December 15, 1861 (Sunday)
Secretary of State William Seward simply could take no more haranguing from the British press, which had been ablaze since news of the capture of James Mason and John Slidell, lapped upon their shores. He was, said some across the pond, hoping to provoke a war with England in hopes of gaining Canada. In some sort of response to that notion, an English paper promised that the Royal Navy could wipe out the United States Navy in but a month.
All of these news clippings and accounts had been filtering in since the British steamer Hansa pulled into New York Harbor on the 12th. Stateside papers like the New York Times had been publishing them liberally, eventually getting Seward’s goat.
On this fine Sunday afternoon, President Lincoln was taking tea with Orville Browning, an Illinois Senator, when Secretary Seward burst in full of angry panic. He unleashed his ire and indignation over the press and finally let slip another piece of news. England, said the Secretary, wanted the United States to release Mason and Slidell, with apologies all around. It was, in their opinion, a violation of international law.
While Seward conceded that it was not yet the official stance, he suggested that Lord Lyons, the British minister to the United States, would soon make it so. He reminded that the British people were clamoring for war.
Lincoln, at first, said nothing. His look of thoughtfulness was hardly even interrupted by Senator Browning’s response. “I don’t believe England has done so foolish a thing,” said the Senator. “But if she is determined to force a war upon us why so be it. We will fight her to the death!”
Lincoln, Seward and probably even Browning knew that a war with England might be a bit too much at this stage of the game. Their navy alone could bring the United States to its knees. Having been silent through the entire exchange, Lincoln, as he was apt to do, thought of a story.
There was, apparently, a vicious bulldog back in Springfield, Illinois. For comfort, neighbors told each other that the dog was not dangerous. There was a man, however, who was doubtful, and said, “I know the bulldog will not bite. You know he will not bite, but does the bulldog know he will not bite?”1
This, of course, solved nothing. Seward and Lyons both kept a tight lip to the press (though privately Seward seemed to almost dare England to attack). There was nothing official from the British government, just the clanging of the press. For now, it was a game of wait-and-see.
Pope On the Move with 4000!
In northern Missouri, Union General John Pope had wanted to launch a full scale attack on General Sterling Price’s men near Osceola, southwest of Pope in Sedalia. Price, whose numbers were down, had been recruiting with quite a bit of luck. Pope figured that if Price’s main body of Missouri State Guards could be dealt with, the recruits would fizzle out. He had done all but beg Department commander General Henry Halleck to allow him to lead the charge.
Halleck, however, had a different idea. He wanted Pope to take a part of his division to block the gathering Rebel recruits near Lexington, northwest of Sedalia, from joining Price. Pope unhappily acquiesced, gathered his force of 4,000 for an afternoon start.2
Sometime that morning, Pope was informed that a large body of 4,000 enemy recruits, of which only half were armed, had left Lexington for Price in Osceola. They were probably near Warrensburg. He informed Halleck that heading to Lexington was too little, too late. Ready to march as he was, Pope urged Halleck to quickly change the marching orders so he could cut them off somewhere between Warrensburg and Clinton. Halleck agreed and the course of the march was changed.3
Pope’s original plan included a prelude that would, he hoped, confuse the enemy. While his march was ultimately to the northwest, on this day, he headed southwest, hoping to deceive the enemy into thinking that he was heading towards Warsaw, thirty-five miles south. He even threw some of his cavalry out to Clinton, about thirty miles west of Warsaw.
This cavalry was actually a screen. They were to keep him informed of any movement from Price’s Rebels at Osceola and to prevent the Rebels from seeing what his main column was up to.
With such a late start, the 4,000 Union troops camped only eleven miles southwest of Sedalia. The next day, they would turn west.4
- Diplomat In Carpet Slippers; Abraham Lincoln Deals With Foreign Affairs by Jay Managhan, 1945. [↩]
- Supplemental Report of the Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War, Part II, p20-21. [↩]
- Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 11, p437. [↩]
- Supplemental Report of the Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War, Part II, p21. [↩]