Tag Archives: Charles Sumner

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

The Trent Affair: American Reaction

November 16, 1861 – News of the capture of Confederate envoys James Mason and John Slidell spread throughout America and was met with mixed reactions in North and South.

Captain Charles Wilkes of the U.S.S. San Jacinto, who had directed boarding the British steamer R.M.S. Trent and seizing the envoys, dispatched Captain Albert Taylor from Fort Monroe to deliver a first-hand account of the action to Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles at Washington. The San Jacinto then continued on with her prisoners after refueling. The next day, the New York Times printed the official dispatches on the “Trent affair” in its Sunday edition. Most other newspapers published their versions of the story on Monday the 18th.

The U.S.S. San Jacinto | Image Credit: Longstreet.Typepad.com

The U.S.S. San Jacinto | Image Credit: Longstreet.Typepad.com

Most northerners seemed “universally engulfed in a massive wave of chauvinistic elation” upon learning the news. Many hoped that seizing the envoys, along with capturing Port Royal, would finally shift the war’s momentum after defeats at Big Bethel, Bull Run, Wilson’s Creek, and Ball’s Bluff.

Wilkes became an instant northern hero, even though boarding an unarmed mail vessel was not necessarily heroic. The New York Times proposed creating a second Independence Day holiday in the captain’s honor. At the same time, correspondents referred to Mason and Slidell as “the caged ambassadors,” “knaves,” “cowards,” “snobs,” and “cold, cruel, and selfish.” Lincoln wrote to prominent statesman and orator Edward Everett, expressing happiness with the fall of Port Royal, “And the capture of Mason and Slidell!”

Secretary of State William H. Seward, who asserted that the envoys must remain in U.S. custody, received a message of assurance from influential Massachusetts friend Philo S. Shelton:

“I have conversed with many of our leading merchants, heard the opinions of many of our ablest lawyers, and all agree that the action of Captain Wilkes in seizing these men is commendable and that the Administration ought to sustain him and hold them at all hazards.”

Shelton stated that British supporters in New York “ought not to be heeded… the results will justify the act of Wilkes and there are precedents in abundance in the records of the British courts to sustain it.”

However, some northerners expressed concern that seizing Mason and Slidell could cause an international incident. Senator Charles Sumner, chairman of the Foreign Services Committee, met with President Lincoln along with Postmaster General Montgomery Blair and urged the president to let Mason and Slidell go immediately. Lincoln, who had initially approved of their seizure, now began reconsidering.

In the Confederacy, an article in the Richmond Daily Dispatch called this “a small loss,” depending on “the treatment it may receive from the British Government.” Since “the deck of a British vessel is as sacred as British soil,” to board a “British vessel forcibly and carry off persons, is as great an insult to British sovereignty, as to send armed men to London and to capture ambassadors assembled amid her Court.” Since the U.S. could not hope to fight the Confederacy and Britain at the same time, many southerners saw that this could eventually work to their benefit.

For now, the San Jacinto was on her way to New York. Welles directed the New York Navy Yard commander to forward the vessel to Fort Warren in Boston Harbor, where Mason and Slidell would be confined until further notice. The San Jacinto arrived at Newport, Rhode Island, on the 20th, for refueling before finishing her trip to Boston.

Mason and Slidell received newspapers and learned that they would be imprisoned in freezing Fort Warren. They wrote a protest to Wilkes: “The voyage from Newport to Boston by sea at this season of the year will probably be tempestuous and disagreeable, still we should with the exception of one of the signers of this letter who is much indisposed prefer that mode of conveyance to Fort Warren to that by land.”

That being said, the envoys “would much prefer to be placed in custody at Newport on account of comparative mildness of climate and the delicate health of the undersigned, and we are willing to pledge ourselves not to make any attempt to escape nor to communicate with any person while there unless permitted so to do.” Wilkes forwarded this to Welles, who declined their request and reiterated that they be sent to Boston.

Three days later, the San Jacinto arrived at Boston Harbor, sat through an evening storm, and delivered the envoys to Fort Warren on the morning of the 24th. The envoys were escorted to the fort’s gates, led by Mason. According to the New York Times, he embodied “the most forlorn picture of chop-fallen chivalry ever witnessed.” Slidell followed “with a somewhat less timid air, but still his knees every now and then betraying by their shaky motions the trepidation which their owner strove to conceal.” Colonel Justin Dimick, commanding Fort Warren, received the envoys, along with their six trunks, six valises, and numerous cases of fine wines, brandies, liquors, and cigars.

