James Ford Rhodes (18481927). History of the Civil War, 18611865. 1917.
ON the day after the battle of Bull Run, Congress met at the usual hour and transacted the usual amount of business. Outwardly at least the members were calm. The House, with only four dissenting votes, adopted a resolution of Crittendens, introduced two days previously, which gave expression to the common sentiment of the country regarding the object of the war. This resolution declared that the war was not waged for conquest or subjugation or in order to overthrow or interfere with the rights or established institutions of the Southern States, but to maintain the supremacy of the Constitution and to preserve the Union: three days later it passed the Senate by a vote of 30:5.1
Congress had convened July 4, and, in response to the Presidents request for means to make the war short and decisive, had authorized him to accept the services of 500,000 volunteers for three years unless sooner discharged, and had empowered the Secretary of the Treasury to borrow on the credit of the United States two hundred and fifty million dollars. Although failing to use its power of taxation as effectively as the occasion required, Congress nevertheless did something in that direction, increasing some of the tariff duties, imposing a direct tax of twenty millions on the States and territories and an income tax of three per cent subject to an exemption of eight hundred dollars.
Congress showed great confidence in the President and went far toward meeting his wishes. As one of its members afterwards wrote, it was during this session only a giant committee of ways and means. But it hesitated in regard to two of his dictatorial acts: the call for three years volunteers and the increase of the regular army and navy by proclamation; and his order to Scott, the Commanding General of the Army, authorizing him personally or by deputy, to suspend, if necessary for the public safety, the privilege of the writ of habeas corpus at any point on any military line between Philadelphia and Washington.2 A rider to the bill, raising the pay of private soldiers passed on the last day of the session [August 6], legalized the proclamation increasing the army and navy; but senators differed so widely as to suspension of the writ of habeas corpus that they were unable to agree upon any action. Some senators thought that an act of Congress was necessary to suspend the writ and in this belief were sustained by a decision of Chief Justice Marshall, the opinions of Story and Taney and English precedents for two centuries. Others agreeing that the Constitution vested this power in Congress alone were nevertheless willing to make legal and valid the Presidents orders for the suspension of the writ. Still other senators did not care to take any action whatever; believing that the President, as commander-in-chief of the Army and Navy, had complete power to suspend the habeas corpus, they did not wish to bring this power in question by an act of confirmation.
Encouraged by the attitude of the President and Congress, the country soon recovered from the dismay caused by the defeat at Bull Run. A second uprising took place. Men came forward in great numbers, enlisting for three years. On account of some successes in Western Virginia McClellan was placed in command of the troops at Washington [July 27], which he soon named the Army of the Potomac.3
Lincoln and Davis were both willing to obscure the true reason of the conflict: Lincoln, because he did not wish the border slave States, the Northern Democrats and conservative Republicans to get the idea that the war was waged for the destruction of slavery; Davis, because he knew that the Southerners devotion to slavery, if allowed to appear in too strong a light, would stand in the way of the recognition of the Confederate States by European powers which he so ardently desired. But as the Union armies advanced southward, they came into contact with the negro who had to be dealt with. On the day after Virginia had ratified by popular vote her ordinance of secession, three negroes, who had come to Fort Monroe, were claimed by an agent of their owner. General Butler, who was in command, refused to deliver them up on the ground that, as they belonged to a citizen of a State offering resistance to the federal government and had been employed in the construction of a battery, they were contraband of war. The application of this phrase, as Butler himself admitted, had no high legal sanction; nevertheless, technical inaccuracy, as Morse wrote, does not hurt the force of an epigram which expresses a sound principle;4 this one was promptly seized upon by the popular mind as indicating a proper attitude toward the negro. The difficulty, however, could not be solved by an epigram. Contrabands or fugitive slaves came continually within the lines of the Union armies, and the question how to dispose of them became a grave one for the President. Having carefully thought out a policy, he sent the following instructions to Butler to serve as a guide for his and other commands: the general should not interfere with the reclamation of fugitive slaves who had escaped from masters in the Union slave States but, in accordance with the Confiscation act,5 he should respect no claim for negroes who had been employed in the military service of the Confederacy. In spite of the murmurs of the abolitionists and some radical Republicans, a large majority of the Northern people had already acquiesced in this policy as a wise temporary expedient, when General Frémont opened the question afresh by his proclamation in Missouri.6
Frémont, the pet and protégé of the Blairs,7 as Lincoln afterwards called him, had upon the earnest solicitation of his patrons been made a major-general and been placed in command of the Western department, which included Missouri. A kind of romantic hero was hethe brave pathfinder, who had planted the American flag on presumably the highest peak of the Rocky mountains. Winning the first nomination of the Republican party for president, he had polled a large electoral and popular vote; and Lincoln, undoubtedly impressed by the remembrance of this first campaign, so brilliant in many ways, thought well of him and had entertained the idea of nominating him for minister to France. He was supposed to have military talent, and his appointment to a command was very popular with earnest Republicans who had looked upon him five years earlier as the champion of a sacred cause. Lincoln and the Blairs were to suffer a grievous disappointment. The first month in his headquarters at St. Louis showed Frémont to be utterly unfit for a responsible command. Over-fond of display and wishing to maintain the state of a European monarch, he surrounded himself with dishonest men to whom he was always accessible, whilst high military and civil officers and worthy Union citizens were obliged to wait days in his anteroom for an interview. The reason was apparent. These last had the sole purpose in mind to defeat the Southern sympathizers and the Confederate army, who were disputing with them the possession of Missouri; but the others were interested in securing fat contracts, a kind of suit for which Frémont had a ready ear; and he was deaf to the entreaties of well-informed Union citizens for an order to reënforce a capable general, who was actively engaged in the field. Distrusted by men of worth and influence in Missouri, flattered by speculators, it is little wonder that the charge was made that the department of Missouri was managed for purpose of making private fortunes rather than for the countrys weal. Such was the posture of affairs on the evening of August 29, when Frémont went to bed, with an undoubted perception of the strength of anti-slavery sentiment in the North and the need of some diversion to maintain his sway. Inspiration must have come to him in the night. At all events he decided upon a proclamation freeing the slaves. Next day he issued it, declaring the slaves of all persons in the State of Missouri, taking up arms against the United States, freemen. That it was a play to retain his power was evident to hard-headed men. The truth is, wrote Montgomery Blair to Sumner, with Frémonts surroundings, the set of scoundrels who alone have control of him, this proclamation setting up the higher law was like a painted woman quoting Scripture.
