In 1863, on this day Confederate President Jefferson Davis and Union President Abraham Lincoln met at Mount Vernon, south of Alexandria, Virginia. The former home of George Washington, although dilapidated and still years away from a full restoration, was one of the few places between Richmond and Washington that could be considered neutral ground.
The Trent AffairThe two men exchanged formalities and then signed a truce agreed to five days earlier by representatives of both governments. Orders were immediately sent to the military forces of both sides specifying how and where they were to be disposed for border defense. Although a state of war still existed, the killing was over.
After the signing, Lincoln walked out to the great lawn in front of the house with his Secretary of State, William Seward. "Seward, I have failed the nation. I do not believe we can long survive as a people now". Seward said nothing, for there was no consoling the President when he was in one of his dark moods. But he knew, as did Lincoln, that continuing the war would have certainly destroyed the nation. It was bitter consolation.
A new story by Matt DattiloIn December, 1861, when Abraham Lincoln announced that the Union would not release James Mason and John Slidell, public response in the north was resoundingly positive. Seven months after the beginning of the War Between the States, it was obvious that the conflict would be a long and bloody one. Armchair strategists on both sides had predicted a short, heroic conflagration, but it was not to be. By the end of 1861, thousands lay dead on both sides and although Union forces had experienced some success in the West, the Confederate army seemed to be unstoppable in the East despite having all the material disadvantages on its side. The northern public needed a solid victory and the continued imprisonment of the two Confederate diplomats filled the bill for a time.
As one can imagine, the response to the imprisonment was somewhat sharper in Richmond and London. Jefferson Davis was outraged that two of his hand-picked diplomats had been taken off a neutral ship in international waters with the thin legal argument that the two men were "contraband". Demands for their immediate release were met with stony silence from Washington.
When word of the capture reached London at the end of November, the outcry from both the British public and government was deafening. Prime Minister Lord Palmerston had steered a course of neutrality with the regard to the American Civil War and even though Confederate ships had been granted access to British ports for refit and replenishment, the war was officially considered an internal matter in which the British Empire would not interfere. In private, though, those knowledgeable of the situation on the other side of the Atlantic considered Confederate victory simply a matter of time. In addition, Britain had strong economic ties to the southern states because of the empire's unquenchable thirst for cotton. In 1860, almost 80% of the southern US cotton crop had been bought by dealers from England. While other sources of raw cotton were available, America was the closest source and the widespread use of slavery on cotton plantations kept prices competitive. With those advantages in mind, many cotton purchasers in England could look the other way when the morality of slavery was discussed.
It was Christmas Eve, 1861 when word of Lincoln's statement concerning Mason and Slidell reached London. In an emergency cabinet meeting the next day, Palmerston called for the reinforcement of Canada with British regulars and the bolstering of the North America and West Indies stations of the Royal Navy with ships culled from the Home Fleet and Mediterranean Squadron. The meeting ended with discussion of a final question: should Britain formally recognize the Confederate States of America and, if so, should military and financial aid be considered? It was a bold proposition and one sure to put the United States on a war footing with England, but as Palmerston put it, "Are we going to let what has been considered an internal issue change how the world recognizes the rights of sovereign nations?"
In the end, it was Washington's lack of response which brought the matter to a head. In February, 1862, the same month in which Lincoln's son Willie died at the age of 11, the British minister to the US, Lord Lyons, asked for a meeting with the President. Lincoln was in mourning, and while Lyons was aware of this he thought the issue of enough importance that he should be granted a meeting without delay. However, Lyons had the unfortunate luck of meeting face-to-face with Secretary of State William Seward, who promptly dismissed Lyons' request as inappropriate. Feeling that he had been treated in a manner not conducive to good diplomacy, he returned to London for consultation, leaving his subordinate in Washington.
For Lord Palmerston and, subsequently, Queen Victoria, this was the last straw. On April 11th, 1862, Britain formally recognized the Confederate States of America and extended the new nation an essentially limitless line of credit. London also declared the blockade of southern ports illegal and stated that any interference with British merchant vessels or warships by ships of the U.S. Navy would be considered an act of war. By the time this declaration reached Washington, the first ships full of rifles and cannons were already crossing the Atlantic.
Although 19th century strategists would not have used the term, Lincoln faced a no-win situation. In 1861, the U.S. Navy consisted of fewer than 80 warships, almost none of them of modern design. A year into the war, most of the ships on blockade duty were lightly-armed converted merchant ships. The British Royal Navy, however, had the largest battle fleet in the world and while it was not the incredible force which had fought Napoleon 50 years earlier, it was more than a match for anything that could be sent to challenge it. If Lincoln ordered the blockade to be enforced against British shipping, a shooting war would quickly develop between the US and British navies, a war that would soon spread to the North American continent.
However, failure to block the British merchant ships and their escorts approaching the ports of the Confederacy would essentially end the blockade and ensure that the South's army was well provided for. The Union had an advantage in manpower, but the rebels had shown, at least so far, that they had the advantage in military leadership. And so Lincoln's option were thin: start a war with the British that his nation could not hope to win under the present circumstances, or allow the Confederacy to be supplied from Europe, a situation that would change the nature of the war.
The truce signed at Mount Vernon in March, 1863 and the treaty signed later that year in London divided the United States into two separate nations. The border states (Missouri, Kentucky and Maryland) were allowed to decide by popular vote which nation they wished to join. All three joined the Confederacy. One important concession won by the Union was the creation of West Virginia, an area of Virginia that was strongly pro-Union. As of January 1st, 1864, the new nation consisted of 14 states. Texas, by far the largest, stretched from the southwest corner of Missouri to the eastern border of southern California. The agricultural heart of the nation remained in Union hands.
The intervention of the British into the Civil War was a mixed blessing for the Confederacy. British arms and financial support helped bring about the truce that ended the war in the South's favor, but that support came with a heavy toll. In helping to ensure the creation of the CSA, the British Empire gained what it had lost 80 years before: a largely agrarian society dependent on British imports of finished goods, some of them made with the raw materials purchased from Southern farmers. While the Union continued to grow what would become the world's largest industrial base by 1900, the Confederacy remained mired in rural stagnation.
Slavery continued in the CSA until 1880. The trans-Atlantic slave trade ended in 1807 and never resumed. Since the United States was under no obligation to return escaped slaves who made it across the Ohio River and other border crossings, a lively escape business developed in which abolitionist groups paid Confederate residents to help slaves escape to the US. While the British officially complained to the US government about this, in practice they paid the controversy nothing but lip service. Most Southerners did not own slaves and many disliked the institution. 16 years after the Treaty of London, the last slaves were freed by a vote of the Confederate Congress.