James Buchanan was US President from 1857-1861. He is often considered one of the worst presidents of the US, with his presidency leading up to the US Civil War. Here, Ian Craig continues his look at Buchanan’s presidency. He argues that Buchanan had prepared for the possible secession of states in the South – and that it was almost impossible for him to avoid South Carolina’s December 1860 secession following Abraham Lincoln’s election victory in November 1860.

You can read the first article in the series on James Buchanan and Bleeding Kansas here.

President James Buchanan’s cabinet, circa 1859.

President James Buchanan’s cabinet, circa 1859.

Perhaps the most trying period in James Buchanan’s career came when South Carolina seceded from the Union on December 20, 1860 a month after Abraham Lincoln was electedpresident.  It has often been recollected that the nation’s fifteenth president simply let the nation dissolve under his watch - that the nation’s president was too weak and tired from age to effectively stop the secessionist threat in the South as President Andrew Jackson had thirty years prior during the Nullification Crisis. However, this was certainly not the case as President James Buchanan had prepared for such a scenario in October 1860.


Preparing for Succession

Before Lincoln was elected, Buchanan knew that if the Illinois Republican became president the South would most likely secede.  On the election he stated that, “throughout the presidential canvass, the cotton states openly declared their purpose to secede should Mr. Lincoln be elected.” This caused much alarm for Buchanan, who turned to General Winfield Scott, the commander-in chief of the armed forces for a review of the military and its outposts in the South. This was not the action of a weak president. At the time, the President only had sixteen thousand troops to defend against secession should the South decide to do so.  When General Scott completed his review, he warned Buchanan that many of the forts in the South including Fort Sumter and those along the Mississippi River lacked sufficient troops to defend against secession.  He writes that “Fort Moultrie and Sumter, (in) Charleston Harbor, the former with an insufficient garrison, and the latter without any…should be immediately so garrisoned as to make any attempt to take any one of them by surprise ridiculous.” General Scott also advised Buchanan to send five available companies to reinforce five of the eight forts that he mentioned in his report. However, they would still be understrength in repelling an attack against their station.  

Buchanan recognized the threat to the nation but being a man of the Constitution, realized that he had little power to move troops without the approval of Congress.  If he did so without congressional approval, he feared that he would only provoke the South and start the secession movement.  Buchanan did not want to start a war that he knew he was ill prepared for. He sent a request for Congress to raise five additional regiments that could be used to reinforce the Southern garrisons, but his request was ignored by Congress. Leaning on the advice of his Secretary of War, John B. Floyd, he did not pursue the matter to find out why. However, Floyd was being investigated by Congress for spreading troops thinly throughout the South to render the army useless if war did break out. The trial was suspended for lack of evidence.  Just before he resigned, Buchanan recalled that Floyd had ordered federal artillery sent to a Southern fort, but the President himself stepped in and revoked the order. Floyd had resigned because Buchanan refused to order Major Anderson from Fort Sumter after South Carolina seceded. 


Buchanan’s Dedication to the Constitution

In his December 3, 1860 annual message to Congress, Buchanan put emphasis on the impending desire of South Carolina to secede from the Union upon Lincoln’s election that November.  He stated that the “election of any of our fellow citizens to the office of president does not itself afford just cause for dissolving the Union…how then, can the result justify a revolution to destroy this very Constitution.” In a deep effort, Buchanan tried to clarify the seriousness of secession to the integrity of the Union and what the Constitution represented.  He also stated, “in order to justify secession as a Constitutional remedy, it must be on the principle that the Federal Government is a mere voluntary association of states, to be dissolved at pleasure by any one of the contracting parties.” At this point, Buchanan called out the legality of secession as unconstitutional, but his role as president gave him no power to take action against it.  This again, demonstrates his sincere dedication to the Constitution and the powers it gave.  As Buchanan explains, “apart from the execution of the laws, so far as they may be practiced, the Executive has not authority to decide what should be the relations between the federal government and South Carolina…he possesses no power to change the relations heretofore existing between them, much less acknowledge the independence of that state.”

In Buchanan’s defense he was correct, his oath of office required under Article Two Section One of the Constitution states that the president will “faithfully execute the office of President of the United States, and will to the best of (their) ability preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States.” James Buchanan lived by the oath he took as president and executed the laws of United States as given to him by the Constitution, no powers were given against slavery and secession.  If those actions were considered acts of war, only Congress would intervene to put an end to that situation.  Buchanan urged the nation to put an end to the secessionist cry but felt as if his actions were misinterpreted. As Buchanan recalls of himself, “his every act had been misrepresented and condemned, and knew that whatever course he might pursue, he was destined to encounter their bitter hostility.  No public man was ever placed in a more trying and responsible position…without giving offence both to the anti-slavery and secession parties, because both had been clearly in the wrong.” At that point, in December 1860, only a few weeks before South Carolina officially declared its secession, James Buchanan, the Fifteenth President of the United States, felt powerless to prevent the impending Civil War.


What do you think of James Buchanan’s actions before South Carolina’s secession? Let us know below.

The US Civil War (1861-1865) changed America in many ways. With many men fighting in the war, one such change was the role of women in society. Here, Kaiya Rai considers the role of women in the Confederate States, including a look at feminine ideals at the time, Belle Boyd, and Mary Chestnut.

Mary Chestnut, author a well-known civil war diary.

Mary Chestnut, author a well-known civil war diary.

Women’s lives in the Confederacy were dramatically changed right from the breakout of war in April 1861. The very notion of womanhood underwent a transformation, as men were called up to fight in the army, and women from the upper-class were forced to look after slaves, women from the middle-class were forced to flee their homes and seek refuge, and women of the lower-class and widows gained social standing as a result. The idea of women having to takeover on the home front during a war is not a new one, but in the case of the American Civil War, this was an entirely new concept. Furthermore, women held no previous social standing. There was no growing suffrage movement as there was in World War One (WWI), it was the first time such an event had occurred, in contrast to World War Two (when many remembered WWI), and women from the upper reaches of society, did not generally have significant difficulties in their lives.

Much of the information gained about women in the Confederacy, and their changing identities, has come from the diaries that the majority of upper-class women wrote in. They provided a new way of self-discovery, as such writing required self-description as a result of self-understanding. Even when women began writing letters to officers, and even Jefferson Davis, it meant claiming a public voice, and so was incompatible with their definition and understanding of themselves as ‘women’.


