The novelist Anthony Trollope spent Christmas 1861 in Washington DC. It was not a happy time. There was a war on and the capital was worryingly close to the front line. There were more than 200,000 troops camped in and around Washington, as the new Army of the Potomac was formed, and ‘Mounted sentries stood at the corners of all the streets with drawn sabres, – shivering in the cold and besmeared with mud’. Houses had been commandeered as military offices, the streets were dirty, and social life had withered after the departure of the city’s hospitable Southerners. ‘All this,’ in Trollope’s words, ‘made the place somewhat melancholy.’
He had been in the States since September, writing a travel book called North America which was intended to correct the acerbic account of American behaviour given in his mother’s 1832 best-seller, Domestic Manners of the Americans. His publishers, however, wanted a book about the war. So in November 1861 his wife went back to England, while he stayed on to do some military and political research. In January 1862 he would spend four days with the Federal army in northern Virginia, ‘without washing’ and in cold so intense that he could hardly sleep at night. He then went on to Kentucky, Missouri, and Illinois, visiting barracks and training camps, unaware that his wife’s nephew, Walter Anderton, was somewhere among the troops, serving with the Sixth Infantry Regiment of Connecticut Volunteers.
But first he needed to visit Washington. He arrived on 15 December 1861, suffering from a disfiguring boil, or ‘anthrax’, in the middle of his forehead. A local doctor lanced it for him but told him to stay indoors: ‘All this is pleasant especially as I am anxious to get out and see the people’. Fortunately, indoors was comfortable. A friend of a friend had found him accommodation (at $5 a day) in a lodging house at 305, I Street, run by ‘one Wormley, a coloured man, to whose attention I can recommend any Englishman who may chance to want quarters in Washington’. By Christmas Day he was feeling better and on 26 December he had an extraordinary experience which amply compensated for the discomforts and disappointments of his trip.
Trollope had arrived in the city during a crisis in Anglo-American relations. The Confederacy wanted international recognition and in October 1861 sent two ministers plenipotentiary, James Mason of Virginia and John Slidell of Louisiana, to negotiate with European governments. They sailed from Havana on 7 November on a British Royal Mail Ship, the Trent. On the following day by a Union frigate intercepted the Trent, seized Slidell and Mason, and took them back to Boston to be interned. This interference with a neutral ship in international waters raised the possibility of conflict between Britain and the North. British troops were ordered to Canada, the Royal Navy’s West Indies squadron was alerted, and the export of salpeter from British India, without which the North could not make gunpowder, was stopped. There was a stock exchange crash and a run on the banks. War looked very likely.
The British demand for an apology and the release of the Confederate emissaries reached Washington on 18 December. After some preliminary discussion between diplomats, Lincoln’s cabinet met to consider it on Christmas Day. They could not agree, so met again on 26 December. Staff at the British Embassy spent the day packing, assuming that war would be declared. Anthony Trollope, however, had been invited to dinner at the house of the Secretary of State, William Seward. Untroubled by the great events unfolding around him, Trollope cheerfully turned up and enjoyed a convivial dinner in the company of men who, that very morning, had been deciding whether or not to go to war with the country of which he was a citizen. As he was leaving, Seward took him aside and revealed that the decision was for peace. Since the British ambassador would not be told until the next day, and the news was not made public until the 29th, this was a remarkable indiscretion. Had he been living in the age of the cellphone, Trollope could have achieved one of the greatest journalistic scoops of all time.