Wrapped in Flames: The Great American War

Chapter 1: To Light a Fire under Her

"We will wrap the whole world in flames! No power is so remote that she will not feel the fire of our battle and not be burned by our conflagration!" United States Secretary of State William H. Seward as overheard at a diplomatic function by William H. Russell in 1862 during the Trent Crisis.

“So bloody was the march of the revolution, and the impression which it made was the greater as it was one of the first to occur. Later on, one may say, the whole Hellenic world was convulsed; struggles being every, where made by the popular chiefs to bring in the Athenians, and by the oligarchs to introduce the Lacedaemonians. In peace there would have been neither the pretext nor the wish to make such an invitation; but in war, with an alliance always at the command of either faction for the hurt of their adversaries and their own corresponding advantage, opportunities for bringing in the foreigner were never wanting to the revolutionary parties.” - Thucydides, The Peloponnesian War, Chapter X

“The great conflict which erupted across the North American continent in 1861 has gone on to have many names; the Southern Rebellion, the War of Northern Aggression, the War of 1862, the American Civil War, but perhaps the most common name agreed on by all English scholars since Arthur Chambers in his 1919 essay “The Great American War” is the namesake of the essay. Certainly comparisons have been drawn to the great conflict of the later 20th century, and many British observers were equally tempted to liken the conflict waged across North America to the wars against the French from 1792-1815. Perhaps a grandiose comparison, but in terms of the scale of the conflict, the men involved and the cost in blood and treasure, it is not wholly inaccurate.

The war was without a doubt a defining moment in the history of the English speaking world. It has often been said that the 1860s were a decade on which the ideologies of a new age were hammered out upon the anvil of war, certainly an idea which the scholars of the New Men at a later time would happily agree with. The war and its aftermath divided and united nations, forged new alliances, and very much gave rise to the North America and its nations which we know today.

For the beginning of the war itself, few Americans need a lesson on what would divide a nation. The ‘peculiar institution’ of the South had long divided peoples of the industrializing North and the agrarian South. The Founding Fathers unable to find compromise on the matter and assured of its swift demise in a few generations time felt comfortable enough to leave the issue to a perhaps more enlightened generation. Little could they have predicted the sudden surge in the profitability of servile labor with the introduction of the cotton gin. The internal slave trade exploded and the expansion of slavery was seen as an economic necessity by the South. The more abolitionist North, with its increasing industrialization and view of the new territories of the Union as a haven for individual farmers and land owners saw this as anathema to their own view of the nation. The question though, would again be passed down to what it was hoped would be another more enlightened generation. Half-hearted compromise would again be initiated come 1850, but by that time it was too late. The sectional divides over the issue of the right to human bondage were too great, and a mere ten years later one of the most contentious elections in the history of the United States would lead to the division of the nation.

The United States as it existed on the eve of war in 1860 was a prosperous nation, one of the greatest industrial nations in the world, yet still just on the cusp of the powerhouse it would come to be at the dawn of the 20th century, having only a third the manufacturing power of Great Britain. Though not considered as such, the United States of the 19th century was still a power in earnest, not the least challenged in its sphere of influence for a period of well over half a century. It had expanded uninterrupted across the face of the North American continent unchecked save by the British lands in the North and an aversion to the absorption of the more populous Catholic peoples to the south. Indeed with such successful expansion the call of Manifest Destiny and the ‘Union from the Arctic Circle to the Caribbean’ seemed like it would in time be a simple self-fulfilling prophecy, as the preponderance of evidence as to the superiority of American institutions would assert itself upon the peoples of the continent.

The course of history though, as it so often does, would frustrate this prophecy.

As it was, on the eve of war the only true threat to the Union was either from enemies internal, or from those across the Atlantic, namely the great maritime empires of France and Britain. France having few toeholds in the New World was not seen as an imminent danger to the Union. Britain however, was always seen as a potential enemy. However, it seemed at the time the simple realities of economics would overcome such feeling. Indeed despite lingering memories of the 1775-83 conflict and the more recent conflict of 1812-1815 the two nations were each other’s greatest trading partners. Raw American goods (primarily cotton) were exchanged for British capital and machine tools, all of which bankrolled the continuing industrialization of the United States.

This of course was to the primary benefit of the North however, with the expanding industries of New England and the Midwest. The South remained largely an agrarian land of expansive slave plantations and yeoman farmers, with little industry to its name, instead relying on machine tools and cheap manufactured goods from the North to whet its appetite.

Perhaps to better illustrate this point it is best to examine the vast disparity of resources between the states that would form the Southern Confederacy in 1861 and those that would stay with the Union in 1861. In terms of population the North had roughly 22 million inhabitants, of that only 400,000 were enslaved, exclusively in the border states. In the South there were some 9 million inhabitants, 5.6 million free and 3.5 million enslaved. The Union had over 100,000 manufacturing establishments to the South’s mere 18,000. The entirety of the South produced only 36,000 of the 820,000 tons of the nation’s pig iron and only some 900,000 of the 15,000,000 tons of coal produced nationally in 1860.

All of this was subject to change and expansion as the two sides began to mobilize the resources available to them, and the North of course had much greater depth to draw upon.

These comparisons do discount the importance of both foreign capital and resources to the war effort however. The South pinned much of its hopes on the importance of the cotton trade to Europe, with cotton comprising over two thirds of the exports of the United States this did not seem a farfetched goal to many in the South, with the claim that with no cotton “England would topple headlong and carry the whole civilized world with her, save the South.” And to many this rather over the top prediction did not seem completely outside of reality, with many English merchants worrying in 1861 that millions would starve as the mills of the north west shut down and thousands would go on to government relief. On the other side the loss of American trade would be a punishing blow for British exports, with American trade composing one of the largest markets in the British sphere.

