- 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
Adams was still walking the streets of London, hunting for a place to live, when the stream of Seward’s notes began pouring in on him. All these had to be carefully considered before their substance could be passed on to Russell. Seward was inclined to issue ultimatums which Adams had to translate into requests. Throughout the war and for many years afterwards protests and counterprotests about the Neutrality Proclamation, the blockade, the Trent affair, the Alabama, and the iron rams followed one another in endless succession. While Seward and Russell drafted indignant notes, the harassed ministers who came to dread the bulky packets arriving by every mail were exercising all their ingenuity to soften the impassioned remonstrances of the home governments without whittling away the hard core of their arguments.
Lyons broke down under the strain but Adams, who was perhaps less nervous by temperament and to whom life in London offered more opportunities for relaxation, carried his heavy load of responsibility more easily. Busy as he was, he still found time to explore the English countryside—the beaches on the south coast, he decided, did not compare with Nahant and Nantucket—to visit all the Wren churches in London, and to frequent picture galleries and auction rooms. He was a collector of old coins, and in the diary he records his numismatic adventures with evident relish. Altogether, life in the lonely outpost was not without its compensations. If society functions bored him, he enjoyed small informal dinners with the Forsters, or with Browning and Sir Charles Lyell, the geologist, or with Monckton Milnes, all of them firm friends who could be relied upon to fight his battles in Mayfair or in the House of Commons.
Adams was enough of a fighter himself to get a certain savage satisfaction out of his controversies with the British government. One unexpected incident, which might have proved fatal to a less wary diplomat, arose out of General Benjamin Butler’s memorable “woman order,” authorizing Federal soldiers in New Orleans to treat as women of the town any female who insulted them. The General defended his order on the grounds that one woman spat in an officer’s face and that another emptied a bucket of dirty water on Admiral Farragut on his way to church. The most charitable view of “Beast Butler,” as he came to be known, was that he had committed a serious blunder. Confederate sympathizers in England represented the order as having been directed from Washington, and as being typical of northern depravity.
Palmerston seized the occasion to dash off a note to Adams which the Minister interpreted as a gratuitous insult. “No example can be found in the history of civilized nations,” said Palmerston, “till the publication of this order, of a general guilty in cold blood of so infamous an act as deliberately to hand over the female inhabitants of a conquered city to the unbridled license of an unrestrained soldiery.”
Adams was puzzled by this unprovoked attack. As usual, he confided the bitterness of his feelings to his diary while replying to Palmerston in a vein of studied politeness. Was he to consider Lord Palmerston’s note “purely as a private expression of sentiment between gentlemen,” or was it addressed to him in any way officially? If it was official, he must refuse to accept it.
What really worried Adams more than the tone of the letter was the fear that Palmerston might be contemplating intervention. His extraordinary communication might well be the first step in a far-reaching policy already decided on. New Orleans had been occupied in May, 1862, and during that summer the British Cabinet seriously considered offering mediation, but the battle of Antietam convinced them that the time was not ripe. From Palmerston’s point of view the time never was ripe. His outburst, as it turned out, did not foreshadow any change in British policy. It was inspired by nothing more subtle than a boyish instinct of chivalry. Palmerston hated cruelty. It may be that in this particular instance, like Edmund Burke in his fury over the execution of Marie Antoinette, he pitied the plumage and forgot the dying bird, but the instinct to protest against what seemed to him an act of wanton brutality was not an unworthy one. The fact that Butler was quietly removed from his command, at Seward’s instigation, proves that there must have been some people in Washington who shared Palmerston’s feelings, however much they may have resented his method of expressing them.
The only result of the incident was that it confirmed Adams in his belief that Palmerston was a Confederate at heart, and that he was determined to break up the Union if he possibly could, a belief that subsequently found its way into American history books. In Adams’ mind the case against the Confederacy was crystal clear. It was “an evil thing which began in perjury, treachery and fraud, and ended in assassination.” Anybody who did not subscribe to that belief was a Confederate sympathizer. Few people in England did subscribe to it, and the Prime Minister was certainly not among them.