Britain and US on Brink of War

December 16, 1861/2011
Volume 2, Issue 52 (62 Issues Since 15 October 2010)

Britain and the US on the Brink of War

December 18, 1861. The Trent affair occupied President Lincoln virtually every day for nearly two weeks, from December 18 through December 26, and more on the 30th. It had started November 8 when a Union warship had stopped a British steamer, the Trent, and detained two Confederate diplomats and their secretaries on their way across the Atlantic in search of diplomatic recognition for the Confederacy.

On the 18th, President Lincoln met with his cabinet to discuss the matter. The same day, the British minister in Washington, Lord Lyons, received his instructions from London. Lord Lyons met with Secretary of State Seward. Lyons delivered Britain’s demands and, threatening war, gave the US seven days to release the diplomats.

On the 21st, Lord Lyons and Secretary Seward met again, a meeting that caused Lord Lyons to communicate several days later to Lord Russell, Britain’s foreign minister, “I am so concerned that unless we give our friends here a good lesson this time, we shall have the same trouble with them very soon . . . Surrender or war will have a very good effect on them.”

The Confederacy hoped, of course, for armed conflict between the Union and Britain.

Secretary Seward, Lord Lyons, Lord Russell

Secretary Seward, Lord Lyons, Lord Russell


Chronicles of the Civil War, John Bowman, editor, pp. 49-50


The Trent Affair (

The Trent Affair (

Britain in the American Civil War (

“A Diplomatic Education,” Humanities: The Magazine of the National Endowment for the Humanities, November/ December 2011: Volume 32, Number 6

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Filed under Civil War Book of Days: 1861

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