Feminine ideals

The fragility of feminine ideals existing in the antebellum period appears to have served the women well, as it seems that ‘feminine weakness served as the foundation of female strength’ (Drew Gilpin Faust, Mothers of Invention: Women of the Slaveholding South in the American Civil War) in this case. Many women did what they could to play their part in the war, albeit covertly sometimes, as it wasn’t seen as being ‘feminine.’ Belle Boyd shooting the Union soldier entering her house is a key example of this; escaping punishment by claiming feminine fragility and fear was fundamental to the patriarchal nature of war. The hoop skirts that many upper-class women wore were used to hide jewelry, as they had no fear of being searched as women. This lack of threat is displayed in a Union soldier’s comment that ‘if she was a man I would whip her.’ The Nancy Hart regiment in La Grange, Georgia displayed a similar idea. When a Union regiment approached the town, the women-only regiment refused to back down, invited the soldiers in for tea and thus evaded the capture of the town! Elite women, in particular, hated the occupation of Confederate towns by Union soldiers, and were noted to have stepped in gutters to avoid passing Union soldiers on the pavement, and even wore thick veils to avoid eye contact with the officers! Students at a girl’s school in Georgia were recorded as emptying their chamber pots out of the windows onto soldiers’ heads, and Flag Officer Farragut was also subjected to this, in New Orleans. This hatred of the officers fuelled many women into action; despite their view of femininity, many wanted to play their part in forming a new nation and playing patriotic games against the country they believed had oppressed their ideals for so long.

However, their feminine helplessness has also been seen, to a large extent, to have been perpetrated by the women themselves. One of the first requirements for women in the Confederacy was as nurses and teachers, seen as traditionally female roles today, ironically! Yet, upon this call for help, many were writing to their husbands asking them to be forbidden to go. One woman even started addressing letters to her husband as ‘dear papa’ and ending them from your ‘daughter.’ Here, it seems that the patriarchy, whilst perhaps initiated by men, seems to have been upheld and continued by women. As McCurry noted that “no one, apparently, believed in women’s non-partisanship as fervently as the women themselves.” The need for protection was a big issue when men were called up to fight, and many made it a condition of them joining the war effort; they would do so, if the state could offer support for their families. 


Belle Boyd’s Role as a Spy

Belle Boyd, also known as ‘the Siren of the Shenandoah,’ was one woman who played a particularly noteworthy role for the Confederacy. A die-hard secessionist, she spied for the Confederacy during the Civil War and was able to use her role as an upper class ‘lady’ to cover her actions, and claim ignorance when needed. When she and her mother denied entry to some Union officers wanting to raise a Union flag over their house, and when one assaulted her mother as a result, Belle shot and killed the soldier, and became infamous as a result. Despite being a spy for the majority of the Civil War, the usefulness of her intelligence work is not nearly as significant as the symbolism of her doing the work itself. She informed General Jackson of the Union intentions to set fire to the bridges in Front Royal (Virginia) as they retreated, and also reported on Union action in the Shenandoah - these are considered by most as the only outcomes of her intelligence work to have had major effect. However, the uncertainty of women’s roles, especially upper-class women’s roles during the Civil War was hugely compounded by Boyd’s actions, and perhaps it can be argued that she represented an icon for the helpless Confederate woman. Their femininity was, to an extent, reliant on the view that women were husbands’ wives, not individuals in their own right. Boyd used this fragile need for women to her advantage, and many stories of her outrageous flirtations circled among Union and confederate officers alike. These, however, played an important role as Boyd identified in one diary entry, "I am indebted for some very remarkable effusions, some withered flowers, and last, but not least, for a great deal of very important information.” The notion of womanhood as dependency on a man, and the objection, to some part, of women, that men perpetrated by bringing flowers and ‘remarkable effusion,’ actually allowed Boyd to gain all the information she needed to effectively spy on the Union for her cause.

Belle Boyd, a Confederate civil war spy.

Belle Boyd, a Confederate civil war spy.

Mary Chestnut as the more common female experience

Mary Chestnut conversely played the role of the conventional, helpless Confederate woman abandoned by her husband, but she held real devastation in this, and truly felt lost. Many women in the Confederacy had similar experiences to Chestnut, as they were left with a plantation and possibly hundreds of slaves to manage. There was also the constant fear of servile insurrection, aggravated by abolitionist John Brown’s raid in 1859 in which he wanted to start an armed slave revolt. Chestnut was the embodiment of women’s beliefs that, as Faust identifies, the feeling of ‘a new sense of God’s distance and disengagement combined with a distrust of the men on whom they had so long relied,’ and as such, the necessity of war that forced Confederate women to behave in new ways, became the driving force behind the changing of their identities. The lives of the confederate women, not having undergone the innovations of society that were occurring in the north, had been so focused on marriage and child-bearing, with their identities so tied up with visions of themselves as wives and mothers, that when war overturned these norms, it meant that their fundamental self-definition was altered. Moreover, their emotional relations and experiences were so fixed on privacies of heterosexual love that the countless examples of female homosexuality recorded in diaries, were not seen as anything other than close female friendship, probably in part because the identity of a woman was so ingrained as part of a larger patriarchal sphere.

Related to this is the renewed view of the identities of widows during the war. As a result of huge casualties, with 260,000 Confederate deaths at the end of the war, many women became widows, and this notion became romanticized as they were seen as having ‘loved and suffered’. Widows were seen as the settlers of ‘the rejuvenating club’ of women who became self-confident in themselves and eligible for a state pension of $30 per year, on certain conditions. This brought with it a sense of independence for many women, as they no longer had the choice of relying on a husband, and now owned money themselves, an opportunity which most would not have previously had. Widows therefore became essential for women all over the Confederacy, in questioning the very nature of being a woman, because women actively seeking romance redefined marriage conventions. The stereotype of the faithful, heartbroken wife, and therefore the assessment that women only lived for their husbands, was deconstructed, as they showed that they would continue to live their life even without a husband. To court and remarry was to assert a claim to happiness, preceding the self-abnegation and altruism expected from a woman.


To conclude

It can be seen that, as Faust argues, necessity may have been the ‘mother of invention’ for women in the Confederacy during the Civil War, as the romantic notions of war and patriotism had been replaced with a selfishness due to a need to survive. The women themselves could have also been the ‘mothers of invention’ themselves, though, and the women’s property law of 1860, embodied a new ‘vision of masculine irresponsibility’ (Lebsock), perhaps consequential of the new gender ideology introduced as a result of the Civil War.


What do you think about the role of women in the Confederacy during the US Civil War?

Legendary American Civil War-era nurse Clara Barton was extraordinary in many ways. Not only was she an important nurse in the US Civil War, she also played a key role in bringing the Red Cross to America. Here, Matt Goolsby follows his first ‘nurses in war’ article on Cornelia Hancock (available here) and tells us about the life of Clara Barton.

An engraving of Clara Barton from 1867. Engraving by John Sartain.

An engraving of Clara Barton from 1867. Engraving by John Sartain.

Humble Beginnings

The United States was a very agrarian based nation in the early part of the 19th century. Travel and communication were typically slow and arduous.

By the time of the Civil War, the northeast region of the U.S. was experiencing the growing pains of the Industrial Revolution that had started in England in the 1700s. Railroad lines were expanding at an exponential rate as the demand for goods transversed the entire region of the rapidly growing country.

Communication was also becoming a transcontinental medium to rapidly transmit information from one region to another through the use of telegraph lines. Newspapers began publishing stories next day instead of relying on couriers delivering accounts that took days if not weeks to send and receive.

