Christmas 1861: A Civil War Christmas, Part 4

Brother Jonathan (Uncle Sam) takes a defiant attitude towards John Bull--like Lincoln and much of the country. Ultimately cool heads--and perhaps Mary's soothing words to her husband--prevailed.

Brother Jonathan (Uncle Sam) takes a defiant attitude towards John Bull–like Lincoln and much of the country. Ultimately cool heads–and perhaps Mary’s soothing words to her husband–prevailed.

Christmas, 1861, was a hectic day in the White House. All three Lincoln sons were there for the holiday, with Robert, the eldest, home from Harvard. Willie and Tad were a handful on normal days and with Mary in a tizzy preparing for the big Christmas dinner that night, they were more underfoot than normal. So, after opening presents, the two younger boys were scooted off to the Taft household where they could play with boys their own age. In this case play consisted of setting off fireworks and firing real guns with live rounds. This left Mary free to make busy for the grand dinner she had planned for that evening.

All the Lincoln family were home for Christmas in the White House in 1861

All the Lincoln family were home for Christmas in the White House in 1861

With Mary absorbed in preparations for the banquet, it was just as well that Abraham was deeply involved with work that morning. In fact, Lincoln convened an emergency Cabinet meeting on Christmas morning to discuss the crisis with Great Britain.

The USS San Jacinto seized two Confederate officials aboard the British packet the RMS Trent, leading to a crisis in relations between Britain and the US.

The USS San Jacinto seized two Confederate officials aboard the British packet the RMS Trent, leading to a crisis in relations between Britain and the US.

On November 8, the USS San Jacinto had stopped an English mail packet, the Trent, traveling between Havana and British St. Thomas. On board were two Rebel officials, Messrs. Mason and Slidell, bearing dispatches for Britain. The two officers of the Rebel government were fair game as far as the United States was concerned and by international law the San Jacinto should have hauled the Trent into port where a prize court would have not only remanded the two Rebel officials into US hands, but have the ship and its cargo seized as well. However, instead the captain just removed the two traitors and their dispatches and let the Trent continue on its journey.

Bear in mind, for many years Britain had arbitrarily stopped US ships on the high seas and kidnapped American seaman to fill their warship’s crews and thought nothing of it. However, when the roles were reversed, Her Majesty’s Government feigned outrage at the incident.

The British Prime Minister, Lord Palmerston, (aka "The Mongoose") used the Trent Affair as a pretext to intervene on behalf of the Confederacy.

The British Prime Minister, Lord Palmerston, (aka “The Mongoose”) used the Trent Affair as a pretext to intervene on behalf of the Confederacy.

Lord Palmerston, the Prime Minister (called by those who knew him The Mongoose), whose party and friends controlled most of the British press, whipped up public sentiment condemning this supposed violation of neutral rights. In truth, although officially neutral, Palmerston and his minions were eager for any excuse to intervene on the side of the Confederacy. Although Great Britain had long outlawed slavery and the slave trade, the American blockade of the Southern ports was driving up the cost of cotton and British Capitalists cared more for their purses than they did for Negro freedom.

Palmerston penned an ultimatum that, unchanged, would surely have been rejected and led to war between the United States and Britain. However, such an ultimatum had first to be approved by Her Majesty, Queen Victoria and her consort, Prince Albert. Neither the queen nor her consort were of like mind with their prime minister.

Prince Albert, Queen Victoria's Consort, although gravely ill, stirred himself out of bed and rewrote Palmerston's inflammatory ultimatum to Lincoln to make it more conciliatory, thereby preventing war between the US and Britain.

Prince Albert, Queen Victoria’s Consort, although gravely ill, stirred himself out of bed and rewrote Palmerston’s inflammatory ultimatum to Lincoln to make it more conciliatory, thereby preventing war between the US and Britain.

At that time, Prince Albert was on his deathbed; yet Albert, summing all his remaining energy, worked on the note to the US, softening its tone and making it as conciliatory as possible. It was this note that was delivered to Abraham Lincoln by the British minister to Washington.

Nonetheless, if the United States did not hand over Mason and Slidell and render a formal apology, there was little doubt it would mean war between the two countries. It was not the sort of Christmas greeting Lincoln had been expecting.

Beginning at ten a.m. on Christmas Day, Lincoln and his Cabinet heatedly debated the British demand and their response to it. Some were for war—a war which the US could not hope to win—others were for submission the terms. Secretary of State Seward, a realist, knew the government had little choice in the matter; others, Lincoln included, felt the US being in the right, should not submit. The debate was at times heated and went on for four hours. The contentious Christmas meeting adjourned without a decision being made. They would meet again on the morrow.

