Tag Archives: Charles Francis Adams

The Laird Rams

September 5, 1863 – Charles Francis Adams, U.S. minister to Great Britain, threatened war unless the British stopped clandestinely building warships for the Confederacy.

Charles Francis Adams | Image Credit: Wikipedia.org

Adams had demanded that the British government investigate allegations that naval warships were being built in British shipyards for Confederate use. This demand specifically referred to ironclads currently under construction in the Laird shipyards at Birkenhead that had become known as the “Laird rams.”

Emperor Napoleon III of France was listed as the rams’ original owner, but U.S. officials claimed the British government secretly knew that Confederate agents owned the ships behind the scenes. The agents arranged for the unarmed rams to be sold to Bravay & Company of Paris, on behalf of “his serene Highness the Pasha of Egypt.” The Pasha would then arm the rams and sell them to the Confederates on the open sea.

Adams and Thomas Dudley, the U.S. consul in Liverpool, had been gathering evidence that the rams truly belonged to the Confederacy since June. They argued that if such activity was taking place, it violated Britain’s avowed neutrality and had to be stopped. Secretary of State William H. Seward had even threatened to declare war on British Canada if evidence surfaced that Britain was aiding the Confederate war effort.

British Foreign Minister Lord John Russell | Image Credit: Wikipedia.org

Adams urged British Foreign Secretary Lord John Russell to stop construction on the rams, but Russell replied on the 1st, “Under these circumstances, Her Majesty’s Government cannot interfere in any way with these vessels.” Without Adams’s knowledge, Russell turned around two days later and issued orders detaining the rams at Birkenhead until British officials could investigate the matter further. Russell decided that such a move was necessary to maintain peaceful relations with the U.S., as well as British neutrality.

Adams wrote Russell on the 5th, unaware that Russell had detained the rams. Adams warned that if the rams left the shipyard, “It would be superfluous in me to point out to your Lordship that this is war…” Adams was then informed that the British government had already taken steps to prevent such a thing from happening.

This was hailed in the U.S. as a great diplomatic victory, and although the British government had decided on its own to detain the rams, Adams became a hero in the U.S. for supposedly forcing Britain to back down. This did much to ease tensions between London and Washington, at the same time dealing another damaging blow to Confederate hopes for independence.

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References

Catton, Bruce, The American Heritage Picture History of the Civil War (New York: American Heritage Publishing Co., 1960), p. 260; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 322-23; Donald, David Herbert, Lincoln (Simon & Schuster, Kindle Edition, 2011), Loc 9918-28; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 346, 348; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 404-05; McPherson, James M., Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (Oxford History of the United States Book 6, Oxford University Press, Kindle Edition, 1988), p. 682; McPherson, James M., War on the Waters: The Union and Confederate Navies, 1861-1865 (Littlefield History of the Civil War Era, The University of North Carolina Press, Kindle Edition, 2012), p. 202-03; Time-Life Editors, The Blockade: Runners and Raiders (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 126-27; White, Howard Ray, Bloodstains, An Epic History of the Politics that Produced and Sustained the American Civil War and the Political Reconstruction that Followed (Southernbooks, Kindle Edition, 2012), Q363

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The Emancipation Proclamation

January 1, 1863 – President Abraham Lincoln signed the executive order emancipating all slaves in states and parts of states controlled by the Confederacy.

The Emancipation Proclamation | Image Credit: Wikipedia.org

The traditional New Year’s Day reception at the White House began at 11 a.m. The first hour was reserved for government officials, then the gates were opened to the public for the next two hours. Lincoln greeted guests in the Blue Room until 2 p.m. and then retired to the Executive Office, where the official draft of the Emancipation Proclamation, having been professionally engrossed at the State Department, awaited.

Lincoln’s hand was numb from shaking so many hands at the reception. This made him worry that his signature might look shaky on the document, which could cause people to claim that “‘he had some compunctions.’ But,” Lincoln said, “any way, it is going to be done!”

Administration officials witnessed him carefully sign the Emancipation Proclamation. Secretary of State William H. Seward also signed the document, the Great Seal of the United States was affixed, and it was sent to the State Department for official filing. Copies were sent to the press, and news of the signing soon spread throughout the country and then the world.