However, it cannot be understated how important British goods were to the Union war effort. For instance, in 1860 the United States consumed some 1,216,000 tons of iron in its industrial expansion, yet domestically only produced some 821,000 tons. The remaining 395,000 tons were imported from abroad, including some 122,000 tons of railroad iron. This all mainly came from Britain, which produced some 3.5 million tons of iron in 1860. The United States produced less than 8,000 tons of steel, while Britain produced over 40,000 tons, and the United States had yet to construct a single Bessemer converter. The United States produced 15 million tons of coal in 1860 while in the same year Britain produced over 70 million tons. Most importantly for the war effort perhaps was the production of saltpeter. Prior to the war the United States had enough domestic industry to produce gunpowder for its own needs, but imported the vast majority of its powder from abroad, and the main supplier was Britain with its near monopoly on quality nitre from India. These items were all imported in some quantity in peace time, and on the outbreak of war these imports would nearly double. In terms of sheer industrial power the British Empire far outstripped its American competitor in the 1860s, and when the Union was divided the North’s 21 million inhabitants were outnumbered by the 29 million inhabitants of the United Kingdom, the 3 million British subjects of the North American provinces notwithstanding.

This is not to assume though, that each nation was prepared to go to war with the other. However, both sides nursed a mistrust of the others intentions. The United States resented the British encroachment on her sovereignty when she insisted she had the right to search all ships which might be taking part in the banned African slave trade, and certainly felt chagrined at Britain’s assumption it could simply interdict and challenge trade as it did in the Napoleonic and Crimean Wars. In return Britain nursed old grudges from American support of rebels along the border in the Rebellions of 1837-38, the war mongering over the Oregon Territory and Maine Boundary Dispute, and the perceived favoritism of Russia in the Crimean War when the United States had recalled her Minister to the Court of St. James. However, the election of volatile personalities to the top positions of power in the 1860s on both sides of the Atlantic would merely add to the healthy suspicion each side favored one another with…” To Arms!: The Great American War, Sheldon Foote, University of Boston 1999.

"To put the world in order, we must first put the nation in order; to put the nation in order, we must put the family in order…” – Confucius

“…when on the 1st of October Albert was riding alone in his carriage in Coburg tragedy struck. On his way to a meeting the carriage, drawn by four horses, bolted with sudden alarm. The driver attempted to reign them in to no avail. The carriage struck the rear of another at a railway crossing in a terrific crash. The driver fell into the seething mass of braying horseflesh but managed to escape relatively unharmed. The Prince Consort was not so lucky.

It is believed that due to the pain from stomach cramps his attempt to jump clear ended with him tumbling from a sudden cramp which meant he fell into the worst possible position as upon impact the carriage crashed and flipped sending Albert hurtling from his seat. He landed two feet away at an unfortunate angle breaking an arm and suffering a serious head wound which rendered him unconscious. He failed to awake an hour later, and at 9pm he was pronounced dead.

Victoria immediately went into grieving, and all of Britain joined her…” A Biography of the House of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha, Nigel Loring, Oxford University, 2011

In raiding and plundering be like fire – Sun Tsu

Pursuit of the raiders
“…When the civil war in the United States broke out in April of 1861 the British government in London adopted a policy of neutrality. However, events would transpire which would end up testing that neutrality to the limits. Starting in September 1861 with the St. Albans Raid and continuing up to January 25th 1862 the normally friendly relations between Great Britain and the United States would deteriorate…” To Arms!: The Great American War, Sheldon Foote, University of Boston 1999.

“On the morning of October 10th 1861 three men checked themselves into a local hotel in St. Albans Vermont. They claimed they were from Saint John’s in Canada (East) and had come to Vermont to have a ‘hunting trip’ which was not unusual for men of middling wealth as they appeared to be. However over the next week they rarely left the hotel and were steadily joined by nineteen more men. Finally the group struck on the morning of the 19th of October.

The men proclaimed themselves to be in service to the government of the Confederate States of America and acting under orders to collect funds for the war effort.

They acted quickly, rounding up the villagers at gun point. Several tried to resist as shouted orders to assemble and Confederate proclamations were called. Two men were killed, one wounded, and a woman injured in the crossfire but the Confederates seized the town with little difficulty. Nine men held the villagers while the others separated the bank tellers and forced them to open the vaults of the three banks in town. Before they did this they were compelled to swear allegiance to the Confederate States of America, therefore making them accomplices to the robbery (or so the raiders claimed). That done they managed to seize a total of 209,000$ from the three banks, all of the towns horses and over two dozen bottles of liquor. Before they left they tossed incendiary devices at three buildings but these failed to ignite and only burnt down one shed while badly damaging one homes porch.

The men rode like hell for the border and pursuit was not joined for over six hours allowing a clean escape.

These raiders, not being mere bandits, were actually a band of some twenty five Confederate soldiers selected for special service along the British North American frontier. Commissioned by the government in Richmond to “set a fire along the border” with the intent of both pulling Union forces away from the war to the South, and by violating British neutrality they hoped to pull Great Britain into the internecine warfare raging through the United States. It was hoped this would both alleviate the pressure on the Confederacy while also securing foreign recognition thus achieving a fait accompli in diplomatic negotiations with the other nations of the world and thereby dealing fatal blow to Union diplomacy.

The men were led by the daring Confederate cavalry commander John Hunt Morgan, and organized into a quick raiding force meant to cause terror and panic while wreaking havoc behind Union lines. Here he also hoped to steal enough money to fund further campaigns

The raiders next struck six days later, raiding Franklin Vermont on the 23rd in a morning raid seizing the bank teller while starting several fires to distract the townsfolk. They made off with a further 45,000$ but suffered one killed in a gun fight with armed townsfolk. They again escaped across the border. This time though they were closely pursued by a militia posse.

