THE LAST GAMBIT
Copyright © 2012 by Mark Strecker.
Duncan Farrar Kenner
Tennessee Portrait Project
The Jefferson Davis Mansion, Richmond, Virginia
This is where Benjamin and Davis proposed the secret mission to Kenner.
Library of Congress
Duncan Farrar Kenner had an epiphany shortly after escaping the Union soldiers who had invaded and confiscated his sugarcane plantation near New Orleans. It occurred to him that slavery in the South had met its end and the Confederacy could do nothing to save it. He believed the South should emancipate all of its slaves so as to gain official recognition as well as financial help from European powers, especially France and England, who had long ago outlawed slavery on moral grounds.
A dour fellow who lacked any hair, Kenner had amassed a vast fortune generated by real estate speculation and his plantations. Born on February 11, 1813, in New Orleans, his family sent him to Miami University in Ohio, then on a two-year tour of Europe. Upon his return to New Orleans, he studied law, working for and befriending John Slidell. A few years later he left law to run his plantation in Ascension Parish with his brother George. There he pursued his hobbies of gambling (thinking nothing of losing $20,000 in one night), and raising thoroughbred horses while his brother spent much of his free time wooing Charlotte Jones, his slave lover, with whom he fathered seven children. When George sold his interest in the plantation, he freed Charlotte and four of their children.
Duncan had trained one of those not freed to raise thoroughbred horses. Charlotte offered to buy him for $2,000, but the heartless Kenner refused; his nephew’s skills at horse rearing made him far too valuable to sell for such a paltry sum. He wanted $3,400. This amount would have wiped out Charlotte’s entire savings, so she countered with an offer of $2,500. Kenner agreed to take this, but only on the condition that his nephew stay in bondage for three more years, earning wages to make up the difference in price.
During the Civil War, Kenner served as a member of the Confederate House of Representatives, the last incumbency in his political career. Always the gambler, he joined whatever party would serve his interests best. Originally a Democrat, he ran for his first office as a Whig. When that party imploded, he switched to the anti-Catholic, anti-immigrant Know-Nothing Party. And when that collapsed, he returned to the Democratic Party.
After the flight from his plantation, he proposed his idea of freeing slaves to gain European favor to Jefferson Davis, but the Confederate president wanted nothing to do with it and asked him not to put this forward in the Confederate House. Two years later, as Grant closed in on Richmond and it became obvious the Confederacy had to do something radical or it would soon fall, Davis’ secretary of state, Judah P. Benjamin, remembered Kenner’s idea. Based on it, he formulated a plan. Davis should send a diplomatic mission to England and France asking for economic and military support against the North in exchange for vast quantities of cotton. To erase any moral objections either foreign government might have, the Confederacy would offer to emancipate all its slaves. To gain the time the it would need for an envoy to make the proposal and, if successful, for foreign aid to reach the besieged South, Benjamin recommended arming slaves to bolster the Confederate Army. For this service they would earn their freedom.
Davis resisted the first idea, believing he lacked the authority to free a single slave to gain foreign favor. When Benjamin pointed out that as commander-in-chief of the South’s armed forces, he could order it as a military necessity, Davis concurred, but with the caveat that only gradual emancipation would do. As for the second idea (making slaves soldiers and offering them their freedom as a reward), Davis had suggested this very possibility a month earlier in a congressional message. He decided not to ask the Confederate Congress to authorize it unless Robert E. Lee himself made the request. Davis knew that without Lee’s advocacy, the Confederate Congress would never go along with it. When Lee did so, Davis asked for and got legislation passed that allowed for the recruitment of slaves as soldiers. It passed in mid-March 1865, although it did not necessarily free slaves who gave their military service.
Now Benjamin and Davis faced a different problem: to whom could they entrust the mission? The two Confederate diplomats currently in Britain and France, John Slidell and James M. Mason, would not do. Both men vehemently supported slavery. Slidell had once involved himself with an illegal private venture to conquer Cuba with the idea of expanding American slavery there, while Mason had helped to pen the notorious Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. Mason in any case had no ability to act as a diplomat. Statesman John Bigelow offered this opinion of him in an article written for the March 1891 issue of The Century Magazine: “The average school-girl of sixteen was about as well-qualified as Mason to cope with the bankers of London and Paris, the only foreign powers with which he seems to have had any intercourse or negotiations that amounted to anything.”
Davis and Benjamin decided to ask Kenner to become their envoy. They figured no one would object to this choice since Kenner owned more slaves than any one of his fellow legislators in the Confederate Congress, and thus had more to lose than anyone else if the gambit succeeded. When Benjamin asked Kenner, he initially declined, only agreeing after the Confederate secretary of state talked him into it. To ensure Slidell and Mason went along with the plan, Davis made Kenner an envoy extraordinaire and minister plenipotentiary, giving him complete authority over the other Confederate diplomats in Europe. In addition to the emancipation issue, Kenner had a secondary mission: he would establish a Franco-Confederate bank to help ease the South’s financial crisis, selling bales of cotton at fifty cents a pound to raise its initial capital.