L. E. (Lucius Eugene) Chittenden.

Recollections of President Lincoln and his administration online

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"it is the desire of the War Department, in relinquishing
the services of this gallant regiment, to make known the
satisfaction that is felt at the prompt and patriotic man-
ner in which it responded to the call for men to defend
this capital when it was believed to be in peril, and to
acknowledge the important service which it rendered
by appearing here in an hour of dark and trying ne-

I knew many members of the Seventh personally, and
saw much of them during their thirty days' service.
I thought then, and I have never since changed the
opinion, that, in the succession of stirring events, the
public attention was so diverted that the regiment failed
to receive that full measure of appreciation which its


services deserved. The debt which the republic owes
for its gallant service was largely due to the cool judg-
ment and splendid, soldierly accomplishments of Marshal
Lefferts, its colonel and commander.



IT has been stated already that no attempt would be
made to arrange these notes as a connected history or
in chronological order. There were weeks and some-
times months when great events were happening, but
when no time could be spared for any but official duties.
Occasionally it was possible to record memoranda of
some occurrence of special importance of which I hap-
pened to have knowledge. One of these was the " Trent
affair " as it was called, which, because it so clearly illus-
trates the influence and statesmanship of Secretary Sew-
ard, I thought worthy of particular notice, and which
may as well be presented in the present connection.

The " Trent affair" was an incident of the war which
furnished the only occasion within my recollection when
the judgment of a substantial majority of the people
was reversed by the publication of a single state paper.

Before the commencement of hostilities there were
good reasons for anticipating the friendship of Great
Britain for the loyal North. The relations of that power
to slavery alone would have furnished a basis for such a
hope, which was confirmed by the leading English jour-
nals. The London Times had declared that " the seces-
sion of states and the formation of a new confederacy are
events which this journal has always declared to be im-
possible ;" " that should the clamor of secession, by any
chance, be carried too far, and the threat, uttered in jest
or earnest, lead to bloodshed, . . . Mr. Lincoln will in


that case command a majority in Congress, and carry
with him the support of all those who, however tolerant
of slavery, will not acquiesce in its becoming the basis
of a hostile and illegal confederacy." The Saturday
Review had declared that " the dissolution of the Union,
so far from being hailed as a profitable transaction, will
be lamented in this country (England). ... It is a truth,
absolutely certain, that any policy will miscarry which
assumes that England can be coaxed or bribed into a
connivance at the extension of slavery." Less influen-
tial papers teemed with similar articles.

During the first six months of the war, there was an
extraordinary change in the sentiments of the English
people. The Times proclaimed that "there must be
two federations on no other footing will peace ever be
made." " In our opinion, the forcible subjugation of the
South will prove a hopeless task." The Saturday Re-
view said that it was " the unanimous opinion of nine-
teen out of twenty educated Englishmen that a more
hopeless enterprise than the reconquest of the South by
the Federal government has never been projected by any
ancient or modern state." " The North is just as fool-
ish for trying to reconquer the South, as Xerxes was
when he led half the world against Athens, or as Na-
poleon was when he led Europe against Kussia." Mr.
Koebuck regarded "the attempt of the North in en-
deavoring to restore the Union by force as an immoral
proceeding, totally incapable of success." And even
Mr. Gladstone said that " Mr. Jefferson Davis has made
of the South a nation, and separation is as certain as any
event, yet future and contingent, can be."

With this change of opinion had arisen a popular de-
mand in Great Britain for the recognition of the South-
ern Confederacy by the great powers of Europe. It was


apparent that Great Britain was prepared for such rec-
ognition whenever France would join her, and that a
very small excuse would suffice to induce her to act in
the matter without further delay. There was one inci-
dent referred to by Mr. Bright in his celebrated speech
at Rochdale, which almost savored of contempt of the
North in the British Cabinet. Fully alive to the import-
ance of amicable relations with Great Britain, the United
States government had commissioned Mr. Charles Fran-
cis Adams, one of its first statesmen, as its represen-
tative at the Court of St. James. On the day of his
arrival in London, but without waiting for any com-
munication with him, the British Cabinet published a
proclamation, intended to prepare the way for a full rec-
ognition of the Confederacy, and which unmistakably
evinced the ultimate purpose in that respect of the Brit-
ish crown.