Lincoln learned through the newspapers of Frémonts proclamation and of his bureau of abolition, set up for the purpose of issuing deeds of manumission to slaves. Although this major-general of two months standing, without careful survey of the whole field, without comprehension of the important and various interests involved had, on a sudden impulse, assumed to solve a question which the President, his Cabinet and Congress were approaching only in a careful and tentative manner, Lincolns letter to Frémont of September 2, sent by a special messenger, was as full of kindness as of wisdom. The liberating slaves of traitorous owners, he wrote, will alarm our Southern Union friends and turn them against us; perhaps ruin our rather fair prospect for Kentucky. Allow me, therefore, to ask that you will, as of your own motion, modify that paragraph8 so as to conform to the Confiscation act of Congress. This letter is written in a spirit of caution and not of censure. Frémont was unwilling to retract the provision objected to and asked that the President should openly direct him to make the correction: this Lincoln cheerfully did by public order.
Frémonts proclamation stirred the anti-slavery sentiment of the country to its utmost depths, receiving enthusiastic commendation from many States. Senator Sumner wrote, Our President is now dictator, imperatorwhich you will; but how vain to have the power of a god and not use it godlike! A large number of men in Ohio were furious and found fit expression in the words of an eminent lawyer and judge: Our people are in a state of great consternation and wrath on account of the quarrel between Frémont and the administration, public opinion being entirely with General Frémont. And if the election were next fall, to displace him would be to make him president. Herndon, the old law partner and later biographer of Lincoln, living in Illinois, said, Frémonts proclamation was right. Lincolns modification of it was wrong. Senator Grimes wrote from Iowa: The people are all with Frémont and will uphold him through thick and thin. Everybody of every sect, party, sex and color approves his proclamation in the Northwest and it will not do for the administration to causelessly tamper with the man who had the sublime moral courage to issue it.9
These expressions in private letters represented a phase of intelligent sentiment which troubled Lincoln, as is evident from his confidential letter to Senator Browning of Illinois, who, though regarded as a conservative, had approved Frémonts proclamation. It endangers the loss of Kentucky, he wrote [September 22]. I think to lose Kentucky is nearly the same as to lose the whole game. Kentucky gone, we cannot hold Missouri, nor, as I think, Maryland. These all against us and the job on our hands is too large for us. We would as well consent to separation at once, including the surrender of this capital. Lincoln had such a hold upon the people that he carried with him an efficient public opinion and, after due waiting, proceeded to the next step. He never had any thought of removing Frémont on account of his proclamation; but he felt that the mismanagement and corruption in Missouri must be corrected. Proceeding with caution, he sent to St. Louis Montgomery Blair and Meigs, the Quartermaster-General of the Army, and later Secretary Cameron and Adjutant-General Thomas: the four made a thorough and candid investigation.
Meigs heard a rumor that Frémont had in mind a project resembling the conspiracy of Aaron Burrs. Somewhat more than two years later Lincoln, in an expansive mood, unbosomed himself to his private secretaries and two other friends, saying, Mrs. Frémont (who had brought a letter from the General justifying his proclamation) sought an audience with me at midnight10 and taxed me so violently with many things that I had to exercise all the awkward tact I have to avoid quarreling with her. She more than once intimated that if General Frémont should conclude to try conclusions with me, he could set up for himself. To this, the minister of the United States to Prussia, an old Illinois friend of Lincolns, replied: It is pretty clearly proven that Frémont had at that time concluded that the Union was definitely destroyed, and that he should set up an independent government as soon as he took Memphis and organized his army.11 That Lincoln felt there was some basis for this report is indicated by a paper which Nicolay left in a sealed envelope endorsed: A private paper, Conversation with the President, October 2, 1861, in which one of the headings is Frémont ready to rebel.12 Nevertheless, it is hardly probable that Lincoln was disturbed enough by the report to let it have the slightest weight in his action. It was more to the point that Montgomery Blair had recommended Frémonts removal for inefficiency and that Camerons and Thomass conclusions had made it imperative. These two reported that Frémont was incompetent and unfit for his extensive and important command and that he had around him in his staff persons directly and indirectly concerned in furnishing supplies. On October 24, the President issued the order for his removal. Before the removal was effected, E. B. Washburne, an intimate friend of Lincolns, who was at the head of the House sub-committee on government contracts that spent two weeks in St. Louis, taking a large amount of testimony relative to the procedure of Frémont and his friends, wrote to Chase:13 Such robbery, fraud, extravagance, peculation as have been developed in Frémonts department can hardly be conceived of. There has been an organized system of pillage, right under his eye. He has really set up an authority over the government and bids defiance to its commands. The government in failing to strike at Frémont and his horde of pirates acknowledges itself a failure. Lincoln must have seen this letter, and if further justification for Frémonts removal were necessary, this was ample.
