This Day in the Civil War

Wednesday Dec. 18 1861

Yesterday it had seemed as though the British Empire was on the verge of a declaration of war against the United States of America. The cause of this fury was the oft-mentioned “Trent Affair”, in which the USS San Jacinto, Charles Wilkes, Captain, overhauled the British mail packet Trent outside of Bermuda waters and forced her crew to hand over the Confederate commissioners to Europe, Mason and Slidell. Today, however, the tone was softened considerably. Lord John Russell, British cabinet member, was assigned the task of writing the instructions on the matter to England’s ambassador in Washington, Lord Lyons. Lyons was instructed to request an explanation for the action, and an apology, on the assumption that Wilkes had been overzealous and not acting on specific instructions from his government.

Thursday Dec. 18 1862

As if Abraham Lincoln was not having quite enough troubles with his armies in the field against the forces of the Confederacy, the last few days had been taken up with infighting, backbiting, and overall hostilities within his own official “family” of the Presidential cabinet. Seemingly every department head had his own clique of allies in Congress, all of whom had entirely differing notions of how the war should be prosecuted, not to mention a cheerful willingness to bury the hatchet, so long as it was in the backs’ of their opponents. Yesterday a particular feud had come to a head with Sec. of State Seward feeling so unappreciated that he offered his resignation. Lincoln refused it, but in the follow-up today, supporters of Treasury Secretary Salmon P. Chase, Seward’s arch-rival, came to the White House to demand Chase at least be given more decision-making authority. Lincoln’s political position was not so strong that he could afford to alienate either faction, so all had to be placated. Spleens were vented, and another meeting was scheduled for tomorrow. Several people would be surprised at that one.

Friday Dec. 18 1863

Aside from a few confusing months in early 1861, Missouri had always been a state firmly in Union hands. It had, however, in the time since, probably caused more defeats and debacles for Union military men than three openly Confederate states combined. The problem was politics: a Union general would be assigned to be military administrator of the district, and would then be plunged into the morass of backbiting and infighting that was Missouri--particularly St. Louis--power struggles. This was not a situation which could be solved with musketry, and none of the generals handled it well. The latest victim was Gen. John M. Schofield. Lincoln had been receiving a steady stream of complaints about his performance in St. Louis, and today wrote to Sec. of War Stanton that perhaps it was time for Schofield to be relieved. To spare Schofield’s feelings he would get a promotion to major general; the next sacrificial lamb, Lincoln proposed, perhaps should be the long-suffering Gen. Rosecrans.

Sunday Dec. 18 1864

Gen. William T. Sherman was at this time concentrating on refitting and resupplying his four corps’ with equipment and stores from the Union vessels standing offshore, and simply allowing them to rest after marching from Atlanta to the Sea. He had sent a demand to Hardee in Savannah, demanding the city’s surrender, but was not greatly distressed when it was refused. The city would fall as soon as he moved against it; his thoughts were of the course to take after that. He wrote to Grant a letter which shows that his tactic of stripping the countryside and taking civilian property was entirely calculated: “I estimate one hundred million dollars, at least 20 million of which inured to our advantage and the remainder is simple waste and destruction. This may seem a hard species of warfare, but it brings the sad realities of war home to those who have been...instrumental in involving us in its attendant calamities.”

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