The defeat of Bull Run appeared to be hailed in Eng-
land with delight. It apparently determined the party
in power to settle the fate of the Union without further
postponement. From this time, until the final capture
of the army of General Lee in April, 1865, the possibil-
ity that the rebellion might be suppressed was scarcely
admitted in Great Britain. Mr. Bright, and perhaps
half a dozen others, were the only leading Englishmen
willing to speak a friendly word for the North, and
every act of our government was performed under the
impending danger of a recognition of the Confederacy,
a disregard of the blockade, and the actual intervention
of Great Britain in our attempt to suppress an insurrec-
tion upon our own territory.

On the 17th of November, 1861, the United States
steamer San Jacinto arrived at Fortress Monroe with
Messrs. Mason and Slidell prisoners on board. Captain


Wilkes, her commander, immediately reported to the
Navy Department that, learning that these parties had
been appointed on some diplomatic mission from the
Southern Confederacy to Great Britain and France, and
had run the blockade, reaching Havana from Charleston,
expecting to depart from the former place on the 7th of
the month in the English steamer Trent for St. Thomas,
on their way to England, he had intercepted the Trent,
in the Bahama Channel, on the 8th of November, about
two hundred and forty miles from Havana, brought her
to by firing a shell across her bows, and had forcibly
captured from her Messrs. Mason and Slidell, with their
secretaries, and now held them on board his ship in
Hampton Koads. Detailed reports of all the officers
concerned in the capture, with the protest of the Con-
federate envoys, and Captain Wilkes's reply thereto, ac-
companied the account of the capture.

On the receipt of this report, Mr. Welles, the Secretary
of the Navy, congratulated Captain Wilkes, and stated
that his "conduct in seizing these public enemies was
marked by intelligence, ability, decision, and firmness,
and has the emphatic approval of this Department."
On the first day of the December Session of Congress,
the House of Eepresentatives passed a resolution, ten-
dering the thanks of Congress to Captain Wilkes for the
capture and arrest of Mason and Slidell.

As soon as the facts reached the State Department,
which was some time about the first of December, Secre-
tary Seward addressed a note to the American Minister
in London, which he was requested to read to Earl Kus-
sell, stating that the action of Captain Wilkes was with-
out a/ny instructions from his government, and that he
trusted that the British government would consider
the subject in a friendly temper. The first information,


therefore, received by Great Britain from our govern-
ment, after the capture, announced that it was made
without authority, and declared the willingness of the
United States to consider the questions which it in-
volved upon settled principles of international law.

The first communication from Earl Russell in relation
to the capture indicated a very different temper. It
was sent by a special messenger to Lord Lyons, who
was directed to inform Secretary Seward of its con-
tents. It declared that the act of Captain Wilkes was
an aifront to the British flag, and a violation of inter-
national law. It announced that " the liberation of the
four gentlemen named and their delivery to your lord-
ship, together with a suitable apology for the aggression,
alone would satisfy the British nation." With this de-
mand came information of the public excitement in
England upon the first reception of the news of the capt-
ure, and of the action of the British authorities, which
appeared to indicate their purpose to force the two coun-
tries into a war.

As soon as the telegram announcing the boarding of
the Trent by a Federal vessel of war was received in
Liverpool, a placard was posted on the Exchange an-
nouncing the "outrage on the British flag," and calling
a public meeting. This meeting was presided over by
Mr. James Spence, who, upon taking the chair, read a
resolution calling upon the government to assert the
dignity of the British flag by requiring prompt repara-
tion for this outrage. The resolution offered by Mr.
Spence was carried by a tremendous majority.

