Monthly Archives: December 2011

Deep and Dark December, 1861

A deep and dark December for the United States in 1861. The Trent affair dominates the newspapers and demands much of the attention of the Lincoln Administration. The cast of characters is as rich and diverse as any of Shakespeare’s history plays.

> In London, a Prime Minister who wants war with the United States, a Queen who prefers peace and her talented Prince Consort. Albert’s skill leads Britain out of the problem with dignity intact. Yet this is the final act for the brilliant and diplomatic Prince before his untimely death this month, leaving his grieving widow to rule for another forty years and an impatient son waiting to ascend the throne. On stage in London is also the 54 year old Charles Francis Adams, only seven months in his position as U S Minister to the Court of St James yet capably filling the job once done by his father and his grandfather. While this is the first crisis he faces, it is not the last and we shall see him perform again during the duration of the Civil War.

> In Washington, the rather devious British Minister, Lord Lyons. Fortunately, he is held in check by the actions of Senator Sumner and Secretary of State Seward. Sumner, 50 years old, in the Senate for a decade, famous for being the victim of a vicious Southerner’s assault in the Senate chamber, wisely counsels the President in the ways of peace. As a young man Sumner traveled and studied in Europe and is fluent in Spanish, German and Italian. Seward, 60 years old, a Phi Beta Kappa college graduate at age 20, a skilled lawyer opposed to slavery and the death penalty, former governor of New York, a U S Senator from New York and a rival for the Republican nomination a year before, throws himself into the demanding job of Secretary of State. (I highly recommend Doris Kearns Goodwin’s brilliant book Team of Rivals– marvelous research and wonderful writing!) I wonder if either of these men would be welcome in their political party today–I have my doubts!

> And there is the new president, Abraham Lincoln. I see in the events of this month a man with natural skills in diplomacy. Amazing, considering his lack of formal education and that before being elected president he has no experience in foreign affairs. In the next three years this talent becomes yet more visible.

Early in the month, Lincoln delivers his first state of the union message. The constitution simply mandates that the president “shall from time to time give to the Congress information of the state of the Union, and recommend to their consideration such measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient.” It became once a year because Mr Washington did it once a year. Thomas Jefferson, the third president, was a brilliant writer but hated public speaking so he began the custom of sending the state of the union message in writing over to Congress. Early in the twentieth century, Woodrow Wilson returned to the early procedure of a presenting it as a speech to a joint session. Also, for most of the nineteenth century, the state of the union was delivered in December, not January.

Lincoln’s first state of the union message lacks the flair we shall see later yet compared to his four immediate predecessors, it is stunning. He shows his skill with words and his ability to reassure in troubled times. (The comment about the “unusual success” with suppression of international slave trade is a bit ironic–the major American violators now live in Secessia and are being blockaded by the Union Navy.) Lincoln concludes with optimism about the growth of the United States. While population does not reach 250 million until the 1990’s, I can see his reasoning. In 1850, the population was about 23.2 million and in 1860, about 31.5 million, an increase of 8.3 million. In the same period, over 2.8 million immigrants have entered the country.

Elsewhere, this month sees problematic members of Congress (I guess twas ever thus!), war related financial problems, a depressed Confederate general who dies by his own hand, a Union New England corporal living comfortably but eager for action, and a moody George Templeton Strong, glad to see 1861 ending but worried about what 1862 may bring.


December 1–Sunday–Washington–Senator Sumner of Massachusetts meets with President Lincoln, encouraging a quick and peaceful resolution of the Trent affair. Later in the day, the President meets with Senator Browning of Illinois to discuss the idea of some sort of compensated emancipation of Southern slaves.

Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts

December 2–Monday–Canada–Sir William Williams, commanding general of Her Majesty’s forces in North America, urges the Canadian government to raise its active volunteer militia force from 5,000 to 7,500. Sir Williams anticipates war with the United States and a possible invasion by American troops.

December 3–Tuesday–Washington–In his annual message to Congress on the state of the union, President Lincoln calls for diplomatic relations with Liberia and Haiti, measures previously opposed by Southern Democrats. “If any good reason exists why we should persevere longer in withholding our recognition of the independence and sovereignty of Hayti and Liberia, I am unable to discern it. Unwilling, however, to inaugurate a novel policy in regard to them without the approbation of Congress, I submit for your consideration the expediency of an appropriation for maintaining a charge’ d’affaires near each of those new States. It does not admit of doubt that important commercial advantages might be secured by favorable treaties with them.”

Regarding the slave trade, the President declares, “The execution of the laws for the suppression of the African slave trade has been confided to the Department of the Interior. It is a subject of gratulation that the efforts which have been made for the suppression of this inhuman traffic have been recently attended with unusual success.”

