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The Trent Affair was a diplomatic crisis that took place between the United States and Great Britain from November to December 1861, during the U.S. Civil War (1861-65). The crisis erupted after the captain of the USS San Jacinto ordered the arrest of two Confederate envoys sailing to Europe aboard a British mail ship, the Trent, in order to seek support for the South in the Civil War. The British, who had not taken sides in the war, were outraged and claimed the seizure of a neutral ship by the U.S. Navy was a violation of international law. In the end, President Abraham Lincoln’s administration released the envoys and averted an armed conflict with Britain.
The Trent Affair: Confederate Envoys Arrested
On November 8, 1861, Confederate diplomatic envoys James Mason (1798-1871) of Virginia and John Slidell (1793-1871) of Louisiana were aboard the Trent, a British mail steamer, sailing through the Bahama Channel (between the Bahamas and Cuba), when the vessel was intercepted by the USS San Jacinto, captained by Charles Wilkes (1798-1877). Mason and Slidell and their secretaries, who were headed to England and France to lobby for recognition of the Confederacy, were arrested, transported to Boston and imprisoned at Fort Warren. The Trent was allowed to continue its journey after the men’s arrest.
In America, Northerners hailed Captain Wilkes for actions. However, the British were outraged when word of the interception reached London in late November. They had not taken sides in the Civil War and their policy was to accept any paying customer who wished to travel aboard their ships. The British government dispatched a message to the American government demanding the release of Mason and Slidell, along with an apology for the transgression of British rights on the high seas.
The Trent Affair: Britain Prepares for War
The British began preparing for war, banning exports of war materials to America and sending troops to Canada. Plans were made to attack the American fleet that was blockading the South. The British also planned a blockade of Northern ports. At the same time, France announced it would back Britain in a conflict with America.
The Trent Affair: Crisis Resolved
In December, Lord Lyons, the British minister to the United States, met with Secretary of State William Seward (1801-72) concerning the fate of Mason and Slidell. Lyons took a hard line during the meeting, and afterward wrote to Lord Russell, the British 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 again very soon. Surrender or war will have a very good effect on them.”
Abraham Lincoln (1809-65) and his administration got the message–“One war at a time,” the president said–and decided not to push the issue. On December 27, Seward sent a message to Britain officials in which he disavowed the actions of Captain Wilkes and announced that the envoys would be released. Armed conflict with Great Britain thus was averted.
After Mason and Slidell were set free in early January 1862, they traveled to Europe. However, their mission ultimately was a failure, as they were unable to convince European leaders to support the Confederates in the Civil War.
The Trent Affair was an international diplomatic row during the American Civil War that would have sparked a conflict between the United States and the Great Britain. This was after the Union intercepted a British ship and seized two southern envoys on their way to Britain and France to push for recognition of the seceded Southern states. Without laying credence on the mission of the two envoys, Britain decried the Unions violation of the international laws. The conflict was averted by the eventual release of the two envoys. In the end, the Trent Affair proved to be advantageous to the Union as it strengthened the ties with Britain while diminishing the Confederates hopes for an international recognition.
The background to the Trent Affair can be traced to a decision by the Confederates President Jefferson Davis to send James Mason and John Sidell to Britain and France respectively to press for the Souths case. The South was counting on the long-term economic relations that it had with Europe as the key consumers of its cotton to act to the Confederates advantage and prompt Europes recognition of the Southern states as autonomous from the Union. As historians have concluded, the general assumption held by Davis was that cotton was king and would play a major role in securing Europes support more than any role played by the Confederates diplomats. The Union was well aware of the Souths intentions and recognized the dangers that such a possibility posed to the stability of the Union.
A look at the period prior to the Civil War indicates a stint of warm relations between America and Great Britain. The earlier rows over the Oregon territory and the Canadian border disagreement had been resolved amicably. However, despite the warm relations, it remained unclear where Britain stood in face of the raging Civil War. Great Britain was by then the most powerful nation on earth with unmatched naval superiority. While there were no doubts that it would act in its own national interest, there was no telling where those national interests lay whether in a united America or in the fragmented states.
The seizing of the two southern diplomats was not well received in Britain. There occurred wide outrage both in the public and in the corridors of power. They regarded Captain Charles Wilkes of the U.S.S. San Jacinto action to blockade the ship and arrest the two confederate diplomats as an act of great national dishonor. In response, the British government, led by then prime minister, Lord Palmerston, demanded an immediate release of the arrested diplomats accompanied by a public apology. To the contrary, the response to Captain Wilkes exploits in the northern states can only be described as exhilarating. The war had taken rough turns and the Union had ceded some grounds to the Confederates that year. News of Captain Wilkes actions, though viewed skeptically by some leaders doubting the wisdom behind the move, was jubilantly received with him receiving a heros welcome and being honored by the Congress. The Unions response to the crisis hence had to strike a compromise between appeasing the domestic enthusiasm towards Wilkess actions and aptly responding to Britains demands in a way the Union would not be seen as kowtowing to the British. It has to be observed that, the fact that Captain Wilkes acted against the international laws did not escape the American government. Indeed this was an issue that presented a major dilemma to Abraham Lincoln and it took a carefully constructed response to alleviate the situation. Faced with a possibility of a British wrath, which would have dealt a devastating blow to the union, Lincoln denounced Captain Wilkes action maintaining he had acted on his own in the capture of Messrs. Mason and Slidell on board a British vessel, Captain Wilkes having acted without any instructions from the government, the subject is therefore free from the embarrassment which might have resulted if the act had been especially directed by us. With such a response then, Lincoln avoided the prospect of issuing an apology or succumbing to the temptations to further aggravate the situation as the public urged.