However, the raiders had split into two groups at this point. The other, under the energetic young lieutenant Bennet H. Young, had split off to deposit their winnings while the others were to lead the posse to the nearest Canadian settlement then disperse. The first thing they found however was a Canadian militia patrol which arrested them immediately. The militia met up with their Americans counterparts who began demanding immediate custody of the fugitives, while the Canadians refused, insisting they be tried in local courts. There was a tense standoff over the next hour while the two sides negotiated.

There was a reluctant agreement and the American militia returned home to inform their government of these events. Meanwhile Young and his men were captured in St. John in an ironic turn of events, and soon all the raiders were held there awaiting trial…” A History of Special Forces, James Rawles, University of Moscow, 2001

Capture of the Confederate Envoys
“On November 7th 1861 the Royal Mail Steam Packet R.M.S Trent left Havana harbor bound for St. Thomas and then England. She was carrying the usual dispatches and passengers, but she had two last minute passengers as well. James Mason and John Slidell had recently made a dash to Cuba in order to board a steamer bound for England. They were the representatives chosen by the Confederate States government in Richmond to act as envoys to France and England. The government in Washington had been tracking them and was anxious to capture them in order to prevent any possible recognition of the rebel states. Thankfully these two men would steam almost directly into the hands of USN captain Charles Wilkes…

…Aboard the deck of the USS San Jacinto Wilkes held an impromptu prize court. This was not unusual of Wilkes’s brash and aggressive style of command. It had often been said that had a reputation as a stubborn, overzealous, impulsive, and sometimes insubordinate officer, with Treasury Officer George Harrington writing so Seward saying: "He will give us trouble. He has a superabundance of self-esteem and a deficiency of judgment. When he commanded his great exploring mission he court-martialed nearly all his officers; he alone was right, everybody else was wrong." So the quick and abrupt nature of his decision was not unusual and he needed to make the best of a potentially bad situation. He announced his intention to take stop the Trent and search her for contraband, and seize any Confederates he found aboard. Amazingly none of his officers disagreed with his decision and he proceeded to steam alongside the Trent and fired a warning shot. The Trent had the Union Jack raised high and at first ignored the shot. The second shot however was something which could not be safely ignored and she slowed to allow herself to communicate with a launch party from the San Jacinto

…almost immediately Lieutenant Fairfax ran into trouble. The crew and passengers of the ship were belligerent and when he announced his intention to seize the ship as a prize a fight broke out between two of the crew and his marines. Though it was quelled almost immediately the passengers proved utterly unwilling to cooperate with Fairfax’s instructions and did everything they could to hamper the search of the ship. Finally events came to a head when Richard Williams (a Royal Navy officer in charge of the ships dispatches) bluntly refused to allow the Confederate envoys bags to be searched after being caught attempting to hide them. Although it is unclear what happened it is known a fight ensued between Williams and Fairfax which ended in Williams shot dead. Since only Williams, Fairfax and two marine escorts were present at the time of the altercation the truth of the matter will almost certainly never be known, however all present asserted that Fairfax shot in self-defence after Williams verbally lashed out and Fairfax shouted back, events after are somewhat confused however with one claim that Williams assaulted Fairfax and another that it was an accident assumed in self-defence. The news of the death spread quickly and the remaining passengers and crew settled into reluctant compliance as the commissioners were hauled from the boat and the Trent again set adrift in an uncertain sea…”
A History of Diplomatic Blunders, Friedrich Kaufmann, Imperial University, Moscow, 1969
Chapter 2: Sparking a Riot
“Those wars are unjust that are undertaken without provocation. For only a war waged for revenge or defense can be just.” – Cicero

“News of the St. Albans raid arrived in London on November 4th 1862. There was immediate alarm in the Cabinet, Admiralty, and War Department. There was also outrage. For their part the British government had adhered to strict neutrality thus far in the conflict. Her subjects however, had been of middling ground. In Bermuda the economy was again booming thanks to blockade runners, and British ship builders had made a tidy profit from financing and constructing such vessels (it was only the colonial Spanish government in Cuba which made more through such adventures), and many in the aristocracy either openly supported the Confederacy or were quietly sending funds to aid it.

Despite this, the government’s position was clear, and her Prime Mintser, Henry John Temple, the 3rd Viscount Palmerston, or simply Lord Palmerston, rigidly adhered to it. The 77 year old Palmerston was born into a world of aristocratic privilege, and for most of his early life was a young and sickly man, and while studying at Cambridge his classmates would classify him as ‘charming, but lacking a certain zest’ but quickly earned a reputation as a ladies man gaining the moniker ‘Lord Cupid’ from the press, while his political peers found him ‘pompous and pendantic’. His quirks aside, Palmerston quickly gained position in the British government, grabbing a seat in the House of Commons in 1807, becoming Secretary of War in 1809 and holding that position until 1828, in 1830 gaining his place as the British Foreign Minister, a position he would hold three times between 1830 and 1851 before becoming Home Secretary in 1852. He would hold the office of Prime Minister twice.

