Tag Archives: John Slidell

The Confederacy Looks to France

September 5, 1863 – Confederate Lieutenant General Edmund Kirby Smith urged foreign envoy John Slidell to get France to intervene on the Confederacy’s behalf so that the French puppet regime in Mexico would have a friendly neighbor to the north.

By this month, French forces had invaded Mexico due to non-payment of debts owed to France. French Emperor Napoleon III installed Maximilian I of Austria as the new Mexican emperor under a French protectorate. The Lincoln administration opposed this move because European powers interfering in the affairs of Western Hemisphere nations violated the Monroe Doctrine. But with war raging against the Confederacy, there was little the administration could do about it.

Napoleon had hinted at recognizing Confederate independence in the past, and as such, the Confederacy tried cultivating friendly relations with France. The Confederates also hoped that a French-controlled Mexico would facilitate the passage of much-needed imports into Texas.

Confederate General E.K. Smith | Image Credit: CivilWarDailyGazette.com

Smith, who commanded the Confederate Trans-Mississippi Department that included Texas, hoped to offset the loss of the Mississippi River (and thus his access to goods from the east) by negotiating an arrangement with the French. He wrote Slidell, the former French envoy:

“The action of the French in Mexico and the erection of an empire under their auspices makes the establishment of the Confederacy the policy of the French Government. The condition of the States west of the Mississippi, separated from the General Government, at Richmond; the exhausted state of the country, with its fighting population in the armies east of the Mississippi; the vast preparations making by the enemy to complete the occupation and subjugation of this whole Western Department, are all matters which, if properly brought before the French Emperor, should influence him in hastening the intervention of his good services in our behalf. This succor must come speedily, or it will be too late. Without assistance from abroad or an extraordinary interposition of Providence, less than twelve months will see this fair country irretrievably lost, and the French protectorate in Mexico will find a hostile power established on their frontier, of exhaustless resources and great military strength, impelled by revenge and the traditional policy of its Government to overthrow all foreign influences on the American continent.”

According to Smith, if the French were going to colonize Mexico, it would be in their best interests to have the Confederacy neighboring them to the north because the U.S. would be hostile toward their intentions. Therefore, it only stood to reason that Napoleon should recognize Confederate independence and aid the Davis administration in its war against the U.S.

Smith stressed that France had to act quickly, because his department had only “the aged, the infirm, and the lukewarm” left to stop the growing number of Federal forces. He warned that without France’s help, the Federals would control the Mississippi “with their southern and western frontier open for extension toward Mexico and the Pacific.”

Smith declared that “the forced impressment of our slaves into their army, to wage a ruthless war against their masters, all in the name of humanity call for the interposition of those powers who really hold the destiny of our country in their hands.” He concluded:

“The intervention of the French Government can alone save Mexico from having on its border a grasping, haughty, and imperious neighbor. If the policy of the Emperor looks to an intervention in our affairs, he should take immediate military possession of the east bank of the Rio Grande, and open to us the only channel by which supplies and munitions of war can be introduced into the department. The whole cotton trade west of the Mississippi will thus be secured to the French market, and the enemy will be anticipated in making a lodgment on the Rio Grande, from which he could not be driven without great difficulty.”

Smith then wrote President Jefferson Davis explaining that he had called on Slidell to negotiate with Napoleon on his department’s behalf. Smith conceded that he cast the department “in a gloomy light,” but it “wasn’t a too exaggerated picture of what may occur.” Federals were expanding their control over Louisiana and beginning to threaten the Texas coast. They were also threatening Fort Smith and Little Rock, two of the most important points in Arkansas.

Smith had only 30,000 effectives in his department, but he told Davis that more might be encouraged to enlist if he had weapons to give them. He wrote, “Sixty thousand rifles could, I believe, this moment be well disposed of throughout this department.”

But Davis had no such arms to send Smith, and Napoleon ultimately refused to recognize the Confederacy.

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References

Kerby, Robert L., Kirby Smith’s Confederacy; Official Records of the War of the Rebellion (Series 1, Volume 22, Part 2), p. 993-95

The Erlanger Loan

March 18, 1863 – Confederate commissioner John Slidell and representatives of Emile Erlanger, head of France’s most influential bank, negotiated a loan to the Confederacy for $15 million to help finance the war.

