Following the American Civil War Sesquicentennial with day by day writings of the time, currently 1863.

My Diary North and South – William Howard Russell

December (Sunday) 22nd.—Lord Lyons saw Mr. Seward again, but it does not appear that any answer can be expected before Wednesday. All kinds of rumours circulate through the city, and are repeated in an authoritative manner in the New York papers.

December 20th.—I went down to the Senate, as it was expected at the Legation and elsewhere the President would send a special message to the Senate on the Trent affair; but, instead, there was merely a long speech from a senator, to show the South did not like democratic institutions. Lord Lyons called on Mr. Seward yesterday to read Lord Russell’s dispatch to him, and to give time for a reply; but Mr. Seward was out, and Mr. Sumner told me the Minister was down with the Committee of Foreign Relations, where there is a serious business in reference to the State of Mexico and certain European Powers under discussion, when the British Minister went to the State Department.

Next day Lord Lyons had two interviews with Mr. Seward, read the despatch, which simply asks for surrender of Mason and Slidell and reparation, without any specific act named, but he received no indication from Mr. Seward of the course he would pursue. Mr. Lincoln has “put down his foot” on no surrender. “Sir!” exclaimed the President, to an old Treasury official the other day, “I would sooner die than give them up.” “Mr. President,” was the reply, “your death would be a great loss, but the destruction of the United States would be a still more deplorable event.” Mr. Seward will, however, control the situation, as the Cabinet will very probably support his views; and Americans will comfort themselves, in case the captives are surrendered, with a promise of future revenge, and with the reflection that they have avoided a very disagreeable intervention between their march of conquest and the Southern Confederacy. The general belief of the diplomatists is that the prisoners will not be given up, and in that case Lord Lyons and the Legation will retire from Washington for the time, probably to Halifax, leaving Mr. Monson to wind up affairs and clear out the archives. But it is understood that there is no ultimatum, and that Lord Lyons is not to indicate any course of action, should Mr. Seward inform him the United States Government refuses to comply with the demands of Great Britain.

Any humiliation which may be attached to concession will be caused by the language of the Americans themselves, who have given in their press, in public meetings, in the Lower House, in the Cabinet, and in the conduct of the President, a complete ratification of the act of Captain Wilkes, not to speak of the opinions of the lawyers, and the speeches of their orators, who declare “they will face any alternative, but that they will never surrender.” The friendly relations which existed between ourselves and many excellent Americans are now rendered somewhat constrained by the prospect of a great national difference.

Next day I dined at Mr. Seward’s, as the Minister had given carte blanche to a very lively and agreeable lady, who has to lament over an absent husband in this terrible war, to ask two gentlemen to dine with him, and she had been pleased to select myself and M. de Geoffroy, Secretary of the French Legation, as her thick and her thin umbra; and the company went off in the evening to the White House, where there was a reception, whereat I imagined I might be de trop, and so home.

Mr. Seward was in the best spirits, and told one or two rather long, but very pleasant, stories. Now it is evident he must by this time know Great Britain has resolved on the course to be pursued, and his good humour, contrasted with the irritation he displayed in May and June, is not intelligible.

The Russian Minister, at whose house I dined next day, is better able than any man to appreciate the use made of the Czar’s professions of regret for the evils which distract the States by the Americans; but it is the fashion to approve of everything that France does, and to assume a violent affection for Russia. The Americans are irritated by war preparations on the part of England, in case the Government of Washington do not accede to their demands; and, at the same time, much annoyed that all European nations join in an outcry against the famous project of destroying the Southern harbours by the means of the stone fleet.

December 16th.—I met Mr. Seward at a ball and cotillon party, given by M. de Lisboa; and as he was in very good humour, and was inclined to talk, he pointed out to the Prince of Joinville, and all who were inclined to listen, and myself, how terrible the effects of a war would be if Great Britain forced it on the United States. “We will wrap the whole world in flames!” he exclaimed. “No power so remote that she will not feel the fire of our battle and be burned by our conflagration.” It is inferred that Mr. Seward means to show fight. One of the guests, however, said to me, “That’s all bugaboo talk. When Seward talks that way, he means to break down. He is most dangerous and obstinate when he pretends to agree a good deal with you.” The young French Princes, and the young and pretty Brazilian and American ladies, danced and were happy, notwithstanding the storms without.

December 15th.—The first echo of the San Jacinto’s guns in England reverberated to the United States, and produced a profound sensation. The people had made up their minds John Bull would acquiesce in the seizure, and not say a word about it; or they affected to think so; and the cry of anger which has resounded through the land, and the unmistakable tone of the British press, at once surprise, and irritate, and disappoint them. The American journals, nevertheless, pretend to think it is a mere vulgar excitement, and that the press is “only indulging in its habitual bluster.”

December 12th.—A big-bearded, spectacled, moustachioed, spurred, and booted officer threw himself on my bed this morning ere I was awake. Russell, my dear friend, here you are at last; what ages have passed since we met!” I sat up and gazed at my friend. “Bohlen! don’t you remember Bohlen, and our rides in Turkey, our visit to Shumla and Pravady, and all the rest of it?” Of course I did. I remembered an enthusiastic soldier, with a fine guttural voice, and a splendid war saddle and saddle-cloth, and brass stirrups and holsters, worked with eagles all over, and a uniform coat and cap with more eagles flying amidst laurel leaves and U. S.’s in gold, who came out to see the fighting in the East, and made up his mind that there would be none, when he arrived at Varna, and so started off incontinent up the Danube, and returned to the Crimea when it was too late; and a very good, kindly, warm-hearted fellow was the Dutch-American, who— once more in his war paint, this time acting Brigadier General (since killed in action in Pope’s retreat from the north of Richmond.)—renewed the memories of some pleasant days far away; and our talk was of cavasses and khans, and tchibouques, and pashas, till his time was up to return to his fighting Germans of Blenker’s division.