In politics Palmerston quickly proved himself a shrewd adversary. Though not holding popular liberal sentiments on democracy, much preferring to “pepper the faces of the mob” he proved more than able to harness British liberal sentiments for his own ends. In foreign policy his supreme goal was the maintenance of British interests and the successful maintenance of the status quo. He deftly used Britain’s wealth and influence to navigate the many potential crises of post-Napoleonic Europe. His greatest political coup would be unseating the Aberdeen government over its poor handling of the Russian War and his vigorous prosecution of the war and desire to weaken Russia lead to the Allies seeing through the Siege of Sevastopol and gaining preferable terms to the Treaty of Paris in 1856.
However, Palmerston’s regular use of force in diplomatic crisis with other nations (pioneering the concept of gunboat diplomacy) often rankled the other powers of Europe, and would lead to conflicts which could have been avoided. He also carried a particular chip on his shoulder regarding Britain’s North American rival, not unusual for an aristocrat of the Victorian Era. He viewed the national flag as “a piece of bunting” and felt democracy was a degenerate form of government. The espoused philosophy of Manifest Destiny was “inherently aggressive” and a threat to British interests. He did not see the need for intervention in the American Civil War however, cautioning that “Those who in others quarrels interpose, will often get a bloody nose” to more hawkish members of the Commons.
Palmerston was however, partial to a Confederate victory. He believed that secession was inevitable and that through force of arms the Confederacy would tear the United States apart and in doing so alleviate many of Britain’s concerns regarding her security on the American continent and remove a potential rival to British power in the process. He was said to be in a good mood whenever he heard of Confederate victories and had treated the news of secession with “undisguised delight” and would often refer to the United States as “the Disunited States of America” in his correspondence. Since the beginning of the crisis though, he had pushed for further security in British North America, fearing that the Americans would “seek to compensate their loss of the Southern states with gains in the North” and in doing so challenge British dominion.

To compensate he had consistently proposed since the start of the crisis in 1860 for the reinforcement of the garrison in the Canadas to be increased to ten thousand men. In this he had been consistently opposed by his Chancellor of the Exchequer, William Gladstone.

He and Gladstone had never seen eye-to-eye on any subject, but specifically on issues of foreign policy, civil reform, Church reform, and those of defense. The invasion scare brought on by tensions with the French over their intervention in Italy had led to ill-founded fears of a cross Channel invasion (Palmerston famously saying, “the Channel has been bridged by steam”) prompting a series of proposals for fortifications along the coasts and major ports. Gladstone had immediately cited the costs of such fortifications and bemoaned the entire process, despite Palmerston eventually getting his way. When the Civil War broke out Palmerston and Gladstone had immediately been at odds once again over the matter of spending. Though both men supported neutrality the two men were at immediate odds on how Britain should compose herself. Palmerston advocated for a strong show of force to ensure the North would not seek to compensate herself with British possessions in North America and so demanded the reinforcement and strengthening of their military positions in the Canadas and Maritimes. Gladstone instead advocated caution and restraint seeing the measures as unnecessary in the face of inevitable Southern secession, expensive, and certain to irritate the United States which might inadvertently galvanize them to hasty action, something he argued that Britain should be keen to avoid in terms of expenses involved and the potential blow to her trade.

Once news the St. Albans Raid and Trent Affair both reached the offices of Parliament it became clear to most observers that Palmerston had the right of it. Upon hearing of the Border Raids he told the cabinet that, “A show of strength is now most preferable, lest either side determine they can steer British policy through acts of violence and intimidation.” News of the Trent Affair further discredited Gladstone’s softer approach in both the eyes of the Cabinet and the British public.

The stopping of a British ship had outraged the British public, and the death of a British officer merely added injury to insult. There was uproar in even the most Union friendly parts of the country over the ‘piratical actions’ of Captain Wilkes. Palmerston was said to have angrily stormed into the emergency cabinet meeting throwing his hat on the table and proclaiming "I don't know whether you are going to stand this, but I'll be damned if I do."…

…Though the Cabinet had met earlier in November and agreed to Palmerston’s demand for more troops in the America’s it was now decided a further show of force was necessary. On November 10th three thousand men had been ordered ready to cross the Atlantic to the Canada’s, much to Palmerston’s pleasure. However, First Lord of the Admiralty Edward Seymour, First Duke of Somerset, continuously put off the issue of reinforcing the North Atlantic or West Indies squadrons, despite repeated pleas from Admiral Milne and Lord Russell earlier in the year to reinforce them lest they prove weaker in comparison to those of France in the region. Constant arguments failed to move him and he had continuously put off the issue citing ‘other pressing matters’ and parroted Gladstone’s concerns about expense while dismissing the concerns of Milne and Russell as ‘alarmist’. Recent events moved him to sluggish action, his only earlier concession had been to grudgingly assent to the dispatch of a Royal Navy officer, some aides, a company of Royal Marines, and a quartermaster to see what could be done at Kingston to prepare the regions defences.

The seizure of the Trent and death of a British subject had forced him into making much begrudged plans of action. Rear-Admiral Milne was immediately reinforced with ships, bringing the strength of his squadron up to some forty vessels with others being prepared for service. He still attempted to hold forces back however, fearing British distraction in North America would galvanize France into action on the continent.

The diplomatic correspondence from France on the 29th of November put these fears to rest however, and allowed for more, much grander schemes to be hatched. War plans were made and it was determined to send some thirty-thousand troops to North America to be on station in case of the outbreak of war, with potentially more to be dispatched if war broke out…” Empire and Blood: British Military Operations in the 19th Century Volume IV.

Lord Palmerston and William Gladstone

“The reaction of Britain’s North American colonies to the twin troubles of the border raid and the stopping of the Trent was twofold. When news of the border raid became known, Governor-General Monck had called on the Provincial Government to call out its militia, which was duly done come October 25th. The population as a whole was split on the issue of the raiders, with some papers such as the Globe denouncing them as simple bandits who violated Canada’s neutrality, while more pro-Southern papers such as the Montreal Gazette praising them as dashing heroes who were taking the fight to the Imperious North. Though the violation of Canadian territory was seen as an annoyance, there was little concern the event would cause a serious diplomatic rupture among the populace as a whole, and most were quite content to get on with their lives as though the war were a far away problem which need not concern them.

The reports of the events on the Trent caused far more concern than a cross border raid. In general, the response of the population towards the seizure and the death of Captain Williams was outrage. The deep seeded loyalty to Britain mixed with a long standing mistrust of their neighbors south of the border, whom many regarded as inherently violent and immoral[1], put a suspicious light on any news coming from Washington. The general feeling of the populace was that war was on the horizon and most acted accordingly.