While the people of the country could not know of these confidential letters and reports, enough was known for Lincolns action to receive effective support. But a large minority looked upon Frémont as a martyr in the antislavery cause. Here are two out of the many instances of worthy people who were led astray by a charlatan because he knew how to play upon the one idea dearest to their hearts. Henry Ward Beecher said in his church, I cannot but express my solemn conviction that both our government, and in a greater degree the community, have done great injustice to the cause in Missouri, in the treatment which has been bestowed upon that noble man General Frémont. Is it known to the administration that the West is threatened with a revolution? asked in a private letter Richard Smith, the editor of the Cincinnati Gazette, a very important and influential Republican journal. What meaneth this burning of the President in effigy by citizens who have hitherto sincerely and enthusiastically supported the war? Why this sudden check to enlistments? The public consider that Frémont has been made a martyr of. Consequently he is now, so far as the West is concerned, the most popular man in the country. He is to the West what Napoleon was to France; while the President has lost the confidence of the people.14
Meanwhile, McClellan was at work with energy and talent, erecting fortifications around Washington and organizing the Army of the Potomac. He had good executive ability, and aptitude for system, and, being in robust health, an immense capacity for work. All these qualities were devoted without stint to the service. In the saddle from morning to night, he visited the several camps, mixed with the different brigades and regiments and came to know his officers and men thoroughly. Himself a gentleman of sterling moral character, having come to Washington with the respect and admiration of these soldiers, he soon gained their love by his winning personality, and inspired a devotion such as no other Northern general of a large army, with one exception, was ever able to obtain. Overrating his successes in western Virginia, he was called the young Napoleon, for he was believed by the army, the administration and the country to have military genius of the highest order. And at first he seemed to have an adequate idea of what was required of him, for he wrote to the President on August 4: The military action of the Government should be prompt and irresistible. The rebels have chosen Virginia as their battle field, and it seems proper for us to make the first great struggle there.15
Not only was McClellan working with diligence but everyone else was coöperating with him in a way to give his talent for organization the widest scope. The President, the Treasury and the War departments, the Secretary of State, the governors of the Northern States assisted him faithfully with their full powers. The officers under him displayed zeal and devotion. He had the sway of a monarch. And at the outset this complete harmony yielded results of a most encouraging nature. Troops poured in from the enthusiastic North, swelling the army of 52,000 of July 27 to one of 168,000 three months later.
One of McClellans limitations, however, came early into view. Although personally courageous, he feared reverses for his army. Moreover, either his intelligence of the enemy was defective or his inferences from such accurate information as he possessed were radically unsound. In August, he was haunted by the notion that the Confederates largely outnumbered him; that they would attack his position on the Virginia side of the Potomac and also cross the river north of Washington. At this time, however, Johnston did not purpose either movement; he was chafing at the smallness of his force, the lack of food and ammunition, the disorganization and sickness amongst his troops. During the month of September and well into October, he was encamped about Fairfax Court-house with strong outposts on hills six and a half miles from Washington, where the Confederate flag could be plainly seen by the President and his General. On October 19, he withdrew his army to Centreville and Manassas Junction, farther from Washington but a much stronger position.
The great object to be accomplished, wrote McClellan to the Secretary of War shortly after October 27, is the crushing defeat of the rebel army now at Manassas.16 The Union troops were sufficient in number and fighting quality to accomplish it. All the authorities agree that McClellans organization of the Army of the Potomac was little short of magical. The training to fit men for active service generally required six months; under McClellan it had been accomplished in three. The change from the grand army before the battle of Bull Run to McClellans Army of the Potomac, according to William H. Russell, was marvellous. The soldiers of July, who, in his opinion, could have been overcome by one-third their number of British regulars, were in September perhaps as fine a body of men in all respects of physique as had ever been assembled by any power in the world.17
When McClellan and McDowell rode together from camp to camp on the south side of the Potomac, McClellan used to point toward Manassas and say, We shall strike them there. What might have been is doubtless as unprofitable a subject of speculation in war as in the other affairs of life; but it is a fact of importance that during the autumn the President and the country rightly began to lose confidence in McClellans military ability. They had good reason for this distrust. His apology in his report of August 4, 1863,18 and in his Own Story receive little justification from the pitiless contemporary record and from other facts since brought to light. On October 27, according to his own account, his effective force was 134,000; the number disposable for an advance, 76,000:19 Johnston had 41,000. The Union artillery was superior; the infantry had better arms. The health of the Union army was good, that of the Confederate bad. The weather was fine and dry; up to Christmas the roads were in suitable condition for military operations. On the other hand, the Confederates had an immense advantage in the moral effect of their victories at Bull Run and Balls Bluff.20 Nevertheless, the officers and men of the Army of the Potomac were devoted to McClellan and eager to fight. They would have been glad to follow if he would lead; it only remained for him to give the word.
The Confederate were little, if any, better disciplined than the Union soldiers; but their cautions general was willing to take the offensive. Give me 19,000 more men as good as the 41,000 that I have with the necessary transportation and munitions of war, said Johnston to President Davis on October 1, and I will cross the Potomac and carry the war into the enemys country:21 at that time he knew that the Union force was superior in number.
When McClellan wrote as military critic he condemned by implication his own inactivity as commander. I am induced to believe, he wrote to General Scott from Washington on August 8, that the enemy has at least 100,000 men in front of us. Were I in Beauregards place,22 with that force at my disposal, I would attack the positions on the other side of the Potomac and at the same time cross the river above this city in force.23 Yet McClellan himself, with at least 76,000 to 41,000 of the enemy, would not make in November a movement similar to, but not so extended as, the one he laid down for the Confederates in August. I am not such a fool, he said to the President, as to buck against Manassas in the spot designated by the foe.24
To judge from McClellans private letters at this time, he seemed to think that the men in authority were endeavoring to add difficulties to his task. I am thwarted and deceived by these incapables at every turn, he wrote.25 As a matter of fact, everybody from the President to the humblest orderly who waited at his door26 was helping him according to his means. The fault was not of the President, the Cabinet, General Scott or the senators; it was entirely his own. McClellan fed himself upon the delusion that the enemy had 150,000 men. This estimate would indeed have justified his inaction; but, after an evenings conversation with him it became painfully evident to John Hay, that he had no plan.27