Confederate envoy John Slidell | Image Credit: Wikimedia.org

The loan was to be secured by the Confederate sale of 20-year war bonds that could be exchanged for cotton, the South’s most lucrative commodity. The cotton was to be sold to bondholders at 12 cents per pound while the market rate was 21 cents per pound, making the potential margin for profit enormous.

Confederate officials complained about Erlanger’s insistence on high interest rates and a five percent commission; some even accused him of extortion. Nevertheless, they approved the loan in the hope that France would recognize Confederate independence.

The Confederates were desperate to raise money, and with depleted specie reserves, the government had turned to bond sales. When these sales further drained the specie out of the South, the government printed paper money that quickly depreciated and caused prices to soar. It was hoped that this loan would not only finance the war but help stabilize the southern economy.

The first bond issue took place on March 19 in London, Amsterdam, Paris, and Frankfurt. By day’s end, the bonds were heavily oversubscribed at 90. The enthusiasm caused by this issue quickly raised the bond price 95.5 percent. This allowed agents to purchase some badly needed supplies for the war effort.

However, Federal agents in Europe began spreading rumors that Confederate securities were a poor risk and bid up the cost of war supplies so high (using gold the Confederacy did not have) that the Confederates could no longer afford to buy them. They also played on investors’ fears by alleging that President Jefferson Davis had supported bond repudiation in his home state of Mississippi before the war.

The bond price soon plummeted due to fears that the Confederacy would repudiate its debts if it won the war; military defeats this summer also worked to drive the prices down. Many investors lost fortunes, but Erlanger cleared $6 million in interest and commissions, leaving the Confederacy with $9 million in European currency to pay for the war. This was about the best deal the credit-starved Confederacy could hope for.

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References

Faust, Patricia L., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 246; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 2: Fredericksburg to Meridian (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), p. 156; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 329-30; Thomas, Emory M., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 259; Time-Life Editors, The Blockade: Runners and Raiders (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 122-24

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

End of the Trent Affair

January 8, 1862 – The government of Great Britain received the official news that the U.S. would release Confederate envoys James Mason and John Slidell, thus averting an international crisis.

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

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

Mason, Slidell, and their secretaries had been imprisoned at Fort Warren in Boston Harbor after being seized by Federals while traveling aboard the British steamer R.M.S. Trent. Federal Captain Charles Wilkes of the U.S.S. San Jacinto had sought to prevent the men from going to Europe and obtaining foreign recognition of Confederate independence.

The British had reacted to the seizure with outrage, with the U.S. finally backing down in late December and agreeing to give the envoys up to their care. Although the two-month affair had been somewhat humiliating for U.S. foreign relations, it actually benefited the Federals because Britain had withheld vital supplies from the Confederacy in case they would be needed in a war against the U.S.

Lord Richard Lyons, British minister to the U.S., arranged for Commander W. Hewett to take the English screw sloop-of-war H.M.S. Rinaldo to pick up Mason and Slidell. Lyons informed Hewett that the envoys had “no official character. It will be right for you to receive them with all courtesy and respect as gentlemen of distinction, but it would be improper to pay them any of those honors which are paid to official persons.”

Without fanfare, Federal authorities released Mason, Slidell, and their secretaries on New Year’s Day. They boarded the tugboat Starlight, which took them to Provincetown on Cape Cod where they were taken aboard the Rinaldo. Hewett reported that the men were picked up “without form or ceremony… The gentlemen remarked that their only wish was to proceed to Europe.”

Though originally scheduled to be taken to Halifax, Nova Scotia, the envoys were instead taken to the Danish island of St. Thomas. From there they continued on to Southampton, England, aboard the British mail packet La Plata. Hewett had instructions not to “convey them to any part of the coast of the States which have seceded from the Republic.”

When the British learned of the envoys’ surrender a week later, they hailed it as a diplomatic victory over the U.S. However, Prime Minister Lord Palmerston maintained that Secretary of State William H. Seward’s response of December 27 listed “many doctrines of international law” that Britain refuted, and Foreign Minister Lord John Russell wrote to Seward challenging his legal arguments. Nevertheless, there would be no war between the U.S. and Britain, much to the Confederacy’s disappointment.