Captain Wilkes put into Boston Harbor, where he received a telegram from Welles: “Your conduct in seizing these public enemies was marked by intelligence, ability, decision, and firmness, and has the emphatic approval of this Department.” However, Welles made it clear that not taking the Trent before a prize court “must by no means be permitted to constitute a precedent hereafter for the treatment of any case of similar infraction of neutral obligations.”

A banquet was held to honor Wilkes at Boston’s Revere House. Massachusetts Governor John Andrew hailed Wilkes for displaying “not only wise judgment but also manly and heroic success.” He described the “exultation of the American heart” when Wilkes “fired his shot across the bows of the ship that bore the British Lion at its head.” Massachusetts Chief Justice George T. Bigelow declared: “In common with all loyal men of the North, I have been sighing, for the last six months, for someone who would be willing to say to himself, ‘I will take the responsibility.’”

While Wilkes accepted the overflowing adulation of the press and public, officials began considering the ramifications of what he had done. Wilkes had the right to stop a neutral vessel suspected of carrying contraband, but some may not consider envoys as contraband. Moreover, under international law Wilkes should have towed the Trent into a prize court for adjudication rather than release her after seizing the envoys.

The celebrations on the U.S. side of the Atlantic would be met by a completely different reaction on the other side when official news of the envoys’ seizure reached the British government on the 27th.

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References

CivilWarDailyGazette.com (multiple dates); Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 96-97; Donald, David Herbert, Lincoln (Simon & Schuster, Kindle Edition, 2011), Loc 6785; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War, A Narrative: Fort Sumter to Perryville (New York: Vintage Books, 1958), p. 157; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 85; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 140, 143; Maddox, Robert J., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 762-63; Time-Life Editors, The Blockade: Runners and Raiders (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 116-17; Ward, Geoffrey C., Burns, Ric, Burns, Ken, The Civil War (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1990), p. 81; Wikipedia: Trent Affair

The Ball’s Bluff Aftermath

October 23, 1861 – The Federal defeat at Ball’s Bluff outraged northerners, sent the Lincolns into mourning, and increased calls for Major General George B. McClellan to wage “all-out war” against the Confederates.

Stone, McClellan, and Baker | Image Credit: Wikimedia.org

Stone, McClellan, and Baker | Image Credit: Wikimedia.org

On the rainy morning after their horrific defeat, about 3,000 Federals remained on the Virginia side of the Potomac, mostly south of Ball’s Bluff at Edwards’s Ferry. Brigadier General Charles P. Stone received reinforcements from Major General Nathaniel P. Banks, overall commander in the region. As Stone and Banks debated whether to withdraw to Maryland, they remained unaware that Brigadier General George A. McCall’s Federals, who were supposed to have made the main demonstration against Leesburg, had fallen back from Dranesville the previous day in accordance with orders from Major General George B. McClellan.

The Federals drove off a Confederate assault around 4 p.m., with many using their bayonets and wielding their empty muskets like clubs. Around the same time, President Lincoln received the official notification of the Ball’s Bluff defeat at Washington: “We have met with a sad disaster. Fifteen hundred men lost, and Colonel Baker killed.” Lincoln, who had named his second son after Baker, wept at the loss of his close friend. The Lincolns went into mourning and received no visitors at the White House on that day.

Meanwhile, the northern press began publishing damning reports on the fiasco. Harper’s Weekly opined: “History affords few examples of such slaughter.” Leslie’s Illustrated concluded: “This time military incompetence must accept its own responsibilities. The battle was not a great military blunder, but a great military crime.” McClellan arrived at Stone’s headquarters on the night of the 22nd, where Stone expressed concern that he would be blamed for the disaster. McClellan assured Stone that the fault had been Baker’s, not his.

The next day, McClellan posted more troops at Harrison’s Island and Edwards’s Ferry, leading many to believe that he planned to avenge the defeat. An article in the New York Herald stated that the Ball’s Bluff engagement “was undoubtedly but the prelude to an advance of General Banks’ army, which in all probability will be made to-day.” However, the Potomac soon rose to an unfordable level, and McClellan issued orders to withdraw.

Funeral services for Colonel Baker took place at the White House on the 24th. The Lincolns’ eight-year-old son Willie wrote a poem in Baker’s honor and submitted it to the National Republican. When Mrs. Lincoln was criticized for wearing lilac instead of black, she replied, “I want the women to mind their own business. I intend to wear what I please.” Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts, an abolitionist belonging to the Radical faction of Republicans, used the service to blame slavery for being “the assassin of our children, and the murderer of our dead senator.”