Though the already existing battalions of volunteer militia had been called out at the end of October, the sedentary militia companies spontaneously organized and began to drill with whatever came to hand. This response was similar to events in 1837 when in the absence of regular troops and the smell of rebellion in the air, the local volunteers had formed together into ad hoc battalions and seen the rebels off themselves. Here now they had the support of the local regulars, and the enthusiastic support from the Imperial Government in Quebec, which saw this as a hopeful sign that the Canadians could be encouraged to begin working towards their own defence. The Provincial Government itself was quick to encourage men to turn out to drill, but less enthusiastic about adding to the need to pay for yet more militia.

The people themselves though took to the task of gathering with aplomb, even if the issue was accepted less than uniformly by different segments of the populace. In Canada West the rural and urban battalions saw enthusiastic turn out for drill and there was talk of war in every city and hamlet. It was assumed that they Yankees would cross the border and be driven off just as they had been in 1812, and just as Mackenzie and his misguided Patriots had been in 1837 and 1838.

In Canada East, it was a different matter. While in cities like Quebec and Montreal the support for the militia was high, especially amongst the English merchants and landowners, in the rural areas support was very much mixed. While in border regions like Huntingdon the support of the local people for the militia was near unanimous, in regions like Richelieu it was low. This was especially true in the former six counties, the seat of the 1837 uprising. The people there were loath to support military service, and resentment towards the government in Quebec had still not entirely faded. Over the rest of the province it was again mixed as most locals preferred to get on with their lives and live as God had intended them…” Blood and Daring: The War of 1862 and how Canada forged a Nation, Raymond Green, University of Toronto Press, 2002

Montreal Volunteer Cavalry Regiment training December 1861 (Regiment stands at attention receiving permission to blow their noses)

“The news of the Border Incidents came as a rather unpleasant shock to the Lincoln administration, who had been hoping to keep any sign of conflict well south of the border. The failure of the British North American provinces to police their own frontier was, if not entirely surprising, immensely irritating to the administration. Calls went out from the Governors of New York, Vermont, and New Hampshire for Volunteers to be placed along the borders, but Lincoln adroitly moved to quash them by placing the emphasis on the British failure to police their own frontier. It was his, and the cabinet’s firm desire to see that all the available manpower could be kept for the war with the South.

Stormy despatches were sent to Quebec demanding the swift trial of the perpetrators and better efforts to prevent the rebels from operating on British soil. Seward’s familiar bluster was used to great effect to send a stern message to London, and with conciliatory noises coming from Quebec Lincoln and his cabinet were at first content that all which could be done had been done.

News of the stopping of the Trent came as a bolt from the blue, and one which was especially welcome to the beleaguered administration who had nothing but news of defeat and ill progress on all fronts from land to sea. The capture of the Confederate envoys, and the seizure of a complicit British ship were seen as signs of progress. The public was jubilant, especially in the wake of the Border Raids, and Lincoln, despite some reservation at first, was soon swept up in the public’s celebration writing that he expected little trouble on that account. Lincoln was also confident that he could avoid further diplomatic tension and that international law was on the side of the Union. Soon every man and woman in the Union was quoting law to anyone who would listen which placed them in the right. According to the New York Herald Lincoln emphatically declared that “Mason and Slidell should not be surrendered by this government, even if their detention should cost a war with Great Britain.”

His administration had fairly shaky relations with Britain however. Part of this stemmed from the bellicose actions of his Secretary of State William H. Seward. In British circles Seward was seen as a war hawk and proponent of war with Britain, making the Foreign Office in London deeply suspicious of Lincoln’s administration as a whole and merely furthering Palmerston’s worries regarding the security of the British North American possessions. Lord Lyons, Ambassador to Washington wrote “I cannot help fearing that he will be a dangerous foreign minister. His view of the relations between the United States and Great Britain had always been that they are a good material to make political capital of... I do not think Mr. Seward would contemplate actually going to war with us, but he would be well disposed to play the old game of seeking popularity here by displaying violence toward us.” It was this unfortunate cycle of both public outrage and mutual suspicion which led to early negotiations being incredibly tense.

The American public at large was content that this was a fair return for what they saw as the British abetting Confederate raiders on the Canadian border, and the general perception that their old enemy was looking eagerly at the potential dismemberment of the Union. The Cabinet largely shared this sentiment, seeing the issue as one which could easily be put forward for international arbitration which all sides could see as a fine compromise. There was however, one important dissenting voice, the Secretary of State.

Seward, for all his bluster, was no fool. He immediately realized that action had to be taken to diffuse the crisis. He was however, painfully aware of the public mood. Any action taken too soon would be seen as the administration bowing to foreign pressure, but any delay would be seen as American duplicity by London. To that end he proposed to take advantage in the delay allowed by trans-Atlantic communications to let tensions cool on both sides and for wiser heads to prevail. Unfortunately, events would conspire against him, meaning cooler heads would be hard pressed to make head way against a storm of public outrage on the horizon…”Snakes and Ladders: The Lincoln Administration and America’s Darkest Hour, Hillary Saunders, Scattershot Publishing, 2003

HMS Terror

“Though the events leading up to the Terror-Dacotah affair remain a subject of rampant speculation to this day there are some facts which can be known with some certainty. The screw sloop USS Dacotah under commander James P. McKinstry was on its way home to the USA from a pre-war posting to the East Indian Station, her journey had taken her via the western route and the Cape of Good Hope into the Caribbean. On the 19th November 1861, almost home, the Dacotah stopped at St. Thomas a neutral Danish possession to load coal. She was preparing to leave on the morning of the 23rd where the sailing schooner E.J. Talbot arrived. The Union merchant schooner had been contracted by the United States Navy to carry coal and provisions to the USS Iroquois. The Iroquois was currently waiting in international waters outside the port of St. Pierre in neutral French Martinique for the Confederate commerce raider CSS Sumter which was docked there. Commander McKinstry decides to have the Dacotah take the Talbot in tow to Martinque and departs for St. Pierre late that night as soon as the schooner has finished loading.