One would assume that the rapidly expanding use of technology and industry would have affected how the medical profession cared for the sick, wounded, and dying soldiers who were the casualties of the Civil War during this time. In reality, it exposed the glaring weaknesses and woeful practices utilized in treatment that spawned a desire for improvement of those who were most vulnerable. Against this backdrop, a formidable leader and role model emerged.

Clarissa Harlowe Barton was born on Christmas Day, 1821 in North Oxford, Massachusetts to Captain Stephen Barton and his wife Sarah Stone. She was the youngest of five children: Dorothy - 17, Stephen - 15, David - 13, and Sally – 10 at the time.

Coming from very unpretentious beginnings, Clara as she was fondly known by, was a timid and shy child. Her elder brother David spent much time with Clara riding horses and enjoying the outdoors which helped to relieve some of the timidity she first felt.

The Barton home where Clara was born still exists to this day in its original location and is a museum to her life and testament to the simple yet solid foundations her family was known for.

The Barton family, whose beginnings can be traced back to 11thcentury England in the Domesday book, otherwise known as: ‘A great survey’ commissioned by William the Conqueror, shows that the family was awarded land due to their loyalty to king and country.

The Barton family in America first appears in 1640 in Salem, Massachusetts after Edward Barton emigrated from England as one of the early colonists. After several moves throughout New England, the Barton family finally settled in North Oxford, Massachusetts and took up daily living with their Universalist religious background.

Of particular note are the facts that Clara’s family established the first Universalist church in Oxford and ordained its first Pastor: Hosea Ballou who is considered one of the fathers of American Universalism. As described in the story of Clara’s life by Percy H. Elper: “Yet her father and mother, however liberal in their creed, never relaxed from the deepest habits of all that was best in Pilgrim and Puritan. No matter how snowy, no matter how the winds hurtled over the hilltops — the Barton family not only drove five miles to church every Sunday, but maintained, during the other six days of the week, the deeper fundamentals of conscience and honor peculiar to their forefathers' faith.”


Foundational Nurse Training

In 1832 Clara and her family experienced a significant medical crisis that helped form her future nursing skills and made clear the talent she innately possessed.

Her brother David was severely injured while working on a barn-raising when one of the boards he was standing on at the peak collapsed under him. He fell to the ground sustaining a severe head injury that laid him up in bed for nearly two years. 

Clara, perhaps from the closeness she felt to her brother while riding horseback in the woods, spent the entire recovery time caring for David. She also was the one who applied the prescribed treatments of the time for him that consisted of: Leeches, setons (stitches to relieve infection), counter-irritating blisters, and blood-letting to relieve his fever. She is quoted as saying: “For two years I only left his bedside for one half day. I almost forgot that there was an outside to the house.”

After David had finally recovered from his injuries, (when the new treatment of steam baths came into use), Clara had to sequester herself for recovery time from the care she had provided. At the tender age of 11, it was a portent of things to come.


Civil War Service

After spending 18 years teaching and then another 5 years living and working in Washington D.C. for the U.S. Department of the Interior and Patent Office, Clara saw firsthand what many of the men who were involved in the Civil War would experience through its long, arduous journey.

In April of 1861, the Massachusetts 6thregiment heeded the call of Abraham Lincoln for 75,000 troops and proceeded to make its way down to the nation’s capital. On their way they passed through Baltimore, Maryland where a crowd of 10,000 opponents of the beginning conflict assaulted them. This left four dead and 30 wounded.

They fought their way through the crowd and arrived in Washington the following day: April 16, 1861. Clara witnessed the regiment as they arrived by train and was there to greet them. 

This was the first time she had worked as a ‘Volunteer Nurse’ and experienced what would become her life’s mission to apply healing to those wounded in conflict. In her own words she testifies: "Among the soldiers, I recognized my own early associates. We bound their wounds, and fed them." There were many from Worcester, Massachusetts including Sergeant J. Stewart Brown and Joseph M. Dyson who she knew by name.

As the war progressed, Clara became acutely aware of the need for frontline care for the wounded and dying. Her desire to care for them put her in mortal danger numerous times. She writes of her time with the soldiers at Antietam in September of 1862: "We were in a slight hollow and all shell which did not break our guns in front, came directly among or over us, bursting above our heads or burying themselves in the hills beyond. A man lying upon the ground asked for a drink, I stopped to give it, and having raised him with my right hand, was holding him. Just at this moment a bullet sped its free and easy way between us, tearing a hole in my sleeve and found its way into his body. He fell back dead. There was no more to be done for him and I left him to his rest. I have never mended that hole in my sleeve. I wonder if a soldier ever does mend a bullet hole in his coat?”

These experiences as gleaned from her writings, demonstrate the conviction of purpose and character that she had developed since her time caring for her brother’s injuries.

There are several key traits of Clara’s personality that are apparent in both her writings and of those who knew her.

The first is that she was never interested in money, only in solving humanities ill fortunes. This is best described later as she would later become the founder of the American Red Cross and would petition the U.S. Government to have its purpose expanded as a humanitarian relief organization for natural disasters as well as their charter to aid the wounded, sick, and dying in war. 

The second trait that also is very apparent is her love for her fellow man and the ability to rise to the occasion when events merit it. I’m reminded fondly of Mother Teresa and her ministering to the poor, sick, and weak ‘untouchables’ of India who she cared for during most of her adult life.

Towards the end of the war Clara was recognized for her gallant service by being named the Superintendent of the Department of Nurses under Surgeon McCormack who was Chief Director of the Army of the James stationed at City Point, Virginia.

As was always the case with Clara, she never settled for comfort in the ‘safe’ zones, but wanted to be attending to the infirm on the frontlines. 

Her oldest brother Stephen would also become a victim of the war and perhaps one of her greatest motivations to fulfill her duty as a nurse.

Stephen Barton had been mistakenly identified as a Confederate by the Union due to his living in North Carolina and had been neglected for a long period until Clara got word of him being hospitalized in Washington D.C. By this time, his health had deteriorated beyond hope.

Not long before he passed away in 1865, she wrote of hearing one of his final, moving prayers: "Oh God, whose children we all are, look down with thine eye of justice and mercy upon this terrible conflict, and weaken the wrong, and strengthen the right till this unequal contest close. Oh God, save my country. Bless Abraham and his armies.” She also painted a vivid portrait of what the conditions of where he passed were: "And there under the guns of Richmond, amid the groans of the dying, in the shadows of the smoky rafters of an old negro hut, by the rude chimney where the dusky form of the bondsman had crouched for years, and on the ground, trodden hard by the foot of the slave, I knelt beside that rough couch of boards, and, to the patriot prayer that rose above, sobbed 'Amen.'”


American Red Cross Founder

For four years following the Civil War, Clara Barton helped find those men who were missing in action from the official records of the war’s dead. While still living in Washington D.C., she ran the Office of Missing Soldiers to identify those who were killed or missing in action to try to relieve the suffering of family and friends.