The Ball’s Bluff disaster infuriated the Radicals, many of whom distrusted McClellan’s motives since he was an avowed Democrat. A group of senators met with the general on the night of the 25th and demanded answers as to why the defeat had been so severe. They also demanded that McClellan lead the army into battle, overlooking that the defeat indicated the army may not be ready for offensive operations. McClellan refused to take responsibility for the defeat, instead arguing that General-in-Chief Winfield Scott had impeded his plans and made it impossible for him to coordinate his forces.

Based on this, the Radicals turned to Lincoln and began pressuring him to remove Scott from command. The Radicals demanded an “all-out war” to destroy both the Confederacy and slavery. They asserted that an immediate defeat would be no worse than McClellan’s stationary posture. Lincoln defended McClellan before visiting the general to see if any movement could be made. McClellan told the president that the army was not ready, and Lincoln concluded, “you must not fight until you are ready.”

But Lincoln wanted to know when the army would be ready, and he and Secretary of War Simon Cameron visited McClellan on the 30th to see if the general could provide more details on his military situation (i.e., troop strength and positions, and McClellan’s plan of attack). The next day, McClellan enlisted the help of close friend Edwin M. Stanton, former U.S. attorney general, in preparing a formal report.

The report concluded that McClellan could either take the time to strengthen the army until spring for an offensive that would most likely succeed, or he could lead an advance now that would most likely fail. McClellan recommended the former, while transferring all available troops in the other theaters to his command in the meantime.

Estimating General Joseph E. Johnston’s Confederate Army of the Potomac to number “not less than 150,000 strong, well drilled and equipped, ably commanded, and strongly entrenched,” McClellan asserted that he needed at least 240,000 men to attack. However, McClellan relied on faulty intelligence reports from Allan Pinkerton to calculate enemy strength; in reality Johnston had less than 50,000 men in northern Virginia. This began a trend in which McClellan resisted taking the offensive by consistently overestimating enemy strength.

Stanton wrote on McClellan’s behalf: “No time is to be lost–we have lost too much already–every consideration requires us to prepare at once, but not to move until we are ready.”

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References

Angle, Paul M., A Pictorial History of the Civil War Years (New York: Doubleday, 1967), p. 67; Bailey, Ronald H., Forward to Richmond: McClellan’s Peninsular Campaign (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 52-53; CivilWarDailyGazette.com (multiple dates); Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 89; Donald, David Herbert, Lincoln (Simon & Schuster, Kindle Edition, 2011), Loc 6709; 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. 362; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 130, 132; 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. 361; Time-Life Editors, Spies, Scouts and Raiders: Irregular Operations (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 33; Ward, Geoffrey C., Burns, Ric, Burns, Ken, The Civil War (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1990), p. 80; 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

Federal Fugitive Slave Policy

July 30, 1861 – Major General Benjamin F. Butler, commanding the Federal garrison at Fort Monroe, Virginia, wrote to Secretary of War Simon Cameron requesting clarification on the Lincoln administration’s policy on slaves escaping from their masters and seeking protection within Federal military lines.

The Federal government began outlining the basis of a fugitive slave policy on July 9, when the House of Representatives approved a resolution lifting any requirements for army commanders to return fugitives to their owners. This passed despite urgings from several commanders to recommend returning the fugitives, as was being done in the Western Theater, since the army had no way to care for them.

The influential Radical Republicans in Congress not only supported protecting fugitives from their masters, but many favored turning the war into a crusade to abolish slavery as well. Charles Sumner of Massachusetts and Zachariah Chandler of Michigan, two of the most vocal abolitionists in the Senate, met with President Abraham Lincoln and Vice President Hannibal Hamlin at the White House on July 23.

Hamlin, also an abolitionist, sided with Sumner and Chandler in urging Lincoln to make the conflict a war of slave liberation. Sumner asserted that this was a military necessity; Chandler argued that freeing slaves would make the Confederacy collapse under the chaos of racial disorder.

Taking a centrist position between the Radicals and conservatives in his party, Lincoln explained that most northerners were not ready to fight to free slaves. Moreover, forcing slaveholders to free their slaves without compensation or any plan for education, employment, or welfare would encourage Maryland, Kentucky, and Missouri to secede. The Radicals feared that Lincoln tried too hard to garner support from Democrats, most of whom backed Lincoln’s pledge not to interfere with slavery where it already existed.