As to relations with the Indian Nations, Mr Lincoln advises Congress that It has been stated in the public press that a portion of those Indians have been organized as a military force and are attached to the army of the insurgents. Although the Government has no official information upon this subject, letters have been written to the Commissioner of Indian Affairs by several prominent chiefs giving assurance of their loyalty to the United States and expressing a wish for the presence of Federal troops to protect them. It is believed that upon the repossession of the country by the Federal forces the Indians will readily cease all hostile demonstrations and resume their former relations to the Government.”

In the area of foreign relations and attempts of the Confederacy to obtain diplomatic recognition, the President says, “If it were just to suppose, as the insurgents have seemed to assume, that foreign nations in this case, discarding all moral, social, and treaty obligations, would act solely and selfishly for the most speedy restoration of commerce, including especially the acquisition of cotton, those nations appear as yet not to have seen their way to their object more directly or clearly through the destruction than through the preservation of the Union. If we could dare to believe that foreign nations are actuated by no higher principle than this, I am quite sure a sound argument could be made to show them that they can reach their aim more readily and easily by aiding to crush this rebellion than by giving encouragement to it.”

In his message, President Lincoln makes no direct mention of the Trent affair nor to the current tensions with Great Britain. “It is not my purpose to review our discussions with foreign states, because, whatever might be their wishes or dispositions, the integrity of our country and the stability of our Government mainly depend not upon them, but on the loyalty, virtue, patriotism, and intelligence of the American people. The correspondence itself, with the usual reservations, is herewith submitted. I venture to hope it will appear that we have practiced prudence and liberality toward foreign powers, averting causes of irritation and with firmness maintaining our own rights and honor.”

Regarding questions of labor and capital (and indirectly, slavery), the President observes, “In most of the Southern States a majority of the whole people . . . are neither slaves nor masters, while in the Northern a large majority are neither hirers nor hired. Men, with their families–wives, sons, and daughters–work for themselves on their farms, in their houses, and in their shops, taking the whole product to themselves, and asking no favors of capital on the one hand nor of hired laborers or slaves on the other. It is not forgotten that a considerable number of persons mingle their own labor with capital; that is, they labor with their own hands and also buy or hire others to labor for them; but this is only a mixed and not a distinct class.”

Despite the military setbacks and the army’s present inactivity, President Lincoln concludes optimistically. “There are already among us those who if the Union be preserved will live to see it contain 250,000,000. The struggle of to-day is not altogether for to-day; it is for a vast future also. With a reliance on Providence all the more firm and earnest, let us proceed in the great task which events have devolved upon us.”

December 3–Tuesday–London–Her Majesty’s Government orders military reinforcements to Canada and other parts of British North America.

December 4–Wednesday–Clinton, Iowa–Birth of Lillian Russell, American performer and vaudeville star.

December 4–Wednesday–Washington–President Lincoln meets with Alexander Galt, the Canadian Minister of Finance, assuring him that the United States has no desire for trouble with England and no hostile designs toward Canada. When Minister Galt asks about the Trent matter, President Lincoln assures him that it will be settled peacefully. Mr Galt sends an account of the meeting to Lord Lyons, the British Minister, who will forward it to Lord Russell in London. Minister Galt writes that, despite President Lincoln’s assurances, “I cannot, however, 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.”

 December 4–Wednesday–Rockdale, England–John Bright, a Member of Parliament, delivers a speech, asserting that Britain set a precedent for American actions in the Trent affair, and encouraging Her Majesty’s Government to respond slowly and carefully to the United States.

December 5–Thursday–Washington–President Lincoln transmits to Senate a proposed treaty with the King of Hanover which will remove tolls on American ships carrying trade on the Elbe River. He asks for speedy approval. The Secretary of the Navy and the Secretary of War report to Congress that 682,971 men are on active duty with the Navy and the Army.

December 6–Friday–London–U S Minister Charles Francis Adams reports to Secretary os State Seward that “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 Wilkes in a manner to preclude the possibility of explanation. . . . Ministers and people now fully believe it is the intention of the [United States] Government to drive them into hostilities.”


December 7–Saturday–West Virginia–Confederate troops destroy the West Virginia side of Dam #5 on the Potomac River, disrupting the C&O Canal and hindering the Union’s ability to repair damage the Confederates had previously done to the B&O Railroad.

December 7–Saturday–Gulf of Mexico, near the mouth of the Rio Grande–The U S S Santiago stops the British schooner Eugenia Smith and removes a Mr J W Zacharie of New Orleans, a Confederate purchasing agent.

December 8–Sunday–New York City–The American Bible Society announces that it is distributing 7,000 copies of the Holy Scriptures to Union soldiers every day.

December 9–Monday–Congress–Representative Vallandigham, Democrat of Ohio, sends a resolution to President Lincoln, asking for copies of “all proclamations, or orders” relating to the war efforts. The Senate approves establishing a committee to investigate the string of Union defeats.