During this time, she met and befriended Susan B. Anthony as well as Frederick Douglas. These relationships would leave a lasting impression on her as she championed women’s suffrage and civil rights for the rest of her life.

The years of Civil War work for others had taken their toll on Clara. After seeing her doctor and following his orders to get rest and recuperation from her many travails, she decided to visit Europe in 1869. Her first visit was to Liverpool, England and then on to Paris. Her final stop was to be where her life’s calling was forever changed.

Arriving in Geneva, Switzerland for the end of her vacation period, she was visited by the president and members of the “International Committee for the Relief of the Wounded in the War”, which would later become the International Committee of the Red Cross. Since Clara had such an outstanding reputation even with the international community, she was asked why America didn’t honor the recently signed ‘Geneva Convention’ and why after such a conflict as theirs, they wouldn’t be interested in it? Her answer was simple: “I listened in silent wonder to all this recital, and when I did reply it was to say that I had never heard of the Convention of Geneva nor of the treaty, and was sure that as a country America did not know she had declined.”

Not long after she had arrived in Geneva, the Franco-Prussian war broke out. Clara was able to see first-hand how the Red Cross in Europe was operating and how it contrasted with her experiences in the Civil War: "As I journeyed on and saw the work of these Red Cross societies in the field, accomplishing in four months under their systematic organization what we failed to accomplish in four years without it — no mistakes, no needless suffering, no starving, no lack of care, no waste, no confusion, but order, plenty, cleanliness and comfort wherever that little flag made its way — a whole continent marshaled under the banner of the Red Cross — as I saw all this, and joined and worked in it, you will not wonder that I said to myself 'if I live to return to my country I will try to make my people understand the Red Cross and that treaty.' But I did more than resolve, I promised other nations I would do it, and other reasons pressed me to remember my promise.”

One is struck with the irony of Clara’s timing in situations where war breaks out. It seems that she was called for just a time as these.

In early 1871 the Franco-Prussian war ended, but the battles continued throughout both Germany and France until the late summer of the same year. Clara stayed through this entire time ministering to the sick, treating the wounded, establishing clothiers who would fashion garments for the poorest, and soliciting funds from aristocratic donors who included Grand Duchess Louise of Baden, Kingdom of Prussia. Her willingness to befriend any class of person is another testament to her savviness and skill.

By 1874 Clara was worn out from her time in Europe and lack of recuperation. She was no stranger to loss having found out that her sister Sally had died before she could see her one final time in Worcester. Her only remaining relative in her family circle was her brother David whom she had nursed back to health as a child.

She spent several more years convalescing and writing friends, family, and officials of her intentions to establish the American Red Cross. With great perseverance, she was finally successful in 1881 with President James Garfield’s administration and it was established. An assassin’s bullet struck down the President and delayed the formal establishment of the association while the nation mourned for 80 days. 

Finally, in 1882, the Red Cross was formally established with ratification by Congress and the signing of the Geneva Convention by President Chester Arthur. Its role had expanded from not just treating the wounded and dying from war, but also those who experienced natural disasters.

At a convention of the International Red Cross in Geneva during 1882, the President of the International organization gave Clara the credit for the new American branch: "Its whole history is associated with a name already known to you — that of Miss Clara Barton; without the energy and perseverance of this remarkable woman, we should not for a long time have had the pleasure of seeing the Red Cross received into the United States."

Clara would serve as the President of the American Red Cross until June, 1904. Her tasks of running the organization along with doing fieldwork are unheard of in this day and age. 

As the years went by, Clara would write her autobiography titled: ‘The Story of My Childhood’. But the Clara Barton that I read about was gleaned from the book titled: ‘The Life of Clara Barton’, by Percy Elper who was the only authorized biographer of her life by the family. He used her unpublished war diaries, letters, eyewitness accounts, and conversations to write a truly compelling picture of this unique lady. 

Clara died in her home in 1912 at the age of 90. Her stature and legacy on American society have had a tremendous impact on so many people. We have much to learn from her compassionate and caring nature for those in need.


What do you think of Clara Barton? Let us know below.


Percy H. Epler, “The Life of Clara Barton”, The Macmillan Company, New York, July 1915.

 “Evolution of the Railroad”, https://www.history.com/topics/industrial-revolution/videos/evolution-of-railroads

“Nursing History – Clara Barton”, 


“Biography of Mother Teresa”, https://www.biography.com/people/mother-teresa-9504160

“The Domesday Book”, http://www.domesdaybook.co.uk/

“Clara Barton – Library of Congress”, https://www.loc.gov/item/2018651854/

AuthorGeorge Levrier-Jones

With the Union’s Army of the Potomac finally defeating Robert E. Lee, you’d think the 1863 Battle of Gettysburg would have elated Abraham Lincoln. Instead, for him, the battle produced a harvest of bitterness and disappointment. Lamont Wood, whose book Lincoln's Planner: A Unique Look at the Civil War Through the President's Daily Activities (Amazon US | Amazon UK) was recently published, explains why this American Civil War battle produced such feelings.

A depiction of the 1863 Battle of Gettysburg. Hand-colored lithograph by Currier and Ives.

A depiction of the 1863 Battle of Gettysburg. Hand-colored lithograph by Currier and Ives.

After two years of indecisive yet bloody warfare, Lincoln glimpsed victory in July 1863. Out West, a Union army was besieging Vicksburg and it looked like the Union would soon control the Mississippi River. Another Union army was advancing in central Tennessee, while on the coast the Union siege of Charleston looked promising. With the addition of Lee’s defeat at Gettysburg, surely victory was within grasp.

But there was no follow-through.

As reflected in his collected wartime papers (and recounted in “Lincoln’s Planner”), as the battle unfolded on July 1 and 2, 1863, the president spent a lot of his time in the War Department’s telegraph office, reading dispatches from the front as they arrived.


Independence Day

On July 4, Independence Day, a Saturday, and the day after Pickett’s Charge, both sides at Gettysburg stood in place during the morning, Lincoln put out a press release congratulating his army, asking that, “He whose will, not ours, should ever be done, be everywhere remembered and reverenced with profoundest gratitude.” That night he helped mount a fireworks display at the White House.

But that was as upbeat as things got.

Meanwhile, torrential rains began falling at Gettysburg and Lee began pulling his army out of Pennsylvania. From out of left field, the Confederate vice president, Alexander H. Stephens showed up under a flag of truce at Fortress Monroe, asking to come to Washington to talk to Lincoln, supposedly to discuss prisoner exchanges. (Presumably, Stephens’ real motivation was to be on hand should the Administration become favorable to peace negotiations following Confederate successes in Pennsylvania.)

On July 5 (Sunday) Lincoln attended a Cabinet meeting where they discussed Stephens’ request, which Lincoln discounted. Lincoln (accompanied by his 10-year-old son Tad) then visited wounded general (and Republican friend and all-round scandal magnet) Dan Sickles, who had been evacuated to Washington after losing a leg at Gettysburg.

