150 Years Ago This Week: Pride swallowed, hearts torn

December 1861

Lord Lyons
Lord Lyons

Tensions between the United States and Great Britain over the Trent affair were high as Christmas week in 1861 dawned. In Washington on Dec. 23, Lord Lyons, the British ambassador, conferred again with Secretary of State Seward. Lyons formally and officially presented the British note demanding the surrender of Confederate commissioners Mason and Slidell.

A Cabinet conference was also held in the White House on the topic, with Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner urging President Lincoln to surrender the commissioners, now a cause of much embarrassment to the U.S. With the threat of an armed conflict looming between the U.S. and Great Britain, which would greatly enhance the stature of Secretary of State Seward, the President gently admonished him, “one war at a time, Mr. Seward.” Out in Missouri and in Kentucky, minor military operations continued.

Many hearts were torn on the first Christmas Eve of the War – North and South – and many a soldier on a lonely and inactive post dreamed of home and fireside. In the Union Army and in the Confederate Army, Christmas would not be the same. The U.S. Congress passed a bill on Dec. 24 increasing duties on tea, coffee, molasses and sugar. On Christmas Day, the shooting did not stop for the holiday. A blockade-runner was captured off Cape Fear, North Carolina, and there was fighting at Wadesburg, Mo.; at Cherry in western Virginia; near Fairfax Courthouse, Va., and near Fort Frederick, Md.

In Washington, President Lincoln had a full schedule, with a Cabinet meeting called to discuss the British demands for the release of Mason and Slidell. A decision was to be made the next day. That evening, many guests were entertained by the Lincolns at a Christmas dinner party.

In the Cabinet meeting on Thursday, Dec. 26, it was finally agreed that the Federal seizure of  Mason and Slidell en route to Europe aboard a British ship was an illegal act, and that they would be released by the U.S. Lord Lyons received the message, and the crisis between the U.S. and the U.K. was over. The U.S. government swallowed its pride, stating that the seizure of the commissioners in November by Capt. Charles Wilkes was a “misunderstanding” on the part of the captain of the USS San Jacinto. Seward ordered the release of Mason and Slidell from Fort Warren in Boston Harbor.

Tragedy of a different nature took place in Washington on the day after Christmas, when a fire in the government stables on the grounds of the National Observatory killed over 150 horses. In the Indian Territory, there was an engagement between Confederate Indians and Texans and pro-Union Creek Indians under Chief Opothleyahola. After severe losses, the Creeks fled, heading towards Kansas. At his home in Powhatan County, Va., Confederate Brig. Gen. Philip St. George Cocke, who had distinguished himself earlier in the year, committed suicide. At the mouth of the Savannah River in Georgia, a flotilla of five Confederate ships attacked Federal blockaders and forced them temporarily away from their blockade duties.

In Missouri the same day, Maj. Gen. Henry Halleck proclaimed St. Louis under martial law, and extended his order to cover all railroads in the state. He had also issued orders that anyone caught burning bridges, attacking railroads or telegraph lines would be immediately shot. All of these orders were highly unpopular.

On Friday, Dec. 27, newspapers North and South spread the news of the release of Mason and Slidell. In Washington, Congressman Alfred Ely of New York arrived from Richmond. He had been a spectator at the Battle of Manassas in July and had been captured by the Confederates when they overran the routed Union Army in the race to get back to the safety of Washington. In Virginia, Union and Confederate troops were settling in for the winter, building huts and quarters. Fighting between opposing troops took place on Dec. 28 at Grider’s Ferry on the Cumberland River and at Sacramento, both in Kentucky. In an engagement near Mt. Sion Church in Missouri, some 900 Confederates stationed there under Brig. Gen. Benjamin Prentiss were dispersed. At Beckley, western Virginia, then called Raleigh Courthouse, Federal troops occupied the town.

Arthur Candenquist
About Arthur Candenquist 194 Articles
A long-time historian, researcher, lecturer and author, Arthur Candenquist serves as secretary-treasurer of the Rappahannock County Sesquicentennial Committee. He can be reached at AC9725@cs.com.