- Historic Sites
The Peaceable Ambassadors
Two adroit diplomats successfully prevented an open breach between London and Washington during the Civil War
April 1957 | Volume 8, Issue 3
While the press on both sides of the Atlantic was making it as difficult as possible for Seward to extricate himself from the difficulties in which Wilkes had landed him, Lord Lyons kept resolutely silent. He was probably the only man in America who expressed no opinion on the legal aspect of the incident or on the course he believed his government would follow. A dispatch from Russell, redrafted by the Cabinet and amended by the Prince Consort, reached Washington late at night on December 18, 1861, requesting courteously but firmly that the prisoners should be handed over to the British government. Thanks largely to the Prince Consort, the request was couched in language which Seward himself admitted afterwards to be friendly and conciliatory. Lord Lyons called on Seward the next morning, discussed the British demands informally, and left a copy of the dispatch in his hands. Another interview took place on the twenty-first, and on December 27 Seward delivered his reply.
During those eight days the question of peace or war was hanging in the balance. Few people were as cool as Lincoln, who remarked to a caller in reply to a question about the Trent case, “Oh, that will be got along with.” It was—to the great relief of everyone concerned except Mason and Slidell, who had hoped to become the means of forcing Great Britain into the war on their side.
Seward wrote a long legalistic reply to the British dispatch in which he claimed that Wilkes was justified in seizing the envoys, but admitted that Wilkes had made an unfortunate mistake in releasing the Trent instead of bringing her into port under the “contraband” doctrine for adjudication in a prize court. He went on to explain that if the safety of the Union had required the detention of the captured persons, it would have been the duty of his government to keep them. “But the effectual check and waning proportions of the existing insurrection, as well as the comparative unimportance of the captured persons themselves, when dispassionately weighed, happily forbid me from resorting to that defence.” On those grounds the prisoners were “cheerfully liberated.”
The last two words were the only ones that mattered. Seward confided to Lyons privately that he had been through the fires of Tophet to get the prisoners released. He and Montgomery Blair, the postmaster general, were at first the only two members of the Cabinet in favor of their liberation. Ten months in office had cured him of the delusion that the South would return to the arms of the North in the event of a foreign war. Those ten months had also convinced him that Lord Lyons, however strongly he might stand up for British rights, was no friend of the Confederacy. Unlike M. Mercier, who was always busying himself with schemes of intervention and who even visited Richmond and returned more than ever convinced that the South could not be subdued, Lyons never deviated from the course of absolute neutrality.
It was all very well for American papers to tell their readers that “the British Minister is a plethoric, red-faced, large-stomached man in top-boots, knee breeches, yellow waistcoat, blue cut-away, brass buttons and broad-brimmed white hat, who is continually walking to the State Department in company with a large bulldog, hurling defiance at Mr. Seward at one moment, and the next rushing home to receive dispatches from Mr. Jefferson Davis, or to give secret instructions to the British Consuls to run cargoes of quinine and gunpowder through the Federal blockade.” Only Secretary Seward could have fully realized the grossness of the travesty. However much of a stickler Lord Lyons might be for the rights of British subjects, he never hurled defiance at anybody. On the contrary, whenever he found that the British consuls in the South were giving aid to the Confederacy, as they occasionally did, by carrying Confederate gold through the blockade, he anticipated complaints by dismissing them at once. No diplomat under threat of war ever conducted himself more correctly. By September, 1863, the Confederate government became so disgusted by his carefully correct deportment that they expelled all British consuls from their cities.
The position of Lyons in Washington was, if anything, more difficult than that of Adams in London. While Adams faced an occasionally unfriendly but still cautious government, determined to keep out of the war if it possibly could, Lyons had to deal with a reckless and no less unfriendly adversary who threatened to wrap the whole world in flames rather than allow the South to secede. The skillful handling of the Trent incident in which, contrary to instructions, Lyons gave Seward an extra two days to wrestle with the Cabinet, formed the basis of a more friendly relationship with the State Department. Although the endless interchange of diplomatic notes did not slacken until the end of the war, the truculence formerly so noticeable in Seward’s correspondence gradually faded away.