The Trent Affair in 1861 brought England and the Union to the brink of war, which was averted by the return of the Confederate envoys who had been seized by the Union navy from the British vessel Trent.
The generation of southerners who formed the Confederate States of America were slow to appreciate the daunting task of war against a United States superior in so many critical areas—better equipped, organized, experienced, funded, and with substantial resources both human and material. Although the pride of the South clouded the realities of northern advantage, Confederate leadership acknowledged the necessity of courting Europeans, in particular Britain and France. By the close of summer 1861, the Jefferson Davis administration—resulting in part from the confidence growing from Confederate battlefield victories and in part from the frustrations of early attempts at diplomacy—prepared to dispatch two commissioners of adequate stature to head official Confederate legations in London and Paris on the occasion of the anticipated recognition of Confederate independence by both Britain and France.
The two envoys selected were national figures with extensive resumes, much of which was cause for alarm to northerners. James Murray Mason of Virginia served in the United States Senate during the tumultuous decade leading to secession and, in fact, pressed his states’ rights agenda toward separation from the Union as far back as his opposition to the Compromise of 1850 and his authorship of the Fugitive Slave Law. Northerners were equally familiar with John Slidell of Louisiana who was sent as President James Knox Polk’s special envoy to Mexico City in 1845 in a failed attempt to prevent war. Like Mason, Slidell also served in the Senate in the 1850s where he too established himself as a southern anti-Union extremist. Described by many as having the acumen of a riverboat gambler, his appointment joined that of Mason to raise concern among northerners who were reeling from months of failed attempts to force the South into compliance and who feared that the Confederate mission would coincide with a growing sense in London and Paris of the inevitability of a severed Union. Adding to the angst was the knowledge that the South had armed its diplomats with King Cotton. European appetite for the fragile fiber could quite possibly provide the last bit of incentive to enable the Confederate States of America to satisfy the commissioner’s primary objective: a “place [among nations] as a free and independent people.”
On October 12, 1861 Mason and Slidell, along with their secretaries and Slidell’s family, successfully slipped through the Union blockade out of Charleston on the CSS Theodora. A few days later they arrived in Cardenas, Cuba where they arranged passage for the first week of November to Saint Thomas on board the British mail steamer RMS Trent. From Saint Thomas they planned to book passage to Southampton, England. As the Confederate entourage awaited the leg of their journey from Cuba to the Danish West Indies, Captain Charles Wilkes of the USS San Jacinto arrived in the area, redeployed from the African coast to assist in a Union assault on Port Royal, South Carolina. Although his orders directed him to the southern coast, when he put in at Havana he learned of the plans of the southern commissioners and, as was his practice, ignored his orders and made plans to capture the Confederate trophies, Mason and Slidell.
Despite finding no legal precedent in international law to remove Mason and Slidell from a neutral ship, Wilkes, on November 7, laid off the coast of Cuba in the Bahamas Channel awaiting the appearance of the Trent. In a novel reading of maritime jurisprudence, Wilkes planned to designate the envoys “the embodiment of dispatches,” making them legitimate targets for capture. On November 8 at around midday Wilkes sighted the Trent and ordered one warning shot followed by a second shot across the bow. With this the Trent hove to. Wilkes directed his executive officer, Lieutenant Donald McNeill Fairfax, to board the British vessel with armed marines. Although he was instructed to seize the envoys and their secretaries, their diplomatic pouches, and declare the ship a prize to be taken to a prize court for adjudication, Fairfax came away only with the commissioners and their secretaries. Token resistance and the clever calculation of Mason at first sighting of the San Jacinto to have a Royal Naval officer take his and Slidell’s papers and secure them prevented Fairfax from capturing the diplomatic pouches. The lieutenant further violated his orders and released the ship, contending that it would be an unneeded burden and worse, might provoke war with Britain. Ironically, Fairfax’s determination to allow the Trent to continue on its voyage would soon escalate the crisis and contribute to talk of war. 
In mid-November Wilkes took his captives to Boston where they joined other Confederate prisoners at Fort Warren. The telegraph wires that had so far only carried dire news for the Union quickly circulated word of the capture of Mason and Slidell. Reaction across the North was universally positive. Finally, after seven months of failure, a Union victory of sorts led the headlines. One Boston reporter published his poem in the Daily Evening Transcript blustering about how Wilkes had refused to “wait, to study up Vattel and Wheaton” (international law authorities), but instead had boldly “bagged his game, and left the act for dull diplomacy to treat on.”  Meanwhile, American officials began to consider the legality of the incident and generally proclaimed the action justified. Wilkes was the hero of the hour, winning accolades from local leaders, special recognition from Congress and praise from the Lincoln administration. This was all, however, before news of the incident arrived in London. It was, perhaps, the good fortune of both London and Washington that the new transatlantic cable was down and news once again was relegated to transatlantic transfer by mail steamer. The delay in transmission of news and messages would prove critical to preventing this incident from exploding into a potential Anglo-American conflict.