The Presidents attitude towards his General was sublime. They talked sadly over the disaster at Balls Bluff. Alluding to the death of Colonel Baker, McClellan said: There is many a good fellow who wears the shoulder-straps going under the sod before this thing is over. There is no loss too great to be repaired. If I should get knocked on the head, Mr. President, you will put another man immediately in my shoes. I want you to take care of yourself, was the reply.28
On the evening of October 26, the Jacobin Club represented by Senators Trumbull, Chandler and Wade came up to worry the administration into a battle. The agitation of the summer is to be renewed, wrote Hay. The President defended McClellans deliberateness. On going over to the Generals headquarters the Jacobins were discussed. The President deprecated this new manifestation of popular impatience but said it was a reality and should be taken into the account:At the same time, General, you must not fight till you are ready. I have everything at stake, replied McClellan; if I fail I will not see you again or anybody. I have a notion to go out with you, said Lincoln, and stand or fall with the battle.29
On October 31, Scott voluntarily retired from active service and McClellan succeeded him in the command of all the armies of the United States. Next evening, at his headquarters, he read to Lincoln and Hay his General Order in regard to Scotts resignation and his own assumption of command. The President said, I should be perfectly satisfied if I thought that this vast increase of responsibility would not embarrass you. It is a great relief, Sir! replied McClellan, between whom and Scott there had been friction. I feel as if several tons were taken from my shoulders to-day. I am now in contact with you and the Secretary. I am not embarrassed by intervention. Well, rejoined Lincoln, draw on me for all the sense I have and all the information. In addition to your present command, the supreme command of the army will entail a vast labor upon you. I can do it all, said McClellan quietly.30
The country had a right to expect an offensive movement. Inasmuch as McClellan was apt to underestimate the number as well as the fighting quality of his soldiers, his 76,000 disposable for an advance could likely enough have been increased to 100,000. He ought to have fought Johnston, or manuvred him out of Manassas, or raised the Confederate blockade of the lower Potomac or taken Norfolk.31 Any one of these movements attempted in the autumn of 1861 would have satisfied the country and maintained their confidence, as well as the Presidents, in McClellan; and this would have been an asset of great value. But he was no fighter and at this time could not have handled 100,000 men. It is doubtful if any other general in the Union army could have done so. Long after the war, Grant referred to the vast and cruel responsibility devolving upon McClellan at the outset and added, If McClellan had gone into the war as Sherman, Thomas or Meade, had fought his way along and up, I have no reason to suppose that he would not have won as high a distinction as any of us.32 In McClellans army was Colonel William T. Sherman, who in 1864 led an army of 100,000 with great ability; but at this time he told the President that his extreme desire was to serve in a subordinate capacity and in no event to be left in a superior command.33 To march, manuvre, feed and fight to the best advantage an army of 100,000 comes near being the highest executive achievement of which man is capable.34 Joseph E. Johnston quiet and sad35 thought that he could now conduct 60,000 in an offensive campaign, but he had had the invaluable experience of commanding half that number at Bull Run.
If McClellan had shown modesty, so striking a characteristic of Lincoln and Grant, criticism would be tempered, but he was one of the men who cannot stand prosperity. Rapid advancement had swelled him with conceit; one manifestation of this was discourtesy to the President, of whom he once wrote in a patronizing way, he is honest and means well.36 On the evening of November 13, the President, Secretary Seward and John Hay called at McClellans house and were told by the servant at the door that the General was at an officers wedding and would soon return. We went in, as Hay recorded the incident in his diary, and after we had waited about an hour, McClellan came in, and without paying any particular attention to the porter who told him the President was waiting to see him, went upstairs, passing the door of the room where the President and Secretary of State were seated. They waited about half an hour, and sent once more a servant to tell the General they were there; and the answer came that he had gone to bed. I merely record this unparalleled insolence of epaulettes without comment, continued Hay. It is the first indication I have yet seen of the threatened supremacy of the military authorities. Coming home I spoke to the President about the matter, but he seemed not to have noticed it specially, saying it was better, at this time, not to be making points of etiquette and personal dignity.37 On another occasion when the General failed to keep an appointment with the President, he said, Never mind; I will hold McClellans horse if he will only bring us success.38
To Great Britain, it seemed that as a question merely of fact a war existed40 between the North and South which must be officially recognized. Davis had invited applications for letters of marque and Lincoln had proclaimed a blockade; both acts being permissible only in war seemed to indicate that the conflict would extend to the ocean where it would concern all maritime nations. As a matter of course, Great Britain issued a Proclamation of Neutrality [May 13], but this natural step was by no means acceptable to the North since the Proclamation by its terms recognized the Confederate States as a belligerent power. The theory of the United States Government that the Southerners were rebels against their authority was undermined as soon as these rebels became belligerents in the eyes of Europe.41 The censure of this declaration by Seward and by Adams was therefore in conformity with diplomatic usage. Nor was the sentiment of Boston as reported by Motley surprising. The declaration of Lord John Russell, he wrote, that the Southern privateers were to be considered belligerents, was received with great indignation by the most warm-hearted, England-loving men in this England-loving part of the country.42 In other sections of the North where England was less liked, the feeling of resentment was still more acute; and the sum of this dissatisfaction may have served a useful purpose in helping to prevent Great Britain from acknowledging the Southern Confederacy in the following year. Nevertheless, a calm survey of the facts can hardly lead to any conclusion but that Great Britain was abundantly justified for her recognition of the belligerent rights of the Confederate States. The cogent argument for it was put in a nutshell by the foreign secretary who issued the Proclamation. Upwards of five million free men, wrote Lord Russell in a private letter to Edward Everett, have been for some time in open revolt against the President and Congress of the United States. It is not our practice to treat five millions of free men as pirates and to hang their sailors if they attempt to stop our merchantmen. But unless we meant to treat them as pirates and to hang them we could not deny them belligerent rights.43
The concession of belligerent rights to the Confederate States was made with no unfriendly purpose; and as repeated assurances to that effect were received from both public and private sources in England, and as a proper comprehension was gained of the wide difference between the recognition of the belligerency and acknowledgment of the independence of the Confederate States, the irritation of the North began to subside. The President showed his understanding of the attitude of England and other European powers and believed that his government had their sympathy. The feeling toward the United States, wrote Adams from London on May 31, is improving in the higher circles here. It was never otherwise than favorable among the people at large.44
The division of English sentiment was well expressed by Palmerston, the Prime Minister, in his words, We do not like slavery, but we want cotton and we dislike very much your Morrill tariff.45Punch declared sympathy with the North but confessed,
That with the South weve stronger ties,
Which are composed of cotton.
And where would be our calico
Without the toil of niggers?