Back at the telegraph office, Lincoln saw a report about a Union cavalry raid the previous day that destroyed a Confederate pontoon bridge across the Potomac at Falling Waters, West Virginia. Lincoln bypassed the chain of command and directly telegraphed Gen. William French asking if the rain-swollen Potomac could be forded. The answer: no.

The enticing implication was that Lee was stuck on the north side of the Potomac, unable to retreat to Virginia, and subject to momentary destruction by the pursuing Federals – a development that could wrap up the war.


Too Quiet on the Potomac

The next day (Monday, July 6) Lincoln attended a morning Cabinet meeting and convinced them to ignore Stephens—if the Confederate vice president really wanted to talk about prisoner exchanges, there were existing channels for that.

And then Lincoln’s hopes were shattered by the arrival of Gen. Herman Haupt, the chief railroad engineer of the Union army, who pulled into town from Gettysburg on one of his trains and rushed to the White House. He told Lincoln that he feared Gen. George Meade, commander of the Army of the Potomac, was going to let Lee get away. Haupt had spoken with Meade Saturday and heard Meade say that his army had nearly been defeated and needed rest. Meade noted that since Lee did not have a pontoon train his army would be stuck on the north side of the Potomac, implying that an immediate pursuit wasn’t necessary. Haupt told him that the Confederates could throw together a temporary bridge by tearing down buildings for lumber, but Meade wasn’t impressed.

Lincoln then spent the afternoon back in the telegraph office, and what he saw confirmed the fears raised by Gen. Haupt. He returned to the White House about 7 and wrote to Gen. Henry Halleck, his chief of staff, complaining that the messages he saw indicated a policy of herding the enemy forces across the river rather than trapping and destroying them. “You know I did not like the phrase… ‘Drive the invaders from our soil,’” Lincoln said.

The next morning (Tuesday, July 7) Gen. Meade finally had his infantry march in pursuit of Lee. Lincoln was back in the telegraph office when notice arrived from Vicksburg of the Confederate surrender there on July 4. (Grant’s army did not have a direct telegraph connection with Washington.)

The city erupted into celebration and a crowd eventually gathered outside the White House demanding a speech. Lincoln made his longest-known off-the-cuff address, with themes he would re-use in the speech he gave four months later at Gettysburg, such as, “On the 4th the cohorts of those who opposed the declaration that all men are created equal turned tail and run.”

The day after (Wednesday, July 8) Gen. Meade’s infantry caught up with Lee’s cornered army, but there was no major action. Lincoln was heard to complain that Gen. Meade is “as likely to capture the Man-in-the-Moon, as any part of Lee’s army.”

Thursday was equally frustrating, as Lincoln returned to the tasks of the Executive Branch, while things remained all quiet on the Potomac. Friday, the opposing armies probed each other, while Lincoln sent a telegram to an old friend back in Illinois, saying that the rumors were true and Lee had indeed been defeated at Gettysburg.

Saturday (July 11) Gen. Meade reported that he had decided to attack the trapped Confederates, and Lincoln’s mood was seen to improve.

Then, Sunday, Gen. Meade pushed the attack back a day, saying he needed time for reconnaissance. “Too late!” Lincoln groaned when he read the message.

On Monday, July 13, Lincoln sent a thank you letter to Gen. Grant for his recent victory at Vicksburg, noting that he had been worried about Grant’s plan to operate away from the Mississippi and take the city from the land side, but “you were right and I was wrong.” (Grant took a month to respond.)



Getting away

That night, Lee’s army slipped across the falling Potomac.

The next day, Lincoln wrote a thank you letter to Gen. Meade, as he had done to Gen. Grant. But the tone was radically different. “I am very – very – grateful to you for the magnificent success you gave the cause of the country… I do not believe you appreciate the magnitude of the misfortune involved in Lee's escape. He was within your easy grasp, and to have closed upon him would, in connection with our other late successes, have ended the war. As it is, the war will be prolonged indefinitely... Your golden opportunity is gone, and I am distressed immeasurably because of it.”

He filed the letter away, and never sent it.

As Lincoln feared, the war did drag on, lasting nearly two more years. The main impact of Gettysburg was that Lee would never again launch a major offensive.


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Lamont Wood is a journalist and history writer. He has been freelancing for more than three decades in the history, high-tech, and industrial fields. He has sold more than six hundred magazine feature articles and twelve books. He and his wife, Dr. Louise O’Donnell, reside in San Antonio, Texas. His book, Lincoln's Planner: A Unique Look at the Civil War Through the President's Daily Activities (Amazon US | Amazon UK), is available here.

Ulysses S. Grant, famous American Civil War General and the 18th president of the United States, led a very full life in many ways. But are the stories that he was an alcoholic true? Stephen Bitsoli separates the fact from the fiction…

Ulysses S. Grant on a cover of Grant's Tobacco.

Ulysses S. Grant on a cover of Grant's Tobacco.

In one of his classic phone call comedy skits, Bob Newhart imagines a conversation between President Abraham Lincoln and his press agent shortly before the Gettysburg Address. Among the many topics they discuss is General Ulysses S. Grant.

“You’re getting complaints about Grant’s drinking? Abe, I don’t see the problem. You knew he was a lush when you hired him.” Asked for a “squelch” for the press, Lincoln’s gag writers come up with: “Tell them you’re going to find out what brand he drinks, and then send a case to all your other generals.”

Supposedly Lincoln did say something like that. Even if he didn’t, he did think highly of Grant. Even after a near disaster at the Battle of Shiloh, when there were calls for Grant to be dismissed, Lincoln said, “I cannot spare this man; he fights.”


Grant’s Reputation

Ask most people what they “know” about Ulysses S. Grant today, and they’ll probably say three things: he was a great general, a lousy president, and a drunk.


A great general? Well, after being forced to resign his commission as captain (or else be court-martialed) in 1854, he rejoined the army in 1861 at the beginning of the U.S. Civil War. There he restored discipline to a problem regiment, won battle after battle, rising through the ranks to become commander of all Union forces. He succeeded – despite political and military enemies and a sometimes hostile press – on the strength and number of his military victories. So, by most conventional measures, he seems to have been a great general.

A lousy president? Well, I guess that depends on how you define lousy. He wasn’t thought of as one at the time, and neither do most of today’s historians. He was easily elected to two terms, and almost won nomination for a third. There was a lot of corruption during his administration, but none was traced back to him. And he was a strong advocate for protecting the rights of the former slaves, especially in the South. He even broke the Ku Klux Klan, and made human rights a national concern. Just before his death he published his wartime memoirs, considered one of the finest by any former president, and it was a best-seller. So, sure, his presidency wasn’t perfect, but lousy seems to be an overly harsh judgment.

What about a drunk? Well, he did resign his commission in 1854 after allegedly being drunk on duty. And there are numerous other anecdotes about his drinking. Even one of his defenders, Civil War biographer Edward G. Longacre, wrote that while “Grant did not fit the stereotype of the falling-down drunk” – he could refuse a drink or drink moderately – “he was, in the clinical sense of the term, an alcoholic.” There are also reports that he sometimes fell down or off his horse, and at least once he was reported to have vomited in public.