The major impact of the Trent Affair was that it ended up cementing the diplomatic ties between Britain and the United States. As the crises unfolded, the South was clearly hoping for a turn of events that would be favorable to its cause and debilitating to the Europes ties with the Union. Many Confederate leaders were urging for a severer action more than an apology and compensation. This however was never to be. Probably recognizing the importance of the stability of the union to its national interest or in recognition of its military might, Great Britain affirmed its neutrality. The diplomatic requests placed by the two Confederate diplomats after their release failed to amass the necessary support. Britain and France failed to offer their commitments recognizing the Confederates secession. The Trent Affair then, contrary to the initial indicators that it would blow out of proportion, was amicably resolved and would mark the beginning to stronger diplomatic ties between America and Britain.
Foreign Relations and the Trent Affair
Foreign affairs did not occupy much of Abraham Lincoln’s time. Secretary of State, William Seward, managed all day to day foreign relation matters.
The relationship with Britain and France became more sensitive after cotton shipments were halted due to Confederate port blockades by the Union Navy which caused a crisis in the textile industry in both countries. Britain and France issued proclamations of neutrality. They recognized the Confederacy but not as an independent nation.
The Lincoln administration most challenging foreign relations affair was in October 1861 in what became known as the Trent Affair. With careful diplomacy President Lincoln and Secretary of State William Seaward avoided the American Civil War to become an international affair.
In the fall of 1862 Britain and France came very close to recognizing the Confederacy. France’s Napoleon had suggested Britain to jointly intervene as trade was disrupted and the Union showed increasing weakness. However there were supporters of the Union in the British cabinet at the time Lincoln had issued the Emancipation Proclamation.
France had suggested a formal proposal of mediation between North and South to find an agreement. President Lincoln and Secretary of State William Seward rejected such proposal. This crisis convinced the president of the importance of influencing international public opinion in favor of the Union. He sent businessmen, politicians and clerics to explain and defend the Union’s actions. Lincoln sent messages to the British unemployed mill workers blaming their situation on the Confederacy and the actions of disloyal citizens. He made clear that they understood that the war was being fought to free slaves and that Britain should never recognize a state that included the institution of slavery.
A further vindication of Lincoln’s and Seward’s diplomacy efforts was in the decision by the British government in September 1863 to seize rams being built for the Confederacy in Laird shipyards. In addition, Russian fleets arrived at Pacific and Atlantic ports to defend the Union in case of British or French intervention in the American Civil War.
James M. Mason of Virginia and John Slidell of Louisiana were named ministers plenipotentiary to represent the Confederacy in Britain and France. In October 1861 they escaped the blockade and fled to Cuba where they boarded the British mail packet, Trent. Captain Charles Wilkes without orders from Washington removed the two men and imprisoned them in Fort Warren, Boston. This act was seen as a violation of international law and a direct attack to British property. Lincoln had no knowledge of Wilkes’ actions. This was President Lincoln’s first foreign affairs incident and because of his lack of experience he had to rely on his advisers.
Lincoln underestimated the seriousness of this crisis by not responding immediately and not following the traditional channels of diplomatic communication. Britain demanded the release of Mason and Slidell and an apology from the US. If the US did not comply, the British embassy would close its office in Washington DC.
The cabinet met on Christmas Day and on the following day. They decided to release the prisoners and avoided the American Civil War to become an international conflict.
The Trent Affair: When the United States and Great Britain Nearly Went to War
When a Union warship stopped a British mail steamer during the Civil War, it touched off an international incident.
In November 1861, word swept through London that an American warship, James Adger, in port at Southampton, was planning to put to sea and intercept a British ship bringing Confederate emissaries to Europe. As a result, the American minister to Great Britain found himself summoned to see the British prime minister at his residence at 94 Piccadilly. Charles Francis Adams made his way through the yellow gloom of a London fog and found Lord Palmerston waiting for him in the library. Palmerston immediately complained to Adams that Adger’s captain and crew, while “enjoying the hospitality of this country, filling his ship with coals and other supplies, and filling his own stomach with brandy should, within sight of the shore, commit an act which would be felt as offensive to the national flag.”
Earlier in the year, President Abraham Lincoln had proclaimed a blockade of Southern ports, after which Great Britain and France commenced a policy of neutrality that carried with it the rights of belligerent action by the Confederacy. It was the only important concession made to the Confederate states by European powers during the war. The Confederate commissioners in Britain at that time were a poor lot, while the United States foreign minister, Adams, the son of former President John Quincy Adams, was a skilled diplomat who had been urged by Secretary of State William H. Seward to be bold in asserting American rights.
Confederate diplomacy in Europe was more complacent, based on a belief in the economic power of “King Cotton” upon which British and French mills were dependent. Confederate President Jefferson Davis subscribed to this view. Prior to the war, England and Europe had imported nearly 85 percent of their cotton from the South. Nearly one-fifth of the British population earned its livelihood from the cotton industry, while one-tenth of Britain’s capital was invested in cotton as well. However, there was no official Confederate policy to produce a phony cotton famine in Europe or rush cotton abroad to fill the coffers of the South. It would be a short war, in Davis’s view. If it lasted longer, a concomitant cotton famine would inevitably bring Great Britain into the war to safeguard her economic interests and rescue the South.
