The Trent Affair Essay

The Trent Question
January 2, 1862

It is well understood that Great Britain has demanded satisfaction for the Trent affair, in what terms and to what extent is not known at the time we write. It is inferred from the tone of the British press that the degree of satisfaction required is such as can not be granted without subjecting the United States to decided humiliation. And the question which has engrossed the minds of all loyal Americans during the past weeks has been whether we should submit to humiliation, or go to war again with England.

The answer to that question has not been unanimous. Some of our leading men and some of our journals are for war with England. If the British demands growing out of the Trent affair are such as can not be honorably complied with. Others again hold that in our present straits we can not afford to embark in a foreign war, and that it is better for us now to submit to the demands of England, whatever they may be and to trust to the future for opportunities of redress and vengeance. The latter appears to be entertained by those whose opinion is entitled to the greatest weight.

They argue that if the British navy and British credit were placed at the service of the rebels, it would be a work of superhuman difficulty to conquer them. We might, and we probably would, do infinite injury to British commerce. We might, if it were deemed worth while, overrun Canada, and add that wild and worthless region to our dominion. We might even stir up serious disturbances in Ireland. But all this would not compensate us for the permanent division of the Union and the erection of a hostile power on our soil. There is no question but the navy of Great Britain is at present so superior to ours that our blockade would be speedily broken, and thus the great object for whose accomplishment we have taken up arms would be placed beyond our reach. The war would be prolonged indefinitely, and our ultimate success would be rendered extremely doubtful.

In view of these considerations, and of the paramount importance of preserving the Union at all costs, a majority of leading men are understood to be of the opinion that the wisest course now is to comply with the demands of Great Britain whatever they may be, and to reserve to ourselves the right of reopening the controversy hereafter. That this is the view of the Administration we do not know. But there is reason to believe that Mr. Lincoln is as keenly alive as any one to the vital importance of maintaining our nationality at any sacrifice, and that he will not risk the main point for the sake of incidental controversies and side issues.

Of the conduct of Great Britain in this affair it requires unusual self-control to speak in measured language. It is as well known in England as here that the United States are engaged in a life struggle; that every man and every dollar are enlisted in a contest for the maintenance of our nationality; that there never has been a time since the conquest of our independence when this country was less fitted to embark in a foreign war. It requires some self-command to remark upon the conduct of a nation which chooses this moment to offer us the option of war or humiliation. History, we think, may vainly be searched for a parallel. Half a dozen time since 1814 occasions of war have arisen between this country and England, and have always been adjusted by diplomacy. It is only now, when our whole energies are engrossed in a domestic struggle, that England ventures to threaten us with war. 

But a just providence rules , and to Him the issue may safely be intrusted. No wrong, in national affairs, ever goes unpunished. No such baseness as England has evinced in the course of the past nine months can escape retribution. A time will come--and in our day, too--when we shall call England to account for the unnatural enmity she has displayed toward the United States; for here base sympathy with traitors and pirates; and for the unspeakable cowardice she now evinces in trying to drive us to the wall in the hour of our most trying extremity. She should be the last Power in the world to make us her foe, for she has not a friend in the world. There is not a nation in Europe that would not exult over the ruin of England, for there is not one she has not insulted, outraged, or injured at some moment when they could not strike back. France, Russia, Spain, Germany, Italy-all will sympathize heart and soul with us when the time comes for our retribution, our vengeance. Millions of our poor creatures in India, and millions in China, will bless the day when we strike to the heart of the brutal oppressor, who for a century, has trampled feeling from this country, and the imminent danger of a collision, there is no good reason for supposing that the collision may not be avoided. A century, however, will not repair the mischief worked by the jealousy of England at this time. We may be ceremonious acquaintances, punctiliously careful upon every point of etiquette, but we shall not for many a generation be the friends that we ought to be now, and that so many believed we already were. Nor can any just judge declare that the reason is to be found in any tariff system that we may have adopted. No such purely superficial question explains so deep a difference. It is to be found in the eagerness and evident joy with which England hailed the prospect of our national ruin.