Then the North keeps Commerce bound; thus we perceive a divided duty. We must choose between free-trade or sable brothers free.46 But, so Adams wrote, Our brethren in this country, after all, are much disposed to fall in with the opinion of Voltaire that, Dieu est toujours sur le côté des gros canons.47
For our standing in England it was unfortunate that we did not win the battle of Bull Run, as our defeat caused a marked revulsion of feeling. The aristocracy and upper middle class made no secret of their belief that the bubble of democracy had burst in America. By the autumn of 1861 the commercial and manufacturing people began to realize the disaster with which they were menaced by our cutting off the supply of cotton. Ordinarily the new crop came forward during the early autumn; now practically none was being received. Stocks of cotton were rapidly sinking. A manufacture, said the London Times, which supports a fifth part of our whole population, is coming gradually to a stand.48 Mills were working short time; manufacturers were reducing wages; mill owners and laborers were dismayed at the prospect of a cotton famine. The blockade stood between them and a supply of cotton, threatening the owners with business derangement, and the workmen with starvation. The self-interest of the manufacturers and the sentimental predilections of the aristocracy were forces which, sometimes merging, sometimes reacting on one another, gave rise to a desire amongst these classes that the North should fail. It seemed more favorable to Englands power and trade that the United States should be divided into two nations, especially as the Southern Confederacy would offer England practically free trade, hence a large market for her manufactured goods that would be paid for in raw cotton. The wish was father to the thought and the inference to be drawn from Bull Run settled the matter. The nobility and upper middle class came to the conclusion that the North could not conquer the South and that separation would be the result. This opinion was advocated by the Times and Saturday Review with a power of sarcastic statement that stung their Northern readers to the quick. Help us to a breath of generous strengthening sympathy from old England was Sumners appeal to William H. Russell. Do not forget, I pray you, was Russells reply, that in reality it is Brightism and republicanism at home which the conservative papers mean to smite. America is the shield under which the blow is dealt.49
The exponents of the ten-pounders, who, in their smug complacency, believed their Constitution and government to be not only now the best on earth but the best that had ever existed,50 criticised the North freely in a tone of flippant and contemptuous serenity,51 highly irritating to a people engaged in a life-and-death struggle. The sneers at the panic and cowardice of Northern troops at Bull Run, as the common measure of a people fighting their countrymen to suppress their desire for independence, were hard to bear. Edward Dicey when in America argued with James Russell Lowell about what seemed to him an unreasonable animosity toward England. It is possible, Lowell replied, that my feelings may be morbidly exaggerated, but, pointing to a portrait of a handsome young man, a near and dear relative, a Captain of the twentieth Massachusetts, who was shot dead at Balls Bluff, he asked, How would you like yourself to read constantly that that lad died in a miserable cause, and, as an American officer, should be called a coward? Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote to Dicey: I have a stake in this contest, which makes me nervous and tremulous and impatient of contradiction. I have a noble boy, a captain in one of our regiments, which has been fearfully decimated by battle and disease and himself twice wounded within a hairs breadth of his life.52
Still another drift of sentiment must not be ignored. The sympathy of the British government and public with Italy during the war of 1859, and the progress made in that war towards Italian liberty, impressed upon the English mind the doctrine that a body of people who should seek to throw off an obnoxious dominion and form an orderly government of their own, deserved the best wishes of the civilized world. Why, it was asked in England, if we were right to sympathize with Italy against Austria, should we not likewise sympathize with the Southern Confederacy whose people were resisting the subjugation of the North? This argument swayed the judgment of the liberal-minded Grote, and colored other opinion which was really determined by considerations of rank or of commerce and manufactures.53
But there were English statesmen and writers of ability who understood that the fight of the North was against slavery; they urged her cause without ceasing, although many times their hearts failed them as they feared she had undertaken an impossible task. They had as their followers the workingmen whom hunger stared in the face but who realized, as did the upper class, that the cause of the Union was the cause of democracy in England.
Up to the latter part of November, Great Britain preserved a strict neutrality. Louis Napoleon, the Emperor of the French, though in his American policy he did not represent the intelligent and liberal sentiment of his country, asked England officially to coöperate with him in recognizing the Confederacy and breaking the blockade. Earl Russell54 in a letter to Palmerston took the ground that it would not do for England and France to break a blockade for the sake of getting cotton, but they might offer their mediation between the North and the South with the implied understanding that the section which refused it [the United States, of course, as the South would grasp eagerly at the offer] would be their enemy. Palmerston replied that our best and true policy seems to be to go on as we have begun and to keep quite clear of the conflict between North and South.55 Later, Lord Palmerston, in his speech at the Lord Mayors dinner, gave it clearly to be understood that there is to be no interference for the sake of cotton.56
But meanwhile the American press, apparently with no feeling of responsibility, was carrying on a duel with the English. The irritation caused by the ungenerous criticism of the London journals was vented by our own in bitter recrimination. Chief in attack was the New York Herald. Let England and Spain look well to their conduct, it said, or we may bring them to a reckoning.57 It is unfortunate wrote John Bright to Sumner on November 20, that nothing is done to change the reckless tone of your New York Herald; between it and the Times of London there is great mischief done in both countries.
In spite of this skirmish of journalists, the two governments were approaching diplomatically a good understanding when a rash, ambitious, self-conceited and self-willed58 naval Captain not only undid in an hour all the advantage Adams, Seward and Lincoln had gained in six months, but brought the two countries to the brink of war.
James M. Mason and John Slidell, commissioners from the Confederate States to Great Britain and France, left Charleston on a little Confederate steamer and, evading the blockade, reached a Cuban port, whence they proceeded to Havana and took the British mail packet Trent for St. Thomas, where direct connection could be made with a British steamer for Southampton. On November 8, next day after leaving Havana, the Trent was sighted in the Bahama Channel by the American man-of-war San Jacinto, under the command of Captain Wilkes. He fired a shot across her bow without result, and then a shell; this brought her to. He ordered a lieutenant, accompanied by other officers and a number of marines, to board and search the Trent, and, if Mason and Slidell were found, to make them prisoners. The British Captain opposed anything like a search of his vessel, nor would he consent to show papers or passenger list. But Slidell and Mason announced themselves, were seized, and despite their protest as well as those of the Captain of the Trent and of a commander of the royal navy in charge of the mails, were taken by force from the Trent to the San Jacinto.