The English Cabinet took its cue from the Liverpool
meeting. Knowing that the capture was the unauthor-
ized act of Captain "Wilkes, and that precedents were
not wanting of similar acts committed by British offi-


cers, and defended as lawful by the British government,
the first act of Earl Kussell was to despatch the per-
emptory demand referred to. It was afterwards known
that the demand was first framed in language so offen-
sive that our government would have been compelled to
reject it on that account, and that its terms were greatly
moderated by the intervention of the amiable husband
of the queen. The last note ever written by the prince
consort was the one suggesting a modification of the
peremptory character of the British demand, and ex-
pressing the hope that Captain Wilkes had acted with-
out instructions, or that, if he had instructions, that he
misapprehended them. An intimation from so high a
quarter could not be disregarded, and the despatch was
modified as Prince Albert suggested. His death oc-
curred only a few days later. For this noble act of
friendship he deserved the gratitude of all loyal Ameri-

Before the messenger intrusted with Earl Eussell's
letter had left her shores, the ports of the United King-
dom resounded with preparations for war. Steam trans-
ports were chartered, a large number of troops ordered
to Canada, the Guards were directed to prepare for im-
mediate, active service, all the saltpetre in the British
islands was seized, and every possible preparation made
to attack us with the whole naval and military force of
the empire the instant the demand of Earl Kussell was
refused. The press wrought itself up to fury. It in-
sisted that Captain Wilkes and Lieutenant Fairfax must
be reprimanded and dismissed from the United States
Navy ; the rebel envoys delivered up ; atonement must
be made for the shot and shell fired, without notice, at
a steamer conveying the royal mail, and in the words of
the Morning Chronicle, Congress " must sit down, like


ancient Pistol, to eat the leek it had insultingly brand-
ished in British faces !"

At the same time, all the Confederate sympathizers
in the North were seized with a violent attack of pa-
triotic indignation. With one voice they declared that
the insult offered by England was mortal, and that even
the moderate measure of self-respect which the Lincoln
Cabinet was supposed to possess required the rejection
of the British demand in equally insulting terms. Many
newspapers of similar tendencies added fuel to the
flames. Clement L. Yallandigham, on the 20th of De-
cember, 1861, introduced in the House of Representa-
tives a resolution which recited the capture of the
envoys, who were conspirators, rebel enemies, and dan-
gerous men, for which Captain Wilkes had received the
approval of the Navy Department, and the thanks of
Congress, with mention of the request made to the Presi-
dent by the House of Representatives, that he should
confine Mason and Slidell in the cells of convicted felons,
until certain military officers of the United States should
be treated as prisoners of war, and then resolved that
it was the duty of the President firmly to maintain the
stand thus taken, approving and adopting the act of Cap-
tain Wilkes, in spite of any menace or demand of the
British government, and pledging to him the support of
the House in thus upholding the honor and vindicating
the course of the government and people of the United
States against a foreign power. This resolution was re-
ferred, without debate, ,to the Committee of Foreign

It must not be forgotten that over and over again Great
Britain had exercised the right which she now denied to
us. The London Times afterwards declared that "un-
welcome as the truth may be, it is nevertheless a truth,


that we (Great Britain) have ourselves established a sys-
tem of international law which now tells against us."
The Saturday Review, a fierce Tory sheet, said that " it
must in fairness be admitted that the outrage was not so
glaringly in excess of belligerent rights as to be recog-
nized in its true character until after a careful study of
precedents and legal authorities." Professor Newman,
one of the highest of British authorities in international
law, stated that the liberties taken by English ships
against the Americans, in the war with Napoleon, were
as like the act of Captain Wilkes as two peas, in a moral
point of view, and that Great Britain would have to pull
the beam out of her own eye before instituting a search
after the mote in her neighbor's. In fact, the proof was
abundant that for the last one hundred years that power
had always exercised this right, especially against weaker

It is also undeniable that this demand of England
stirred to its depths the indignation of many patriotic
citizens of the loyal states. The United States had upon
its hands the most gigantic rebellion the world had ever
seen ; it had met with disasters in the field ; every re-
source was being employed in raising and equipping
another army ; the leaders of opinion in Great Britain
almost unanimously predicted defeat, and spoke of the
enterprise "to restore a defunct Union" as "altogether
hopeless." The demand of the English premier under
these circumstances must have been intended to deliver
us an insult which we could not resent, or, if we would
not endure the humiliation, which would drive our peo-
ple into a war, and so give Great Britain what she so
much desired, a pretext for joining hands with the South
and disrupting the Union. In either aspect, the act was
discreditable to a nation in which loyalty to the rules of


fair fighting has always been supposed to be as universal
as loyalty to its sovereign.

