December 1861 saw a continuing fraught relationship between the president, Abraham Lincoln, and the man he appointed as overall commander of the North’s army, General McClellan. Lincoln continued to question the timidity of McClellan’s approach while McClellan continued with his assertion that if got it wrong, the whole of the North could suffer as a consequence.
December 1st: President Lincoln expressed his concern to General McClellan that the Unionist armies did not seem to be doing anything substantial.
December 2nd: Congress gave its permission for the suspension of habeas corpus in Missouri.
December 3rd: Lincoln gave his State of the Union address to Congress. The Union started its move against New Orleans when ‘USS Constitution’ arrived at Ship Island at the mouth of the Mississippi River carrying the 26th Massachusetts Regiment.
December 4th: Great Britain announced an embargo on all exports to the US
December 5th: The Secretary of War announced that Unionist strength stood at 660,971 men of whom 640,637 were volunteers.
December 6th: It was announced that the Treasury could cope with a war that ended by mid-1862 but if it lasted longer than this then the Treasury’s income would be far outweighed by its outgoings and taxes on most things would have to be increased to fund the war.
December 7th: In a scene that mirrored the ‘Trent’ incident, the ‘USS Santiago de Cuba’ stopped a British ship, the ‘Eugenia Smith’ and a Southerner called J W Zacharie was taken off. Zacherie was a purchasing agent for the Confederacy.
December 9th: The Senate approved the setting up of the Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War. This recognised that previous comments made to the Confederacy, that states rights would not be interfered with once the war was over, was no longer the case and that the internal affairs of the rebel states would be reformed regardless and that the Union would be upheld.
December 10th: The Confederacy admitted Kentucky to its membership despite the overwhelming evidence that the state was about to fall to Unionist forces.
December 11th: Charleston was damaged as a result of a fire that swept through the city. Charleston was the most important port in South Carolina.
December 12th: The success of the Union’s navy along the South’s coastline was such that cotton farmers started to burn their crop in fear that it might fall into the hands of the Union.
December 15th: Congress expressed its view that the use of slavery in the South was becoming more and more an issue. The original cause of the war was state’s rights but greater knowledge in the Union about slavery put it at the forefront of why the war was being fought. Over the next few months Congress passed a number of laws such as the military could no longer return to the South fugitive slaves; that slavery was to be outlawed in the District of Columbia; that any slave state that offered to give up slavery would be given financial assistance from the Union.
December 18th: Lord Lyons, the British ambassador in Washington DC, received a message from the British government that he was to demand the release of Mason and Slidell. If the Union failed to do this within 10 days, he had instructions to break off diplomatic relations.
December 19th: Lyons met the US Secretary of State, Seward.
December 20th: Two British warships arrived in Canada as a result of the ‘Trent’ affair.
December 21st: The meetings between Lyons and Seward continued. Both Seward and Lincoln recognised that there was a real risk of war with the British if their demands went unheeded.
December 23rd: The Cabinet was advised by Seward that Captain Wilkes made an error in taking off Mason and Slidell and that he should have brought in the ‘Trent’ and its ‘contents’ as the ship had violated its neutral status. Seward made it clear that the seizure of the Confederate commissioners was unlawful whereas the seizure of the ‘Trent’ as an entity would have been lawful.
December 24th: Congress passed a series of duties that were to be added to tea, coffee, sugar and what were classed as “luxury goods”.
December 25th: Despite it being Christmas Day, the Cabinet and the President were in discussions on what to do with Mason and Slidell. Fighting was reported at Fort Frederick in Maryland and Cherry, western Virginia.
December 26th: It was announced that Mason and Slidell would be released because their arrest was illegal. It was further announced that Captain Wilkes had acted without the knowledge of the government.
December 30th: Mason and Slidell were handed over to Lord Lyons. They were immediately put on a ship to England. Lyons then released his own interpretation of the law regarding “neutral nations” and it was at odds with Seward’s and, ironically, found support among many Americans. However, with the issue resolved, relations between the North and Great Britain improved.
December 31st: President Lincoln pressed his army commanders for more action. However, McClellan did not hear his message as he was ill.