The decree pertained only to areas “the people whereof shall then be in rebellion against the United States.” It did not pertain to 13 parishes in Louisiana, 48 counties in western Virginia, seven counties in Virginia, or the loyal slave states of Missouri, Kentucky, Maryland, and Delaware. Thus, the proclamation technically freed nobody except in certain areas of the Confederacy under Federal military occupation, such as Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley or western Tennessee.

The order went beyond the Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation of September 22 by calling on slaves to “abstain from all violence” in an effort to ease fears that it would encourage slaves to rebel against their masters. Lincoln also added that he was issuing the proclamation as “an act of justice,” not just a military necessity.

Perhaps most importantly, the proclamation authorized the recruitment of blacks into the Federal military and navy, even if only “to garrison and defend forts, positions, stations, and other places, and to man vessels of all sorts.” This would give the Federals an enormous manpower advantage against the Confederacy.

The proclamation indicated that Lincoln finally abandoned his longtime ambition to colonize former slaves outside the U.S. From this point forward, emancipation without colonization would be the unstated administration policy, though Lincoln still supported gradual, compensated emancipation in the loyal slave states.

Although the proclamation had dubious legal merit and questionable enforceability, it gave the U.S. a foreign relations advantage because countries such as Great Britain and France would not assist a slaveholding country against a country officially opposed to slavery. People in Britain held massive rallies celebrating the proclamation, and European recognition of Confederate independence soon became virtually impossible.

As word spread on the 2nd, northerners held mass meetings either celebrating or condemning the proclamation. Free blacks, former slaves, and abolitionists gathered at Boston’s Tremont Temple to rejoice this first step toward full freedom. Unionists also celebrated at Norfolk, Virginia; and Beaufort, South Carolina. Some abolitionists expressed disappointment that the proclamation did not free slaves in states loyal to the Union or parts of the Confederacy under Federal occupation.

Those critical of the proclamation argued that it was an unconstitutional decree with no basis in law. An editorial in the New York Herald called it “practically a dead letter… unwise and ill-timed, impracticable, and outside the Constitution.” The Richmond Examiner called the proclamation the “most startling political crime in American history.”

In Lincoln’s home state of Illinois, a Democratic legislator predicted that the widows and orphans of dead Federal soldiers would “become prey to the lusts of the freed negroes who will overrun our country.” The Democratic-controlled legislature approved a measure denouncing the Emancipation Proclamation and condemning Lincoln for turning the war’s cause into slave liberation.

Across the Atlantic, British Foreign Secretary Lord John Russell criticized the document for offering no “principle averse to slavery” because it made slavery “at once legal and illegal.” The London Quarterly Review opined, “It is little less than mockery to ask us to believe that Federals are fighting solely to extinguish, and Confederates solely to perpetuate, slavery.”

However, Lincoln shrewdly used a workers’ demonstration in England to garner support in promoting his proclamation. Manchester workers had long been suffering from the cotton shortage, for which Lincoln blamed not his blockade, but “the actions of our disloyal citizens.” Lincoln wrote:

“I know and deeply deplore the sufferings which the workingmen at Manchester and in all Europe are called upon to endure in this crisis… Under these circumstances, I cannot but regard your decisive utterance upon the question as an instance of sublime Christian heroism which has not been surpassed in any age or in any country… I hail this interchange of sentiment, therefore, as an augury that whatever else may happen, whatever misfortune may befall your country or my own, the peace and friendship which now exist between the two nations will be, as it shall be my desire to make them, perpetual.”

Lincoln told the workers that the war would determine “whether a government, established on the principles of human freedom, can be maintained against an effort to build one upon the exclusive foundation of human bondage.” However, this did not acknowledge the fact that slavery still existed in the U.S. as well as the Confederacy, and Lincoln had not made emancipation a war aim until now, almost two years after the conflict began.

Nevertheless, Charles Francis Adams, U.S. minister to Britain, wrote Seward about British reaction to the proclamation in late January. Adams stated that the British government and press had initially expressed skepticism toward the document’s legality and sincerity, but “if they become once fully aroused to a sense of the importance of this struggle as a purely moral question, I feel safe in saying there will be an end of all effective sympathy in Great Britain with the rebellion.”

