chosen to fill a vacancy caused by the death of Isaac S. Pennybacker in the United States Senate. He was reelected to this office in 1850 and 1856. Mason served in this capacity until March 28, 1861, when he was expelled from the Senate for backing the secession of Southern States.

With the coming of the war, James’ was selected as one of the South’s diplomats to Europe. As a result, James Mason was forced to leave Winchester. At the time most of his friends urged Mason to take his family with him to London. Mason disregarded these suggestions, however, and instead left his family to fend for themselves. By March of 1862 his family was forced to leave Winchester as well. In all likelihood they traveled to Eliza’s family home in Pennsylvania and then on to Canada. Selma was left vacant and forced to fend for itself.

On Tuesday March 11, 1862, Mary Greenhow Lee would make her first diary entry and speak of Selma and the missing Mason family. On that evening she and Laura Lee would go to the Mason home to see to the safety of the residence and the items contained within. In the process of recording her thoughts she determined to whom she would direct her diary entries and observations. She wrote: “Now I know who I am writing to – this must go to one of the dear Masons, as I know they would want to know of the last visit to Selma, it may be for a long, long time.” The two of them “collected articles worth preserving, for their owners.” It was on this very day that the residents of Winchester learned General Thomas Jackson was surrendering Winchester to General Nathaniel Banks’ Union Army.

Diarist Cornelia McDonald lived next door to the Mason residence in a dwelling they had named Hawthorn. Early one May morning she noted “a U.S flag streaming over Mr. Mason’s house. Found out it was occupied as headquarters by a Massachusetts regiment.” This was undoubtedly the 2nd Massachusetts infantry. Later that same month she would note Selma had been re-occupied, this time by the 10th Maine Volunteer Infantry.

On June 8, 1862, the very day the Battle of Cross Keys was being fought, Cornelia McDonald noted: “Senator Mason’s house being next to ours, and that its ground being the next one to ours, the soldiers, who I suppose having heard of the Trent Affair, and the Commissioners Mason and Slidell, always connect the two. As that was Mr. Mason’s house, they fancy this is Mr. Slidell’s, and often stop and ask if it is.”

By late June, as the connection between James Mason and Selma came to be more widely known, the malicious inclinations of Union soldiers were brought to bear upon the structure itself. Cornelia McDonald would report that “stone fencing is being carried away to aid in the work. They have begun to tear down Mr. Mason’s house. All day axe and hammer are at work demolishing that pleasant, happy home. I saw the roof being taken off today – that roof, the shelter of which was never denied to the homeless, and whose good and gifted owners had never withheld their sympathy from the sad and suffering.” According to Cornelia the wife and children of James Mason were themselves homeless “with no place to call their own, and their home a desolation.”



In January 1863 Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation would add urgency to the destruction of Selma. Like it or not the Union Army was now fighting to free slaves. As the author of the Fugitive Slave Law, the Mason home became a visible target of reprisal for the institution. Diarist Cornelia McDonald would write: “To day the walls of Mr. Mason’s house were pulled down; they fell with a crash; the roof had gone long ago. The house has disappeared now, and the place which knew it will know it no more. Every outbuilding is gone… Nothing is left of them all but heaps of logs which the Yankees carry away for firewood; and I, I can scarcely tell it, help them to burn it, for they have taken all our wood and we can get no other supply, but they graciously permit us to share with them, and my boys and the Yankee soldiers stand side by side cutting up the logs from my own hen and turkey houses, I must say I enjoy the cheerful blaze.” “They have taken the stones of Mr. Mason’s house as well as many of our stone fences to build their fortifications.”

Material for Winchester’s forts would come from three locations, Winchester Academy, the Market House, and the destruction of “Selma.” Star Fort in particular would grow from the demolition of Mason’s home. From its ruins would rise a fortification designed as an 8-sided stone and wooden gun platform. The stronghold had ramparts, rifle pits and a sally port. It could hold 1,500 combatants in its rifle pits and up to 8 artillery pieces in its points. The stones from Selma can today still be seen as part of its artillery platforms.

Ultimately, James Mason would fail in his attempts to secure recognition for the Confederacy. As it turned out British affairs on the continent were more troubling to them than a war in the United States. Mason would stay in Britain until 1866, a Confederate without a country. He would then travel to Canada, where his family waited for him. According to his daughter Virginia’s account, they were in “exile from their homeland–the South.” The Mason family, along with other former Confederate leaders and officials, would remain in Canada, however, until they were officially extended amnesty in July of 1868.

In 1869 the Mason family finally returned to Virginia. With their Winchester home completely destroyed they decided to move closer to James paternal home. Mason purchased an estate outside of Alexandria called Clarens. The property adjoined that of his old friend, and former Confederate General, Samuel Cooper. Mason wrote: “I gave for the whole establishment nine thousand dollars in greenbacks.” “The greenbacks were his only remaining money, he confessed, and came from his wife’s family assets held in Pennsylvania through the war.”


Clarens Estate at Alexandria

Mason decided he would not hire “poor negros” as household servants. Instead he brought “domestic servants (women) from Canada” and he intended to hire whites only. “Negroes,” he believed, were “the great curse of the country.” “The fact that Reconstruction brought black voting particularly offended him; it was, he thought, the rule of the mob and the end of the republic.”

Mason plot

Mason Family Plot at Christ Church in Alexandria

With such deeply seated convictions, Mason lived just two more years, expiring at Clarens in April 1871. He was buried in the churchyard of Christ Church in Alexandria. Many years after the war a second house would be constructed on the foundation of Selma on Amherst Street in Winchester. James Mason and his family had sacrificed everything; their home, their reputation, and their very livelihood for the lost cause of Southern independence. The devotion of these and others are remembered to show the strength and urgency of a peoples convictions, one that required immense sacrifice, and at great personal cost.

My apologies for my delay in posting this blog entry. I have been devoting a great deal of time preparing to teach a class on Jackson’s Valley Campaign at the Lifelong Learning Institute at JMU. My first class in on Wednesday March 18. I am very much looking forward to it.


McDonald, Cornelia Peake. A Woman’s Civil War: A Diary with Reminiscences of the War, from March 1862. Gramercy Books. New York. 1992.

Phipps, Sheila R. Genteel Rebel: The Life of Mary Greenhow Lee. Louisiana State University Press. Baton Rouge, La. 2004.

Straader, Eloise C. The Civil War Journal of Mary Greenhow Lee. Winchester County Historical Society. Winchester, Va. 2011.

Sen. James Murray Mason, Black Labor, and the Aftermath of the Civil War

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