The Surrender of the Traitors
January 11, 1862

The traitors Mason, Slidell, Eustis, and Macfarland have been surrendered to the British Government. The country was prepared for the event, and gulps the bitter pill in silence. Mr. Secretary Seward has written a rather ingenious and extremely long justification of the act. It is to be hoped that it will so far help him abroad that British journalists will cease to represent him as the sworn foe of England and of peace.

Every body here knew a week ago that the traitors would be given up. Not because of any technical informalities in their arrest, but because it was infinitely better that we should endure a certain amount of humiliation at the hands of Great Britain than that we should jeopard the great cause of the Union by throwing the naval power of England into the rebel scale. The main point thus determined, it devolved upon Mr. Seward to decide the form and conditions of our compliance with the demand of Great Britain.

He might have said that the arrest of the traitors was right and proper, and their detention legal; but that, in the present circumstances, the country was not in a condition to go to war with England while the much more momentous question of the dissolution of the Union was being discussed in the battle-field, and therefore that Mason and Slidel were surrendered for the sake of peace.

Or he might have said that while the general spirit of international law justified the arrest, no perfectly parallel case had ever occurred, and therefore a doubt existed as to the complete lawfulness of Captain Wilkes's act; and that as peace with Great Britain was at the present juncture absolutely necessary to this country, he would give England the benefit of the doubt, and would release the prisoners to please her and to appease the British mob.

Or he might have argued the case from a legal point of view, setting in bold relief the arguments on the British side, and "casting behind him" the strong points of our case; and might thus have concluded , in the teeth of the expressed view of Secretary Welles, and the sentiment of nine-tenths of the people of the United States, that the arrest was unjustifiable, the British claim reasonable and our duty imperative.

Of these three courses the two first would have completely satisfied the people of the United States, and would not have lowered the fame of the Secretary. Whether the third will prove as satisfactory as the others to the great mass of our people is a question which it will take time to decide.

M. Thouvenel's dispatch darkly hinting that France would be found on the side of Great Britain in the event of hostilities with this country, confirms the opinion we have had occasion to express more than once--that we have no real friends on the other side of the ocean. The logic of the French Minister is not worth examination. His strong point is that the Trent was sailing from one neutral point to another; a perfectly immaterial circumstance, in view of the fact that she carried dispatches and officers of the rebel Government. Sir Wm. Scott always held that the immediate point of departure and the direct destination were immaterial if the goods contraband of war actually came from belligerent ports, or were ultimately destined for belligerent uses. The practical lesson to be learned from M. Thouvenel's essay, is that France will not be on our side in the event of trouble between England and ourselves. Mr. Seward's smooth answer must not delude any one into imagining that our Government places the least reliance upon the hereditary friendship existing between this country and France; but that it relies, as it should do, on our own strength for the regulation of our own affairs.

It is hoped, at all events, that this extremely disagreeable business will secure the end proposed by so much humiliation-namely, that we may be suffered to conclude the job of crushing out the rebellion without further foreign interference. At the present time a piratical steamer- the Nashville- belonging to the rebels, half filled with the plunder of the American ship Harvey Birch, which she burned within sight of the British coast, is refitting in the harbor of Southampton: the British steamer Gladiator, filled with arms and munitions for the rebels, is lying in the British port of Nassau, and has been supplied with coals to enable her to run into Savannah or some other rebel port, while the authorities of Nassau refuse coals to our gun-boat, the Flambeau, which is watching for her: other British steamers are notoriously fitting out in England with like cargoes for the rebels; and British officials all over, from the Governor of Canada to the Consul at Havana, give palpable evidence of their sympathy with the rebels. It is to be hoped that this measure of unfriendliness and injury may suffice. We do not trust that the British may be satisfied with equipping pirates to prey upon our commerce, and receiving them with their plunder; with converting British ports into harbors of safety for our enemy's ships, and refusing to sell coal to our vessels; with permitting their officials to receive with honor and respect the emissaries of the rebels, and to visit with their high displeasure any British subject who shows a friendly spirit toward this country. As we have treaties of alliance with England, and the members of the British Government are constantly assuring us of their high regard for us, perhaps these injuries may slake their dislike for the United States and for democracy. It is to be hoped, after the surrender of Mason and Slidell, that they will.