The two countries were saved from a war which could
have had none but evil consequences by the good sense
of President Lincoln and of two statesmen, their respec-
tive representatives Lord Lyons and William H. Sew-
ard. Lord Lyons was a model Englishman. His sub-
stantial frame and broad shoulders furnished a suitable
support to a head well provided with solid sense. An
open face and clear blue eyes indicated the sincere and
generous character of the man, and his contempt for
falsehood and meanness. He would have been accepted
as an umpire by any contestant who relied upon justice
and merit alone. He had the traditional love of the
Anglo-Saxon for fair play. He thoroughly understood
the controversy between North and South, and knew
that upon its issue depended the supremacy in the re-
public of freedom or slavery. His sympathies were
heartily with the North ; but he was, at the same time,
a faithful representative of his own nation, and watch-
ful in the protection of her interests.

"We have no special information as to what passed be-
tween the English ambassador and Secretary Seward in
their private interviews. But comparing events with
the character of the men, we may pretty safely assume
that the reading of Earl Russell's pronunciamento did
not disturb the equanimity of either. Probably, after
knocking the ashes from his cigar, Lord Lyons observed,
"You will give up the men, Seward, of course! As
prisoners, they may be of consequence enough to cause
a war ; set free, they are no good to anybody. You did
not authorize their capture ; their surrender involves no
dishonor. Say yes, and you may deliver them up at
your own time, and in your own way."


" Your lordship is perfectly right," Secretary Seward
probably said. "Your views are such as we had the
right to anticipate from your justice, and your knowl-
edge of the facts. We don't want these people. You
know, and I am surprised that it did not occur to Earl
Russell, that we could not retain them against his de-
mand, without repudiating the principles for which we
once went to war, and which we have maintained for
half a century. I think I take no risk in asking your
friendly co-operation. Our people will be excited by all
this unnecessary parade of preparation, and the impera-
tive tenor of Earl Russell's demand. We have mischief-
makers among us who will try to arouse opposition to
the surrender, especially if it is made the occasion of dis-
play in one of our larger ports, or to one of your large
vessels. Suppose you name some quiet harbor on the
coast of New England, into which you can safely send
a fourth -class vessel, as the place of delivery. I will
send the prisoners there; you can have them quietly
taken on board and sent on their way."

Possibly a smile spread over the face of the noble lord
as he appreciated the full import of the secretary's sug-
gestion. I had it from good authority, at the time, that
he declared his complete indifference as to the time and
place of surrender, and said that it was all the same to
him whether it was made in New York Bay, or in the
harbor of a fishing village on Cape Cod. In fact, it im-
pressed him as a duty to conform to the wishes of the
secretary in the matter of the surrender. The only
other point upon which the secretary insisted was that
the despatch of Earl Russell dealt with questions of such
grave international importance as to render a hasty an-
swer highly improper, and he might find it necessary to
take all the time consistent with diplomatic usages to


frame a suitable reply. This was also assented to ; the
representatives of the two countries had come to a per-
fect understanding, and they separated on the best of
terms. In fact, the answer of Mr. Seward was shown
to Lord Lyons within twenty-four hours, although it
was not made public until the 27th of December.