But while falling over or vomiting can be indicative of excessive drinking, they can also be caused by eating crappy army rations in unsanitary battlefield conditions. He also had crippling migraines which might have been mistaken for hangovers, especially since alcohol was prescribed for them. Grant did have throat cancer, which can be a physical sign of alcohol abuse, especially when paired with tobacco (and Grant did smoke a lot), but based on the more cosmetic consequences – prominent sores, spidery red veins on the skin, especially the nose and cheeks – there is little evidence that Grant abused alcohol.


Myth and Reality

Why anyone cares that Grant drank is an interesting question in itself. As has been said, he was a successful, even brilliant soldier. If he did that while drinking, or maybe because he was drinking, then Lincoln’s alleged anecdote might even be a sound strategy.

Actually, in those days everybody drank a lot more than we do today. “In 1825, Americans over the age of 15 consumed on average seven gallons of alcohol — generally whiskey or hard cider — each year (today that figure is about two gallons, mostly of beer and wine).”

More likely, according to most sources, is that he was (at least early in his career) a binge drinker who mostly drank when separated from his family or out of boredom. According to his friend Lt. Henry Hodges, “He would perhaps go on two or three sprees a year, but was always open to reason.” Reports that he drank to inebriation during or before his Civil War battles seem entirely fanciful.

So, where did the claims that Grant routinely drank to excess come from? According to Civil War historian and archivist Michael B. Ballard, “Almost all, if not all, the stories about various drunken states are apocryphal.”

Grant's purported drinking problems are largely the result of a smear campaign against him by his rivals and political enemies – both “Lost Cause” Southerners still smarting from their defeat in the Civil War and his political opposition – that began after his two terms as Commander in Chief. In part they were upset over his attempts to enforce Reconstruction and protect the freedmen’s rights. In particular, his use of federal troops to enforce the 14th and 15th amendments and confront the Ku Klux Klan and other white supremacists was seen as tyrannical and imposing “black domination.”

Then there are those who find it romantic to consider Grant (as one website article dubs him) “a drunken fighting machine from American History.” Even novelist Susan Cheever, the daughter of a famous alcoholic, falls into this fallacy in Drinking in America: Our Secret History, proclaiming that Grant “was known to have a serious drinking problem,” but that this was a time “when alcohol may have had a positive effect.” As if his victories were attributable to the physical signs of alcohol abuse!


And finally there are the journalists, who in those days were far more willing to invent things than journalists in the present. Sylvanus Cadwallader, a newspaper reporter, wrote down one such story (though not printed until after his death three decades after the war), claiming that Grant had a barrel of whiskey in his tent for his exclusive use. No one else ever mentioned it.

It would be foolish to state that Grant never drank, or never drank to excess, but the myth of his being either a pathetic drunk or a hard-drinking man of action isn’t borne out by the evidence.


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Stephen Bitsoli blogs about addiction, recovery, mental health, and wellness. He has asked us to link to a rehabilitation center here.

During the American Civil War, one bold woman in the heart of the Confederacy dared to support the Union cause by freeing her slaves, aiding captured soldiers, and leading a spy ring that extended into the Confederate White House itself. Though her story may be obscure, her boldness and courage during the toughest years in American history tell the tale of a true American hero. Chloe Helton explains.

The Battle of Seven Pines, Virginia May 31, 1862. The battle took place near Richmond where Elizabeth Van Lew was from.

The Battle of Seven Pines, Virginia May 31, 1862. The battle took place near Richmond where Elizabeth Van Lew was from.

John Van Lew, Elizabeth’s father, was the owner of a wildly successful hardware store when he married Eliza Baker, the daughter of a former Philadelphia mayor. No doubt the prominence and wealth of the Van Lew family created the circumstances which allowed for Elizabeth’s successes in aiding the Union during the war. A well-rounded education and cushy wealth made for an outspoken and independent young woman in Elizabeth, and the distaste for these traits among the Richmond elite may account for some of the reason for an attractive, wealthy young woman like Elizabeth having never married. That is not to say, however, that she did not use her charms: often she was able to persuade high-ranking Confederate men to heed her requests, which allowed the success of many of her anti-Confederate actions during the Civil War.

When Virginia announced its secession from the Union, a celebratory parade marched through Richmond, the capital of the Confederacy. Perhaps every citizen in the whole city was present for the festivities except Elizabeth and her mother, Eliza. Elizabeth, an ardent Union supporter who after her father’s death had used her considerable inheritance to buy and free the families of her emancipated slaves, soured at the prospect of secession and considered fleeing the city. Not one to flee from unfriendly situations, and much too attached to her beloved family home, she eventually decided to stay, vowing to instead help the Union in any way she could.


Growing opposition

At first her actions were not hotly opposed within the city. Southerners expected swift victory in the war and initially Northern prisoners were treated well, so even when Elizabeth requested that a captive Northern Congressman who had fallen gravely ill be treated in her own home it was easily allowed, and not much suspicion was aroused. The Congressman, Calvin Huson, Jr., died soon after his relocation despite tender care from the Van Lew ladies, but Elizabeth received a thank-you letter from Union soldiers in Richmond which she kept with her until her death. As the war dragged on supply shortages ravaged the South, and when Elizabeth requested permission to visit the infamous Libby Prison she was told - by the First Lady’s half-brother (a Confederate officer), no less - that a lady like her should not be fraternizing with the enemy. Elizabeth redirected her plea to the Secretary of the Treasury, C.G. Memminger, and after she turned some of his own famous arguments about Christians proving their love for each other through aid even to those who did not deserve it he did grant her request. She used her considerable fortune to buy produce for enemy prisoners in a time when most common city folk could scarcely afford to eat, and the result among her peers was social isolation and death threats.

Van Lew’s induction into espionage did not begin intentionally. Many of the prisoners had acquired pieces of information from the Southerners they came into contact with - guards, doctors, and deserters mostly - and when these bits of hearsay were all compiled it was considerably useful. Elizabeth simply passed it on to Union officers, and because part of her family’s farm was outside the city walls she was easily able to pass on information there without arousing suspicion. Some issues did arise: at one point her pass to visit the prisons was rescinded, but with more manipulation she was able to receive permission again. The prison guards also became wary of her and banned her from speaking to the prisoners. However, this did not discourage her from soliciting information: she poked messages into cloth with pins and slipped pieces of paper into the bottom of a food dish.


Supporting the other side

Despite her valiant and charitable efforts in the prisons, Elizabeth’s real claim to fame began when Jefferson Davis, the Confederate President, began asking for reliable servants for the Southern White House. Van Lew was apparently unable to pass up this opportunity and offered one of her freed slaves for hire, and Davis, who had known her father, accepted. When Mary Bowser began work in the White House, Davis didn’t think she even knew how to read, much less that she had been educated in the North and had photographic memory, so he was careless with his papers around her - too careless. Word soon got out that there was a leak in the White House, but nobody ever suspected the unassuming former slave.