150 years ago today, Hampton Roads had brush with notorious Civil War episode – 

by John Warren, Public Relations Manager of The Mariners’ Museum

FORT MONROE – On this day in 1861, a scandal touched the shores of Hampton Roads – one that nearly erupted into a much-changed landscape for the Civil War.

What came to be known as The Trent Affair saw the Union seizing a British ship and taking prisoners, a move that was initially celebrated, but soon became the subject of high-stakes diplomatic tension played out in trans-Atlantic dispatches.

The elephant in the room at the dawn of the American Civil War was the prospect of English recognition for the Confederate states. For the South, an alliance with England – and the Royal Navy’s potential to break the Union naval blockade – was a game-changing prospect. England’s motive for such recognition involved the English textile industry’s dependence upon Southern cotton.

“The official policy articulated by the Queen, the Prime Minister, and Paliament was neutrality,” said Anna Holloway, curator of the USS Monitor Center and vice president for Collections and Programs at The Mariners’ Museum in Newport News. “Unofficially, of course, you had quite a bit of sentiment toward the Confederacy, particularly regarding business.”

The Union made it clear that English recognition of the Confederate States would render England an enemy of the United States. Further, the North suggested that it was not in the best interests of England – scattered geographically – to support the “precedent” of rebellion.

A diplomatic mission, interrupted

In November 1861, the Confederacy launched a delegation to England and France that included former U.S. senators James Mason and John Slidell, their mission to plead the case for diplomatic recognition.

The mission required the high drama of running the Union naval blockade, on board the stealthy steamer Gordon. They disembarked in Havana, Cuba, boarding the British mail steamer RMS Trent.

Union Capt. Charles Wilkes, cruising in the USS San Jacinto, heard reports that Slidell and Mason would board the Trent, bound for St. Thomas, then England. He had no orders to stop the ship, but adopted the position that Mason and Slidell were “contraband,” and therefore subject to seizure.

Around noon on Nov. 8, he ordered a shot fired across the Trent’s bow, then in front of the Trent.  The mail steamer stopped.

Wilkes’s crew boarded, seizing the two envoys and their two secretaries. But, importantly, the U.S. did not seize the men’s papers, nor the Trent itself. “Our offense had been less if it had been greater,” remarked John Bigelow, a U.S. statesman in France who worked throughout the war to keep Europe neutral.

The papers may have provided evidence for the U.S. actions. Seizing the ship and taking it to a court for adjudication might have satisfied legal concerns.

A stopover in Hampton Roads

The San Jacinto arrived in Hampton Roads on November 15, 1861, docking at Fort Monroe, which remained under Union control.

Historic accounts hold that a telegraph was wired to Secretary of War Gideon Wells in Washington, D.C., informing him of the capture. But the communication would have had to travel by a combination of telegraph, steamship and courier, as there was no direct telegraph connection from Hampton Roads to Washington 150 years ago today.

Justifying the seizure in his dispatch to Welles, Wilkes wrote: “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.” (for full text of Wilkes’s letter, see attached).

The San Jacinto took on 100 tons of coal in Hampton Roads, and spent a nervous night waiting for orders. Nervous, because rumors had reached Wilkes that the Confederates planned a nighttime raid to rescue their prisoners. Wilkes ordered his crew to stay alert.

The nervous night wouldn’t have been necessary in short order, when submarine telegraph cables would greatly increase the speed of long-distance communication.

In fact, it was the absence of such communication that drew out The Trent Affair. It would take weeks for Washington to relay the message to England that Wilkes had acted on his own, during which time speculation led the two countries to the brink of war.

A few months later, in March 1862, the newly laid submarine cable linking Fort Monroe to the Eastern Shore and Washington, D.C., would famously provide the best blow-by-blow history of the first-ever battle between iron ships – The Battle of Hampton Roads, fought in the span now traversed by the Monitor-Merrimac Memorial Bridge-Tunnel.

The nighttime raid of Nov. 15 didn’t happen, and the San Jacinto steamed from Hampton Roads on Nov. 16 for Boston, where the prisoners would be kept at Fort Warren, a prison for captured Confederates.


