Tag Archives: Henri Mercier

Foreign Affairs: Seward Rejects Mediation

February 6, 1863 – Secretary of State William H. Seward unilaterally declined an offer by French Emperor Napoleon III to mediate the conflict between the U.S. and the Confederacy.

Horace Greeley, the influential editor of the New York Tribune, had been publishing editorials in his newspaper calling for an armistice to negotiate a peace that would restore “the Union as it was.” William C. “Colorado” Jewett, a mining speculator with a questionable reputation, informed Greeley after returning from France that Napoleon had offered to mediate a peace between the warring factions.

Greeley responded by going to Washington to try getting the French minister to the U.S., Henri Mercier, to mediate on Napoleon’s behalf. Mercier offered his services on February 3, proposing that officials of the U.S. and the Confederacy come together in a neutral country to discuss a possible peace, and that Mercier would “chair” the meeting.

President Abraham Lincoln neither accepted nor declined the offer. Senator Charles Sumner, chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, wanted to continue the war until the Federals achieved total victory. Seward considered arresting Greeley for violating the Logan Act, which barred American citizens from negotiating with a foreign nation on behalf of the U.S. government.

U.S. Secretary of State William H. Seward | Image Credit: Wikimedia.org

Three days later, Seward officially turned down Mercier’s request, explaining that the Lincoln administration would not under any circumstances abandon the effort to preserve the Union, and would also not relinquish any authority to France as the proposal seemed to have implied. Lincoln endorsed Seward’s rejection. Seward took offense to “interference by a foreign power in a family dispute.” Many Republicans in Congress also expressed anger toward the French trying to involve themselves in what they considered to be a domestic insurrection.

Great Britain would not go so far as to offer mediation services. In an address to the British Parliament, Queen Victoria declared that Britain had not tried to “induce a cessation of the conflict between the contending parties in the North American States, because it has not yet seemed to Her Majesty that any such overtures could be attended with a probability of success.”

James Mason, the Confederate envoy in Britain, continued working to gain Confederate recognition. This included delivering a prominent speech at the Lord Mayor’s banquet in London calling for the British to recognize Confederate independence. However, Commander James H. North of the Confederate navy wrote to Navy Secretary Stephen R. Mallory from Glasgow, Scotland:

“I can see no prospect of recognition from this country… If they will let us get our ships out when they are ready, we shall feel ourselves most fortunate. It is now almost impossible to make the slightest move or do the smallest thing, that the Lincoln spies do not know of it.”

Part of the reason the British government was so reluctant to recognize Confederate independence was Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, which proved very popular among the British people. Mass meetings took place on the 19th at Liverpool and Carlisle in support of Lincoln’s decree. Therefore, recognizing the Confederacy would defy the will of many British subjects.

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References

Catton, Bruce, The American Heritage Picture History of the Civil War (New York: American Heritage Publishing Co., 1960), p. 253; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 259, 261-62; Donald, David Herbert, Lincoln (Simon & Schuster, Kindle Edition, 2011), Loc 8767-78; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 2: Fredericksburg to Meridian (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), p. 157; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 261-63; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 318-20, 322

The Trent Affair: British Outrage

November 27, 1861 – News of the U.S. seizure of Confederate envoys James Mason and John Slidell aboard the British steamer Trent officially reached Great Britain, where it was met with immediate outrage.

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

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

Commander Richard Williams of the Royal Navy, who had been aboard the R.M.S. Trent, submitted a report on the envoys’ seizure to British officials at London. He wrote:

“The commander of the Trent and myself at the same time protested against, this illegal act, this act of piracy carried out by brute force, as we had no means of resisting the aggression the San Jacinto being at the time on our port beam about 200 yards off, her ship’s company at quarters, ports open and tompions out.”

While northerners hailed Captain Charles Wilkes of the U.S.S. San Jacinto for preventing the envoys from reaching Europe, British officials viewed the boarding of one of their vessels as an invasion of Britain itself. As news of the incident spread, signs in city streets called the seizure of Mason and Slidell an “Outrage on the British Flag.”

Newspaper editorials condemned the U.S., with many blaming Secretary of State William H. Seward for trying “to provoke a war with England for the purpose of getting Canada.” An article in the London Chronicle went even further:

“Abraham Lincoln… has proved himself a feeble, confused and little-minded mediocrity. Mr. Seward, the firebrand at his elbow, is exerting himself to provoke a quarrel with all Europe, in that spirit of senseless egotism which induces the Americans, with their dwarf fleet and shapeless mass of incoherent squads which they call an army, to fancy themselves the equal of France by land and Great Britain by sea.”

