Mason & Slidell Released to England!; White House Levee and Begged Cooperation

January 1, 1862 (New Year’s Day – Wednesday)

Without cheers, jeers, ceremony or even much notice, James Mason and John Slidell, Confederate envoys to England and France, held prisoner by the United States since November 8th, were released from Fort Warren in Boston Harbor. After they were seized from the decks of the British vessel Trent by the USS San Jacinto, commanded by Captain Charles Wilkes, war nearly erupted between the countries of the two ships.

After much deliberation in Lincoln’s Cabinet, it was finally decided that it would be best for the nation to not fight two wars at once. The British Minister to the United States, Lord Lyons, had been informed of the decision, while each side made plans for their egress from Boston to Europe.

Lyons contacted Commander W. Hewett of the English sloop-of-war Rinaldo, who had been in New York. He was to sail to Provincetown, on Cape Cod, to accept the liberated prisoners. Lyons reminded the Commander that Mason and Slidell had “no official character. It will be right for you to receive them with all courtesy and respect as gentlemen of distinction, but it would be improper to pay them any of those honors which are paid to official persons.” Additionally, Hewett was ordered to deliver them to Halifax, Nova Scotia, as that would probably be where they would wish to go anyway, to catch a steamer to Europe. However, he was not allowed to “convey them to any part of the coast of the States which have seceded from the Republic.”1 Commander Hewett left New York on the 30th, and arrived at the destination in the early morning hours of New Year’s Day.2

Just after Hewett had pulled into Provincetown, the Confederate envoys, along with their baggage and two secretaries also taken prisoner, were removed from their cells in Fort Warren, and placed aboard the tugboat Starlight, which had been hired specifically for this purpose. It arrived at the fort at 11am, an hour after leaving Boston, and chuffed its way along the cape, arriving at the point of transfer around 5pm. Word of their transfer did not reach Boston until they were aboard the Starlight.3

According to Commander Hewett, Mason and Slidell were received aboard the Rinaldo “without form or ceremony.” Though the barometer was falling at a steady pace, and, by nightfall, a hurricane wind, probably a nor’easter, was blowing across the cape, Hewett set course for Halifax. “The gentlemen remarked that their only wish was to proceed to Europe,” added Hewett in his report to Lord Lyons, filed before leaving Provincetown.4

Though set to sail to Halifax, Nova Scotia, by January 14, Mason and Slidell had taken the Rinaldo to the Danish port of St. Thomas. There, they boarded the La Plata and made their way to Southampton, on the south coast of England.5

Though it would leave a resounding bitterness between England and the United States, the Trent Affair was over.

__________________

Warm New Years in Washington; Cold Reception from the West

While the winds blew chilling torrents in Boston, the weather in Washington was sunny and mild. The Lincolns were holding the traditional New Year’s Day White House levee. The President was dressed in a formal coat, as the First Lady was decked out in a black silk brocade, accented with purple clusters, and a velvet headdress. They were both accompanied by their two boys, Willie and Tad.

Several thousand of Washington’s finest were out in the beautiful day to shake the hand of Abraham Lincoln. Even Lord Lyons made an appearance. He was received, according to Lincoln’s secretary, John Nicolay, “with peculiar distinction & seemed to be particularly pleased to be present.”

As the White House lawn filled, the Supreme Court justices, as well as the military Generals and Admirals, first greeted the President. Then, at noon, the public was allowed their entrance.6

Before the levee, before the crowds filled Lafayette Square, and before Lincoln threw on the dress coat, he could be found in the telegraph office. With General McClellan near death with an illness believed to be typhoid, the President stepped up claimed his right as the Commander in Chief.

Picking up where he left off the previous day, he wired General Buell in Louisville, Kentucky, commander of the Department of the Ohio, and General Halleck in St. Louis, Missouri, commander of the Department of the Missouri.

To both, he wrote nearly the same dispatch, telling each that General McClellan should not yet be disturbed. Again he urged them, as he did before, “to be in communication and concert at once” with each other.

General Buell replied first, explaining that there “was no arrange between General Halleck and myself.” General McClellan had told Buell that he (McClellan) would make all of those arrangements. Halleck replied later that evening, blurting out that he was “not ready to cooperate” with Buell, but that he hoped “to do so in few weeks.” Seemingly to skirt the President, Halleck also told Lincoln that he “had written fully on this subject to Major-General McClellan,” adding that “too much haste will ruin everything.”7

Lincoln promised to write each of them longer letters, explaining the situation. Like the telegrams, the letters were nearly identical. To Halleck, Lincoln expressed his fears that once General Buell began his push towards Nashville, the Confederates would draw reinforcements from Columbus, Kentucky on Halleck’s front. To check this, Lincoln proposed that a “real or feigned attack on Columbus from up-river at the same time [as Buell’s advance] would either prevent this or compensate for it by throwing Columbus into
our hands.”

The President once again urged Halleck to work with Buell, “unless it be your judgment and his that there is no necessity for it.” Lincoln allowed that the two Generals would “understand much better than I how to do it,” but cautioned: “Please do not lose time in this matter.”8



  1. The Trent Affair by Thomas Le Grand Harris, 1896. The order to Hewett can be found in Official Records, Series 2, Vol. 2, p1161. []
  2. Official Records, Series 2, Vol. 2, p1164. []
  3. New York Times, January 3, 1862. []
  4. Official Records, Series 2, Vol. 2, p1164. []
  5. The Trent Affair: A Diplomatic Crisis by Norman Ferris, University of Tennessee Press, 1977. []
  6. The Lincoln; Portrait of a Marriage by Daniel Mark Epstein, Ballantine Books, 2008. []
  7. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 7, p526. []
  8. Lincoln to Halleck, January 1, 1862 – Only the letter to Halleck seems to have survived. It can be found in Abraham Lincoln: Complete Works, Vol. 5, p111. []
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Mason & Slidell Released to England!; White House Levee and Begged Cooperation by CW DG is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 4.0 International

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