December 19, 1861 (Thursday)
Four days after Secretary of State William Seward unloaded to President Lincoln his nervous apprehensions about Great Britain’s possible desire to wage war on the United States, a visit was paid to him by Lord Richard Lyons, England’s Minister to the United States.
Neither he nor Seward had breathed a word of the Trent Affair to the press. In fact, there was nothing official from either government since James Mason and John Slidell, Confederate envoys to England and France, had been taken from the British vessel Trent and planted at Fort Warren in Boston Harbor.
The previous night, Lord Lyons had received the official word from England’s Foreign Secretary John Russell, giving the United States seven days to release Mason and Slidell. The dispatch from England, written on November 30, had arrived in America on the 12th of December, the press (and thus Seward) catching wind of the British public’s reaction to the seizure, though not of the ultimatum.
Before officially presenting the demands to Washington, Lyons visited with Secretary Seward, allowing him to read the dispatch and formulate a reply before the news was widely known by others. Should the United States not release the prisoners, Lord Lyons was to return to London. Matters then could take a decidedly military tone.
Seward’s long reply retold the history of the case from the beginning. Towards the end, he touched upon the heart of the matter: “We are asked to do to the British nation just what we have always insisted all nations ought to do to us.”
Britain was a neutral in America’s Civil War. Mason and Slidell were seized from a neutral British ship in international waters. If the tables were turned, Seward finally reasoned, wouldn’t America demand the same from Britain? Hadn’t America made this same argument before the War of 1812? And, to turn things around, hadn’t Britain made the argument that the United States would have to make should they decide not to release the prisoners?
Though Seward’s verbose reply stopped short of agreeing to release them, he was leaning in that direction. At that evening’s Cabinet meeting, some members sided with the American public, who wanted to keep the traitorous Rebels locked up indefinitely. Of those assembled, however, Secretary Seward and President Lincoln were the most knowledgeable of the affair.
After presenting the rough draft of his reply, Seward was buttonholed by Lincoln as the meeting was breaking up. “Governor Seward, you will go on, of course, preparing your answer, which, as I understand it, will state the reasons why they ought to be given up. Now I have a mind to try my hand at stating the reasons why they ought not to be given up. We will compare the points on each side.”
The two, along with the rest of the Cabinet, would meet over the following days in hopes of drafting a reply before the official ultimatum was given by England.1
More Rebels Near Dranesville, but How Many More?
General George McCall, Union division commander in the Army of the Potomac, had become well acquainted with the Confederates in the Leesburg and Drainsville area, northwest of Washington. He had been in Dranesville just prior to Ball’s Bluff and sent Generals John Reynolds and George Meade into the town on two separate occasions.
This evening, McCall was informed that Rebels had arrested two Union supporters near his lines and had assembled a force of around 100 in Dranesville. Having already send two of his brigade commanders to the town (Reynolds and Meade), it was only fair to send the third, General Edward Otho Cresap Ord, a career military officer, who saw action in the Seminole and Indian Wars. His brigade was made up entirely of Pennsylvania regiments.
Ord received the orders after nightfall to move out at 6am. He would be joined by a Pennsylvania regiment under Colonel Thomas Kane, a battery, and two squadrons of cavalry. The objective was to push back the enemy pickets and clear Dranesville of the Rebels. He was also to pick up whatever corn and hay that he could find and bring it back to camp. Whatever happened, Ord and his brigade were to return to camp before nightfall.2
General McCall had not been mistaken about 100 Rebels in Dranesville. At the time that his orders were given, only 100 cavalrymen occupied the town. However, a Confederate General named James Ewell Brown Stuart had also received orders that night.
“Jeb” Stuart was given a brigade of Rebel infantry, a battery of artillery, and some cavalry with orders to march on Dranesville in the morning on a foraging expedition. These 1,600 men, though greatly outnumbered by the 5,000 Federal soldiers soon to be coming their way, were a good deal more than Union Generals McCall and Ord had speculated would be waiting for them in the town.3