On November 25, reports of the incident arrived in Britain with a ship carrying an officer of the Trent and the Slidell family. Two days later the London press recounted the affair. Confederate envoys still in place from the early days of the war exhibited excitement rivaling that of northerners at this turn of events and cynically filed a complaint with Lord Russell at the Foreign Office, highlighting their contention that Wilkes’s action had been a flagrant violation of British neutrality. The exuberance of the southerners was matched by that of the U.S. legation in London when the staff there received the report. Only Minister Charles Francis Adams’s assistant, Benjamin Moran, and the minister’s son Henry among those in the legation office seemed to appreciate the serious ramifications of this affront to the Crown. When the minister himself received the news later in the day he feared the worst, and began preparing for a breach between Washington and London. Adams would maintain this attitude as a firestorm blew around him from an outraged British press and people over the next few weeks. Adams’s stress was compounded by the dearth of instructions from Secretary of State William Henry Seward that left the minister twisting in the wind until mid-December. Adams could “infer nothing, assume nothing, imagine nothing.”
Meanwhile, on November 28 an outraged Prime Minister Lord Palmerston called his cabinet together with the stern “I don’t know whether you are going to stand this, but I’ll be damned if I do!” War Secretary George Cornwall Lewis felt war was inevitable. The Foreign Office sent word to Paris that the American insult was a clear provocation likely to cause war. On November 29 Palmerston outlined to Foreign Secretary Lord John Russell his requirements for a peaceful resolution—a formal apology and the release of the envoys. Failing to secure these requirements, the British minister in Washington, Lord Richard Lyons, would be directed to collect his papers and withdraw, thus breaking relations with Washington. This would be Palmerston’s ultimatum to Lincoln.
Palmerston’s ire derived from more than a slight to British national honor; it rested on Wilkes’s violation of international law, ironically, law that established the same rights of neutrals that the United States had championed since the early days of the republic. The Crown’s law officers were consulted and concluded that Wilkes had violated the law of nations by failing to take what was legitimately a prize—the papers and the ship. When the captain of the Trent resisted a proper search and did not offer up the Confederate papers, he technically forfeited neutrality and made the ship a legitimate prize to be seized and taken to port for adjudication. Wilkes’s lieutenant, however, failed to exploit the mistake of the Trent captain and simply boarded the Trent and seized the Confederate entourage. By this action, Fairfax had appointed himself a virtual prize court and made an illicit ruling. Even astute Americans knew and lamented privately that Wilkes’s maneuver would not stand scrutiny. In London, Henry Adams could not believe the wrong-headed attitude reflected in the celebration of Wilkes in America. Minister Adams complained that Wilkes’s action had been based on the flawed assumption that the commissioners represented a “recognized” government, when, in fact, they were no more than “private gentlemen of distinction” traveling under a neutral flag between neutral ports. Wilkes had clearly violated British neutrality, and the insistence by northerners on lauding his action for twisting the British lion’s tail raised a specter of Anglo-American war. The threat was only magnified by the established hawkish sentiments of Seward who had repeatedly made provocative gestures over the last several months.
On November 30 two drafts of instructions to Lyons were reviewed by the cabinet and forwarded later that evening to the Queen, proposing that she “demand reparation and redress.” Prince Albert, from what would soon become his death bed, responded for the Queen. Albert feared that the language of the ultimatum would make it impossible for Lincoln to comply and so edited the missive to include the hope that Wilkes had acted on his own or that he had “misapprehended” his orders. And, while stressing that the Crown would not tolerate an insult to the flag or disruption of the mail, he remained confident that the matter could be settled peacefully with “the restoration of the unfortunate passengers and a suitable apology.” Prince Albert’s intervention would prove critical to providing the Lincoln administration a face-saving extrication from the crisis.