BenjaminFButlerButler, who had already sparked controversy by his refusal to return fugitives to their masters in May and calling them “contraband of war,” forced the issue on the 30th in his letter to Cameron. Butler asked a series of questions about the legal status of the contrabands, about 1,000 of whom had sought refuge within his lines over the past two months. Butler also expressed concern about having sent reinforcements to Washington because this had compelled him to give up Hampton where “all these black people were obliged to break up their homes… fleeing across the creek within my lines for protection and support.” Butler wrote:

“Indeed it was a most distressing sight to see these poor creatures, who had trusted to the protection of the arms of the United States, and who aided the troops of the United States in their enterprise, to be thus obliged to flee from their homes, and the homes of their masters, who had deserted them, and become not fugitives from fear of the return of the rebel soldiery, who had threatened to shoot the men who had wrought for us, and to carry off the women who had served us to a worse than Egyptian bondage.”

The Federal government was still bound to enforce the Fugitive Slave Act, but Butler had argued that that law did not apply since Virginia claimed to no longer be a state in the Union and thus had no claim to fugitives escaping to the protection of a “foreign” army. Butler believed that refusing to return fugitives hindered the Confederate war effort, and as such he had put the slaves to work as unpaid laborers in his camp.

Feeling that it was time to decide “the question of their final disposition,” Butler asked:

“First–What shall be done with them? and, Second, What is their state and condition? Are these men, women, and children, slaves? Are they free? Is their condition that of men, women, and children, or that of property, or is it a mixed relation? What their status was under the Constitution and laws, we all know? What has been the effect of rebellion and a state of war upon that status?… If property, do they not become the property of the salvors? But we, their salvors, do not need and will not hold such property… has not, therefore, all proprietary relation ceased?”

Butler then partly answered his own questions by opining that these slaves could no longer be considered property:

“Have they not become thereupon men, women and children? No longer under ownership of any kind, the fearful relicts of fugitive masters, have they not by their masters’ acts and the state of war assumed the condition, which we hold to be the normal one, of those made in God’s image?”

Noting that some Federal commanders, including Major General Irvin McDowell at Bull Run, had ordered fugitive slaves returned to their masters, Butler asked, “Is that order to be enforced in all Military Departments? Now, shall the commander of regiment or battalion sit in judgment upon the question, whether any given black man has fled from his master, or his master fled from him? Indeed, how are the free born to be distinguished?”

Butler explained that he wanted to continue his current course of action because in wartime, all enemy property was theoretically subject to confiscation. If “it should be objected that human beings were brought to the free enjoyment of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, such objections might not require much consideration.”

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References

CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 61; Donald, David Herbert, Lincoln (Simon & Schuster, Kindle Edition, 2011), Loc 6597; Faust, Patricia L., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 161-62; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 43; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 102-03; 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. 355; 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), Q361

Seeking Foreign Support

May 3, 1861 – Confederate envoys met with the British foreign secretary as both the U.S. and the Confederacy moved to shore up foreign support for their respective causes.

On May 1, U.S. Secretary of State William H. Seward informed the British minister in Washington that Federal agents had been dispatched to purchase arms in Great Britain and France. The minister had no objections. Three days later, Seward wrote to William L. Dayton, U.S. minister to France, instructing him to assure the French that preserving the Union was a certainty:

“The thought of a dissolution of this Union, peaceably or by force, has never entered into the mind of any candid statesman here, and it is high time that it be dismissed by the statesmen in Europe.”

Meanwhile, Confederate envoys William L. Yancey, A. Dudley Mann, and A. Pierre Rost met with Lord John Russell, British secretary of state for foreign affairs, in London on the 3rd. The British government labeled this meeting unofficial, even though U.S. diplomats protested it being held at all. Russell told the Confederates at the outset that “under present circumstances, I shall have but little to say.”

The envoys explained that the Confederacy stood for peace, and that secession had been a legally proper action to counter Federal infringement on states’ rights. Russell asked if the Confederates planned to reopen the international slave trade, something that Britain and most other nations opposed. Yancey, who had advocated reopening it in the past, assured Russell that it would not be a Confederate policy.

By this time, most European and Western Hemisphere nations had abolished slavery, and it was a critical point of difference between those nations (especially Britain) and the Confederacy. The envoys reported to their superiors later this month that “the public mind here is entirely opposed to the Government of the Confederate States of America on the question of slavery… The sincerity and universality of this feeling embarrass the Government in dealing with the question of our recognition.”

