On Christmas morning 1861, the steps of all three Lincoln sons could be heard pounding on the floorboards of the White House. The eldest, Robert, had recently arrived home from Harvard, to join his brothers, 8-year old Tad and 11-year-old Willie. The reunion of the Lincoln clan was a bright spot on what was proving to be a less than cheery Christmas. The Union had lost several key battles, while the Confederacy seemed no closer to collapse. Then, before the president could sit down to Christmas dinner with his family, he had yet another matter to attend to: deciding whether the Union could risk war with Britain.Read the rest here.
At 10 a.m., Lincoln’s cabinet filed into the White House, shaking off the damp cold that had descended on Washington. They had left the bosoms of their families to debate whether the Union could sustain a war against both Britain and the Confederacy. Correction: An invigorated Confederacy. If hostilities broke out, Britain would likely renounce its neutral stance and side with the South, extending it both economic and military assistance.
The root of the crisis was an incident that occurred in the blue waters of the Bahamas some six weeks earlier. On Nov. 8, the American frigate San Jacinto, acting without authorization, had stopped the Trent, a British mail packet, bound for Britain. A boarding party removed two Confederate envoys, James Mason and John Slidell, who were bound for London and Paris to lobby for the Rebel cause. Rather than seize the Trent, as would have been custom under prize law, the captain of the San Jacinto sent her on her way and headed for Union waters with his prisoners.
The Union greeted the capture with glee — finally, good news for a country desperately in need of it. Needless to say, the British saw things differently. London newspapers called for war. “In one month, we could sweep all the San Jacintos from the sea, blockade Northern ports, and turn to a direct and speedy issue the tide of the war now raging,” wrote the London Morning Post. The British government thrashed through options for responding, most of them bellicose. Lord Palmerston, the prime minister, set the tone for discussion when he opened up the emergency Cabinet meeting called to discuss the Trent by throwing his hat on the table and declaring, “I don’t know whether you are going to stand this, but I’ll be damned if I do!”