He was not the good-natured officer who said the other day, “The next day you come down, sir, if my regiment happens to be on picket duty, we’ll have a little skirmish with the enemy, just to show you how our fellows are improved.” “Perhaps you might bring on a general action, Colonel.” “Well, sir, we’re not afraid of that, either! Let ’em come on.” It did so happen that some young friends of mine, of H.M.’s 30th, who had come down from Canada to see the army here, went out a day or two ago with an officer on General Smith’s staff, formerly in our army, who yet suffers from a wound received at the Alma, to have a look at the enemy with a detachment of men. The enemy came to have a look at them, whereby it happened that shots were exchanged, and the bold Britons had to ride back as hard as they could, for their men skedaddled, and the Secession cavalry slipping after them, had a very pretty chase for some miles; so the 30th men saw more than they bargained for.

Dined at Baron Gerolt’s, where I had the pleasure of meeting Judge Daly, who is perfectly satisfied the English lawyers have not a leg to stand upon in the Trent case. On the faith of old and very doubtful, and some purely supposititious, cases, the American lawyers have made up their minds that the seizure of the “rebel” ambassadors was perfectly legitimate and normal. The Judge expressed his belief that if there was a rebellion in Ireland, and that Messrs. Smith O’Brien and O’Gorman ran the blockade to France, and were going on their passage from Havre to New York in a United States steamer, they would be seized by the first British vessel that knew the fact. “Granted; and what would the United States do?” “I am afraid we should be obliged to demand that they be given up; and if you were strong enough at the time, I dare say you would fight sooner than do so.” Mr. Sumner, with whom I had some conversation this afternoon, affects to consider the question eminently suitable for reference and arbitration.

In spite of drills and parades, McClellan has not got an army yet. A good officer, who served as brigade major in our service, told me the men were little short of mutinous, with all their fine talk, though they could fight well, Sometimes they refuse to mount guard, or to go on duty not to their tastes; officers refuse to serve under others to whom they have a dislike; men offer similar personal objections to officers. McClellan is enforcing discipline, and really intends to execute a most villanous deserter this time.

December 12th.—The navy are writhing under the disgrace of the Potomac blockade, and deny it exists. The price of articles in Washington which used to come by the river affords disagreeable proof to the contrary. And yet there is not a true Yankee in Pennsylvania Avenue who does not believe, what he reads every day, that his glorious navy could sweep the fleets of France and England off the seas to-morrow, though the Potomac be closed, and the Confederate batteries throw their shot and shell into the Federal camps on the other side. I dined with General Butterfield, whose camp is pitched in Virginia, on a knoll and ridge from which a splendid view can be had over the wooded vales and hills extending from Alexandria towards Manassas, whitened with Federal tents and huts. General Fitz John Porter and General McDowell were among the officers present.

December 11th.—The unanimity of the people in the South is forced on the conviction of the statesmen and people of the North, by the very success of their expeditions in Secession. They find the planters at Beaufort and elsewhere burning their cotton and crops, villages and towns deserted at their approach, hatred in every eye, and curses on women’s tongues. They meet this by a corresponding change in their own programme. The war which was made to develop and maintain Union sentiment in the South, and to enable the people to rise against a desperate faction which had enthralled them, is now to be made a crusade against slaveholders, and a war of subjugation—if need be, of extermination—against the whole of the Southern States. The Democrats will, of course, resist this barbarous and hopeless policy. There is a deputation of Irish Democrats here now, to effect a general exchange of prisoners, which is an operation calculated to give a legitimate character to the war, and is pro tanto a recognition of the Confederacy as a belligerent power.

December 10th.—Paid a visit to Colonel Seaton, of the National Intelligencer, a man deservedly respected and esteemed for his private character, which has given its impress to the journal he has so long conducted. The New York papers ridicule the Washington organ, because it does not spread false reports daily in the form of telegraphic “sensation” news, and indeed one may be pretty sure that a fact is a fact when it is found in the Intelligencer; but the man, nevertheless, who is content with the information he gets from it, will have no reason to regret, in the accuracy of his knowledge or the soundness of his views, that he has not gone to its noisy and mendacious rivals. In the minds of all the very old men in the States, there is a feeling of great sadness and despondency respecting the present troubles, and though they cling to the idea of a restoration of the glorious Union of their youth, it is hoping against hope. “Our game is played out. It was the most wonderful and magnificent career of success the world ever saw, but rogues and gamblers took up the cards at last; they quarrelled, and are found out.”

In the evening, supped at Mr. Forney’s, where there was a very large gathering of gentlemen connected with the press; Mr. Cameron, Secretary of War; Colonel Mulligan, a tall young man, with dark hair falling on his shoulders, round a Celtic impulsive face, and a hazy enthusiastic-looking eye; and other celebrities.

December 9th.—Spent the day over Mr. Chase’s report, a copy of which he was good enough to send me with a kind note, and went out in the evening with ray head in a state of wild financial confusion, and a general impression that the financial system of England is very unsound.