Trent Affair Concludes; Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War Created: December 1861

150 Years Ago in the Civil War

As fall turned into the winter of 1861, the inaction that had characterized the main Federal armies in November continued on into December.  Although President Abraham Lincoln tried to push his generals, especially the Army of the Potomac’s George McClellan, into something resembling action, the armies did not move. McClellan had no immediate plans to undertake offensive operations, and neither did the Department of the Missouri’s commanding officer, Major General Henry Halleck.

The guns weren’t completely silent. There was the usual number of minor skirmishes, movements to check on the enemy, and other small scale actions mostly in Missouri, Kentucky, and Virginia. The Union Army also took advantage of its new base of operations at Port Royal Sound, South Carolina,  and sent out scouting and raiding parties in the coastal areas of the Palmetto State. Mostly, the Federals were content to settle into winter quarters.

Congressional Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War Formed

Motivated by the desire to investigate October’s debacle at Ball’s Bluff, the U.S. Senate approved the formation of the Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War on December 9th.  For the remainder of the war, this powerful committee conducted investigations into military defeats, questioned the competence and loyalty of generals, and investigated fraud and waste.

Trent Affair Concludes with Release of Mason and Slidell

Throughout December, there was a great deal of discussion in Washington regarding what to do with the Confederate commissioners to France and England who had been seized in November while on board the British ship Trent en route to Europe. James Mason and John Slidell were being held at Fort Warren, Massachusetts while the British protested and the Federal government tried to figure out the best course of action. The hoopla that had marked the capture gave way to the realization that the seizure was illegal or at least a very bad idea as it could push Britain and France into the Confederate camp, something that the government in Richmond desperately wanted.

Secretary of State William Seward and the British Minister to the United States, Lord Richard Lyons, held talks throughout the month in an effort to resolve the crisis. Lyons reiterated his government’s  position that the diplomats must be released to British authorities, or the U.S. would face the very real possibility of war with Great Britain.

As Christmas approached, Lyons stayed firm in his position. Prominent Americans both in and out of government called for the release of Mason and Slidell.  Lincoln and his cabinet met on Christmas Day to decide what to do. On December 26th, the Lincoln Administration agreed to release the diplomats and the issue was resolved. Mason and Slidell left Massachusetts on a British warship on New Year’s Day 1862, taking with them the Confederate hope for military  intervention by the British.

The first year of the Civil War quietly came to an end. The idea that it would be a quick war had ended on the battlefields of Bull Run in Virginia and Wilson’s Creek in Missouri, and the grim reality that it would be a long war with large numbers of casualties had set in. But neither side was prepared for the huge numbers of dead and wounded that would result from the battles that would occur in the new year of 1862.

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