Christmas, 1861, was a hectic day in the White House. All three Lincoln sons were home for the holiday. Robert, the eldest, was home from Harvard. Willie and Tad were up to their usual antics, in contrast to their sedate older brother. Willie and Tad were a handful on normal days and with Mary in a tizzy preparing for the big Christmas dinner that night, the two boys 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.
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.
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.
It should be remembered that during the Napoleonic Wars, 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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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 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.