top of page

The Day the World Changed - Boxing Day 1861

150 years ago today a fateful decision was made by Abraham Lincoln which saved America. For eight months the United States had been ripped apart by a civil war that would eventually cost 620,000 lives; more than all the other wars America has fought altogether.

One of the keys to the eventual success of the North in winning and reuniting the nation was the lack of allies the Confederacy had throughout the four year struggle. Contrast this with the original American revolutionary war where Britain faced the military opposition of the French and Spanish and the diplomatic opposition of the Prussians, Dutch and Russians. The reason why the United States was born was mainly due to foreign intervention and the reason it stayed together during the civil war was the lack of foreign intervention. However at one point the active engagement of the British looked a strong possibility.

The South sent two Commissioners, Mason and Slidell to Britain and France; their role was to act as the Confederacy’s representatives to France and London and try to secure recognition of the South. They were intercepted on the high seas by a Union Warship San Jacinto whilst they were travelling on a British ship, the Trent. It was always then known as the “Trent Affair”. The Union captain, Charles Wilkes did not follow international law at the time when he abducted the two emissaries. It was seen as a challenge to British naval supremacy. Few actions could have been more likely to provoke a British reaction than this insult to the flag.

Honour needed to be restored and Palmerston as Prime Minister was never going to take it lying down. As he said in an emergency cabinet meeting "I don't know whether you are going to stand this, but I'll be damned if I do."

It was also the case that there was no natural alliance between Britain and the United States, and no history of friendship during the previous sixty years. Britain had been understandably irritated when America seemed to be sympathetic to Bonaparte and this culminated in the war of 1812-14 between Britain and the United States. This ill feeling was reinforced in the Crimean war when American actions, though officially neutral, seemed to be more friendly to the Russians. There was absolutely no fund of goodwill towards America. At this point the war had not become a crusade to end slavery; the emancipation proclamation was nearly a year away.

It is a remarkable testimony to the endurance of British prime ministers in the 19th century that Palmerston cut his teeth during the Napoleonic wars in the war office and was still active in government as prime minister over half a century later. It would be the equivalent today of a member of Churchill’s war cabinet serving in John Major’s government.

It is perhaps ironic that it was a technology failure that probably saved the United States. An underwater telegraph line had been laid in 1858 and Queen Victoria had exchanged messages with President Buchanan; however the telegraph was not working in 1861, meaning messages took considerably longer and allowed tempers to cool. Modern technology played a part in the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian War and the First World War. Its absence probably stopped a third Anglo-American war in 1861.

The delay allowed for an adjustment of positions; in his final service to the UK and, as it turned out, the USA, Prince Albert famously amended the ultimatum that Palmerston was planning to send to soften its tone. By implying that Captain Wilkes had acted beyond the authority of the United States Government he was allowing a diplomatic retreat by Lincoln and his cabinet. Even then Lincoln had to proceed very carefully as Captain Wilkes was being received as a hero all over the North.

The incident tapped into the latent anti-British sentiment which exploded in popular consciousness. To disavow Wilkes’ actions would be politically hazardous, especially as the war had not been going well for the North. So Lincoln played for time; when the final dispatch came from the UK’s government Lincoln’s cabinet still took two days, Christmas Day and the day after. to decide to release the Confederate Commissioners on December 26 1861. This was perhaps not surprising as Seward, as Secretary of State, had even proposed a diversionary war against Britain in order to conquer Canada and unite America. Eventually common sense prevailed and the Americans released the Commissioners without an apology to Britain and Britain overlooked the fact that no apology was proffered.

What would the impact have been of a war between Britain and the North? It would, as Amanda Foreman recently put it, have ‘set the world on fire’ and it would have changed the world. Unlike in previous wars Britain had France on its side and had no distractions in Europe in 1861. The Admiralty had devised a plan using Britain’s naval superiority to break the blockade and deliver aggressive actions against Northern ports in a forerunner of shock and awe. Even if Britain had not formally allied with the South, the diversion of effort needed to meet this new threat would have proved too much for the North.

The Civil War was a very close run thing with the South isolated. If the North had to fight on two fronts it would have surely given up the struggle; and sooner rather than later. What would America have resembled after a successful Southern succession? Probably something close to the Balkans. The South was not the only area where secessionist sentiment was prevalent. The Northwest of the USA would have probably split from the North east and there would now be a series of unstable countries where the USA is now. Try to imagine the world without a prosperous free and United States of America in the 20th century and you then realise the enormity of the decision made by Lincoln” to fight one war at a time.”

The UK American Civil War Round Table is one of a large number throughout the world dedicated to the study of all aspects of the Civil War.

Author: Jeremy Mindell Media relations ACWRT(UK)



bottom of page