The following day Dacotah’s lookouts sight what appears to be a bark of war not unlike the Sumter ahead of her and on a parallel course, and she flies no clear colors. McKinstry immediately orders the Dacotah to change course and intercept the bark. Her towline is dropped and she leaves the Talbot behind. They soon close with and then overhaul the bark.

The bark is in fact HMS Terror an ironclad floating battery and guard ship of Bermuda with an impressive armament and an even more impressive 4” of wrought iron armor on her casemate and 8” at the water line. Terror is a very powerful weapon but not much of a ship. Her commanding officer, Captain Frederick Hutton, is an old officer with little experience on foreign station, but plenty of command experience. He is however, unsure of the intentions of the approaching warship. He is aware of the strained relations which exist between the Union and Great Britain thanks to the Border Incident and the Trent Affair, he is also under orders from Rear-Admiral Milne not to place his vessel under American guns to prevent incidents between the two navies.

Testimonies diverge here but suffice to say, each side claims the other opened fire first. Commander McKinstry claims he simply fired to warning shots to ascertain the identity of the unidentified ship (whose colors they could not discern) while Hutton claims that the American ship closed to within an aggressive distance and opened fire unprovoked on his ship (however both sides testimonies agree that the British vessel was tardy in raising her ensign). Hutton claims that he opened fire in the defence of his vessel, while McKinstry counterclaimed that the Terror unleashed a full broadside unprovoked at the Dacotach.

In either case the resulting action has a clear outcome. The Terror’s inferior speed but superior armor allows her to dominate the action against the unarmoured and under gunned Dacotah. Though the Terror’s steering is badly damaged leaving her adrift, the Dacotach suffers much more heavily. She suffers three of her guns knocked out, twelve crewmen dead and twenty-seven more wounded, while the Terror suffers only five wounded. Seeing the British ironclad for what it truly is, and that it is unable to pursue his ship McKinstry breaks off the action and withdraws for home. Hutton is left fuming over the engagement until a fellow British ship comes along and rescues him.

The resulting action will have a terrible effect on the already tense relations between the two nations. McKinstry, unlike his counterpart Captain Wilkes, will be censured by Congress for his reckless actions and risking his ship. Hutton on the other hand, will be promoted to Commodore for his ‘gallant actions’…” - Troubled Waters: The Anglo-American War at Sea, Michael Tielhard, Aurora Publishing, 2002[2]


[1] To my own surprise I’m not exaggerating this either. There was genuine shock in Canadian papers (East and West) that James Polk had been unbaptized when he was president. The Catholic Church in Quebec was also leery about American institutions, especially republicanism, since it was seen as a way to subvert their influence over the province. Then the average Canadien considered his Catholicism as a major part of his identity, thus the rejection of republicanism from 1775 onwards. This can be attributed to the simply enormous amount of sectarian religious tension which existed in the Province of Canada at the time, mainly brought on by the entrenchment of ultramontanist feeling in Canada East and the power of the supremely anti-Catholic Orange Order in Canada West. Ironically, a sense of ‘anti-Americanism’ is one of the few things which were shared across religious lines.

[2] So this has been changed around to add a certain vagueness to the action (you can make up your own minds on whose more guilty for this). I still give credit to the original author for having such a novel idea for a POD for his scenario, seems only fair even though I’ve made it my own.
Chapter 3: Legalities

Quebec City, December 1861

The carriage rumbled down the cobbled streets of Canada’s oldest city and away from the assembly hall towards the boarding homes which housed two of the most influential men in the Province of Canada. The horses’ breath caused steam to rise as though from a locomotive, and the drivers own breathing merely added to the light mist which headed out in front of the carriage. Its two occupants were bundled up securely inside, more comfortable than the driver, but not much warmer than they would have been outside.

George Cartier, Deputy Premier of the Province of Canada, sat across from his counterpart, John A. Macdonald, Preimer of the Province of Canada. There was a marked contrast between the two. Cartier was dressed as all respectable members of the Montreal elite would be, emulating the latest British fashions in a double breasted frock coat with respectable trousers and a silk hat. His appearance was impeccable with well-groomed hair and a cleanly shaven face.

Macdonald, by contrast, wore a deep blue coat with an outrageously red cravat and wide checkered trousers, all calculated to bring attention to himself. He could hardly fail to gain attention with his poorly kept curly hair sticking out at odd angles from under his hat, his cheeks in need of a simple shave (though he never let it grow into a full beard) and his enormous nose which seemed to take up the better part of his face. While Cartier tried to maintain a dignified bearing Macdonald lounged as though he were at a taproom.

They were on their way home from an acrimonious debate amongst the Assembly regarding the crisis which had developed south of the border. However, they had also been forced to discuss a recent complication in the relationship between the two nations. Macdonald was fuming.

“Damn that wretched prig of a police magistrate!” he swore angrily. “By what authority did he presume to release all of those bandits?”

Cartier frowned. The ‘wretched prig’ he referred to was Charles-Joseph Coursol, one of Montreal’s leading judges. He had been despatched to preside over the trial of the group of Confederate raiders captured in October in the aftermath of the Border Crisis. The trial had been long, and Coursol had, rather than consulting with his superior the Attorney General of Canada East or even with other legal notes, had handed down a verdict which released the raiders. He had defended his action by claiming that he had no jurisdiction to sentence and extradite the prisoners as the British had not proclaimed the Canadian Extradition Act of 1861. Cartier understood Macdonald’s fury.