“Consecrate another Fourth of July to him!” The New York Times proclaimed on Nov. 17, 1861, breaking news of Wilkes’s decision.  “The whole country now rings with applause of his bold action… We do not believe the American heart ever thrilled with more genuine delight…”

Throughout the North, Wilkes was celebrated. A banquet was held on Nov. 26 in his honor, at Boston’s Revere House, in which Massachusetts Gov. John A. Andrew praised Wilkes’s “manly and heroic success.”

Against the backdrop of the Union’s recent disintegration, the newspaper’s assessments of Mason and Slidell echoed the sentiments of many Northerners.

“(Mason) is arrogant, imperious and ignorant,” The Times wrote. “Slidell is a far abler man, and would be a much more dangerous one, did not a reputation for almost every species of dishonesty greatly weaken his influence.”

“Both are sworn enemies of order and law – of constitutional government – of free labor – of human progress… (they) are now happily the prisoners of the very government they sought to overthrow.”

Every Northern lawyer and armchair lawyer scrambled for a legal justification for the seizure.  Dec. 2, Congress unanimously passed a resolution not only praising Wilkes, but suggesting he receive “a gold medal with suitable emblems and devices, in testimony of the high sense entertained by Congress of his good conduct.”

Consternation and apology

The fervor soon died. The specter of the War of 1812 loomed, its impetus having been the British insistence on the right to search American vessels. The New York Times editors found cause to soften their language, suggesting the United States and Europe should come to agreement once on for all on questions governing the high seas, such as: Can people be considered contraband?

They cannot, Great Britain was to answer. The British viewed the American actions as an insult, and a violation of maritime law.  One British newspaper called it “one of a series of premeditated blows aimed at this country… to involve it in a war with the Northern States.”

British Prime Minister Lord John Russell surmised that Wilkes had surpassed his authority as the “… United States must be fully aware that the British government could not allow such an affront to the National honor to pass without full reparation.”

“There was a great deal of animosity about what had happened,” said Sam Craghead, a historian and spokesman for the Museum of the Confederacy in Richmond. “Troops were sent to Canada and the British fleet in the West Indies was prepared to clear the blockade of the Southern coast and place major ports of the North under blockade.”

France ramped up the rhetoric by urging the U.S. to release the prisoners, affirming the rights of neutrals on the seas.

The ailing Prince Albert – soon to succumb to typhoid – tamped down the talk of war. England demanded the prisoners’ release and an apology. Dec. 15, the U.S. heard of England’s demands.

Confederates predicted, almost unilaterally – and optimistically – that the North would not meet the demands. “The Abolitionist element of the Northern states would go straight to revolution at the least movement toward a surrender of the captives,” The Richmond Examiner opined in late December. “The United States can do absolutely nothing but refuse the demands of Great Britain and abide the consequences of its refusal.”

General Robert E. Lee was one of the few Confederates who predicted the Union would cave. “Her rulers are not entirely mad,” he wrote to his wife.

Indeed, by late December, Lincoln ordered Slidell and Mason released and disavowed Wilkes’s actions. England learned of the release on Jan. 7.

Freed, the envoys continued to England to make their case, detouring due to foul weather and arriving in London on Jan. 29. Whatever their prospects may have been earlier, the Confederate diplomats’ efforts were doomed by the Trent Affair.

“The British press had a field day and screamed for justice, but – ultimately – when Mason and Slidell were released and Wilkes’s actions disavowed and an apology issued, the crisis was averted,” said Holloway, of The Mariners’ Museum.

The diplomatic skirmish had the reverse effect that the Confederacy had envisioned. Europe may have been sufficiently spooked by its fleeting taste of war, deciding neutrality in the American conflict was its best course.

It was a stance Europe would never reverse, and the North’s economic stranglehold eventually pushed the Confederacy against the ropes.

John Warren is the Public Relations Manager for The Mariners’ Museum in Newport News, home to the USS Monitor Center.


Nov. 15, 1861 message from Capt. Charles Wilkes to Secretary of War Gideon Welles, dispatched from Fort Monroe, Hampton Roads:

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,

Secretary of the Navy.

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