News of the British reaction to the seizure of Confederate envoys James M. Mason and John Slidell aboard the R.M.S. Trent reached the U.S. on the 15th. Secretary of State William H. Seward interrupted a meeting between President Abraham Lincoln and Illinois Senator Orville Browning by showing them a British newspaper that had been brought over on a ship recently arrived from England. The paper reported that British leaders would demand for the envoys’ release and an official apology, otherwise they would declare war.
Seward worried that the British would assert that the seizure of Mason and Slidell had violated international law. Browning said, “I don’t believe England has done so foolish a thing. But if she is determined to force a war upon us why so be it. We will fight her to the death!” Lincoln likened this to a story about a bulldog whom onlookers said would not bite, until one man said, “I know the bulldog will not bite. You know he will not bite, but does the bulldog know he will not bite?”
The U.S. remained cautiously defiant. At a diplomatic reception that evening, London Times correspondent William Howard Russell overheard Seward say, “We will wrap the whole world in flames.” But the next day, the House of Representatives backed off when Democrat Clement L. Vallandigham of Ohio introduced a resolution commending Captain Charles Wilkes for seizing Mason and Slidell, and refusing to release the envoys as a matter of national honor. The resolution, which would have most likely been resoundingly approved a month ago, was referred to committee instead.
At London, Charles Francis Adams, U.S. minister to Britain, received Seward’s message stating that Wilkes had acted without orders. Adams shared this with British Foreign Minister Lord John Russell, who felt it was a step in the right direction. However, Russell would not endorse any formal action until the U.S. government officially responded to the British communique on its way across the Atlantic.
The British public continued expressing outrage against the U.S., no doubt influenced by editorials like one from the London Times that declared: “By Capt. Wilkes let the Yankee breed be judged. Swagger and ferocity, built on a foundation of vulgarity and cowardice, these are the characteristics, and these are the most prominent marks by which his countrymen, generally speaking, are known all over the world.”
Lord Russell’s formal instructions to Lord Richard Lyons arrived in the U.S. aboard the Europa on the 18th, and the Queen’s messenger delivered them at 11:30 p.m. Lyons met with Seward at the State Department the next day and verbally communicated the demands from “Her Majesty’s Government.” Lyons explained that Great Britain deemed the seizure of Mason and Slidell “an affront to the national honor” that could only be corrected if the U.S. unconditionally returned the envoys to “British protection.”
Lyons also stated that his government required “a suitable apology for the aggression,” and if the U.S. did not comply in a timely manner, Lyons and his legation would return to Britain. Seward asked, “Was any time fixed by your instructions within which the U.S. Government must reply?” Lyons replied, “I do not like to answer the question. Of all things I wish to avoid the slightest appearance of a menace.” When Seward pressed for an answer, Lyons said, “I will tell you. According to my instructions, I must have your answer in seven days.”
Seward asked to read a copy of the dispatch. Lyons said that if he officially gave a copy to Seward, the seven-day deadline clock would start. He would therefore send a copy, marked private and confidential, unofficially with the understanding that only Seward and Lincoln would read it. Seward received his copy that night, and he met with Lyons again after reading it. He told Lyons that he was pleased with its courteous tone and asked, “Suppose that I sent you in seven days a refusal or a proposal to discuss the question.” Lyons said, “My instructions are positive, and leave me no discretion. If the answer is not satisfactory and, particularly if it does not include the immediate surrender of the prisoners, I cannot accept it.”
President Lincoln held several cabinet meetings over the next few days to discuss the affair and a potential U.S. response to British demands. During that time, two British transports began conveying 8,000 troops from England to Canada, as bands played “Dixie” and “The British Grenadiers.” Lieutenant General Sir William F. Williams, commanding British forces in North America, began training 38,000 men of the Sedentary Militia for possible combat.
Meanwhile, Wall Street began feeling the effects of the Trent affair, as a war with Britain would prove decidedly bad for northern business. Treasury Secretary Salmon P. Chase could not sell his railroad stock because it had become nearly worthless; Chase’s broker advised him that U.S. business interests “trust you will have allayed this excitement with England: one war at a time is enough.”
Lyons tried to meet with Seward again on the 23rd, but State Department officials told him that Seward had other business to tend to and would not answer the British demands until after Christmas. He stormed out of the State Department building and formally presented the British ultimatum to the U.S. government. The seven-day deadline clock began running. Lyons wrote Russell, “I am so convinced that unless we give our friends here a good lesson this time, we shall have the same trouble with them again very soon… Surrender or war will have a very good effect on them.”
However, British-perceived U.S. arrogance was slowly giving way as Lincoln and his cabinet continued discussing the matter. Editorials in southern newspapers jubilantly expressed hope that war between Britain and the U.S. would facilitate Confederate independence. Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner, chairman of the Foreign Services Committee, feared that the British might break the Federal blockade or that France might use this time of U.S.-British tension to colonize Latin America. Pressure was increasing on the Lincoln administration to release Mason and Slidell.
- Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government: All Volumes. Heraklion Press, Kindle Edition 2013, 1889.
- Donald, David Herbert, Lincoln. New York: Simon & Schuster, (Kindle Edition), 2011.
- Goodwin, Doris Kearns, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2005.
- Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day. New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971.
- Rhodes, James Ford, History of the Civil War, 1861-1865. New York: The MacMillan Company (Kindle Edition, Reservoir House, 2016), 1917.