Mason and Slidell: The Confederacy’s European Diplomats
William L. Yancey had resigned as Confederate envoy to Britain. In his place, Davis assigned a pair of trusted political cronies to represent Southern interests in London and Paris. James M. Mason, Yancey’s replacement, was a strange choice in the view of well-connected political wife Mary Boykin Chesnut, who wrote in her diary: “My wildest imagination will not picture Mr. Mason as a diplomat. He will say ‘chaw’ for ‘chew’ and he will call himself ‘Jeems’ and he will wear a dress coat to breakfast. Over here whatever a Mason does is right. He is above the law.” His Paris-based associate John Slidell was a better choice. Slidell was a skilled politician and sophisticated New Yorker who had married a French-speaking Creole and moved to New Orleans.
In October, Mason and Slidell were in Charleston waiting to run the blockade aboard CSS Nashville, a fast steamer heading directly for England. However, Nashville had a deep draft and could only use one of Charleston’s channels, which were heavily guarded by Union warships. The diplomats booked passage on Gordon, a ship chartered for $10,000 by George Trenholm, who ran a cotton brokerage, finance, and shipping firm, with offices in Liverpool. The Fraser, Trenholm Company did much of the banking for the Confederacy in Great Britain. The shallow-draft Gordon, renamed Theodora to confuse Union blockaders, could use any channel she left Charleston at 1 am on October 12 and easily evaded the blockade. “Here we are,” Mason wrote gleefully, “on the deep blue sea, clear of all the Yankees. We ran the blockade in splendid style.”
Two days later the diplomats arrived in Nassau but missed their connection with a British steamer. They turned for Cuba, hoping to find a British mail ship bound for England. Arriving in Cuba on October 15, they found that British mail ships did dock at Havana but that they would have to wait three weeks for the next ship, RMS Trent.
The Union’s Hunt For the Diplomats
Union intelligence sources thought Mason and Slidell had escaped aboard Nashville. Thus the U.S. Navy dispatched James Adger, commanded by John B. Marchand, with orders to intercept Nashville. On October 3 the Union steam frigate San Jacinto, commanded by 62-year-old Captain Charles D. Wilkes, arrived at St. Thomas in the Danish West Indies. He was hunting the Confederate raider CSS Sumter.
Wilkes, a gifted astronomer, had experienced many ups and downs in his naval career. Early on, he had won accolades for his voyages of discovery to Antarctica and the Fiji Islands. But repeated displays of bad temper and insubordination had landed him in hot water with his superiors, and Wilkes had been shunted aside to a minor bureaucratic desk in Washington before receiving orders to take command of the steam warship San Jacinto on patrol off the coast of West Africa. He was directed to sail the ship home for refitting. Characteristically disobeying orders, Wilkes determined instead to prowl the West Indies for Rebel shipping.
In Cienfuegos, on the southern coast of Cuba, Wilkes learned from a newspaper that Mason and Slidell were in Havana waiting to take passage on Trent, sailing first for St. Thomas and then on to England. Wilkes knew that Trent would have to use the Bahama Channel between Cuba and the Great Bahama Bank. He thought over the legal implications of trying to remove the Confederate envoys from the British vessel, asking the opinion of his executive officer, Lieutenant D.M. Fairfax. He decided that Mason and Slidell could be considered “contraband” and legally seized.
Boarding the RMS Trent
Trent left Havana on November 7 with Mason and Slidell on board Slidell was accompanied by his wife and children. Diplomatic secretaries James E. Macfarland and George Eustis were also part of the official company. Passing through the Bahama Channel they found San Jacinto waiting. The Federal ship spotted Trent about noon on November 8 the mail ship was flying the Union Jack. Wilkes ordered a shot fired across Trent’s bow. It was ignored. A second shot landed close to the bow. Trent hove to. Wilkes gave detailed instructions to Fairfax. “Should Mister Mason, Mister Slidell, Mister Eustis and Mister Macfarland be on board,” he said, “make them prisoners and send them on board this ship immediately and take possession [of the Trent] as a prize.” Fairfax was also instructed to seize any dispatches and official correspondence he might find.
Armed with cutlasses and pistols, Fairfax and a boarding party of 20 men approached Trent in two cutters. Fairfax boarded alone, not wishing to enflame the situation, but found Captain James Moir furious that his ship had been stopped at sea. Fairfax told him his orders, Moir refused to cooperate, and Fairfax soon found himself surrounded and threatened by passengers and crew. He had little choice but to order the armed party in the waiting boats to join him. Once again Moir refused permission for the boarding party to search the ship. Mason and Slidell came forward willingly, and Fairfax backed down, belatedly realizing that such a search would constitute a de facto seizing of the ship—a clear act of war.
Mason and Slidell formally refused to go with Fairfax but did not resist when led to the boats. Wilkes had hoped to find important documents in the captured men’s luggage but found nothing. All their dispatches had been taken in hand by Trent’s mail agent, Richard Williams, who promised to deliver them to Confederate authorities in London. In the meantime, Slidell’s furious wife and daughters heaped verbal abuse on the Union sailors, even after Fairfax grabbed one of the daughters and saved her from falling overboard after a sudden wave.
