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The Darkest Hour of the War

There were so many dark hours in that war, and those hours were so dark, that it is difficult to specify one as the darkest hour. Perhaps a dozen observers would mention a dozen different times. But Lincoln himself spoke of the complication known as the Trent affair as the darkest hour. From his standpoint it was surely so. It was so because he felt the ground of public confidence slipping out from under him as at no other time. The majority of the North were with him in sentiment for the most part. A goodly number were with him all the time,–except this. This time, Charles Sumner, the Chairman of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, was in agreement with him, but beyond that, everybody was against him, North and South, and all Europe as well. Upon him fell the task of turning the very turbulent current of public sentiment into the channel of duty and wisdom.

The facts of the affair were simple. Two men, Mason and Slidell, both ex-senators of the United States, had started, with their secretaries and families, to England and France as emissaries of the Confederate government. These countries had already recognized the Confederates as belligerents, and the mission of these men was to secure the recognition of the Confederate government as a nation. They succeeded in running the blockade at Charleston and put in at Havana. There they were received with much ostentation. They took passage on the British mail steamer Trent to St. Thomas, intending to take the packet thence to England.

Captain Wilkes, commanding a war vessel of the United States, was in the neighborhood and learned of these proceedings and plans. He stopped the British vessel on the high seas and by force took the two men and their secretaries. They were confined in Fort Warren, Boston Harbor.

This capture set the entire North ablaze with enthusiasm. Seward was in favor of it. Stanton, who a few weeks later was appointed Secretary of War, applauded the act. Welles, Secretary of the Navy, wrote a congratulatory letter upon the “great public service.” The people of Boston tendered a banquet to the hero of the hour. When congress assembled about a month later, it gave him a vote of thanks. This wave of public enthusiasm swept the country from ocean to ocean. The southern sympathies of England and France had been so pronounced that this whole country seemed to unite in hilarious triumph over this capture, and regarded it as a slap in the face to England’s pride. The fact that the complications threatened war with that nation only added fuel to the flames.

The excitement ran highest among the soldiers. Camp life had become monotonous, no decisive victories had raised their courage and enthusiasm. They were tired. They were exasperated with England’s policy. They wanted to fight England.

The feeling upon the other side of the question ran equally high in the South, in England, and in France. As soon as the matter could receive official attention, the British minister at Washington was instructed to demand the instant release of the four men with a suitable apology. He was to wait seven days for an answer, and if the demand was not met by that time, he was to break off diplomatic relations with the United States. This of course meant war.

Sumner seems to have been the only other one who said, “We shall have to give them up.” Lincoln, when he heard of the capture, declared that they would prove to be white elephants on our hands. “We shall have to give them up,” he too said. But the difficulty was to lead the excited nation to see the need of this as he saw it. He declared that “we fought Great Britain for doing just what Captain Wilkes has done. If Great Britain protests against this act and demands their release, we must adhere to our principles of 1812. We must give up these prisoners. Besides, one war at a time.” He again said that it was “the bitterest pill he ever swallowed. But England’s triumph will not last long. After this war is over we shall call her to account for the damage she has done us in our hour of trouble.”

The policy of the government with regard to this matter was not settled in the cabinet meeting until the day after Christmas. Public enthusiasm by that time had had six weeks in which to cool down. In that time the sober second judgment had illuminated many minds, and the general public was ready to see and hear reason. The outline of the reply of the United States was directed by Lincoln, but he instructed Seward to choose his own method of arguing the case. The reply was set forth in a very able and convincing paper. It reaffirmed our adhesion to the doctrine of 1812, said that Captain Wilkes had not done in an orderly way that which he did, promised that the prisoners would be cheerfully set at liberty, but declined to make any apology.

At this late date we are able to look somewhat behind the scenes, and we now know that the Queen and the Prince consort were very deeply concerned over the possibility of a war with us. They had only the kindest feelings for us, and just then they felt especially grateful for the many courtesies which had been shown to the Prince of Wales upon his recent visit to this country. They were glad to get through with the incident peaceably and pleasantly.

Seward’s reply was accepted as fully satisfactory. The English concurred, the Americans concurred, and the danger was over. There was then something of a revulsion of feeling. The feeling between our government and that of England was more cordial than before, and the same is true of the feeling between the two peoples. The South and their sympathizers were bitterly disappointed. The wise management of our President had turned one of the greatest dangers into a most valuable success. There was never again a likelihood that England would form an alliance with the Southern Confederacy.

The result was most fortunate for us and unfortunate for the southern emissaries. They were no longer heroes, they were “gentlemen of eminence,” but not public functionaries. They were like other travelers, nothing more. They were not received at either court. They could only “linger around the back doors” of the courts where they expected to be received in triumph, and bear as best they could the studied neglect with which they were treated. The affair, so ominous at one time, became most useful in its practical results to our cause. Lord Palmerston, the British premier, got the four prisoners, but Lincoln won the game.

This is a convenient place to speak of the personal griefs of the President. From his earliest years on, he was wonderfully affected by the presence of death. Very few people have had this peculiar feeling of heart-break with such overwhelming power. The death of his infant brother in Kentucky, the death of his mother in Indiana, impressed him and clouded his mind in a degree entirely unusual. We have seen that in Springfield the death of Ann Rutledge well-nigh unseated his reason. From these he never recovered.

The horror of war was that it meant death, death, death! He, whose heart was tender to a fault, was literally surrounded by death. The first victim of the war, Colonel Ellsworth, was a personal friend, and his murder was a personal affliction. There were others that came near to him. Colonel E. D. Baker, an old friend and neighbor of Lincoln, the man who had introduced him at his inaugural, was killed at Ball’s Bluff Oct. 21, 1861. Baker’s personal courage made him conspicuous and marked him out as a special target for the enemy’s aim. While gallantly leading a charge, he fell, pierced almost simultaneously by four bullets. It fell upon Lincoln like the death of a brother. He was consumed with grief.

The following February his two boys, Willie and Tad, were taken ill. Lincoln’s fondness for children was well known. This general love of children was a passion in regard to his own sons. In this sickness he not only shared the duties of night-watching with the nurse, but at frequent intervals he would slip away from callers, and even from cabinet meetings, to visit briefly the little sufferers. Willie died on February 20th, and for several days before his death he was delirious. His father was with him almost constantly.

This is one of the few instances when he could be said to neglect public business. For a few days before, and for a longer period after, Willie’s death, he was completely dejected. Though he was a devout Christian, in spirit and temper, his ideas of personal immortality were not at that time sufficiently clear to give him the sustaining help which he needed under his affliction.

J. G. Holland records a pathetic scene. This was communicated to him by a lady whose name is not given. She had gone to Washington to persuade the President to have hospitals for our soldiers located in the North. He was skeptical of the plan and was slow to approve it. His hesitation was the occasion of much anxiety to her. When he finally granted the petition, she thanked him with great earnestness and said she was sure he would be happy that he had done it. He sat with his face in his hands and groaned: “Happy? I shall never be happy again!”

Below all his play of wit and humor, there was an undercurrent of agony. So great were his kindness, gentleness, tenderness of heart, that he could not live in this cruel world, especially in the period when the times were so much out of joint, without being a man of sorrows. The present writer never saw Lincoln’s face but twice, once in life and once in death. Both times it seemed to him, and as he remembers it after the lapse of more than a third of a century, it still seems to him, the saddest face his eyes have ever looked upon.