 December 10–Tuesday–Washington–Mr John Ford leases the First Baptist Church on 10th Street in Washington and turns it into a theater. Built in 1833, the church has been vacant since 1859, when the congregation merged with the nearby Fourth Baptist Church.

December 10–Tuesday–Congress–In the Senate, William Fessenden of Maine and Charles Sumner of Massachusetts, both with strong abolitionist feelings, present petitions for emancipating slaves under the president’s constitutional war power. Bills are introduced to authorize the president to acquire territory for the settlement of free black people.

December 10–Tuesday–Birth of Fridtjof Nansen, Norwegian explorer, who will receive the Nobel Peace Prize in 1922 for his work through the League of Nations on behalf of refugees.

December 11–Wednesday–Charleston, South Carolina–A fire damages much of the business district.

December 13–Friday–Washington–During a cabinet meeting, President Lincoln and Secretary of State Seward discuss the problematic Ohio Representative Clement Vallandigham.

Lincoln and Seward with the Cabinet

December 13–Friday–Bartow, Virginia [now West Virginia]–At Camp Allegheny near here, in an inconclusive engagement, a Confederate force rebuffs a Union attack. Federal losses total 137 dead, wounded and missing; the Confederates suffer 146 dead, wounded and missing. After the fighting, both forces retain the same positions.

Prince Albert, about a year before his death

December 14–Saturday–England–At Windsor Castle, Prince Albert, beloved consort of Queen Victoria, dies with the Queen and five of their nine children by his bedside. The Prince is only 42 years of age. He and Queen Victoria have been married twenty-one years. At the time his doctor believes he dies of typhoid fever. [In the 20th century doctors believe more likely it was cancer or renal failure as he had complaints of poor health for two years prior to his death.]

December 15–Sunday–Canton, Illinois–Birth of Charles Duryea, pioneer automotive manufacturer.

December 15–Sunday–Washington–Over tea with the President, Secretary of State Seward expresses deep concern that Britain views the Trent matter a a violation of international law.

December 16–Monday–Washington–In the House of Representatives Ohio Representative Clement Vallandigham introduces a resolution to give a commendation to Captain Charles Wilkes of the U S Navy for his seizure of Mason and Slidell.

December 17–Tuesday–Washington–President Lincoln requests speedy consideration by the Senate of a proposed new treaty between the United States and Mexico.

December 17–Tuesday–Rowlett’s Station, Kentucky–As Union forces complete repair of a railroad bridge, they are attacked by a Confederate force. In a fierce firefight, the Confederates are driven back, suffering 91 killed, wounded and missing. Union casualties total 40 dead, wounded and missing. Among the Confederate dead is Colonel Benjamin Franklin Terry, a 40 year old wealthy and popular man from Texas who organized and commanded the 8th Texas Cavalry. This was the unit’s first battle.

Lord Lyons, Her Majesty's Minister to the United States

December 19–Thursday–Washington–The British Minister Lord Lyons meets with Secretary of State Seward and describes the contents of the British response without actually delivering them. Her Majesty’s Government expects a formal reply within seven days of Seward’s receipt of the official communication. At Seward’s request, Lord Lyons gives him an unofficial copy of the British response which Secretary Seward immediately shares with President Lincoln.

December 20–Friday–Congress–The Select Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War is seated for the first time. Its members include three Senators and four Representatives. From the Senate come Senator Wade of Ohio, who serves as chairman, Senator Chandler of Michigan and Senator Andrew Johnson of Tennessee. From the House of Representatives come John Covode of Pennsylvania, D. W. Gooch of Massachusetts, George Washington Julian of Indiana and Moses Odell of New York.

December 20–Friday–Dranesville, Virginia–Union soldiers encounter a Confederate foraging detail. In a fight which lasts several hours the Federal troops suffer 71 dead, wounded and missing while Confederate losses total 230 dead, wounded and missing. The worst Confederate losses occur when South Carolina troops and Kentucky troops shoot at each other in a “friendly fire” mistake. The Confederate supply wagons get safely away.

December 20–Friday–Portsmouth, England–Two troop ships loaded with British infantry set sail for Canada.

December 21–Saturday–Washington–The British Minister, Lord Lyons, delivers the official ultimatum to Secretary of State Seward and advises London that Britain must be firm in the Trent business. “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. . . . war will have a very good effect on them.”