Overall, most northerners feared the societal changes that the Emancipation Proclamation could bring. Regardless, the document transformed the war’s character by pushing the slavery issue to the center of American dialogue. This in turn pushed Congress to begin the process of enacting a constitutional amendment that could bypass a potential Supreme Court ruling against the proclamation and permanently end slavery.

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References

Catton, Bruce, The American Heritage Picture History of the Civil War (New York: American Heritage Publishing Co., 1960), p. 258; CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 251; Donald, David Herbert, Lincoln (Simon & Schuster, Kindle Edition, 2011), Loc 8617-25, 8789-810, 9137; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 2: Fredericksburg to Meridian (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), p. 120, 155; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 248, 251; Gara, Larry, Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 242; Goodwin, Doris Kearns, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2005), p. 497, 499; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 306-08, 312-13; McGinty, Brian, Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 752-53; McPherson, James M., Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (Oxford History of the United States Book 6, Oxford University Press, Kindle Edition, 1988), p. 563; White, Howard Ray, Bloodstains, An Epic History of the Politics that Produced and Sustained the American Civil War and the Political Reconstruction that Followed (Southernbooks, Kindle Edition, 2012), Q163

The Enrica Escapes Great Britain

July 31, 1862 – Charles Francis Adams, U.S. minister to Great Britain, urged British Foreign Secretary Lord John Russell to prohibit the newly constructed screw steamer Enrica from leaving Liverpool because it was suspected of being a Confederate commerce raider.

The Enrica, later the C.S.S. Alabama | Image Credit: BlogSpot.com

U.S. agents in Britain had protested for weeks that the Confederates were paying for the construction of a warship in a British harbor, which violated international law because Britain had proclaimed neutrality in the conflict. When Lord Russell finally decided to stop the ship from leaving Liverpool, Confederate operatives notified James D. Bulloch, the Confederate agent overseeing the Enrica’s construction.

Bulloch responded by taking the Enrica out of Liverpool on a trial run on July 29, two days before Russell finally acted. Visitors aboard the ship were transferred to a tug, and the Enrica moved out onto the high seas, headed for the island of Terceira in the Azores. The ship steamed north around Ireland to avoid the U.S.S. Tuscarora, watching for her potential escape. The British colors above the ship were then lowered and replaced by the Confederate flag.

At the Azores, the Enrica was fitted with guns and loaded with ordnance and supplies from Captain Alexander McQueen’s merchant bark the Agrippina. Confederates christened the Enrica the C.S.S. Alabama, designed to attack Federal merchant shipping at sea. She proceeded to Nassau in the Bahamas, where her career as a feared commerce raider began. The birth of the Alabama would cause great tension between the U.S. and Britain for many years to come.

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References

Catton, Bruce, The American Heritage Picture History of the Civil War (New York: American Heritage Publishing Co., 1960), p. 260; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 198-99; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War, A Narrative: Fort Sumter to Perryville (New York: Vintage Books, 1958), p. 792; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 186-87; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 245; McPherson, James M., War on the Waters: The Union and Confederate Navies, 1861-1865 (Littlefield History of the Civil War Era, The University of North Carolina Press, Kindle Edition, 2012), p. 114; Time-Life Editors, The Blockade: Runners and Raiders (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 122

Cotton Exportation and the Federal Blockade

July 28, 1862 – Confederates tried currying favor with France, and Great Britain suffered a severe economic downturn due to the lack of southern cotton.

Confederate envoy John Slidell | Image Credit: Wikimedia.org

On July 16, Confederate envoy John Slidell met with Emperor Napoleon III of France for 70 minutes. Slidell requested that France recognize Confederate independence and use warships to help break the Federal blockade. In exchange, Slidell pledged several hundred thousand bales of badly needed cotton and an alliance with France against Benito Juarez’s regime in Mexico.

Slidell understood that Napoleon favored the Confederacy. However, the emperor was reluctant to provoke the U.S. (which supported Juarez) without Britain taking the lead. Napoleon told Slidell that he would consider the matter. Slidell wrote to Richmond, “I am more hopeful than I have been at any moment since my arrival in Europe.”