The envoys minimized the slavery question by closing with their strongest argument–the importance of southern cotton to the European economy, and the risk that it could be lost to Europe due to the Federal blockade. Russell made no commitments and ended by saying he would present the envoys’ case to the British cabinet for further consideration. Many Europeans saw the division of the U.S. as inevitable, especially the British, who compared the U.S. break from them 85 years before with the southern break from the U.S. As such, Russell instructed Lord Richard Lyons, minister to the U.S., to do anything possible to support a peaceful settlement.

Three days later, Lord Russell introduced a resolution in the British Parliament recognizing the Confederacy as a belligerent. This would not recognize the Confederacy as an independent nation, but it would grant Confederate ships the same trading status in British ports as U.S. ships.

Queen Victoria of England | Image Credit: Wikispaces.com

Queen Victoria of England | Image Credit: Wikispaces.com

On May 13, Queen Victoria issued an official Proclamation of Neutrality in the war between the U.S. and the Confederacy. The Queen bestowed rights of belligerents to both parties and urged British citizens to avoid siding with either one. Lord Russell had recommended that the Queen take this stance.

The Davis administration was disappointed by the Queen’s decree, hoping that Britain would grant them full recognition as an independent nation or even provide military aid. Nevertheless, belligerency status allowed the Confederacy to purchase food, fuel, and other items (except military equipment) in foreign ports; as well as to obtain loans to buy arms from neutral nations and raid U.S. commerce on the high seas. Confederate officials hoped that future military success would eventually persuade the British to go a step further and grant full recognition.

The proclamation also disappointed the Lincoln administration, which hoped that Britain would not recognize any Confederate rights and stop trading with them. However, according to international law, President Lincoln’s blockade of Confederate ports was an act of war indicating that the Confederacy was indeed its own nation since the U.S. could not blockade itself. Other European nations soon followed Britain’s lead in declaring neutrality and granting belligerent status.

Charles Francis Adams, son of John Quincy Adams and grandson of John Adams, arrived at Liverpool on the day of the Queen’s proclamation. Lincoln had appointed Adams minister to the Court of St. James in the hope that his reputation as an abolitionist would appeal to the British. However, Adams feared that Britain’s recognition of the Confederacy as a belligerent was the first step toward extending full diplomatic recognition, and as such he was skeptical about his mission.

Adams met with Lord Russell on the 18th to formally protest the Queen’s Proclamation of Neutrality. Adams contended that Britain had recognized the Confederates as belligerents “before they had ever showed their capacity to maintain any kind of warfare whatever, except within one of their own harbors (Fort Sumter) under every possible advantage… it considered them a maritime power before they had ever exhibited a single privateer upon the ocean.”

Adams also expressed his concern that Britain would soon extend full recognition to the Confederacy. Russell told Adams that Britain was not considering recognition, but if that position changed, Adams would be notified.

Russell then instructed Lord Lyons to urge the Confederacy to abide by the 1856 Declaration of Paris. This was an international agreement banning participating nations from engaging in piracy against each other, protecting neutral goods shipped to belligerent nations except for “contrabands of war,” and recognizing blockades only when they proved effective.

Back in Washington, Lincoln endorsed Dispatch No. 10, a directive from Seward to Adams. This was a stern response to Lord Russell’s meeting with the Confederate envoys on May 3. The dispatch included demands that the British accept the Federal blockade, allow the U.S. to deal with Confederate privateers as pirates, and pledge to stop interacting (officially or otherwise) with “the domestic enemies of this country.” If Britain tried intervening in the conflict, then “we, from that hour, shall cease to be friends and become once more, as we have twice before been forced to be, enemies of Great Britain.”

When Seward had submitted the letter for Lincoln’s approval, Lincoln sent it to Senator Charles Sumner, chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, for his opinion. Sumner, shocked by its bluntness, persuaded Lincoln to remove some of the more offensive passages. Adams was also told not to deliver the letter to Russell’s British Foreign Office, but rather share only what he deemed proper verbally. Sumner then warned Lincoln about Seward, “You must watch him and overrule him.”

Soon afterward, news arrived in the U.S. that Britain would consider the Confederacy a belligerent. Lincoln and Seward responded by warning the British that “to fraternize with our domestic enemy” could mean that war between the U.S. and Britain “may ensue, caused by the action of Great Britain, not our own.” This made the British reconsider bestowing such status on the Confederacy and France, following Britain’s lead, hesitated as well. Preventing the Confederacy from getting much needed foreign aid made this an important U.S. diplomatic victory.