On November 15, Wilkes arrived at Fort Monroe; next day the country had the news. Rejoicing over the seizure as if a great battle had been won, the Northern people completely lost their heads. Having yearned for a victory, they now held in their hands the two Southern men59 whom, next to Davis and Floyd, they hated the worst and they had struck a blow at Great Britain for her supposed sympathy with the South. All the members of the Cabinet, except Montgomery Blair, were elated at the seizure. The Secretary of War read aloud the telegram announcing it to the group of men in his office and led the cheers in which Governor Andrew and the rest heartily joined. Andrew, who thought that in comparison with Mason and Slidell, Benedict Arnold was a saint, said, at a dinner in Boston in honor of the Captain, that Wilkes had shown wise judgment in the act which was one of the most illustrious services that had made the war memorable; we are met tonight, he added, to congratulate a gallant officer who, to uphold the American flag, fired a shot across the bow of a ship that bore the British lion.60 The Secretary of the Navy wrote to Wilkes a formal letter of congratulation on the great public service you have rendered in the capture of the rebel emissaries.61 The House of Representatives on the first day of its session passed a resolution, thanking him for his brave, adroit and patriotic conduct.62
Montgomery Blair denounced the act of Wilkes as unauthorized, irregular and illegal.63 Senator Sumner, then in Boston, said at once, We shall have to give them up.64 The President, too, resisted the general infection. On the day that the news came to Washington, he said: I fear the traitors will prove to be white elephants. We must stick to American principles concerning the rights of neutrals. We fought Great Britain for insisting by theory and practice on the right to do precisely what Captain Wilkes has done.65 The President ought to have acted on his first impulse and had an immediate consultation with Sumner to be sure of his law and history. It is evident from a private letter that Sumners advice would have been to act on the case at once and to make the surrender in conformity with our best precedents.66 And it is clear from Sewards subsequent action that, if urged by the President, he too would have consented to the surrender of Mason and Slidell before a demand for them was made. The President might then have adopted Blairs recommendation that Wilkes be ordered to take Mason and Slidell on an American warship to England and deliver them to the British government.67 Such an act would have been graceful, astute, honorable and politic and needed no more courage in breasting popular sentiment than Lincoln had already shown in his treatment of Frémont. He would have had at his back Sumner, Seward, Blair and General McClellan;68 and, if the surrender had been made immediatelybefore many lawyers and statesmen had fed the public excitement by alleging that the act was justifiable according to international lawthe country, tersely and emphatically instructed that we were carrying out the principles for which we had always contended, would doubtless have acquiesced. Yet Lincoln clearly feared to give up Mason and Slidell, although he must have appreciated that their voices were more eloquent from their prison than they would have been in London and Paris. Indeed, as a mere matter of policy, the United States ought to have made it easy for the author of the Fugitive Slave Law to reach London and the champion of filibustering in the interest of slavery to reach Paris, since their pleading could in no way injure the Northern cause, so well was it understood, at any rate in England, that they represented slavery. Slow to act and distrustful of his impulses, Lincoln let the great opportunity slip when with a word he might have won the equivalent of a successful campaign in the field. Alike a leader and a representative of popular sentiment, he in this instance suffered his representative character to overtop the leadership. The fellow-feeling with the American public that in any dispute with Great Britain there is but one side to be considered prevented him from making a brilliant stroke. As he took no action and made no public utterance, his silence was misconstrued, and he was reported falsely as having put down his foot, with the declaration, I would sooner die than give them up.69
As there was then no Atlantic cable, England did not receive the news of the seizure of Mason and Slidell until November 27. The opinion was general that it was an outrage to her flag. It has made a great sensation here, wrote John Bright to Sumner from London, and the ignorant and passionate and Rule Britannia class are angry and insolent as usual.70 The excitement is so great, said Adams in a despatch to Seward, as to swallow up every other topic for the moment.71 Charles Mackay,72 a friend of Sewards, wrote to him for his own and for the Presidents information: The people are frantic with rage, and were the country polled I fear that 999 men out of a thousand would declare for immediate war. Lord Palmerston cannot resist the impulse if he would. If he submits to the insult to the flag his ministry is doomedit would not last a fortnight.73
The English Cabinet decided that the seizure of Mason and Slidell was an act of violence which was an affront to the British flag and a violation of international law, and that their liberation and a suitable apology for the aggression be demanded. In accordance with this decision Earl Russell on November 30 prepared a despatch to Lord Lyons,74 the tone of which was softened and made more friendly on the suggestion of the Queen and Prince Consort: the Princes direct words, somewhat at variance with the Queens and his kindly spirit, were put into courteous diplomatic language, but the substance of the demand was in no way changed, and on Sunday, December 1, a Queens messenger bearing it was on his way to Washington.
Great Britain began preparations for war. Instructions for such an eventuality were sent to Lord Lyons and to the Vice Admiral commanding the British fleet in American waters. Eight thousand troops75 were despatched to Canada. The Queen by proclamation prohibited the export of arms and ammunition, and the government laid an embargo on 3000 tons of saltpetre, the whole stock in the market, which had been recently bought for immediate shipment to the United States.
