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American Civil War: The Trent Affair

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American Civil War: The Trent Affair

Captain Charles Wilkes

Photograph Courtesy of NOAA

Trent Affair - Background:

As the secession crisis progressed in early 1861, the departing states came together to form the new Confederate States of America. In February, Jefferson Davis was elected president and began working to achieve foreign recognition for the Confederacy. That month, he dispatched William Lowndes Yancey, Pierre Rost, and Ambrose Dudley Mann to Europe with orders to explain the Confederate position and endeavor to obtain support from Britain and France. Having just learned of the attack on Fort Sumter, the commissioners met with British Foreign Secretary Lord Russell on May 3.

In the course of the meeting, they explained the Confederacy's position and emphasized the importance of Southern cotton to British textile mills. Following the meeting, Russell recommended to Queen Victoria that Britain issue a declaration of neutrality in regard to the American Civil War. This was done on May 13. The declaration was immediately protested by the American ambassador, Charles Francis Adams, as it conveyed a recognition of belligerency. This afforded Confederate ships the same privileges given American ships in neutral ports and was seen as the first step toward diplomatic recognition.

Though the British communicated with the Confederates through back channels during the summer, Russell rebuffed Yancey's request for a meeting shortly after the Southern victory at the First Battle of Bull Run. Writing on August 24, Russell informed him that the British government considered the conflict an "internal matter" and that its position would not alter unless battlefield developments or a move towards a peaceful settlement required it to change. Frustrated by a lack of progress, Davis decided to send two new commissioners to Britain.

Trent Affair - Mason & Slidell:

For the mission, Davis chose James Mason, a former chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and John Slidell, who had served as an American negotiator during the Mexican-American War. The two men were to emphasize the Confederacy's strengthened position and the potential commercial benefits of trade between Britain, France, and the South. Traveling to Charleston, SC, Mason and Slidell intended to embark aboard CSS Nashville (2 guns) for the voyage to Britain. As Nashville appeared unable to evade the Union blockade, they instead boarded the smaller steamer Theodora.

Using side channels, the steamer was able to evade the Union ships and arrived at Nassau, Bahamas. Finding they had missed their connection to St. Thomas, where they had planned to board a ship for Britain, the commissioners elected to travel to Cuba with the hope of catching a British mail packet. Forced to wait three weeks, they finally boarded the paddle steamer RMS Trent. Aware of the Confederate mission, Union Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles directed Flag Officer Samuel Du Pont to send a warship in pursuit of Nashville, which ultimately did sail, with goal of intercepting Mason and Slidell.

Trent Affair - Wilkes Takes Action:

On October 13, USS San Jacinto (6) arrived at St. Thomas after a patrol in African waters. Though under orders to head north for an attack against Port Royal, SC, its commander, Captain Charles Wilkes, elected to sail for Cienfuegos, Cuba after learning that CSS Sumter (5) was in the area. Arriving off Cuba, Wilkes learned that Mason and Slidell would be sailing aboard Trent on November 7. Though a well-known explorer, Wilkes had a reputation for insubordination and impulsive action. Seeing an opportunity, he took San Jacinto to the Bahama Channel with the goal of intercepting Trent.

Discussing the legality of stopping the British ship, Wilkes and his executive officer, Lieutenant Donald Fairfax, consulted legal references and decided that Mason and Slidell could be considered "contraband" which would allow their removal from a neutral ship. On November 8, Trent was spotted and was brought to after San Jacinto fired two warning shots. Boarding the British ship, Fairfax had orders to remove Slidell, Mason, and their secretaries, as well as to take possession of Trent as a prize. Though he sent the Confederate agents across to San Jacinto, Fairfax convinced Wilkes not to make a prize of Trent.

Somewhat uncertain of the legality of their actions, Fairfax reached this conclusion as San Jacinto lacked sufficient sailors to provide a prize crew and he did not wish to inconvenience the other passengers. Unfortunately, international law required that any ship carrying contraband be brought to port for adjudication. Departing the scene, Wilkes sailed for Hampton Roads. Arriving he received orders to take Mason and Slidell to Fort Warren in Boston, MA. Delivering the prisoners, Wilkes was hailed as a hero and banquets were given in his honor.

Trent Affair - International Reaction:

Though Wilkes was feted and initially praised by leaders in Washington, some questioned the legality of his actions. Welles was pleased with the capture, but expressed concern that Trent was not brought to a prize court. As November passed, many in the North began to realize that Wilkes' actions may have been excessive and lacked legal precedent. Others commented that Mason and Slidell's removal was similar to the impressment practiced by the Royal Navy which had contributed to War of 1812. As a result, public opinion began to swing towards releasing the men in order to avoid trouble with Britain.

News of the Trent Affair reached London on November 27 and immediately incited public outrage. Angered, the government of Lord Palmerston viewed the incident as a violation of maritime law. As a possible war loomed between the United States and Britain, Adams and Secretary of State William Seward worked with Russell to diffuse the crisis with the former clearly stating that Wilkes acted without orders. Demanding the release of the Confederate commissioners and an apology, the British began reinforcing their military position in Canada.

Meeting with his cabinet on December 25, President Abraham Lincoln listened as Seward outlined a possible solution which would appease the British but also preserve support at home. Seward stated that while stopping Trent had been consistent with international law, the failure to take it port was a severe error on the part of Wilkes. As such, the Confederates should be released “to do to the British nation just what we have always insisted all nations ought to do to us.” This position was accepted by Lincoln and two days later was presented to the British ambassador, Lord Lyons. Though Seward's statement offered no apology, it was viewed favorably in London and the crisis passed.

Trent Affair - Aftermath

Released from Fort Warren, Mason, Slidell, and their secretaries embarked aboard HMS Rinaldo (17) for St. Thomas before traveling on to Britain. Though viewed as a diplomatic victory by the British, the Trent Affair showed American resolve to defend itself while also complying with international law. The crisis also worked to slow the European drive to offer the Confederacy diplomatic recognition. Though the threat of recognition and international intervention continued to loom through 1862, it receded following the Battle of Antietam and Emancipation Proclamation. With the focus of the war shifted to eliminating slavery, European nations were less enthusiastic about establishing an official connection with the South.

Selected Sources

  • US State Department: Trent Affair
  • Civil War: The Trent Affair
  • Library of Congress: Trent Affair

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