Mixed Reactions in the North About the Capture
Wilkes was still keen to seize Trent, but Fairfax talked him out of it. A prize crew would be needed, he warned, and the inconvenience to Trent’s other passengers and mail recipients was unacceptable. Wilkes reluctantly agreed, and Trent was allowed to proceed on her way. Meanwhile, San Jacinto reached Hampton Roads on November 15 for coaling, and Wilkes was able to contact Washington. He was ordered on to Boston, where his captives were imprisoned in Fort Warren. A congratulatory telegram was waiting for Wilkes from Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles. “Your conduct in seizing these public enemies was marked by intelligence, ability, decision, and firmness, and has the emphatic approval of this Department,” Welles informed him.
Others in the North likewise praised Wilkes and his crew. Congress thanked him for his “brave, adroit and patriotic conduct in the arrest of the traitors” and had a gold medal struck for him. He was the toast of Boston and celebrated throughout the country as a hero of the republic. The New York Times stoked the patriotic fervor. “We do not believe the American heart ever thrilled with more genuine delight than it did yesterday, at the intelligence of the capture of Messrs. Slidell and Mason,” the newspaper reported. To a Northern public conditioned to believe that Great Britain was decidedly pro-Confederate, the Trent affair seemed like a perfect way to put the haughty Britons in their place.
Lessons in Diplomacy: Reassessing the Trent Affair
As the saber rattling and awkward gestures toward friends and foes alike continue to come from Washington, and the loose finger of the president drifts between Twitter and nuclear war with potentially Iran and North Korea, escaping to the diplomacy of the American Civil War provides a reminder that brinkmanship has its limitations. In the course of the Civil War, the United States and Great Britain engaged on a number of occasions in a violent war of words, but avoided escalation. Starting on November 8, 1861, the Lincoln administration faced its most dangerous foreign policy dilemma with the Trent affair.
Having forcibly removed two Confederate envoys from the British mail packet Trent in violation of international law, and having failed to take the vessel to a prize court for adjudication, the Union appeared on the verge of war with Great Britain in late 1861. The British government demanded the release of the envoys and a suitable apology. During Christmas cabinet meetings, Lincoln eventually agreed with his Secretary of State William Seward that the United States could not afford a war with Great Britain and must surrender the envoys. The President’s and Secretary of State’s leadership are a reminder that offending ally and enemy alike are not the means to avoid conflict. However, interpretations of the Trent affair are in dire need of revision, especially the role of two of the leading figures: Secretary of State William H. Seward and British Prime Minister Lord John Palmerston.
When Lincoln made Seward his right-hand man in late 1860, Seward had quite a reputation in British political circles. In late 1840, as Governor of New York, Seward clashed for the first time with Lord Palmerston, who then was Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, over an incident that took place in November. On November 12, 1840, authorities in New York arrested Alexander McLeod for murder, arson, and his participation in the Canadian raid on the U.S. ship Caroline. Canadian rebels of the 1837 uprising had used the Caroline to escape to a Niagara River island. In a raid, British forces captured the ship, killed a crewman, and sent the burning vessel down Niagara Falls. Issues quickly escalated when the court set bond for McLeod, but a local mob threatened to lynch him. The U.S. government had to explain to their British counterparts that the U.S. Secretary of State could not intervene in the legal affairs of New York. Nevertheless, Palmerston threatened that if New York executed McLeod, Britain would avenge his death. Despite Seward’s unbending attitude, the case eventually resolved with McLeod’s acquittal. However, the British remembered the impulsive and Anglophobic New Yorker.
A German satirical political caricature on the Trent affair. From “Der Fischer im Trüben [Fishing in Murky Waters].” Kladderadatsch (Berlin), December 29, 1861, 8.
When the newly minted secretary talked freely at Washington parties in early 1861, threatening war with Great Britain, France, or Spain to reunite the country, the British listened. Even his recent foray into Europe did little to change attitudes many considered Seward a loose cannon. When news of Charles Wilkes’ coup arrived in the United States, the country went into a fever pitch of euphoria. Wilkes’s capture of the envoys on the Trent was a much-needed success for the Union at the end of the first year of war. Some were glad, after the perceived premature British declaration of neutrality in May, that the Union had twisted the lion’s tail and given the British some of their own medicine. Early news from Great Britain indicated that the government contemplated a military reaction for the gross violation of British neutrality, international law, and maritime practices. In the end, Seward’s calm and realist demeanor in the cabinet meeting, where he argued that not to bent to British demands was suicidal, won the day. This critical assessment of Seward illustrates the secretary’s realistic understanding of the interplay between domestic politics and foreign relations, avoiding war with Britain even though his background would have made him liable to use the opportunity offered to finally fight the former mother country.
However, Civil War diplomatic history continues to present the British side as willing to engage in war. A similar reassessment of Prime Minister Palmerston is therefore in order. He is often quoted for having said, “I don’t know whether you are going to stand this, but I’ll be damned if I do!” This statement indicates to many historians that Palmerston was ready for war. Similarly, the British government’s dispatch of troops to defend Canada is often seen as war preparation. However, the troops were purely defensive in nature, based on the assumption that the United States might attack vulnerable Canada. Therefore, a reinterpretation of the British policies requires a better and more nuanced understanding of Palmerston. He was pragmatic and realized that the size of the country’s military often prohibited intervention. Even more, he had changed after the Crimean War, an issue largely overlooked in the historiography.
Henry John Temple, 3rd Viscount Palmerston, by Francis Cruikshank. Courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery, London, UK.