By this month, the lack of southern cotton was crippling Britain. The cotton supply was one-third its normal level, and nearly 75 percent of cotton-mill workers were unemployed or underemployed. Poverty spread throughout the working-class sections of the country as it starved for cotton, and this only helped the Confederacy. Thomas Dudley, the U.S. consul in Liverpool, wrote to Secretary of State William H. Seward:

“The current is against us and strong; and threatens to carry everything with it… They are all against us and would rejoice in our downfall… I think at this time we are more in danger of intervention than we have been at any previous period… if we are not successful in some decisive battle within a short period this government will be forced to acknowledge the Confederacy or else be driven from power.”

U.S. Secretary of State William H. Seward | Credit: Wikispaces.com

Seward sought to help alleviate the cotton shortage by writing to Charles Francis Adams, U.S. minister to Britain at London:

“We shall speedily open all the channels of commerce, and free them from military embarrassments; and cotton, so much desired by all nations, will flow forth as freely as before… The President has given respectful consideration to the desire informally expressed to me by the Governments of Great Britain and France for some further relaxation of the blockade in favor of that trade. They are not rejected, but are yet held under consideration, with a view to ascertain more satisfactorily whether they are really necessary, and whether they can be adopted without such serious detriment to our military operations as would render them injurious rather than beneficial to the interests of all concerned.”

Confederate officials hoped the cotton shortage would compel Britain and France to declare that the Federal blockade was “ineffective,” and thus subject to being broken by foreign powers under international law. But instead, Britain and France asked the Federal government to send them more cotton through northern channels, after it had been seized by Federal forces in areas under military occupation. This not only dimmed Confederate hopes for foreign recognition, but it encouraged Federal forces to seize as much cotton as possible as they advanced into the South.

Meanwhile, a pro-secessionist mob attacked and destroyed the offices of the St. Croix Herald, a newspaper published in St. Stephen, New Brunswick (British Canada), just across the border from Maine. The Herald had consistently supported the U.S., and had been attacked in December as well. This was a rare instance of secessionists destroying a Unionist newspaper, and not the other way around. With the printing press thrown into the St. Croix River, publication was suspended for several months.

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References

CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government: All Volumes (Heraklion Press, Kindle Edition 2013, 1889), Loc 17522-38; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 194; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 182; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 240; McPherson, James M., Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (Oxford History of the United States Book 6, Oxford University Press, Kindle Edition, 1988), p. 548, 553; White, Howard Ray, Bloodstains, An Epic History of the Politics that Produced and Sustained the American Civil War and the Political Reconstruction that Followed (Southernbooks, Kindle Edition, 2012), Q362

Birth of the C.S.S. Florida

March 22, 1862 – The steamship Oreto left England, destined to become the menacing Confederate commerce raider C.S.S. Florida.

The C.S.S. Florida | Image Credit: Wikipedia.org

The C.S.S. Florida | Image Credit: Wikipedia.org

The Oreto, a twin-bladed screw steamer, had been under construction at Liverpool. U.S. officials expressed suspicions that the ship was being built for the Confederate navy. Those suspicions were supplemented by the fact that Liverpool was largely a pro-Confederate city that a U.S. diplomat claimed had been “made by the slave trade, and the sons of those who acquired fortunes in the traffic, now instinctively side with the rebelling slave-drivers.”

Building or arming warships for belligerent powers such as the Confederacy violated Great Britain’s Foreign Enlistment Act. The U.S. consul at Liverpool, Thomas H. Dudley, had discovered the ship’s true purpose as a commerce raider before she left port, but Confederate naval agent James D. Bulloch produced forged papers claiming that a Palermo merchant, not the Confederate government, owned the Oreto. The U.S. minister to Britain, Charles Francis Adams, presented Dudley’s evidence that the ship violated British law to the Foreign Office, but it was not acted upon before the Oreto was taken out of port, ostensibly just for a trial run.

Bulloch hosted a group of guests aboard the steamer on March 22. The new ship was commanded by a British captain, bore the British flag, and carried no armaments. After a short cruise in the harbor, all the guests but one were removed to smaller boats and the vessel left Liverpool. The lone remaining guest was John Low of the Confederate navy, and the ship headed for Nassau in the Bahamas to be fitted with four seven-inch guns.

She was later rechristened the C.S.S. Florida, a powerful Confederate commerce raider under Commander John N. Maffitt.