Curiously enough, the English like the American government was acting in response to popular sentiment and not in accordance with its law and precedents. Four days after the seizure of Mason and Slidell, but fifteen days before the news of it reached England, Adams, on the invitation of Palmerston, had an interview with him in his library [November 12]. The Prime Minister supposed that the Confederate commissioners were then approaching England as passengers in the West Indian packet, and that a United States vessel of war, then at Southampton, was on the watch for her with the intention of taking them from her by force. I am not going into the question of your right to do such an act, Palmerston said. Perhaps you might be justified in it or perhaps you might not. Such a step would be highly inexpedient. It would be regarded here very unpleasantly if the captain should within sight of the shore commit an act which would be felt as offensive to the national flag. Nor can I see the compensating advantage to be gained by it. It surely could not be supposed that the addition of one or two more to the number of persons who had already been some time in London on the same errand would be likely to produce any change in the policy already adopted.76
Palmerstons friendly advice was a mystery to Adams and remained so to American writers until 1908 when the Life of Delane was published. Delane was the editor of the London Times and had a close political friendship with the Prime Minister, who thus wrote to him on the day before the interview with Adams: My dear Delane, It may be useful to you to know that the Chancellor, Dr. Lushington,77 the three law officers, Sir G. Grey,78 the Duke of Somerset,79 and myself met at the Treasury today to consider what we could properly do about the American cruiser come, no doubt, to search the West Indian packet supposed to be bringing hither the two Southern envoys; and much to my regret, it appeared that, according to the principles of international law laid down in our courts by Lord Stowell, and practiced and enforced by us, a belligerent has the right to stop and search any neutral not being a ship of war and being found on the high seas and being suspected of carrying enemys despatches; and that consequently this American cruiser might, by our own principles of international law, stop the West Indian packet, search her and if the Southern men and their despatches and credentials were found on board, either take them out, or seize the packet and carry her back to New York for trial.80 Consequently, as Charles F. Adams wrote, the San Jacinto might, on English principles of international law, stop the Trent, search her, and if the Southern men were on board, do exactly what Captain Wilkes had already just done,take them out and then allow the packet to proceed on its voyage.81 Such was the opinion of the law officers in a hypothetical case on November 11, but, eighteen days later, when they considered an actual seizure, until then justified by English principles and practice, they reversed their decision and declared Wilkess act illegal and unjustifiable by international law.82 In other words, they abandoned the English precedent and adopted the hitherto American contention as more in accordance with the age of steam and conditions on the sea in the last half of the nineteenth century. The English public showed in its outburst of indignation that the opinion of November 11 was antiquated and demanded that the law be expounded and that the government should act in a manner to enforce their own opinion.
It is a common belief that our ministers and ambassadors to Great Britain succumb to the charm of English society, that dinners of the duchesses in London and country visits to persons of quality, distinction and influence are apt to weaken the American fibre. That was not the case with Adams. He went much into society in London and was frequently invited by persons of influence to visit them in their houses in the country. Indeed he was at Monckton Milness house in Yorkshire, when the news of the seizure of Mason and Slidell came. But with him the dinners, receptions and country visits were all in the line of his work, which was to do his part toward saving the republic. During the forty-two days of suspense, until he learned the settlement of the question, he maintained his equable temper, although he appreciated fully the gravity of the case. There can be not a shadow of doubt, he wrote to Seward on December 6, that the passions of the country are up and that a collision is inevitable if the Government of the United States should sustain Captain Wilkes.83 It is evident from his private letters that if Adams had been Secretary of State he would have recommended the immediate surrender of Mason and Slidell. The uniform tendency of our own policy, he wrote to Motley, has been to set up very high the doctrine of neutral rights and to limit in every possible manner the odious doctrine of search. To have the two countries virtually changing their ground under this momentary temptation, would not, as it seems to me, tend to benefit the position of the United States. To R. H. Dana, he said, What provokes me most is that we should consent to take up and to wear Great Britains cast off rags.84
At 11:30 on the night of December 18, the Queens messenger delivered Earl Russells despatch to Lyons and also two private letters in which full instructions were given in words of tender consideration. Next day Lyons called upon Seward at the State Department, and in accordance with his instructions, acquainted him with the tenor of the official despatch. Seward asked Lyons informally, Was any time fixed by your instructions within which the U. S. Government must reply? I do not like to answer the question, was the response. Of all things I wish to avoid the slightest appearance of a menace. Seward still pressed for private and confidential information. On this understanding, Lyons replied: I will tell you. According to my instructions, I must have your answer in seven days. Seward then requested a copy of the despatch unofficially and informally as so much depended upon the wording of it that it was impossible to come to a decision without reading it. To this Lyons replied that if he gave him the copy officially the seven days would at once begin to run. Seward suggested that he be given the copy on the understanding that no one but the President and himself should know that it had been delivered. Lyons gladly complied with this suggestion and, on returning to the Embassy, sent a copy of the despatch to the Secretary in an envelope marked, private and confidential. This brought an almost immediate visit from Seward, who expressed himself pleased to find that the despatch was courteous and friendly and not dictatorial or menacing. Now, he asked in strict confidence, Suppose that I sent you in seven days a refusal or a proposal to discuss the question? My instructions are positive, Lyons replied, and leave me no discretion. If the answer is not satisfactory and, particularly if it does not include the immediate surrender of the prisoners, I cannot accept it.85 On the morning of December 23, the delay having occurred to suit Sewards business engagements and his wish to master the question completely, Lyons called again, read the despatch and left with the Secretary a copy of it: from this day, the seven days of waiting began to run.
As long as the English public required that their government present an ultimatum, it could not have been couched in words more considerate to the susceptibilities of the American people, nor could the instructions in the private letters have been bettered. Lyons carried out the spirit as well as the letter of his instructions; doubtless he was glad to be supported in his sympathetic consideration for the Secretary of States difficult position. When announcing the seizure he wrote to Earl Russell, To conceal the distress which I feel would be impossible; and during the period of suspense his attitude of reserve was irreproachable. I have avoided, he wrote, the subject of the capture on board the Trent as much as possible, and have said no more than that it is an untoward event which I very much regret.86
Apparently the President submitted the question to his Secretary of State. As long as Seward could not bring himself to Sumners, Adamss and Blairs position and advise the immediate surrender of Mason and Slidell, he conducted himself in an exemplary manner. Reticent of speech, he was receptive of information and advice which came to him from many quarters abroad and at home; much of it was excellent.87 In his communication to Adams, of November 27, he had explained to him that Captain Wilkes had acted without any instructions whatever and that the United States intended no action until we hear what the British Government may have to say on the subject.88 It was undoubtedly between the two interviews with Lyons, if not before, that Seward came to the conclusion that the commissioners must be surrendered; thenceforth he conducted the affair in his most skilful manner. His own decision made, he had to convince the President, the overruling authority necessary to consult in all cases.89 Governor Seward, Lincoln said, 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.90 The President made a draft of a despatch in which he expressed his unwillingness to believe that Great Britain would now press for a categorical answer; he would like the question left open for discussion in order that the United States might present her case; she would then be willing to submit the question to a friendly arbitration; but if Great Britain would not arbitrate and, after listening to the American case, still insisted on the surrender of Mason and Slidell, the surrender would be made, provided this disposition of the matter should serve in the future as a precedent for both countries. The key to the Presidents attitude lay in his words, We too, as well as Great Britain, have a people justly jealous of their rights.91 Obviously, the draft did not satisfy him as suited to the present exigency, and he did not present it to his Cabinet.