The general excitement increased with every hour's
delay. England seized upon the excuse for war. Her gov-
ernment spared no pains to proclaim its warlike purposes.
Tory and Liberal coalesced; Lord Derby was consulted
by the government, and hastened to its support. He
suggested to ship-owners to instruct the captains of out-
ward-bound ships to signal to any English vessels they
might meet that war was extremely probable, and the
underwriters approved the statesmanlike suggestion.
Discussion of the affair had been prevented in Congress,
but British threats and warlike preparations so clearly
showed a purpose to bully our government into submis-
sion that the North became a unit against the surrender
of the envoys. Had any greater delay intervened it would
probably have been resisted by force. The sun of De-
cember 26th set, and the night closed in over a danger-
ously angry people.

On the morning of December 27th the clouds had all
disappeared, and the political horizon to the eastward
was quiet and serene. Mr. Seward had poured upon the
angry waves of popular excitement the calming oil of
his answer to Earl Russell's demand, and straightway
the tempest was stilled. At considerable length, with
the impartiality of a judicial opinion, the secretary
summed up the facts of the capture as given by the
British premier, slightly modified by the report of Cap-
tain "Wilkes, and then set forth the demand, divested of
its imperative or disagreeable features. He then added


" some facts which doubtless were omitted by Earl Kus-
sell, with the very proper and becoming motive of allow-
ing them to be brought into the case on the part of the
United States," and concluded by saying that, accord-
ing to the law of nations, the capture in this case was
left unfinished or was abandoned that while Great
Britain might waive the defect, if, on the contrary, she
insists upon it, the United States have no right to retain
the captured persons, the chief benefits of the capture,
by proving them contraband. On the contrary, the vol-
untary release of the Trent must be permitted to draw
after it all its legal consequences. Having thus shown,
as the secretary trusted he had done, " by a very simple
and natural statement of the facts, and an analysis of
the law applicable to them, that this government has
neither meditated, nor practised, nor approved, any de-
liberate wrong in the transaction to which they have
called its attention, it necessarily followed that what has
happened has been simply an inadvertency, consisting in
a departure by a naval officer, free from any wrongful
motive, from a rule uncertainly established, and prob-
ably by the several parties concerned either imperfectly
understood or entirely unknown. For this error the
British government has a right to expect the same rep-
aration that we, as an independent state, should expect
from Great Britain, or from any other friendly nation
in a similar case."

" Nor have I been tempted at all," he continued, " by
suggestions that cases might be found in history where
Great Britain refused to yield to other nations, and even
to ourselves, claims like that which is now before us.
Those cases occurred when Great Britain, as well as the
United States, was the home of generations which, with
all their peculiar interests and passions, have passed


away. She could in no other way so effectually dis-
avow any such injury, as we think she does by assum-
ing now as her own the ground upon which we then
stood. . . .

" The four persons in question are now held in military
custody at Fort "Warren, in the State of Massachusetts.
They will be cheerfully liberated. Your lordship will
please indicate a time and place for receiving them."

In a second despatch to Lord Lyons, dated on the same
30th of November, and received by Lord Lyons on the
18th of December, not intended to be read to Mr. Sew-
ard, the British ambassador had been directed thus:
" Should Mr. Seward ask for delay . . . you will consent
to a delay not exceeding seven days. If, at the end of
that time, no answer is given, or if any other answer is
given except that of compliance with the demands of
her majesty's government, your lordship is instructed
to leave Washington, with all the members of your lega-
tion, and to repair immediately to London." Lord Ly-
ons was also directed to communicate Mr. Seward's an-
swer to Yice-admiral Sir A. Milne, and to the governors
of Canada, Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Jamaica, Ber-
muda, and such other of her majesty's possessions as
might be within his reach.

Mr. Seward's letter went to its mark with the force
and directness of a pointed projectile from one of Sir
William Armstrong's steel guns. A war with Great
Britain in defence of the act of Captain Wilkes would
have been a war resulting from the direct opposite of
the cause for which we waged against the same power
the war of 1812. It, therefore, logically followed that
the menaces, the elaborate preparations to strike us

Online LibraryL. E. (Lucius Eugene) ChittendenRecollections of President Lincoln and his administration → online text (page 10 of 35)