2011-12-22 / Living

Diplomatic crisis defused in Trent Affair

THIS WEEK IN THE CIVIL WAR

At the close of 1861, President Abraham Lincoln finds himself at war at home — and fending off a diplomatic crisis with Britain that threatens hostilities if not handled delicately.

Though outrage lingers in London after the Union warship USS San Jacinto stopped the neutral British ship Trent east of Cuba on Nov. 8, 1861 — seizing two Confederate diplomats bound for Britain — an end to the impasse is near. An outraged British government has been demanding an apology for what is seen as a violation of its neutrality. And London also insists on the immediate release of the two Confederate envoys.

But after tempers flare, cool heads prevail. A message is sent by the British minister in Washington to Lincoln’s secretary of state on Dec. 19, 1861, demanding a reply. Yielding to British demands is a difficult step for the Lincoln administration, but Lincoln cannot afford another fight.

On Dec. 27, the U.S. secretary of state would send back a carefully worded reply announcing that the Confederates would be freed and reparations paid — defusing the standoff.

Also this week, The Associated Press reports that Confederates are able to run their own limited blockade of waters leading to Washington, D.C., much as the Union blockades Southern seaports and inland rivers.

Rebel batteries menace the Potomac River along bluffs lining the banks in spots where it lazily wends toward Washington. But Union boats still get past. “Some eight or 10 schooners have run the blockade on the Potomac during the past 48 hours,” The AP reports on Dec. 18. But the threat is real, as AP notes: “The new batteries, which the rebels have recently disclosed, show that is it their intention to make the blockade effectual if they can.”

Return to top