The dispatch incorporating Albert’s recommendations left London for New York on the first of December and crossed on its journey incoming reports from The Times correspondent in America, William Russell, and dispatches from Lord Lyons, each recounting the jubilant reaction to the affair in the United States. Lyons saw little indication that Americans appreciated the serious implications of the incident on Anglo-American relations and, in fact, thought it completely within character for Seward to have authorized Wilkes provocative action. Seward had established a pattern of belligerent rhetoric that climaxed in the midst of the Trent crisis when he blustered at a dinner party in the presence of William Russell that the United States would “wrap the whole world in flames.” Russell’s first report of the Trent incident was published on 4 December and alerted readers in a follow up a few days later that the “violence of spirit among the lower orders of the [American] people,” would make it impossible for Lincoln to yield to a compromise. Lord Lyons’s initial dispatch on the incident arrived at the Foreign Office in concert with Russell’s assessment and echoed the sentiment that the American people were pleased to have taken a poke at John Bull. The excessive glee from the United States now filling the London papers raised the prospects of Seward’s rhetoric becoming reality. British subjects were stirred to contribute to the flames of war. Henry Adams was beside himself to understand the reckless attitude exhibited by his countrymen: “How in the name of all that’s conceivable could you suppose that England would sit quiet under such an insult. We should have jumped out of our boots at such a one.” Even when word finally arrived at the American legation in London in mid-December that Wilkes’s action had not been authorized, Charles Adams feared the die was already cast for war.
Adams was well aware of the military preparations initiated by the Crown in response to the Trent crisis. The preparations during December started slowly with the impressment of the less-than-seaworthy screw steamer Melbourne to supply Montreal but, by mid-December, included the deployment of over 11,000 men to Canada. And to see that the meaning of the troop movement was not missed by the United States, the American consul in Liverpool was invited with his staff to watch troops file onto eighteen transports to Canada. Adding a note of audacity, the movements were on occasion accompanied by the royal marine band striking up “Dixieland” or “I’m Off to Charleston.” Likewise, in Canada, anxious residents demonstrated their agitation over Mason and Slidell and the prospects of war by hoisting pints as musicians sounded “Dixie” in local taverns.
Meanwhile, the directive to Lyons arrived in Washington and provided the minister considerable latitude in its time and method of delivery—a clear signal that, despite the public bellicosity, London hoped to avert war. The dispatch included two private letters, each intended to soften the ultimatum. In the first, Lyons was directed to meet with Seward informally to assess Seward’s disposition before delivering the Crown’s demands; thus, tacitly extending the ultimatum timeline. The second letter deferred to Lyons’s discretion the approach and tone of delivery of the message to Seward. Russell also gave Lyons considerable leeway in determining if and when the Crown’s demands were adequately satisfied. Within this flexibility, however, Lyons clearly understood that the basic requirements were release of the Confederate commissioners and an appropriate apology within seven days of the formal delivery of the ultimatum.
As Lyons had awaited instructions, several factors combined to reduce British war fever. On December 14 Prince Albert died. The death of the Queen’s consort diverted all public attention to the issue of mourning and limited the ink remaining for agitation over Mason and Slidell. Three days after Albert’s death Adams received his long-awaited dispatch from Seward stating that, indeed, Wilkes had acted on his own and that the Crown should anticipate an acceptable resolution. Also, there was a growing appreciation for the weakness in Canadian defenses reflected in news that several important military installations had been converted into reformatories and asylums. Finally, any British talk of war had to factor in a potential French reaction. Neither Palmerston nor the Queen trusted Napoleon to control his Machiavellian nature. If Britain became distracted by a war with the United States the emperor would be tempted to pursue some grand adventure at odds with British interests.
With war talk waning in London, it devolved to Lyons and Seward to see to a remedy in Washington. On December 19 Lyons approached Seward informally with the Crown’s demands and volunteered to Seward that he would expect a response within seven days of the official delivery of Russell’s message. Lyons attempted to make the formal delivery on the December 21, but Seward requested an additional delay. By the time Lyons made the official transmission (starting the seven-day clock) on December 23, he had noted a new sense of optimism reflected in a change of attitude as Seward “does not like the look of the spirit he has called up.” Reason had overtaken the secretary of state and convinced him along with most US citizens that war with Britain would doom the Union to fracture and ensure the permanence of the Confederate States of America. Mason and Slidell had gone from trophies to millstones. Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Charles Sumner, who had advocated submitting the issue to arbitration, laid out for Lincoln the likely outcome of a war with Britain. These included immediate recognition of the Confederacy by London followed soon after by Paris and de facto southern independence; the end of the blockade and loss of the fleet; the installation of a British blockade of the U.S. coast from Virginia to New England; and commercial exploitation by the British of a new American trade dependency. Sumner joined a cabinet meeting on Christmas to consider Seward’s reply to Lyons and to pass words to the cabinet from prominent British leaders advocating peace. The following day the cabinet reconvened and, after four hours, supported Seward’s recommendation that Mason and Slidell be released. Most of the cabinet offered support, but Treasury Secretary Salmon P. Chase was unenthusiastic, considering it all “gall and wormwood.” Seward stayed on after the meeting to inquire why the president had not offered, as Seward had anticipated, an opposing view. Lincoln conceded that he had been unable to “make an argument that would satisfy” his own mind and Seward’s position, thus, must be “the right one.”