The London Standard saw the capture as “but one of a series of premeditated blows aimed at this country… to involve it in a war with the Northern States.” The London Post declared, “In one month, we could sweep all the San Jacintos from the seas, blockade the Northern ports and turn to a direct and speedy issue the war.” The British demanded “reparation and apology” for this blatant violation of international law.

The British Parliament immediately approved an embargo on all shipments of saltpeter from British India to the U.S. Seward had arranged for the du Pont company to buy Indian saltpeter to use in gunpowder, so such an embargo threatened to affect the U.S. ability to wage war. Plans were also quickly drawn to build more warships in case of war with the U.S. The British military buildup soon became its largest since the Napoleonic Wars.

Charles Francis Adams | Image Credit: Wikipedia.org

Charles Francis Adams | Image Credit: Wikipedia.org

Charles Francis Adams, U.S. minister to Great Britain, was in London when the news broke. He stated that “while a storm of enthusiastic approval was sweeping over the northern part of the United States in the 12 days between November 15th and November 27th, a storm of indignation of quite equal intensity swept over Great Britain between November 27th and the close of the year.”

British public opinion had already tended to favor the Confederacy because the U.S. blockade was depriving the British textile industry of precious southern cotton. Confederate support grew all the more with this U.S. insult to British honor.

News of the “Trent affair” reached France the following day, with Emperor Napoleon III meeting with his cabinet to discuss their options. Although they had not yet learned of the British response or heard from Henri Mercier, French minister to the U.S., they agreed that the Trent’s boarding was illegal and resolved to support any British demands in response. Edouard Thouvenel communicated this policy to Count Charles de Flahault in London.

An emergency cabinet meeting took place in London on the 29th. Members read dispatches from Lord Richard Lyons, British minister to the U.S., describing the wild celebrations throughout the North and reminding them that he had warned Seward may try a move such as this. Lyons recommended that Britain dispatch troops to Canada in a show of force.

Prime Minister Lord Palmerston instructed the War Office to suspend budget reductions for 1862. He then read a legal brief he had requested from the Law Office, which confirmed that Captain Wilkes’s seizure of the envoys was “illegal and unjustifiable by international law.” Palmerston exclaimed to his cabinet, “You may stand for this, but damned if I will!”

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

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

British Foreign Minister Lord John Russell met with Adams, who was unaware that Seward had already notified Russell that Wilkes had acted without orders and could provide no further information. The men did not exchange official information, but Adams saw “little reason to doubt that the same steamer which bears this (letter to Washington) will carry out a demand for an apology and the restoration of the men.”

Palmerston believed that he and Adams had a verbal agreement that the U.S. would not interfere with British shipping. Palmerston informed Russell that the affair may have been planned as a “deliberate and premeditated insult” by Seward to “provoke” a war with Britain.

Scottish poet Charles MacKay wrote to Seward, “There never was within memory such a burst of feeling as has been created by the news of the boarding of the La Plata (Trent).” MacKay stated that the British were “frantic with rage, and were the country polled I fear that 999 men out of 1,000 would declare for immediate war.” Confederate sympathies, formerly “coldly expressed,” were now “warm and universal.”

MacKay wrote, “Englishmen would rather fight with any power in the world than with America, but I do assure you their blood is up and they mean mischief in this business.” This feeling was felt in all “classes of society,” even among those who normally urged peace. One such peace monger in Parliament told MacKay “that if this insult were not atoned for he saw no use for a flag; that he would recommend the British colors to be torn into shreds and sent to Washington for the use of the Presidential water-closets.”

James L. Graham, Jr., an American residing in Edinburgh, wrote that the Trent affair had “entirely monopolized the public mind.” He had never witnessed such “intense a feeling of indignation exhibited in my life. It pervades all classes and may make itself heard above the wiser theories of the cabinet officers.”

Lord Russell instructed Lord Lyons to notify Seward that Britain considered the seizure of Mason and Slidell an act of aggression. Lyons was to give Seward seven days to turn the envoys over to British authorities and apologize for the seizure, otherwise the British legation would leave Washington. Russell also directed naval forces to mobilize.

Queen Victoria of England | Image Credit: Wikispaces.com

Queen Victoria of England | Image Credit: Wikispaces.com

Before finalizing these messages, Russell sent them to Queen Victoria for review. Prince Albert, the Queen’s ailing consort, persuaded Russell to soften the demands so as to prevent the certainty of war. Under the new position, the Queen would accept Seward’s acknowledgement that Wilkes, “the U. S. naval officer who committed the aggression was not acting in compliance with any authority from his Government.”

Russell expressed certainty that once “this matter shall have been brought under the consideration of the Government of the United States, that Government will of its own accord offer to the British Government such redress as alone could satisfy the British nation, namely, the liberation of the four gentlemen (Mason, Slidell, and their secretaries) and their delivery to your lordship in order that they may again be placed under British protection and a suitable apology for the aggression which has been committed.”