Brother Jonathan (Uncle Sam) takes a defiant attitude towards John Bull--like Lincoln and much of the country. Ultimately cool heads--and perhaps Mary's soothing words to her husband--prevailed.

Brother Jonathan (Uncle Sam) takes a defiant attitude towards John Bull–like Lincoln and much of the country. Ultimately cool heads–and perhaps Mary’s soothing words to her husband–prevailed.

Perhaps it was Mary’s “mid-winter soiree” that evening that mellowed the President; the newly redecorated White House, with a bounty of food, music and an abundance of good cheer that night could not help but have put one in a good mood.

Mary Todd Lincoln in ball gown. Mary had the ability to charm anyone, especially her husband. It may be the Christmas Party she held softened her husband's attitude towards the Trent Affair and prevented a war with Britain.

Mary Todd Lincoln in ball gown. Mary had the ability to charm anyone, especially her husband. It may be the Christmas Party she held softened her husband’s attitude towards the Trent Affair and prevented a war with Britain.

Mary Todd Lincoln may have had her foibles, but when she turned on the charm no one—especially not Abraham—could resist her, and Mary pulled out all the stops for this party. Not even the most snobby of the Virginia Swans that dominated Washington society could have criticized the elegance and vivacity of the banquet that evening. So perhaps indirectly we may credit the First Lady for preventing a war.

What we do know is that the next morning, after feasting on far richer fare the night before, President Lincoln decided to “eat humble pie” and give the British what they wanted. The Cabinet meeting on the 26th was brief; Mason and Slidell would be released into British custody and Secretary Seward would draft an appropriate written reply. That Christmas, if not goodwill to men, at least peace on earth prevailed between the two nations.

For other aspects Abraham Lincoln and the Lincoln presidency, see The Paranormal Presidency of Abraham Lincoln, and my book on esoteric aspects of the War, Ghost and Haunts of the Civil War.  My latest book, Ambrose Bierce and the Period of Honorable Strife, is now out and available at all better bookstores.

Queen Victoria, 1861. Like her husband, she actively sought to avoid war with the United States over the Trent Affair.

Queen Victoria, 1861. Like her husband, she actively sought to avoid war with the United States over the Trent Affair.

P. S. Even Her Majesty had subscribed to the notion that British shipping should not carry foreign agents and their dispatches while the United States had a blockade in place:
Victoria Regina, May 13, 1861: “we do hereby strictly charge … all our loving subjects … to abstain from contravening … our Royal Proclamation … by breaking … any blockade lawfully … established … or by carrying officers … dispatches … or any article or articles considered contraband of war.” (cf. “The Trent Affair” article discussing Lord Palmerston and his machinations: “Controversy Over the Trent Case”, December, 1861.

ambrose-bierce-and-the-period-of-honorable-strife-cover

Ambrose Bierce is famed as a noted American writer, satirist and cynic. Less well known is Bierce’s military career during the Civil War, where he fought with distinction in many of the major battles of the war. Ambrose Bierce and the Period of Honorable Strife chronicles his wartime experiences in depth for the first time.

Ghosts and Haunts of the Civil War (HarperCollins). True uncanny tales of the Civil War.

Ghosts and Haunts of the Civil War (HarperCollins). True uncanny tales of the Civil War.

The Paranormal Presidency of Abraham Lincoln (Schiffer, 2012)

The Paranormal Presidency of Abraham Lincoln (Schiffer, 2012)

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About Christopher Coleman

I am an author, lecturer, and sometime instructor. My interests span a variety of subjects, including Southern tales of the supernatural, American history and folklore, military history in general, as well as archaeology, anthropology, plus various and sundry things that go bump in the night. I currently have six books in print: Strange Tales of the Dark and Bloody Ground, Ghosts and Haunts of the Civil War, Dixie Spirits, Ghosts and Haunts of Tennessee and The Paranormal Presidency of Abraham Lincoln, a factual history of some more esoteric--and hitherto overlooked--aspects the sixteenth President. My book is Ambrose Bierce and the Period of Honorable Strife, published in hardcover by the University of Tennessee Press and chronicling the wartime experiences of young Ambrose Bierce, noted American author. Bierce has been called many things by many people, but idealist, hero and patriot are terms that should be added to the list after reading this book. I am currently at work on several projects, some dealing with the American experience but also several fiction and non-fiction works looking into the Age of Arthur.
This entry was posted in Abraham Lincoln, Christmas, Civil War Christmas, Civil War Leaders, Great American Presidents, The American Civil War, The Trent Affair and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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