The Trent Affair

This entry is part 3 of 10 in the series The Civil War at Sea

The Trent Affair

The Trent Affair was one of the most notorious episodes in American diplomatic history. It nearly caused a diplomatic break with Great Britain and required a formal apology by President Abraham Lincoln to close.

Since the start of the Civil War the Confederacy strove to gain diplomatic recognition and support from the European powers, particularly Great Britain. The Southern states and the European powers were interdependent on each other. The South shipped cotton to them and in return imported a variety of goods from them. The South expected that the Europeans would recognize them and support their independence from the North based on the power of King Cotton alone. Confederate diplomatic efforts were very passive.

Lord PalmerstonMeanwhile, the Federal government had made active attempts at rapprochement with Great Britain particularly. In the 1840s Washington had resolved the issues of the Oregon territory, British involvement in Texas, and the Canadian border dispute. Secretary of State William Seward practiced a policy of non-intervention in the affairs of foreign nations and expected them to respond in kind.

On the other side of the Atlantic the Europeans had varying opinions. British Prime Minister Lord Palmerston was in favor of neutrality. As a naval power the British had a long history of insisting that neutral nations honor their blockades. Based on that fact they were in de fact support of the Union blockade of the Southern coast. French Emperor Napoleon III was contemplating an imperial adventure in Mexico, hoping to resurrect the French overseas empire.

The United States Ambassador to the Court of St. James, Charles Francis Adams, made it quite clear to the British government that the conflict was an internal insurrection and that the Confederacy had no standing under international law. He also told them that the Union government expected the British to remain neutral. Anything else would be considered an unfriendly act against the United States. The British were inclined to remain neutral, especially since it appeared that the South was fighting to maintain slavery, a practice that Great Britain had abolished in 1833.

In February 1861 the Confederacy dispatched a three-man delegation to meet with the British Foreign Secretary Lord Russell about diplomatic recognition for the Confederacy. After their discussions the British were non-committal. The United States Ambassador Charles Francis AdamsCharles Francis Adams immediately met with Russell to protest the British declaration of neutrality, concerned that it might be the first step to diplomatic recognition. Russell said that Britain had no intention of formally recognizing the Confederacy.

Under Napoleon III, France’s overall foreign policy objectives were at odds with Britain’s, but France generally took positions regarding the Civil War combatants similar to, and often supportive of, Britain’s. Both countries made attempts to have the Declaration of Paris (1856) that abolished privateering, protected neutral goods shipped to belligerents except for “contrabands of war,” and recognized blockades only if they were proved effective. The United States had not signed it but after the opening of hostilities ordered the ambassadors to Britain and France to reopen negotiations to restrict the Confederate use of privateers.

British opinion was that the victory of the Confederacy was inevitable especially after First Manassas in July 1861. Meanwhile, Jefferson Davis appointed to new diplomats to send to Europe: John Slidell of Louisiana and James Mason of Virginia.

The new Confederate Secretary of State R. M. T. Hunter of Virginia instructed the two to emphasize the growth of the Confederacy from 7 states to 11. They were also to point out that a balance of power would return to the Western Hemisphere that would restrict the United States and solidify commercial relationships with Europe. Their major goal was to have Britain break the Union blockade which was becoming more effective every day.

James MasonThe two diplomats traveled to Charleston by October 1st where they intended to take direct passage to Britain on the C.S.S. Nashville. The blockade at Charleston was tightly maintained with five Union blockade ships so alternate plans were made. They took a fast steamer that had a shallow draft. This enabled the ship to use back channels and elude the Union blockaders. They left Charleston at 1:00 AM on October 12th and arrived in Nassau in the Bahamas on the 14th. Having missed their connection with a British mail ship they sailed to Cuba arriving on the 16th. The next mail packet RMS Trent was scheduled to leave Havana in three weeks.

Meanwhile Captain Charles Wilkes of the U.S.S. San Jacinto became aware of the plans of Mason and Slidell to leave Havana on November 7th in the RMS Trent, bound first for St. Thomas and then England. The San Jacinto positioned itself in the Bahama Channel and stopped the Trent on November 8th. Aboard was Mason, Slidell, their secretaries and Slidell’s wife and children.

Charles Wilkes was considered a “a distinguished explorer, author, and naval officer” but was also described as having a “reputation as a stubborn, overzealous, impulsive, and sometimes insubordinate officer.”

The San Jacinto fired a shot across the Trent’s bow after they had displayed the Union Jack. The Trent’s captain ignored the shot and continued toJohn Slidell steam through the channel. The San Jacinto fired a second ship and the Trent hove to. Wilkes dispatched his second-in-command Lieutenant D.M. Fairfax with detailed instructions to take Mason, Slidell and their secretaries prisoner. All trunks, cases, packages and bags were to be seized and brought on board the San Jacinto.

Fairfax did as he was ordered despite protests from the British captain. Mason and Slidell identified themselves, were taken into custody and removed to the San Jacinto. Wilkes would later claim that he believed that the Trent was carrying “highly important dispatches and were endowed with instructions inimical to the United States.” Wilkes had declared the persons “contraband” and seized them on that basis. Fairfax was unable to discover any papers because they were being held by a British naval officer on board. This was a clear violation of the Queen’s Neutrality Proclamation.

The San Jacinto steamed to Hampton Roads, Virginia arriving on November 15th. The authorities in Washington ordered him to deliver his prisoners to Boston where they were incarcerated in Fort Warren. When the public learned the news their was a wave of chauvinism in Wilkes’ favor. Over the next month public and government opinion went from approval to fear of a Charles Wilkespotential conflict with Great Britain.

Once the news reached Britain Lord Palmerston dispatched an immediate demand for the prisoner’s release and an official apolgy by the Lincoln administration. On December 17th Ambassador Adams received Secretary of State Seward’s November 30 dispatch that Wilkes had acted without orders. Adams passed this on to Lord Russell who was encouraged. On December 27th Seward met with British Ambassador Lord Lyons and despite siding with Wilkes ordered the release of the prisoners. The two were released on December 29th and took passage to St. Thomas and from there to Southampton.

The British accepted the news as a diplomatic victory. Palmerston noted that Seward’s response contained “many doctrines of international law” contrary to the British interpretation, and Russell wrote a detailed response to Seward contesting his legal interpretations, but, in fact, the crisis was over.

Charles Wilkes was assigned to intercept blockade runners in the West Indies. After his promotion to commodore in July 1862, Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles revoked it. Welles’ contention was that Wilkes was too old for the promotion under the act that governed promotions. When Wilkes wrote a scathing letter to Welles he was court martialed in 1864 for disobedience of orders, insubordination and other specifications. He was found guilty and sentenced to a public reprimand and three years suspension. President Lincoln reduced it to a one year suspension and dropped the rest of the charges. n July 25, 1866 he was promoted to rear admiral on the retired list.

Eventually, the tide of war turned in the Union’s favor and after the Battle of Antietam and the Emancipation Proclamation any chance that the Confederacy had of diplomatic recognition from Great Britain disappeared forever.






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