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References

Catton, Bruce, The American Heritage Picture History of the Civil War (New York: American Heritage Publishing Co., 1960), p. 260; Delaney, Norman C., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 520-21; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 145; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 126; Jones, Virgil Carrington (Pat), Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 264; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 187; McPherson, James M., Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (Oxford History of the United States Book 6, Oxford University Press, Kindle Edition, 1988), p. 546; McPherson, James M., War on the Waters: The Union and Confederate Navies, 1861-1865 (Littlefield History of the Civil War Era, The University of North Carolina Press, Kindle Edition, 2012), p. 112; Time-Life Editors, The Blockade: Runners and Raiders (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 121

The Trent Affair: The Lincoln Administration Decides

December 25, 1861 – President Lincoln held a lengthy cabinet meeting on Christmas Day to finally decide upon a course of action regarding Great Britain’s demands to release the Confederate envoys seized aboard the British steamer Trent.

The cabinet members gathered in the morning, along with Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Charles Sumner, whom Lincoln had invited to attend. Sumner shared two letters he had received from British Liberals John Bright and Richard Cobden urging the release of James M. Mason and John Slidell. Lincoln remarked that it would be foolish to have “two wars on his hands at a time.”

Confederate envoys James M. Mason and John Slidell | Image Credit: CivilWarDailyGazette.com

Confederate envoys James M. Mason and John Slidell | Image Credit: CivilWarDailyGazette.com

A letter was also read from Charles Francis Adams, U.S. minister to Britain at London, written on December 6:

“The passions of the country are up and a collision is inevitable if the Government of the United States should, before the news reaches the other side, have assumed the position of Captain (Charles) Wilkes (of U.S.S. San Jacinto) in a manner to preclude the possibility of explanation… Ministers and people now fully believe it is the intention of the (U.S.) Government to drive them into hostilities.”

U.S. Secretary of State William H. Seward | Credit: Wikispaces.com

U.S. Secretary of State William H. Seward | Credit: Wikispaces.com

Secretary of State William H. Seward shared a paper he had drafted acknowledging that Captain Charles Wilkes had violated international law by stopping the Trent, and agreeing it would be best to release Mason and Slidell because it was consistent with the traditional U.S. position of demanding free navigation on the open seas. Seward wrote, “We are asked to do to the British nation just what we have always insisted all nations ought to do to us.”

Treasury Secretary Salmon P. Chase, alarmed by how the Trent affair might affect the already burgeoning financial downturn due to the war, agreed with Seward. Chase wrote in his diary that releasing the envoys “… was like gall and wormwood to me. But we cannot afford delays while the matter hangs in uncertainty, the public mind will remain disquieted, our commerce will suffer serious harm, our action against the rebels must be greatly hindered.”

Lincoln still resisted surrendering the envoys without some form of arbitration. He said, “Governor Seward, you will go on, of course, preparing your answer, which, as I understand it, will state the reasons why they ought to be given up. Now I have a mind to try my hand at stating the reasons why they ought not to be given up. We will compare the points on each side.” The meeting ended and the attendees left to spend the rest of Christmas Day with their families.

The next day, Seward read the final draft of his paper. His lengthy, legalistic treatise acknowledged that Wilkes had acted improperly in taking the envoys off a neutral ship but accepted no official responsibility for his actions. In this way, the U.S. would give up Mason and Slidell without being internationally embarrassed, and the British would get the explanation they sought without having their honor disgraced.

Seward argued that the U.S. would surrender the envoys in keeping with the principles they had defended against the British in the War of 1812. Moreover, he cleverly maintained that the British protest over the seizure pleased the U.S. because it meant that Britain now adhered to those same principles a half-century later. This helped turn a foreign relations defeat for the U.S. into a victory for U.S. values.

Lincoln and the rest of the cabinet agreed to release Mason and Slidell. After the meeting adjourned, Seward asked Lincoln, “You thought you might frame an argument for the other side?” Lincoln said, “I found I could not make an argument that would satisfy my own mind, and that proved to me your ground was the right one.”

Seward informed Congress on the 27th that Mason and Slidell would be turned over to Britain. He then notified Lord Richard Lyons, British minister to the U.S. at Washington: “The four persons in question (Mason, Slidell, and their secretaries) are now held in military custody at Fort Warren, in the State of Massachusetts. They will be cheerfully liberated. Your lordship will please indicate a time and place for receiving them.” As Seward explained, “The comparative unimportance of the captured persons themselves” made their incarceration no longer necessary.