Born in 1784, Palmerston assumed his first cabinet role in 1830 and served as Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs (1830-1834, 1835-1841, 1846-1851), Home Secretary (1852-1855), and Prime Minister (1855-1858, 1859-1865). During his stints in the Foreign Office, Britain intervened unofficially in the Portuguese dynastic quarrel of the 1830s, opened China in the First Opium War, liberally used the Royal Navy in the Don Pacifico Affair against Greece, and, the coup de grace, fought the Crimean War against Russia and the Arrow War against China. Considering the volatile state of affairs in Europe during the late 1850s and early 1860s, Palmerston was uncommonly calm. Great Britain did not become directly involved in the Civil War, the wars of German or Italian unification, the religious conflict in Lebanon-Syria, or the Polish Insurrection. Tellingly, Confederates, Poles, and Danes assumed Britain would come to their aid during their respective crisis in the 1860s. Offered many opportunities to display that Britain remained the balancing power and mediator of European difficulties, Palmerston was extremely cautious, in dramatic contrast to his pre-Crimean War persona. Historians continue to see the Crimean War Palmerston when dealing with Civil War diplomacy, but he had changed. That war, its military failures, and lack of tangible results were a wakeup call for Palmerston. His alliance in Parliament was diverse and based on compromise, and there was a growing desire to avoid the expenses of war and not repeat the unsuccessful Crimean War. These issues, deeply ingrained in the political psychology of Great Britain, cautioned British policy makers during the 1860s away from risky foreign policy adventures with unforeseeable consequences.
The Trent affair in late 1861 is often seen as a moment where the United States and Great Britain teetered on the verge of war. However, the movement of troops to British Canada was defensive in nature, since Canadians were worrying the United States might finally follow through on its threats to expand northward. Where historians have debated Seward’s agenda and character to better understand his use of foreign policy bluster for domestic gain, Palmerston still lacks such a reevaluation. The British Prime Minister, who had guided Britain through the Crimean War, was more cautious and reluctant to use violence in the 1860s. A rethinking of Palmerston carries with it the need to reconsider aspects of Civil War foreign policy. Their calm and cautious leadership prevented global war in the 1860s, and one can only hope politicians take note of the past more frequently.
 Civil War diplomatic histories have covered the Trent affair from diplomatic history’s inception as a field in the 1920s. The most important works advancing the story are Norman B. Ferris, The Trent Affair: A Diplomatic Crisis (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1997) and Gordon H. Warren, Fountain of Discontent: The Trent Affair and Freedom of the Seas (Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1981). The most recent scholarly account comes in Howard Jones, Blue and Gray Diplomacy: A History of Union and Confederate Foreign Relations (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2010).
 Walter Stahr, Seward: Lincoln’s Indispensable Man (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2014), 76-80 Glyndon G. Van Deusen, William Henry Seward (New York: Oxford University Press, 1967), 77-79.
 Warren, 26-43, 120-127, 177-184.
 Sir George Cornewall Lewis to Lord John Palmerston, September 3, 1861, GC/LE/143/1-2 and Henry Pelham, Duke of Newcastle to Lord John Palmerston, May 25, 1861, GC/NE/86, Palmerston Papers, Broadlands Papers, University of Southampton, Southampton.
 David Brown, Palmerston: A Biography (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2012) David Brown, Palmerston and the Politics of Foreign Policy, 1846-55 (Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press, 2002) Kenneth Bourne, Palmerston, the Early Years, 1784-1841 (New York: Macmillan, 1982).
American reaction (November 16 – December 18, 1861) [ edit | edit source ]
Most Northerners learned of the Trent capture on November 16 when the news hit afternoon newspapers. By Monday, November 18, the press seemed “universally engulfed in a massive wave of chauvinistic elation.” Mason and Slidell, “the caged ambassadors,” were denounced as “knaves,” “cowards,” “snobs,” and “cold, cruel, and selfish.” ⎴]
Everyone was eager to present a legal justification for the capture. The British consul in Boston remarked that every other citizen was “walking around with a Law Book under his arm and proving the right of the S. Jacintho [sic] to stop H.M.’s mail boat.” Many newspapers likewise argued for the legality of Wilkes’ actions, and numerous lawyers stepped forward to add their approval. ⎵] Harvard law professor Theophilus Parsons wrote, “I am just as certain that Wilkes had a legal right to take Mason and Slidell from the Trent, as I am that our government has a legal right to blockade the port of Charleston.” Caleb Cushing, a prominent Democrat, and former Attorney General (under Franklin Pierce) concurred: “In my judgment, the act of Captain Wilkes was one which any and every self-respecting nation must and would have done by its own sovereign right and power, regardless of circumstances.” Richard Henry Dana, Jr., considered an expert on maritime law, justified the detention because the envoys were engaged “solely [in] a mission hostile to the United States,” making them guilty of “treason within our municipal law.” Edward Everett, a former minister to Great Britain and a former Secretary of State, also argued that “the detention was perfectly lawful [and] their confinement in Fort Warren will be perfectly lawful.” ⎶]
A banquet was given to honor Wilkes at the Revere House in Boston on November 26. Massachusetts governor John A. Andrew praised Wilkes for his “manly and heroic success” and spoke of the “exultation of the American heart” when Wilkes “fired his shot across the bows of the ship that bore the British Lion at its head." George T. Bigelow, the chief justice of Massachusetts, spoke admiringly of Wilkes: “In common with all loyal men of the North, I have been sighing, for the last six months, for someone who would be willing to say to himself, ‘I will take the responsibility.’” ⎷] On December 2 Congress passed unanimously a resolution thanking Wilkes “for his brave, adroit and patriotic conduct in the arrest and detention of the traitors, James M. Mason and John Slidell” and proposing that he receive a “gold medal with suitable emblems and devices, in testimony of the high sense entertained by Congress of his good conduct.” ⎸]