If Seward did not comply within seven days of receipt of this letter, Lyons would “repair immediately to London.” Russell ordered the naval forces to act only in self-defense. He warned that “the act of wanton violence and outrage which has been committed makes it not unlikely that other sudden acts of aggression may be attempted. Vice-Admiral Sir A. Milne will take care not to place his ships in positions where they may be surprised or commanded by batteries on land of a superior force.”

Unaware of the outrage the Trent affair had caused, U.S. Navy Secretary Gideon Welles sent a complimentary letter to Wilkes:

“I congratulate you on your safe arrival, and especially do I congratulate you on the great public service you have rendered in the capture of the rebel emissaries. Messrs. Mason and Slidell have been conspicuous in the conspiracy to dissolve the Union and it is well known that when seized by you they were on a mission hostile to the Government and the country. Your conduct in seizing these public enemies was marked by intelligence, ability, decision and firmness and has the emphatic approval of this Department.”

Americans remained largely unaware of the British reaction, though many surely had a notion, until Russell’s letter reached Lyons at Washington three weeks later.

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References

Angle, Paul M., A Pictorial History of the Civil War Years (New York: Doubleday, 1967), p. 51, 52; Catton, Bruce, The American Heritage Picture History of the Civil War (New York: American Heritage Publishing Co., 1960), p. 257; CivilWarDailyGazette.com (multiple dates); Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 97-98; 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. 86; Goodwin, Doris Kearns, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2005), p. 396-98; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 143-44; 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. 390; 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

Affairs in Europe and Mexico

October 16, 1861 – The European powers entertained the possibility of recognizing Confederate independence, while France capitalized on the war by invading Mexico.

Since Great Britain often took the lead in setting European international policy, both U.S. and Confederate officials looked to the British to see how Europe would react to the war between North and South. Britain was still split between the two sides; the London Post favored British recognition of the Confederacy, while the London Times supported the U.S.

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

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

However, Confederate officials were encouraged by an article in the Times on the 16th quoting a speech delivered by British Foreign Secretary Lord John Russell at Newcastle. According to the Times, Russell said that the war was not being fought over slavery or tax policy; rather, it was being fought over which political party would rule the South. Russell declared that one party fought for “empire” and the other for “independence,” and separation was “the only logical and permanent settlement of the controversy.”

This did not change the fact that the official British position remained neutrality. Two days after the Times article was published, Prime Minister Viscount Palmerston reminded Lord Russell that Great Britain’s “true policy” was “to go on as we have begun, and to keep quite clear of the conflict.”

One thing that British officials agreed upon was that the people were starving for cotton. Not only was the Federal blockade limiting southern exports, but the Confederates were withholding cotton in the hopes that countries needing the precious commodity would intervene on their behalf. Both Palmerston and Russell contended that “the cotton question may become serious by the end of the year… We cannot allow some millions of our people to perish to please the Northern States.” Discussion began among British and French diplomats about possibly joining forces to lift the Federal blockade.

Meanwhile, Charles Francis Adams, U.S. minister to Great Britain, issued a complaint to Lord Russell that the Confederacy was importing supplies for the war effort from Nassau in the Bahamas. Russell responded by obtaining a report from Nassau authorities denying the charge. Russell forwarded the report to Adams, who stated that this sufficiently dispelled “the suspicion thrown upon the authorities by that unwarrantable act.” While British authorities resisted supplying arms to the Confederacy, they openly supplied them to the U.S.

France followed Britain’s lead, with Henri Mercier, French minister to the U.S. notifying Lord Richard Lyons, British minister to the U.S., that if Britain recognized Confederate independence, France would follow suit. But Adams used his powerful influence to prevent the British from doing so for now.

The French then took advantage of the war by landing an army at Vera Cruz, ostensibly to suppress a civil war in Mexico. This was part of Emperor Napoleon III’s plan to set up a protectorate that would expand French influence into the Western Hemisphere. The Mexicans resisted at Puebla, but the French prevailed. President Benito Juarez’s regime was replaced by a puppet government led by Napoleon’s handpicked ruler, Archduke Maximilian of Austria.

The Lincoln administration noted that the French conquest of Mexico violated the Monroe Doctrine, which had declared that the U.S. would not permit Europe to interfere in the Western Hemisphere affairs. Administration officials worried that France would extend its influence to other Western nations and ally itself with the Confederacy. Ultimately, the French did neither out of fear of U.S. reprisals.

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References

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. 84; Josephy, Jr., Alvin M., War on the Frontier: The Trans-Mississippi West (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 38-39; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 124, 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. 384; 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