The first winter of the War was upon the people North and South, as the last month of 1861 opened. The conflict, which everyone expected to be over before the end of the Summer, now seemed to be dragging on. On Sunday, Dec. 1, President Lincoln asked some pointed questions about a possible forward movement of the Army of the Potomac under Maj. Gen. George McClellan. “How long would it require to actually get in motion?” Lincoln asked his army commander. In the South, indignation over the Trent affair also shifted to a realization that Confederate commissioners James Mason and John Slidell in Federal hands might be more useful to the Confederacy in forcing foreign recognition than in posts in Britain and France.
The same day, the U.S. gunboat Penguin captured the blockade-runner Albion out of Nassau off the coast of Charleston, S.C. Albion’s rich cargo included arms, ammunition, salt, fruit, provisions, oils, tin, copper, saddles, bridles and cavalry equipment valued at Z100,000.
The second session of the 37th Congress of the U.S. convened in Washington on Monday, Dec. 2, against a background of exasperation over the military defeats of U.S. forces at Ball’s Bluff (Leesburg) and Manassas; over the failure of the army to take action during the Autumn months, and over the Trent affair. There was discontent about the administration of the War and of the nation in general. Slavery was becoming more of an issue of the day. President Lincoln authorized Maj. Gen. Henry Halleck in Missouri to suspend the writ of habeas corpus whenever he found it necessary to do so. A minor engagement at Annandale in northern Virginia was fought, and four Federal gunboats engaged the Confederate steamer Patrick Henry near Newport News, Va. In the two-hour engagement, the Patrick Henry sustained considerable damage.
“The Union must be preserved, and hence, all indispensable means must be employed. We should not be in haste to determine that radical and extreme measures, which may reach the loyal as well as the disloyal, are indispensable.” So wrote President Lincoln in his annual State of the Union message to the Congress on Dec. 3. The President covered many fields, foreign and domestic, as well as reporting on the war effort. He claimed that “the insurrection is largely, if not exclusively, a war upon the first principle of popular government – the rights of the people.” Turning to what he called popular institutions, Lincoln wrote, “Labor is prior to, and independent of, capital. Capital is only the fruit of Labor and could never have existed if Labor had not first existed.” In general he found the condition of the nation good, despite the war, and called again “. . . for the African colonization of free Negroes” – a plan which was becoming more and more a part of Lincoln’s policy. Off the coast of Mississippi, Federal forces occupied Ship Island, in preparation for moving against New Orleans or the Gulf Coast.
On Wednesday, Dec. 4, the U.S. Senate voted 36-0 to expel Sen. John C. Breckinridge of Kentucky. The former Vice President under Buchanan joined the Confederate Army. Queen Victoria in Britain issued a proclamation forbidding the export to the United States of gunpowder, ammunition, firearms and the materials for manufacturing them. The next day, petitions and bills were introduced into the Congress in Washington calling for the abolition of slavery, especially among slaveholders “in rebellion”. According to the reports of the Secretaries of the Army and the Navy, there were, at the moment, 682,971 men in the Army and Navy of the United States.
There were two days of Federal military movements around Port Royal Ferry in So. Carolina culminating on Dec. 6; on Saturday, Dec. 7, in a move to prevent the Confederate evasion of the blockade, the USS Santiago de Cuba under Commodore Daniel Ridgely halted the British schooner Eugenia Smith near the mouth of the Rio Grande River, and seized J.W. Zacharie. Zacharie was a New Orleans merchant and a known Confederate purchasing agent on his way to Europe. This incident greatly added to the heat between the United States and the United Kingdom already created by the Trent affair in November.