But as the matter was given closer study, people began to have doubts. Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles reflected the ambiguity that many felt when he wrote to Wilkes of “the emphatic approval” of the Navy Department for his actions while cautioning him that the failure to take the Trent to a prize court “must by no means be permitted to constitute a precedent hereafter for the treatment of any case of similar infraction of neutral obligations.” ⎹] On November 24, the New York Times claimed to find no actual on point precedent. Thurlow Weed’s Albany Evening Journal suggested that if Wilkes had “exercised an unwarranted discretion, our government will properly disavow the proceedings and grant England ‘every satisfaction’ consistent with honor and justice.” ⎺] It did not take long for others to comment that the capture of Mason and Slidell very much resembled the search and impressment practices that the United States had always opposed since its founding and which had previously led to the War of 1812 with Britain. The idea of humans as contraband failed to strike a resonant chord with many. ⎻]
Henry Adams wrote to his brother on the impressment issue:
Good God, what’s got into you all? What in Hell do you mean by deserting now the great principles of our fathers by returning to the vomit of that dog Great Britain? What do you mean by asserting now principles against which every Adams yet has protested and resisted? You’re mad, all of you. ⎼]
People also started to realize that the issue might be resolved less on legalities and more on the necessity of avoiding a serious conflict with Britain. Elder statesmen James Buchanan, Thomas Ewing, Lewis Cass, and Robert J. Walker all publicly came out for the necessity of releasing them. By the third week of December much of the editorial opinion started to mirror these opinions and prepare the American citizens for the release of the prisoners. ⎽] The opinion that Wilkes had operated without orders and had erred by, in effect, holding a prize court on the deck of the San Jacinto was being spread. ⎾]
The United States was initially very reluctant to back down. Seward had lost the initial opportunity to immediately release the two envoys as an affirmation of a long-held U.S. interpretation of international law. He had written to Adams at the end of November that Wilkes had not acted under instructions, but would hold back any more information until it had received some response from Great Britain. He reiterated that recognition of the Confederacy would likely lead to war. ⎿]
Lincoln was at first enthused about the capture and reluctant to let them go, but as reality set in he stated:
I fear the traitors will prove to be white elephants. We must stick to American principles concerning the rights of neutrals. We fought Great Britain for insisting … on the right to do precisely what Captain Wilkes has done. If Great Britain shall now protest against the act, and demand their release, we must give them up, apologize for the act as a violation of our doctrines, and thus forever bind her over to keep the peace in relation to neutrals, and so acknowledge that she has been wrong for sixty years. ⏀]
On December 4, Lincoln met with Alexander Galt, the Canadian Minister of Finance. Lincoln told him that he had no desire for troubles with England or any unfriendly designs toward Canada. When Galt asked specifically about the Trent incident, Lincoln replied, “Oh, that’ll be got along with.” Galt forwarded his account of the meeting to Lyons who forwarded it to Russell. Galt wrote that, despite Lincoln’s assurances, “I cannot, however, divest my mind of the impression that the policy of the American Govt is so subject to popular impulses, that no assurance can be or ought to be relied on under present circumstances.” ⏁] Lincoln’s annual message to Congress did not touch directly on the Trent affair but, relying on estimates from Secretary of War Simon Cameron that the U.S. could field a 3,000,000 man army, stated that he could “show the world, that while engaged in quelling disturbances at home we are able to protect ourselves from abroad.” ⏂]
Finance also played a role: Treasury Secretary Salmon P. Chase was concerned with any events that might affect American interests in Europe. Chase was aware of the intent of New York banks to suspend specie payments, and he would later make a lengthy argument at the Christmas cabinet meeting in support of Seward. In his diary, Chase wrote that the release of Mason and Slidell “…was like gall and wormwood to me. But we cannot afford delays while the matter hangs in uncertainty, the public mind will remain disquieted, our commerce will suffer serious harm, our action against the rebels must be greatly hindered.” ⏃] Warren notes, “Although the Trent affair did not cause the national banking crisis, it contributed to the virtual collapse of a haphazard system of war finance, which depended on public confidence.” ⏄]
On December 15 the first news on British reaction reached the United States. Britain first learned of the events on November 27. Lincoln was with Senator Orville Browning when Seward brought in the first newspaper dispatches, which indicated Palmerston was demanding a release of the prisoners and an apology. Browning thought the threat of war by Britain was “foolish” but said, “We will fight her to the death.” That night at a diplomatic reception Seward was overheard by William H. Russell saying, “We will wrap the whole world in flames.” ⏅] The mood in Congress had also changed. When they debated the issue on December 16 and 17, Clement L. Vallandigham, a peace Democrat, proposed a resolution stating that the U.S. maintain the seizure as a matter of honor. The motion was opposed and referred to a committee by the vote of 109 to 16. ⏆] The official response of the government still awaited the formal British response which did not arrive in America until December 18.