“That he did not bother to check with his superiors is a travesty. The law may have been unclear, but that does not excuse his actions.” Cartier said.

“The precedent is clear. They could have been easily turned over to the Northern authorities under the articles of the Webster-Ashburton Treaty and that would be the end of it! I’m entirely satisfied with the decision to remove him from the bar.” Macdonald grumbled.

“It may displease some powerful people in Montreal.” Cartier cautioned.

“He can serve his penance in the militia. There he has a fine social position and can posture to his heart’s desire.”

“On that matter,” Cartier interjected “how do you feel the militia debates have gone in the Assembly?” Macdonald leaned forward in the carriage and furrowed his brow.

“It seems as though we can rely on our Conservative members easily. I do have concerns about your Bleus however.”

“They can be kept on side, provided the crisis continues. The mutual fear of invasion all English and French share is a powerful motivator. Should things calm down, we may be hard pressed to pass any legislation regarding the militia in the province. However, I do believe that no matter what comes they will vote as they always have.” Cartier replied.

“Reassuring, but we still have a problem from the Clear Grits. I don’t know how John S. will react to the debates He’s been quiet so far.” Cartier nodded knowingly. The leader of the Clear Grit faction in Canada West, John Sandfield Macdonald was the current head of the opposition in government. He had taken over from George Brown after his government had collapsed in the infamous Double Shuffle of 1858. John S’s party controlled a powerful swing vote, which in accordance with the other faction of radicals in the Assembly, the Rouges under Dorion, could easily upset any decision the alliance between Cartier’s Bleus and Macdonald’s Conservatives came to.

“Thus far John. S seems to be more concerned over cost rather than the bill itself. If the crisis continues, I think he can be persuaded to keep his Grits on side.” Macdonald said sagely.

“I sincerely doubt Dorion can be persuaded to side with any legislation which even smells like military action.” Cartier said.

“Bah, what does Dorion ever do but complain? He doesn’t even hold a cabinet position, while I now hold the dubious honor of being the only triple minister in the Province! I’m still the Premier and Attorney General, and now I’ve stepped into the post of Minister of Militia to try and bring some consensus in the Assembly on the matter of defence!”

“What about Dorion’s accusation that your creation of the Minister of Militia position is all an excuse to stomp around the Assembly dressed up in a red coat and gold braid?” Cartier asked. Macdonald snorted.

“I could hardly manage the dignity of one of the Queen’s officers. Can you imagine that? Me in a uniform? It would be like a sow in a ball gown!” He and Cartier both burst into laughter at the ludicrous mental image. Macdonald took a more serious tone soon afterward.

“Irregardless of the insane accusations of a few radicals, we still have an uphill battle in the Assembly over militia spending. However, some spending will have to be done whether the Assembly wants to or not. Already we have volunteers drilling from Chateuguay to Windsor. London wants us to take on more of the burden for defence.”

“It hardly seems just for the government in London to demand us to burden ourselves with the cost of defence when we have no part in the quarrel between London and Washington.” Cartier grumbled.

“Ah but now we do play a part in it Cartier.” Macdonald said with a sour grin. “Thanks to that disgraceful excuse of a judge we can now be held responsible for the raids carried out by those Huns from the South. London had no part in it, we were the primary decision makers.”

“Not by our own volition.” Cartier said.

“Do you imagine the papers in New York and Philadelphia will see it that way? They already claim we hate them and support the South by inaction. What more proof do they need now? With the arch-annexationist Seward as the Secretary of State do you think they could see this as anything but a perfect chance to recoup their inevitable losses by turning their armies north?”

Cartier and Macdonald sat in silence as each mulled the idea over. The fear was not new to either of them, and each dreaded the thought of the absorption of the Province of Canada into the United States. They both had separate reasons but they were united, like so many Canadians, in that fear.

“For now though, we can only attempt to move the Assembly to action. In the meantime, I need support in actually planning how we can defend the Province should the worst come to pass.”

“So you want a staff?” Cartier asked.

“Perhaps we should think of it as more of a committee.” MacDonald said. “Little need yet to get Dorion totally up in arms. Besides, even the look of doing something will go a ways towards assuaging the politicians in London.”

“It is a thought.” Cartier said. “I certainly have a few men who could be relied upon to make a good contribution to any such effort.”

“I have a few in mind myself. We can compare notes tomorrow and consider appointments soon.”

The carriage trundled to a halt as the driver called out “Whoa!” and the passengers were jostled to a stop. Cartier grabbed his briefcase and stood up.

“More to be considered tomorrow.” Cartier said. “Good night John, get some sleep tonight. I think you’ll need all your strength in the weeks to come.”

The White House, Washington, the District of Columbia, December 1861

The fire was burning bright despite the hour being well past one in the morning. The various cabinet members were all looking drawn after yet another late night meeting regarding the ongoing events both at home and overseas. The United States Secretary of State William Seward stifled a yawn as he reached over and tapped yet more ash into a bowl which was nearly overflowing with the remains of the innumerable cigars he had already smoked that day. It was, he reflected, not a spectacularly good meeting.

The entire cabinet was present. Seated across from him was the Secretary of the Treasury Salmon Chase, the hard core abolitionist and beleaguered financer of the war. Next to Chase was seated the controversial Secretary of War Simon Cameron, the powerful Pennsylvanian was only in his position thanks to his influence of that state and Seward personally disliked the man. Next to Cameron was the Attorney General Edward Bates, Lincoln’s former rival in the presidential campaign. Directly beside Seward was the Postmaster General Montgomery Blair, scion of the politically powerful Blair family. Next to him sat the Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles, the much suffering and greatly experienced political leader of the Union Navy. Then there was Secretary of the Interior Caleb Blood Smith, a personal favorite of Seward, while many accused him of simply being a place holder in Cabinet but Seward knew he could count on his political support. Finally there was the one damper on the whole meeting. Seward stole a glance down the table at his long-time rival, Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Charles Sumner.