Elisha Hunt Rhodes, about 20 years after the war

December 22–Sunday–Washington–Corporal Elisha Hunt Rhodes, from Rhode Island and serving as a clerk in the headquarters of General Keyes, describes in his diary a typical day. “One day is much like another . . . . For this duty I get my Corporal’s pay, $13.00 per month, 30 cents per day for rations and 35 cents per day for extra services. On this we manage to live very comfortably. We have time to visit the interesting points in the city, and I have a horse that I can use at pleasure. I often take rides to the camps and begin to feel quite at home upon an Army horse. Letter writing usually occupies my evenings, although I occasionally spend an evening with young ladies whose acquaintance I have made.” [In current dollars, his monthly salary equals $332, his per diem for food $7.66 and his “extra service” as a general’s clerk $8.94]

December 23–Monday–Washington–Senator Sumner of Massachusetts advises President Lincoln to surrender Mason and Slidell to Great Britain. Lord Lyons again meets with Secretary Seward.

December 24–Tuesday–Off the South Carolina coast–A U S warship attacks and burns the British merchant ship Prince of Wales as it tries to run the blockade and enter the harbor of Georgetown.

December 24–Tuesday–Washington–To raise war revenues, Congress passes a bill increasing duties on the importation of coffee, tea, sugar and molasses.

December 25–Wednesday–Washington–President Lincoln holds a Cabinet meeting to discuss British demands regarding the Trent affair. In the evening the President and Mrs Lincoln host Christmas dinner at the White House for a number of friends and some members of the official government family. In a quiet after-dinner conversation with Senator Browning of Illinois, the President says that the Trent affair is settled amicably.

December 26–Thursday–Chustenahlah, Osage County, Indian Territory [now Oklahoma]–In severe cold weather, a Confederate force attacks and defeats a force of pro-Union Creeks and Seminoles, killing about 250 of them. The Confederates, who include 300 Cherokee under the command of Stand Watie, capture about 160 women and children, 20 black people who had been with the Seminoles, 500 horses, 70 yoke of oxen, cattle, sheep, and 30 wagons full of supplies. Confederate casualties total 9 dead and 40 wounded. [Of the Creeks and Seminoles who escape, fleeing into Kansas, about 2,000 will die of exposure to the severe cold and of disease.]

December 26–Thursday–Washington–In the Cabinet meeting today President Lincoln and his advisors formally decide to release Mason and Slidell. The President authorizes Secretary Seward to formally notify the British Minister, Lord Lyons.

December 26–Thursday–Powhatan County, Virginia–Brigadier General Philip St George Cocke of the Confederate Army, suffering from depression, kills himself with his pistol at his home. He is 52 years of age and leaves behind a widow and eleven children.

Secretary of State Seward

December 27–Friday–Washington–Secretary of State William Seward issues the official American response to Great Britain for the actions of the San Jacinto in the Trent matter. He informs the British Minister, Lord Lyons, that Mason and Slidell will be turned over to the British. Seward states that USN Captain Wilkes acted on his own. Seward denies British allegations that the seizure itself had been conducted in a discourteous and violent manner. The capture and search of the Trent was consistent with international law, and Wilkes’ only error was in failing to take the Trent to a port for judicial determination. The release of the prisoners is therefore required in order “to do to the British nation just what we have always insisted all nations ought to do to us.”

December 27–Friday–Liverpool, England—Mikhail Bakunin, Russian revolutionary and anarchist, arrives in England, on his way to London to rendevous with other political refugees from the !848 revolutions.

December 28–Saturday–New York City–As part of the coverage on the Trent affair, Harpers Weekly, under the headline “A Royal Proclamation,” reports that “Queen Victoria had issued a proclamation forbidding the export from all ports of the United Kingdom of gunpowder, nitre, nitrate of soda, brimstone, lead, and fire-arms.”

December 29–Sunday–Washington–In a second written response to Lord Lyons, the British Minister, Secretary of State Seward assures Her Majesty’s Government of the release of Mason and Slidell while asserting that Britain has no claim for reparations. As for the Confederate emissaries, “They will be cheerfully liberated. Your Lordship will please indicate a time and place for receiving them. I avail myself of this occasion to offer to your Lordship a renewed assurance of my very high consideration.”

December 30–Monday–Boston, Massachusetts; Albany, New York; Cleveland, Ohio; Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania–A number of banks in these cities suspend species payments, that is, providing silver or gold upon demand for paper money.

December 31–Tuesday–New York City–Today’s New York Times argues that the United States should learn from the Trent affair. “We would only suggest the propriety of holding an international Congress or of concluding special treaties with the various Powers of Europe, in which the uncertain and vexed claims of maritime law may so completely settled as to prevent, if possible, the danger of any misunderstanding between ourselves and those Powers of Europe with whom it is both our highest interest and our established policy to live on terms of perfect friendship and national comity.”

December 31–Tuesday–New York City–In his diary, George Templeton Strong mourns the old year and worries about the new. “Poor old 1861 just going. It has been a gloomy year of trouble and disaster. I should be glad of its departure, were it not that 1862 is likely to be no better. . . . a drastic dose of European war my be the prescription Providence is going to administer.”

George Templeton Strong


Like Attorney Strong, we shall soon see what the New Year brings.