By Civil War Navy
On November 8, 1861, USS San Jacinto Captain Charles Wilkes set out towards the Bahama Channel near Havana to intercept Confederate commissioners James M. Mason and John Slidell. The man who led the controversial U.S. Exploring Expedition two decades previous found himself leaving scientific endeavors for the new prospect of war. Mason and Slidell were heading to Europe to arbitrate agreements with nations for their support in the Confederate war effort, stopping for transport in Havana. During his search for the elusive CSS Sumter, Wilkes heard of the breakout of Mason and Slidell from Charleston and decided to take action. The USS San Jacinto intercepted the two on board the British mail steamer Trent under threat of cannon fire, taking Mason, Slidell, and their secretaries back to Boston. Although heroic, Captain Wilkes’ seizure of diplomats aboard a neutral ship almost fanned the flames of war between the United States and Great Britain, as they claimed that Wilkes clearly violated international law. After a swift apology for the event by Secretary of State William H. Seward, Mason and Slidell were released in January 1862, nearly two months after their capture.
Reproduced below is Captain Charles Wilkes’ report to Union Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles seven days after the event unfolded. You can read more about Captain Wilkes and the Trent Affair at the Library of Congress website here or find out more about Charles Wilkes here from the Naval History and Heritage Command.
U. S. S. SAN JACINTO, November 15, 1861.
SIR: I have written to you relative to the movements of this ship from Cienfuegos, on the south coast of Cuba.
There I learned that Messrs. Slidell and Mason had landed on Cuba, and had reached the Havana from Charleston. I took in some 60 tons of coal and left with all dispatch on the 26th October to intercept the return of the Theodora, but on my arrival at The Havannah on the 31st I found she had departed on her return, and that Messrs. Slidell and Mason, with their secretaries and families, were there and would depart on the 7th of the month in the English steamer Trent for St. Thomas, on their way to England.
I made up my mind to fill up with coal and leave the port as soon as possible, to await at a suitable position on the route of the steamer to St. Thomas to intercept her and take them out.
On the afternoon of the 2d I left The Havannah, in continuation of my cruise after the Sumter on the north side of Cuba. The next day, when about to board a French brig, she ran into us on the starboard side at the main chains and carried away her bowsprit and foretopmast, and suffered other damages. I inclose you herewith the reports of the officers who witnessed the accident. I do not feel that any blame is due to the officer in charge of this ship at the time the ship was run into, and the brig was so close when it was seen probable she would do so that even with the power of steam, lying motionless as we were, we could not avoid it it seemed as if designed.
I at once took her in tow, and put an officer on board with a party to repair her damages. This was effected before night, but I kept her in tow till we were up with The Havannah and ran within about 8 miles of the light, the wind blowing directly fair for her to reach port.
I then went over to Key West in hopes of finding the Powhatan or some other steamer to accompany me to the Bahama Channel, to make it impossible for the steamer in which Messrs. Slidell and Mason were to embark to escape either in the night or day. The Powhatan had left but the day before, and I was therefore disappointed and obliged to rely upon the vigilance of the officers and crew of this ship, and proceeded the next morning to the north side of the island of Cuba, communicated with Sagua la Grande on the 4th, hoping to receive a telegraphic communication from Mr. Shufeldt, our consul-general, giving me the time of the departure of the steamer.
In this, also, I was disappointed, and ran to the eastward some 90 miles, where the old Bahama Channel contracts to the width of 15 miles, some 240 miles from The Havannah, and in sight of the Paredon Grande light-house. There we cruised until the morning of the 8th, awaiting the steamer, believing that if she left at the usual time she must pass us about noon of the 8th, and we could not possibly miss her. At 11:40 a.m., on the 8th, her smoke was first seen at 12 m. our position was to the westward of the entrance into the narrowest part of the channel and about 9 miles northeast from the light-house of Paredon Grande, the nearest point of Cuba to us.
We were all prepared for her, beat to quarters, and orders were given to Lieutenant D. M. Fairfax to have two boats manned and armed to board her and make Messrs. Slidell, Mason, Eustis, and Macfarland prisoners, and send them immediately on board. (A copy of this order to him is herewith enclosed.)
The steamer approached and hoisted English colors. Our ensign was hoisted, and a shot was fired across her bow she maintained her speed and showed no disposition to heave to then a shell was fired across her bow, which brought her to. I hailed that I intended to send a boat on board, and Lieutenant Fairfax with the second cutter of this ship was dispatched. He met with some difficulty, and remaining on board the steamer with a part of the boat’s crew, sent her back to request more assistance. The captain of the steamer having declined to show his papers and passenger list, a force became necessary to search her. Lieutenant James A. Greer was at once dispatched in the third cutter, also manned and armed.
Messrs. Slidell, Mason, Eustis, and Macfarland were recognized and told they were required to go on board this ship this they objected to, until an overpowering force compelled them. Much persuasion was used and a little force, and at about 2 o’clock they were brought on board this ship and received by me. Two other boats were then sent to expedite the removal of their baggage and some stores, when the steamer, which proved to be the Trent, was suffered to proceed on her route to the eastward, and at 3:30 p.m. we bore away to the northward and westward. The whole time employed was two hours thirteen minutes. I enclose you the statements of such officers who boarded the Trent relative to the facts, and also an extract from the log book of this ship.
It was my determination to have taken possession of the Trent and sent her to Key West as a prize, for resisting the search and carrying these passengers, whose character and objects were well known to the captain, but the reduced number of my officers and crew, and the large number of passengers on board bound to Europe who would be put to great inconvenience, decided me to allow them to proceed.