Mason and Slidell finally arrived in England on January 30. They were warmly greeted at Southampton, but when their train arrived at London, the reception was much colder. Only the London Times reported their arrival:

“We sincerely hope that our countrymen will not give these fellows anything in the shape of an ovation. The civility that is due to a foe in distress is all that they can claim. The only reason for their presence in London is to draw us into their own quarrel. The British public has no prejudice in favor of slavery, which these gentlemen represent. What they and their secretaries are to do here passes our experience. They are personally nothing to us. They must not suppose, because we have gone to the verge of a great war to rescue them, that they are precious in our eyes.”

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References

CivilWarDailyGazette.com (January 1); Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 107, 119; Donald, David Herbert, Lincoln (Simon & Schuster, Kindle Edition, 2011), Loc 6916; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War, A Narrative: Fort Sumter to Perryville (New York: Vintage Books, 1958), p. 220; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 95, 102; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 156-57, 164; 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), Q162; Wikipedia: Trent Affair

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: Awaiting Official Reactions

December 1, 1861 – The U.S. and Great Britain awaited each other’s official reactions to the seizure of Confederate envoys James Mason and John Slidell aboard the neutral British steamer Trent.

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

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

The ship Europa left England on December 1 carrying the dispatches from the British government to Lord Richard Lyons, British minister to the U.S. at Washington. The dispatches included the instructions from British Foreign Minister Lord John Russell listing British terms for settling the Trent affair, which had been toned down by Prince Albert, husband of Queen Victoria.

The modified version still demanded the envoys’ release and a U.S. apology, but if the U.S. let them go, the British would “be rather easy about the apology.” They would most likely settle for an official explanation through Charles Francis Adams, the U.S. minister in London. A private message stated the opinion of many in Britain that the “best thing would be if (U.S. Secretary of State William H.) Seward could be turned out and a rational man put in his place.”

Meanwhile, the British War Office deployed 6,000 troops to Canada, along with a naval fleet of 40 ships bearing 1,275 guns under Admiral Sir Alexander Milne. In addition, British Secretary of War George Lewis proposed to Prime Minister Lord Palmerston to send out three more regiments and more artillery in the coming days.

Henri Mercier, French minister to the U.S., received instructions from France to support the British. In an effort to stem the European outrage, former U.S. General-in-Chief Winfield Scott traveled to Paris with Republican Party boss Thurlow Weed (Seward’s political benefactor). Scott published a letter in the Paris Constitutional stating that “every instinct of prudence as well as of good neighborhood prompts our government to regard no honorable sacrifice too great for the preservation of the friendship of Great Britain.”

President Abraham Lincoln similarly assured Canadian Finance Minister Alexander Galt that the U.S. had no hostile intentions toward either Britain or Canada. Galt informed Lord Lyons that despite Lincoln’s assertions, “I cannot… divest my mind of the impression that the policy of the American Govt is so subject to popular impulses, that no assurance can be or ought to be relied on under present circumstances.”

The continuing U.S. celebration of Captain Charles Wilkes as a national hero seemed to confirm Galt’s suspicions. Congress unanimously approved a resolution thanking Wilkes “for his brave, adroit and patriotic conduct in the arrest and detention of the traitors, James M. Mason and John Slidell.” The resolution also proposed that Wilkes receive a “gold medal with suitable emblems and devices, in testimony of the high sense entertained by Congress of his good conduct.”

William Howard Russell, the U.S. correspondent for the London Times, wrote of U.S. sentiment regarding the affair: “There is so much violence of spirit among the lower orders of the people and they are… so saturated with pride and vanity that any honorable concession… would prove fatal to its authors.”

The death of Prince Albert in mid-December added to the tension. As a U.S. supporter, the prince had urged British firmness with moderation. Many worried that his passing meant that cooler heads would not prevail. This worry quickly spread when news of Britain’s reaction to the Trent affair reached the U.S.

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References

Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 102; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 87; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 149; Wikipedia: Trent Affair