Sumner, thanks to his contacts in Europe, and most importantly his well-established pro-Northern contacts in Britain, had managed to worm his way into the President’s good graces and the highest meetings of the cabinet. He sat at the end of the table looking just as tired as the other men in the room, but Seward could just detect the triumphant glow that he had whenever he cast a sideways glance at him. Not for the first time Seward groused internally about too many Secretaries of State in the capital.

Lincoln himself was at the head of the table looking haggard and care worn. His eyes were nearly hidden by deep bags, and he seemed scarecrow thin in his clothes that were ruffled as though he had slept in them. Nearby his secretaries, Nicolay and Hay recorded the evening’s minutes. Chase was continuing on his report about the financing of the war.

“The financial news from Europe is not cause for celebration. My agents confirm the banking houses there will not broker any loans to us. Not a dozen battles lost could have damaged our cause as greatly the current unpleasantness between ourselves and England.” Chase said ruefully “The Rothschild and Baring banking houses cannot be approached, and I hear even now that they are moving their assets from New York overseas. Our own banks are suffering as nervous investors are buying up everything from gold to saltpeter. I fear we shall soon have little specie at hand.”

“News from Europe is little improved on the diplomatic front I fear.” Seward said grumpily producing a pair of notes from his pocket. “The messages from Europe are resoundingly against us ‘According to the notions of international law adopted by all the Powers, and which the American government itself has often taken as the rule of its conduct, England could not by any means refrain in the present case from making a representation against the attack made on its flag, and from demanding a just reparation for it.’this from Berlin. ‘Although at present it is England only which is immediately concerned in the matter, yet, on the other hand, it is one of the most important and universally recognized rights of the neutral flag which is called into question we should find ourselves constrained to see in it not an isolated fact, but a public menace offered to the existing rights of all neutrals.’from Saint Petersburg.” Seward paused allowing his point to sink in. “It seems even the powers friendly to us disagree with the events in the Bahama Channel.”

“I fear then that the traitors will prove to be white elephants.” Lincoln said stirring from his attentive position to come into the conversation. “We cannot in good faith keep them at Fort Warren. It is perhaps best that we send them on their way, they will cause more damage here than I imagine they may be capable of causing in Europe.”

“This still has no bearing on the events off St. Thomas with the Dacotah.” Sumner said. There was a round of grumbles from the seated cabinet members.

“The public knows the truth of it and so must the world.” Welles said hotly “With the simply outrageous behavior of the British over those bandits from Canada I’m sure all can agree the British deserve what has taken place.”

“I have spoken to the Minister from France, Mr. Mercier, and he has made it quite clear that France’s position lays entirely with sympathy for Britain. Dayton has heard it from the French foreign minister himself, France may remain neutral, but it would be a benevolent neutrality in favor of Britain.” Seward replied.

“I have heard from my friend in London, Mr. Cobden.” Sumner pulled a note of his own from a pocket. “He writes to me saying ‘I am sure that your government means no offense towards the flag of Her Majesties Government, and we must deeply regret the events off St. Thomas, I believe our two nations may surely find peace.’ Not all Britain wishes for war.”

“There will be no war,” Lincoln replied “unless Britain is bent on having one.”

“But they will surely demand reparation.” Chase said.

“Reparation?” Welles demanded angrily. “Reparation be damned!”

Seward sighed internally. The polarization in the cabinet over the issue was becoming intolerable. As far as Seward could tell, the cabinet was split on forcing the issue with Britain like Welles, and those who wished to delay as long as possible. There was a third option, and he hated it as much as the others, but it was most likely the best. They would have to appease the British. Within reason of course, if a crisis was to be avoided it had to follow that the British should be bought off in some suitable manner.

Seward was about to speak when Lincoln interjected into what threatened to become a heated conversation.

“Gentlemen, I understand your outrage, and believe me I share in the anger at the death of brave American boys under the flag as much as anyone, but we must avoid dragging ourselves into another war. To that end we must mollify the British in some way.”

“And how do you propose to do that?” Welles said, a harshness still in his voice.

“We must release the rebels of course.”

“But that’s unthinkable!” The Secretary of the Interior burst out. “The public wouldn’t stand for it! It would be tantamount to an admission of weakness! Meekly submitting to John Bull in the face of all these outrages!”

“Now friend Smith I realize that the people will be displeased by such a gesture, but surely we can agree that with the international opinion so against us we have little to lose letting two such inconsequential gentlemen as these walk free?” There was again another round of grumbling around the table. Lincoln sighed. “Shall we put it to a vote?” He asked. The cabinet muttered its assent.

“All those in favor of releasing the commissioners immediately, please say aye.” Seward, Lincoln, and Chase affirmed. “Those against?” The remainder of the cabinet made a solid refusal.

“Well,” Lincoln said “the ayes have it.” There was laughter as each man of the cabinet vented some stress through Lincoln’s wit. He smiled with them suddenly seeming much less careworn than he had been.

“If you so wish it sir, the Cabinet will follow your decision.” Sumner said (presumptuously in Seward’s opinion) and there was a rumble of assent and Lincoln smiled at them.

“I merely think we must stand by American principles. We went to war with Britain in 1812 over this very thing, and it would be the height of hypocrisy now for us to claim the very right John Bull so bedevilled our forefathers with.”

“Quite right sir.” Blair said.

“Good. Seward, if you could be so kind as to begin formulating a note we could pass on to the government in London. I would also appreciate it if we could begin massaging the public to accept that this act will have to be undertaken.”

“I’ll see to it at once sir.” Seward said.

“Excellent. Now perhaps we can continue on to a less controversial item of conversation?”