Finding the families of Messrs. Slidell and Eustis on board, I tendered them the offer of my cabin for their accommodation to accompany their husbands this they declined, however, and proceeded in the Trent.
Before closing this dispatch I would bring to your notice the notorious action of her Britannic Majesty’s subjects, the consul-general of Cuba and those on board the Trent, in doing everything to aid and abet the escape of these four persons and endeavoring, to conceal their persons on board. No passports or papers or any description were in possession of them from the Federal Government, and for this and other reasons which will readily occur to you I made them my prisoners, and shall retain them on board here until I hear from you what disposition is to be made of them.
I can not close this report without bearing testimony to the admirable manner in which all the officers and men of this ship ‘performed their duties, and the cordial manner in which they carried out my orders. To Lieutenant Fairfax I beg leave to call your particular attention for the praiseworthy manner in which he executed the delicate duties with which he was intrusted it met and has received my warmest thanks.
After leaving the north side of Cuba I ran through the Santaren Passage and up the coast from off St. Augustine to Charleston, and regretted being too late to take a part in the expedition to Port Royal.
I enclose herewith a communication I received from Messrs. Slidell, Mason, Eustis, and Mcfarland, with my answer.
I have the honor to be, very respectfully, your obedient servant,
The Trent affair, which occurred during the early years of the U.S. CIVIL WAR, challenged the traditional concepts of freedom of the seas and the rights of neutrals and almost precipitated a war between the United States and Great Britain.
In 1861, the newly established Confederacy appointed two emissaries to represent its government overseas. James Murray Mason was assigned to London, England, and John Slidell was sent to Paris, France. The two envoys successfully made their way to Havana, Cuba, where they boarded an English ship, the Trent, which set sail on November 7. The next day, the San Jacinto, a Union warship under the command of Captain Charles Wilkes, an officer in the U.S. Navy, intercepted the Trent. Wilkes acted upon his own authority and detained the English ship. He ordered a search of the Trent, and when the two Confederates were discovered, he ordered them to be transferred to the San Jacinto and transported to Fort Warren in Boston. The Trent was allowed to continue without further interference.
Although Wilkes was praised by Northerners and several members of the cabinet of President ABRAHAM LINCOLN for his action against the Confederacy, his disregard for their rights as a neutral power angered the English. Wilkes had
J.M. Mason, a confederate emissary bound for London, is removed from the Trent, an English vessel. Mason and John Slidell, another confederate emissary, were removed to the U.S. warship San Jacinto in November 1861 and taken to Fort Warren in Boston.
made the error of conducting the operation by himself rather than ordering the ship to port to undergo legal proceedings to determine if England had violated the rules of neutrality. Since Wilkes had not followed established legal procedure, he had no right to remove any cargo, human or otherwise, from another vessel.
English tempers flared and threats of war were issued. The English demands included a public apology and the release of the two Confederates. The English representative to the United States awaited orders to return to England if these demands were not met.
In England, however, news of the impending death of Prince Albert diverted attention from the Trent affair. When the English demands were received in the United States, Charles Francis Adams, U.S. diplomat to England, was ordered to explain to the English that Wilkes had acted of his own accord, without instructions from the government. In the meantime, Secretary of State William H. Seward studied the matter carefully he knew that Wilkes's conduct had not been correct. Seward was also aware that he had two choices: war with England or release of the incarcerated Confederates. In a communiqué to England, Seward admitted the mistake of Wilkes, reported the release of Mason and Slidell, and upheld the sanctity of freedom of the seas. War with England was averted, and navigation rights were maintained.
2 The Incident
The Trent was only a few hundred miles off Cuba’s shore when the American military ship, San Jacinto, fired two warning shots. Union soldiers boarded the ship, grabbed Mason, Slidell and their assistants and returned to the San Jacinto. The Trent was allowed to continue to England minus the Confederate passengers. About two weeks later, the San Jacinto sailed into Boston harbor. The capture was celebrated as a major victory for the North. The war was not going well for the Union, and they badly needed some good news.
The Trent Affair
In 1861, the USS San Jacinto, commanded by Captain Charles Wilkes, intercepted the British mail packet, RMS Trent, and captured two Confederate diplomats, James Mason and John Slidell. The incident was a diplomatic incident of the first order.
United States Naval Officer, Penny Illustrated News, 16 Nov. 1861, p. 85
At the outbreak of the Civil War, and lacking an industrial base, the Confederate government quickly identified the need to win material and diplomatic support from Britain and France.
In November 1861, the British mail packet RMS Trent, carrying the Confederate commissioners James M. Mason and John Slidell to London and Paris, was intercepted in the international waters of the Bahamas Canal by the US warship San Jacinto. Acting without official instructions, her commander, Captain Charles Wilkes, forcibly removed the commissioners and the secretaries, interning them at Fort Warren in Boston, and receiving wild acclaim in the North. The seizure of the men contravened earlier understandings of the laws of the sea Wilkes counted the men as enemy contraband, designating them 'embodied dispatches'.
Britain drafted a sharp response, which although softened somewhat by Prince Albert, demanded the release of the men within seven days, otherwise war would be declared and the Confederacy diplomatically recognised. Lord Palmerston convened a special cabinet committee to prepare for war, ordering reinforcements to Canada and to the British Navy in North American waters, and ceased the sale of saltpeter (vital for gunpowder) to foreign nations. The newspapers were full of talk of war.