Elizabeth did see other excitement during the war. In 1862 Union forces were tantalizingly close to capturing Richmond, and the feisty Southern belle even prepared a room in her house for General McClellan to stay as her guest. After a powerful speech from Robert E. Lee, however, the Confederates were able to drive them away. Until the next and final invasion of Richmond, Elizabeth bided her time by directing the spy ring she was now leading, which ran so smoothly and efficiently that despite frequent house checks by a suspicious Rebel officer no evidence could be found of her treason. She did protest these annoying visits, eventually housing a Confederate officer as a guest in order to ease suspicion. Van Lew also helped Colonel Paul Revere (a descendant of the Revolutionary Paul Revere) escape certain execution by helping him escape and housing him in her attic.

At the conclusion of the Civil War, as Richmond prepared for the march of Union soldiers into the city, Elizabeth proudly raised the American flag above her home. This bold action caused a mob to descend upon her mansion and she quashed it with feasible threats. After the war, though, Elizabeth’s pro-Union actions were revealed and she faced social isolation throughout the rest of her life. After a stressful stint as postmaster in Richmond and the death of her mother she fell into a depression which lasted the rest of her life. Her bold actions and unrelenting dedication to her cause cemented her in history as one of the most famous spies during the war, however, and her story is an inspiration.


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  • Karen Zeinert - Elizabeth Van Lew: Southern Belle, Union Spy

Walt Whitman was a famed and much liked nineteenth century poet. Even so, during the American Civil War, he had a number of issues to contend with, most notably when he thought that his brother appeared on the casualty list. Here, C.A. Newberry shares Walt’s Civil War story.

Walt Whitman by George Collins Cox in 1887.

Walt Whitman by George Collins Cox in 1887.

The Battle of Fredericksburg set off a chain of events that provided a defining period in the life of famed poet, Walt Whitman. What may be surprising is that he wasn’t anywhere near the battle site when this sequence was set in motion.

This prominent battle took place in December of 1862. Historians have recorded this battle as one of the most monumental events of the Civil War. There were some 172,000 troops and 18,000 casualties. It was also significant due to the fact it was probably the greatest victory for the Confederate Army.

Family History

Long before the Civil War began, Walt Whitman Sr. married Louisa Van Velsor. They raised their family in and around Brooklyn, New York. Walt Whitman Jr. was the second of nine children. Three of his brothers were named after great American leaders: Andrew Jackson Whitman, George Washington Whitman, and Thomas Jefferson Whitman.

George Washington Whitman, who was ten years younger than brother Walt, lived up to his namesake when he answered the call to enlist just after the rebel attack on Fort Sumter in April 1861. In the fall of that year George enlisted with the fifty-first New York Volunteers to serve for three years. George was actively involved in the Battle of Fredericksburg on those fateful days in December.


A Disturbing Entry

Back at home the Whitman family checked the daily newspapers and poured over the lists of wounded. One day the name “G.W. Whitmore” appeared on the casualty register. The family was apprehensive, fearing this was just a muddled version of George’s name. So, straight away, Walt set out on a quest to find his sibling in Virginia.


The Search for George

His journey to find his brother was fraught with challenges. At one point, while changing trains, he was pick-pocketed. He forged ahead penniless, until he was fortunate enough to run into a fellow writer who was able to loan him the funds to continue. When he arrived in Washington he spent his time searching through nearly forty hospitals. This search proved futile.

Desperate to continue the search, Walt was able to arrange transportation with both a government boat and an army-controlled train that delivered him straight to the battlefield at Fredericksburg. His hope was to discover his brother there. To his relief he was able to locate George’s unit and discovered that George had indeed been injured but with only a superficial facial wound.

After his arrival to the battlefield he began visits to the makeshift hospitals, which were mostly made up of deserted army barracks. It is well documented that Walt was greatly impacted after seeing a heap of amputated body parts lying outside. Walt then made the decision to stay with George at the Fredericksburg camp for almost two weeks. He spent his time logging entries in his personal journal and visiting wounded soldiers, both on the battlefield and the makeshift hospitals.

At the end of his visit Walt was asked to assist in relocating wounded soldiers to other Washington hospitals. On arriving in Washington he began to visit the soldiers that he had accompanied from Virginia, extending his rounds to include other wounded soldiers who were staying in the hospitals. His visits became routine, with his days spent tending to the wounded, reading aloud, helping soldiers to write letters to home, and distributing gifts.


Extensive Time in Washington

Walt’s stay in Washington lasted for eleven years. In this period he held varying jobs, including a clerk’s position at the Department of the Interior. But when James Harlan, who was the Secretary of the Interior, discovered that Walt was actually the author of Leaves of Grass, he was immediately released from this position. Secretary Harlan found the publication offensive and did not feel Walt should have a position in the department.

Nevertheless, he succeeded in the considerable task of supporting himself. He held jobs, received modest royalties, and was sent money by writer friends. The majority of his income was dedicated to buying nursing supplies and gifts for the wounded who he spent time tending. 


A Changed Man

At this point in time nursing was unorganized and haphazard. There was a lack of training and definition. Walt’s time as a nurse would probably be categorized as volunteering in later years. However, Walt took a great deal of pride in his status as a volunteer nurse and a ‘consultant’ to the wounded. And he even received an appointment from the Christian Commission, a branch of the YMCA.

Walt considered this glimpse into the military hospital world a cherished time. He would later share that this time period served as “the very center, circumference, umbilicus, of my whole career”.

To witness those effects one only has to read one of his pieces, Drum Taps:

Aroused and angry,

I thought to beat the alarum, and urge relentless war;

But soon my fingers fail’d me, my face droop’d, and I resign'd myself,

To sit by the wounded and soothe them, or silently watch the dead.


Walt Whitman was forever altered by this point in time. Historians recorded that war affected his well-being, both physically and mentally. This also led to a change in his writing, becoming more focused on recording his observations from the war and his hundreds of hospital visits. For us, he provided an invaluable glimpse into this significant point in history and will forever continue to speak to us through his poetry and beautifully written words.


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The Walt Whitman Archive, edited by Ed Folsom and Kenneth M. Price, Published by the Center for Digital Research in the Humanities at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln (The Walt Whitman Archive is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License, which allows others to distribute and adapt our work, so long as they credit the Whitman Archive, make their work available non-commercially, and distribute their work under the same terms) (Accessed: 12/08/2014).

Fredericksburg”, maintained by the Civil War Trust Staff & Board, www.civilwar.org. (Accessed: 12/08/2014).

History’s Favorite Nurses, Maryville University (Accessed: 12/08/2014).

Walt Whitman, American Writer and Civil War Nurse, by Elizabeth Hanink, RN, BSN, PHN, posted on Working Nurse (Accessed: 12/08/2014).