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Sources

  • Catton, Bruce, The American Heritage Picture History of the Civil War (New York: American Heritage Publishing Co., 1960), p. 255
  • Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government: All Volumes (Heraklion Press, Kindle Edition 2013, 1889), Loc 18125
  • Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 41, 44
  • Donald, David Herbert, Lincoln (Simon & Schuster, Kindle Edition, 2011), Loc 6763
  • Foote, Shelby, The Civil War, A Narrative: Fort Sumter to Perryville (New York: Vintage Books, 1958), p. 135-36
  • Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 30, 32
  • Goodwin, Doris Kearns, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2005), p. 363-64
  • Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 69-71, 74-76
  • 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. 311, 387-88
  • Pollard, Edward A., Southern History of the War (New York: The Fairfax Press, 1990), p. 80
  • Robertson, Jr., James I., Tenting Tonight: The Soldier’s Life (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 16-17
  • 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), Q261
  • Wikipedia: Trent Affair

Final Compromise Efforts

February 27, 1861 – The U.S. House of Representatives considered and defeated various measures seeking to reconcile North and South.

By the end of February, most compromise efforts had been exhausted. The southern states had formed a new Confederacy, and most northerners expressed either relief that they had left or indignation at their defiance of the Federal government.

Abolitionist Senator Charles Sumner | Image Credit: Wikispaces.com

Abolitionist Senator Charles Sumner | Image Credit: Wikispaces.com

One of the major points of contention involved the abolitionists within the Republican Party. In a speech on the Senate floor, Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts offered a major concession by declaring, “I take this occasion to declare most explicitly that I do not think that Congress has any right to interfere with slavery in a State.”

This principle was consistent with both historical congressional legislation and the Republican Party platform. However, southerners still objected to the Republicans’ opposition to expanding slavery into the territories. Also, many accused Sumner of insincerity because he did not declare support for this principle until after nearly every reconciliation attempt had failed. Others thought that Sumner’s position simply meant too little too late.

On the 27th, the House considered and defeated several measures designed to offer a compromise:

  • Calling for a constitutional convention to address the sectional crisis
  • Adopting the Crittenden compromise plan
  • Admitting the New Mexico Territory into the Union as a slave state (Republicans opposed this bill by a three-to-one margin, but it did help keep the Upper South in the Union since its introduction in December 1860)

The House did approve measures to appease the South, including a pledge to faithfully enforce the Fugitive Slave Act and a call for northern states to repeal personal liberty laws. Both of these received support from Secretary of State-designate William H. Seward and President-elect Abraham Lincoln. But the measures did not persuade any Confederate states to return to the Union.

In a more ominous move, Congress also approved the Navy Department’s request for seven heavily armed steamers to supplement the U.S. naval fleet.

The House then considered a proposed constitutional amendment:

“No amendment of this Constitution, having for its object any interference within the States with the relations between their citizens and those described in second section of the first article of the Constitution as ‘all other persons,’ shall originate with any State that does not recognize that relation within its own limits, or shall be valid without the assent of every one of the States composing the Union.”

Thomas Corwin of Ohio proposed to replace this text with that of his “Corwin Amendment,” which stated:

“No Amendment shall be made to the Constitution which will authorize or give Congress the power to abolish or interfere, within any State, with the domestic institutions thereof, including that of persons held to labor or service by the laws of the State.”

The Corwin Amendment failed to garner the necessary two-thirds majority on two votes (121 in favor to 68 opposed, then 123 in favor to 71 opposed). The next day, the House called another vote on the measure as proposed by the Committee of Thirty-three. This time it reached the two-thirds majority, 133 to 65. Two-fifths of House Republicans supported this measure, along with Seward and Lincoln.

Some celebrated this amendment as a “harbinger of peace.” Others opposed its redundancy since Congress had no legal right to interfere with slavery anyway. Republican Owen Lovejoy of Illinois asked, “Does that (amendment) include polygamy, the other twin relic of barbarism?” Democrat John S. Phelps of Missouri replied, “Does the gentleman desire to know whether he shall be prohibited from committing that crime?” The amendment went to the Senate for consideration.

Also on the 28th, a special Senate committee issued a report endorsed by three of its five members urging passage of the Crittenden compromise plan as modified by the Peace Convention delegates. The two opponents, both Republicans, issued a minority report recommending no action on the compromise plan until a national convention could be assembled.

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Sources

  • Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government: All Volumes (Heraklion Press, Kindle Edition 2013, 1889), Loc 14613
  • Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 15
  • Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 42-43
  • 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. 256
  • 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) Q161
  • Wikipedia: Corwin Amendment