Seward delivered his lengthy explanation for the Trent affair to Lyons so that he and his government could draw their own conclusions. Lyons accepted the prisoners’ release while forwarding Seward’s response to London. He would not withdraw his legation from Washington as threatened until his government reviewed the explanation and issued further instructions.

Many disappointed northerners saw the release of Mason and Slidell as another example of Lincoln’s perceived weakness. The release also angered Wilkes, who called it “a craven yielding to an abandonment of all good… done by (their) capture.” However, it averted a serious diplomatic crisis, allowing the administration to return its focus to destroying the Confederacy. For the Confederates, the war between the U.S. and Britain that they hoped would secure their independence would not come.

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References

Angle, Paul M., A Pictorial History of the Civil War Years (New York: Doubleday, 1967), p. 51, 52; Bailey, Ronald H., Forward to Richmond: McClellan’s Peninsular Campaign (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 64-65; Catton, Bruce, The American Heritage Picture History of the Civil War (New York: American Heritage Publishing Co., 1960), p. 257; Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government (Kindle Edition 2008, 1889), Loc 8236-48; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 104; Donald, David Herbert, Lincoln (Simon & Schuster, Kindle Edition, 2011), Loc 6807, 6818; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War, A Narrative: Fort Sumter to Perryville (New York: Vintage Books, 1958), p. 162; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 93; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 151-52; Maddox, Robert J., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 762-63; Pollard, Edward A., Southern History of the War (New York: The Fairfax Press, 1990), p. 215-16; Time-Life Editors, The Blockade: Runners and Raiders (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 116-19; Ward, Geoffrey C., Burns, Ric, Burns, Ken, The Civil War (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1990), p. 81; White, Howard Ray, Bloodstains, An Epic History of the Politics that Produced and Sustained the American Civil War and the Political Reconstruction that Followed (Southernbooks, Kindle Edition, 2012), Q461; Wikipedia: Trent Affair

The Trent Affair: British Reaction Reaches the U.S.

December 15, 1861 – News of the British reaction to the seizure of Confederate envoys James Mason and John Slidell reached the U.S.

James M. Mason and John Slidell | Image Credit: CivilWarDailyGazette.com

James M. Mason and John Slidell | Image Credit: CivilWarDailyGazette.com

U.S. Secretary of State William H. Seward interrupted a meeting between President Lincoln and Illinois Senator Orville Browning by showing them a British newspaper that had been aboard a ship recently arrived from England. The paper reported that the British would demand for the envoys’ release and an official apology, otherwise they would declare war.

U.S. Secretary of State William H. Seward | Credit: Wikispaces.com

U.S. Secretary of State William H. Seward | Credit: Wikispaces.com

Seward expressed concern that Britain 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 would not approve a resolution introduced by Democrat Clement L. Vallandigham of Ohio commending Captain Charles Wilkes for seizing Mason and Slidell, and refusing to release the envoys as a matter of national honor. Members referred it to committee instead.

Charles Francis Adams | Image Credit: Wikipedia.org

Charles Francis Adams | Image Credit: Wikipedia.org

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.

The British public continued expressing outrage, 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. Lyons met with Seward the next day and verbally communicated the demands from “Her Majesty’s Government.” Lyons explained that 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. Lyons granted Seward’s request for a copy of the message, which demanded a U.S. reply within seven days. However, since the governments had not yet officially discussed this matter, Lyons made the message unofficial to give Seward more time to respond.

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.

The Trent affair began affecting Wall Street, 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 meeting with Seward again on the 23rd but was informed by State Department officials that Seward 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. Lyons wrote to 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. Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts, Chairman of the Foreign Services Committee, feared that the British might break the Federal blockade or the French might try colonizing Latin America. Pressure was increasing on the Lincoln administration to release Mason and Slidell.

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References

CivilWarDailyGazette.com (multiple dates); Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government (Kindle Edition 2008, 1889), Loc 8236; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 102-03; Donald, David Herbert, Lincoln (Simon & Schuster, Kindle Edition, 2011), Loc 6797-807; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 91-92; Goodwin, Doris Kearns, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2005), p. 398; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 149-51; Wikipedia: Trent Affair