Charles Francis Adams, the grandson of Founding Father John Adams, was the third generation of the Adams family to go to London – and he probably had the toughest job. He had a major role to play as the American Civil War broke out and had to stop the British supporting the South… Here, Steve Strathmann follows up on his articles about John Adams (here) and John Quincy Adams (here) by considering Charles’ time in London.


Charles Francis Adams, Sr. had already had a long political career by 1861. He had served in the Massachusetts state house and run for vice president on a third party ticket in the 1840s. In late 1860, he was a congressman and joined a number of committees trying to end the secession crisis (to no avail). As Abraham Lincoln prepared to enter office in 1861, his Secretary of State-designate William Seward pressed for Adams to be the nation’s minister to Great Britain. Lincoln approved his choice and Adams presented his credentials to Queen Victoria on May 16. The third Adams in London had arguably the hardest job when compared with those of his father and grandfather. He had to try and keep Great Britain from becoming involved in the American Civil War.

Charles Francis Adams by William Morris Hunt. 1867.

Charles Francis Adams by William Morris Hunt. 1867.

The British View

As the American Civil War began, Great Britain did not react as the Americans expected it would. The British had long supported the abolition of slavery, so many in the North believed that they would support their side in the conflict. Problems arose when Lincoln initially framed the war as a fight to save the Union, not to free the slaves. The northern states also supported higher tariffs on foreign goods than the southern states had. On top of that, the large British textile industry used cotton grown in the American South, which would now be cut off by the North’s blockade. As historian Kathleen Burk wrote about this period, “there was, therefore, no reason of either British national interest or morality to support the North as a matter of course.”

The government of Lord Palmerston looked at the war as an opportunity to see a rival power weakened. Palmerston, along with his foreign minister John Russell, felt that if the United States became two or more separate nations, the result would be a more powerful Great Britain. On the other hand, the prime minister was reluctant to commit to any policy that may favor one side over the other, as his ruling coalition held many opinions on the American situation and could collapse over any disagreement. As a result, the British proclaimed themselves officially neutral in May 1861, but gave belligerent rights to the Confederates and met with several representatives from the breakaway states.

One other reason why the British were wary of taking sides as the Civil War began was a fear for Canada, which at this time was still a British possession. William Seward was known to be an Anglophobe, and some in London thought that Seward would convince Lincoln that the United States should invade Canada in order to make up for the loss of the South. This would never happen, but the Palmerston government was worried enough to send 11,000 troops to defend the Canadian frontier.

Seward’s dislike of Britain would continue to be a problem for Anglo-American relations. The messages he sent for Charles Francis Adams to relay to John Russell were at times blunt and confrontational, and could have caused a dangerous rift between the two nations. Fortunately, Adams was independent enough that he would at times hold back all or parts of these messages until they could be presented in a more diplomatic manner. Still, there were several times during Adams’ tenure when he feared that Britain and the United States would come to blows despite his best efforts. In fact, he would only rent his London home by the month, in case he was recalled to the United States.


The Trent Affair

The first major incident that Adams had to deal with was the Trent affair. On November 8, 1861, the USS San Jacinto stopped the British steamer Trent, and arrested two Confederate commissioners, John Slidell and John Mason, who were on their way to Europe. The captain of the San Jacinto, John Wilkes, acted without orders and against the advice of his crew, but was hailed as a hero in the North. The British were infuriated by the stopping and boarding of a neutral vessel. They claimed (rightfully) that Wilkes’ actions were illegal and demanded an apology from the United States, as well as the immediate release of Mason and Slidell. British public opinion turned so strongly against the United States over the Trent incident that preparations for war were started. This was the point when British troops were sent to Canada, and Palmerston was also close to sending the Royal Navy’s Channel Squadron across the Atlantic. Adams warned Seward that the mood of the British could lead to war.

Several factors helped defuse this situation. Prince Albert, in one of his last acts before his death, had the British government temper their demands in order to give the United States a way to back down from possible conflict. Adams and his British counterpart in Washington, Lord Lyons, made sure not to inflame the situation while waiting for instructions from their governments. Most of all, the time it took for messages to cross the ocean (usually several weeks as there was no trans-Atlantic telegraph service at this time) allowed public opinion to cool down. Eventually, the US relented and the two commissioners were allowed to continue to Europe, where they were largely ineffective.


The Alabama

Another incident that caused trouble between the two nations was the construction and escape of the Alabama. The Confederate government had contracts to have ships built in British shipyards. This was allowed as long as the ship wasn’t armed. The Alabama was one of these vessels and Adams tried to get the British to detain the ship by arguing that it would be armed as a privateer soon after leaving Liverpool. Russell replied that there was no legal reason to stop the Alabama from leaving port. Adams presented more proof to British authorities that the ship was due to be a warship, eventually persuading them to detain it. Unfortunately, the Alabama escaped hours before government officials arrived and proceeded to the Azores, where it was armed and set loose on the high seas. This event was seen by the United States as a violation of neutrality, and they would press claims for damages on Britain for the shipping losses caused by the Alabama. This disagreement would linger between Great Britain and the United States until 1872, when it was settled by international arbitration in Geneva, Switzerland.


The Laird Rams

After the escape of the Alabama, Adams continued to try and stop the construction of Confederate warships. He was especially focused on two ironclad Laird rams in Liverpool. It was claimed that these ships were being built for Egypt, but Adams presented proof to the contrary. The British once again hesitated to act, saying that there needed to be more evidence.

Adams now felt he had only one alternative left. He sent a message to Russell stating that if the ships were allowed to leave, the United States would have no choice but to view it as an act of war by Great Britain. Cooler heads would thankfully prevail. The British saw that at this point (late 1863) the North was gaining the upper hand in the Civil War, and realized that antagonizing them would serve no purpose. The rams were eventually purchased by the British for their own use, placing them out of the Confederates’ reach.


Tensions Ease

As 1864 began, the tensions that existed in Anglo-American relations finally began to ease. There were fewer incidents that would cause problems between the two nations, and Adams soon settled into the normal, sometimes tedious, business of running a diplomatic post. He still pressed the British on the Alabama claims, but he maintained good relations with Russell, who would become prime minister when Palmerston died in 1865.

Adams would serve in London until 1868, three years after the end of the Civil War. While he received warm tributes from Seward and several American newspapers, the British gave him even greater honors. His name was cheered in the House of Commons, and even the Times, a long-time foe, credited him for his judgment and discretion. His father and grandfather would have been amazed at these British compliments!

Thus ends the saga of the three Adams in London...


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Brookhiser, Richard. America’s First Dynasty: The Adamses, 1735-1918. New York: The Free Press, 2002.

Burk, Kathleen. Old World, New World: Great Britain and America from the Beginning. New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 2007.

Duberman, Martin B. Charles Francis Adams, 1807-1886. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1960.

Ellis, Sylvia. Historical Dictionary of Anglo-American Relations. Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press, 2009.

Foreman, Amanda. A World on Fire: Britain’s Crucial Role in the American CIvil War. New York: Random House, 2010.