The cabinet assigned Seward the task of constructing language that met the demands of the ultimatum without being seen as yielding to the pressure of the ultimatum. In this effort he first devalued Mason and Slidell, suggesting that their continued retention was of little importance. He then stated that Wilkes had acted correctly in stopping the Trent for a proper search as a neutral engaged in transport of contraband, but had erred by not seizing the ship as a prize under international law. Mason and Slidell would thus be released with reparations. No formal apology, however, would be issued. Seward then proceeded to reach for high ground, stating that the United States as champion of the rights of neutrals would grant to Britain the same protections that Americans had historically insisted upon. In this he, according to Gordon Warren, produced “a monument to illogic,” conflating impressment into naval service with the arrest of the Confederate envoys. Also, Seward included a caveat in his response that went overlooked. If Mason and Slidell had held any importance to the security of the Union, the United States would have been within its rights to continue to hold them. In other words, Seward gave them up not strictly on admission that Britain was correct in its legal position, but because the commissioners were of no consequence to the security of the nation.
On the day after Christmas Seward informed Lyons that the commissioners and their secretaries would be surrendered. On January 1 they were released and transferred to the British warship Rinaldo. Their transatlantic voyage, however, was interrupted once again. This time a winter storm caused the ship to reroute to Saint Thomas, ironically, their original destination. From there they finally managed a successful voyage to Britain, arriving in London at the end of January. By that time, the crisis had dissipated. Lyons’s dispatch with Seward’s concession had been announced to cheering crowds in London theaters in the second week of January. To the chagrin of southerners, Anglo-American peace seemed assured. Also disappointing to Confederates was the cool reception of Mason and Slidell by British officials. In fact, the London papers disparaged the commissioners as holding no more value that two of their own slaves and expressed irritation at their role in the crisis. So, what had started as a victory for Confederate diplomacy turned, by most estimates, into an abject failure. Confederate observers in Europe noted that the peaceful resolution of the incident had strengthened the Palmerston government and bolstered British neutrality in the conflict. Hopes that agitation over the Trent would join King Cotton to deliver British intervention were greatly diminished as the Civil War entered its second year. One of the first biographies of Jefferson Davis described the end of the Trent affair as “one of the first of numerous disappointments…in the hope, so universally indulged, of foreign intervention.”
Ferris, Norman. The Trent Affair: A Diplomatic Crisis. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1976.
Adams, Ephraim D. Great Britain and the American Civil War. 2 vols. New York: Longmans, Green, 1925.
Bancroft, Frederic. The Life of William H. Seward. 2 vols. New York: Harper and Brothers, 1900.
Bell, Herbert C. Lord Palmerston. 2 vols. London: Longmans, Green, 1936.
Case, Lynn M., and Warren F. Spencer. The United States and France: Civil War Diplomacy. Philadelphia, University of Pennsylvania Press, 1970.
Callahan, James M. Diplomatic History of the Southern Confederacy. New York: Frederick Unger, 1901.
Crook, David P. Diplomacy during the American Civil War. New York: Wiley, 1975.
Ferris, Norman B. Desperate Diplomacy: William H. Seward’s Foreign Policy, 1861. Knoxville, University of Tennessee Press, 1976.
Foreman, Amanda. A World on Fire: Britain’s Crucial Role in the American Civil War. New York: Random House, 2011.
Hubbard, Charles M. The Burden of Confederate Diplomacy. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1998.
Jenkins, Brian. Britain and the War for the Union. 2 vols. Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1974-80.
Jones, Howard. Blue and Gray Diplomacy: A History of Union and Confederate Foreign Relations. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2010.
_______. Union in Peril:The Crisis over British Intervention in the Civil War. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1992.
Mahin, Dean B. One War at a Time: The International Dimension of the American Civil War. Washington, D.C.: Brassey’s, 1999.
Merli, Frank J. Great Britain and the Confederate Navy, 1861-1865. Bloomington: University of Indiana Press, 1970.
Monaghan, Jay. Diplomat in Carpet Slippers: Abraham Lincoln Deals with Foreign Affairs. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1945.
Myers, Phillip E. Caution and Cooperation: The American Civil War in British-American Relations. Kent, OH: Kent State University Press, 2008.
Owsley, Frank L. King Cotton Diplomacy: Foreign Relations of the Confederate States of America. Tuscaloosa: Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1931.
Prest, John M. Lord John Russell. London: Macmillian, 1972.
Warren, Gordon H. Fountain of Discontent: The Trent Affair and Freedom of the Seas. Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1981.
No organizations listed.
No web resources listed.
No other sources listed.