The result justified William H. Russells entry in his Diary of December 20 to the effect that Seward would control the situation.92 And a day earlier Charles Eliot Norton had written from New York to Lowell, There is apparently no reason to fear war as the result of any popular excitement here or of any want of temper or discretion on the part of the administration. It is a fortunate thing for us that Seward has regained so much of the public confidence. He will feel himself strong enough not to be passionate or violent.93
The Cabinet met at ten oclock on the morning of Christmas day; probably only two members of it, Seward and Blair, were at that hour in favor of the surrender. Seward submitted the draft of his answer to Lord Lyons, complying with the British demand. Sumner94 came by invitation and read letters from Bright and Cobden, staunch friends of the North, giving an account of English public sentiment and offering advice that may be summed up in Brights words, At all hazards you must not let this matter grow to a war with England.95 If Sumners opinion was asked, he doubtless expressed himself warmly in favor of Sewards decision. The discussion went on until two oclock, when the Cabinet adjourned until next day; it was then resumed. Seward maintained that the claim of the British government was just and had not been made in a discourteous manner.96 Bates, Attorney-General, came to his support, arguing that war with England would be ruin97 but, as he recorded in his Diary, there was great reluctance on the part of some of the members of the Cabinet and even the President himself98 to give up the commissioners. In the end, however, from the considerations that Wilkes had acted contrary to our precedents, violated international law and that we could not afford a war with Great Britain, all came to Sewards position and approved his answer [December 26]. He said at the end of his long despatch to Lyons, the persons in question will be cheerfully liberated.99 The disavowal of the act was accepted as a sufficient apology.
Fearing popular excitement, Seward arranged with Lyons that Mason and Slidell should not be delivered to an English vessel in Boston harbor. An American steam tug therefore took them to Provincetown, where they were delivered to a British ship-of-war, which sailed immediately for Halifax, whence they made their way to Europe.
There was no excitement in Boston nor anywhere else in the country when Mason and Slidell left Fort Warren. Bates had explained the reluctance of the President and some members of the Cabinet in coming to Sewards position as being due to a fear of the displeasure of our own people lest they should accuse us of timidly truckling to the power of England.100 They had misread public sentiment. During the forty days that had elapsed between the news of the seizure of Mason and Slidell and their surrender, the sober second thought had asserted itself and the decision of the government was unitedly and thoroughly sustained by the whole people.101 This seemed to indicate that if the President and his Secretary of State had come at once to their final decision, they might have reckoned on having the country at their back. Such a disposition of the case would have made the subsequent history of the relations between England and the North far different. As it was, the transaction left a rankling wound. Many Americans thought that their country had been humiliated by being obliged to submit to a peremptory demand. Chase, in his opinion during the Cabinet Council, expressed that view. While giving his adhesion to the conclusion at which the Secretary of State has arrived, he said, it is gall and wormwood to me. Rather than consent to the liberation of these men I would sacrifice everything I possess.102 Pending the settlement and afterwards, there was a complete misunderstanding between the two countries. The impression prevailed abroad that the North was determined to pick a quarrel with England.103 On the other hand, there was a general belief here that Great Britain only wanted a pretext for a quarrel with the United States. Even among those who did not hold such extreme views a spirit of grim resolution prevailed. I cannot believe, wrote Norton to Lowell, that the English ministry mean warif they do, they will get it and its consequences.104 The misunderstanding arose from each country believing that the chauvinists represented the majority in the other. As a matter of fact, a large majority in England and at the North rejoiced at the peaceful settlement of the Trent difficulty. In the South there was bitter disappointment.105
Note 7. Montgomery Blair, Postmaster-General, and F. P. Blair, Jr. [back]
Note 8. This paragraph also confiscated the real and personal property of the Confederates in Missouri, but as the reference to slaves gave the proclamation its importance, I have confined my attention to that provision. O. R., III, 466, 469. [back]
Note 9. All these letters but Herndons were written during September. [back]
Note 20. On Oct. 21, occurred on the Potomac above Washington the affair of Balls Bluff in which, owing to mismanagement, the Union forces were defeated. Measured by subsequent battles, the casualties were not large; but the death of Colonel Baker, a dear friend of Lincolns and a popular senator and officer, and the loss to New York, Massachusetts and Pennsylvania of some of the very pride and flower of their young men caused a profound feeling of discouragement all over the North; still there was little tendency to impute this disaster to McClellan, although it occurred in his department. III, 496. The victory greatly elated the Confederate soldiers. [back]
Note 31. During October the Confederates had blocked the navigation of the Potomac by planting batteries on the Virginia side twenty or thirty miles down the river. Webb 13, 168 et seq.; Ropes I, 181, 222; N. & H., IV, 450. [back]
Note 41. The other maritime powers waited for Great Britain to take the lead, because the extent of her dominions and commerce in North America made the question most important to her. Within a few weeks France, Spain, the Netherlands, Prussia and other nations followed her example. Bancroft, II, 176. [back]
Note 72. Mackay visited the United States in 1857 and wrote a book on the country. During his visit he was entertained by Seward, who saw him again in London in 1859. Seward had a high regard and friendship for him. In February, 1862, he was appointed New York correspondent of the London Times to supplant Davis, whose proclivities were entirely Northern. Life, W. H. Russell, II, 92. [back]
Note 105. Authorities: O. R., II, II; C. F. A. M. H. S., XLV; Bancroft; N. & H.; Seward; Earl Russell; Palmerston; Delane; Martin; Lyons; Life W. H. Russell; Russell; Pierce; C. F. A. Adams; Welles, L. & S.; Lossing; Lothrop; Harris; R. H. Dana; Forbes; Pearson; Lecky; McClellan; III; Lect. I have been much indebted to Charles F. Adamss paper on The Trent Affair. M. H. S., XLV. [back]