‘Trent Affair’ Crisis during the U.S. Civil War: Great Britain Almost Fights the United States!
When the Civil War began, one of the Confederacy’s strongest hopes for victory was the belief that England, fearing a devastating impact on its textile mills by the loss of Southern cotton, would officially recognize the Confederate States of America and break the Union blockade of its ports. Few people today realize that during the last seven weeks of 1861, the Confederacy came tantalizingly close to having its wildest dreams realized, as the tense diplomatic crisis known as the Trent Affair brought Great Britain and the Union dangerously close to war.
Article continues after this newspaper image from the Nov. 22, 1861, issue of the Farmers' Cabinet (New Hampshire)
Toward the end of 1861, the first year of the Civil War, Confederate resolve was strong. The South won the war’s opening battle, the attack on Fort Sumter in April, and triumphed at the year’s only major clash, the First Battle of Bull Run (Manassas) in July that resulted in a rout of the Union army. Although the Union blockade of Southern ports was having an effect, the Confederacy was confident in its troops and hopeful of European intervention and aid.
To help accomplish this, two Southern officials, James Mason and John Slidell, embarked on a diplomatic mission to plead for recognition and aid from England and France. On Nov. 8, 1861, Captain Charles Wilkes of the Union warship San Jacinto intercepted the British mail steamer Trent carrying Mason and Slidell and removed the Southern diplomats and their secretaries—despite British captain Moir’s insistence that the men were under the protection of the British flag. This breach of international law erupted into a diplomatic confrontation that nearly caused Great Britain to declare war on the United States.
For seven confrontational weeks it looked like war was imminent. Great Britain rushed reinforcements to Canada to bolster its defenses and prepare for a possible invasion of Maine. With the transatlantic cable not functioning (it had failed in September 1858), it took a week to ten days for messages to pass between England and the United States, and each arriving steamship was eagerly greeted for news, both official diplomatic messages as well as newspapers conveying public sentiments.
On Nov. 15 the San Jacinto arrived in Hampton Roads, Virginia, and wired Washington about the capture of the Southern diplomats. The news soon hit the Northern newspapers, and the public and Congress reacted enthusiastically and declared Captain Wilkes a hero. Initially, no one was overly concerned about any breach of international law or England’s reaction.
The capture of the Southern diplomats was front-page news for the New York Herald (New York, New York) on Nov. 17, 1861:
Highly Important News.
Arrest of Messrs. Slidell and Mason, the Rebel Commissioners to Europe.
Seizure of Their Persons and Papers on Board a British Mail Steamer.
Arrival of the Prisoners at Fortress Monroe on Board the Frigate San Jacinto.
Effect of the News in New York and Washington.
Intense Excitement throughout the City.
A Special Session of the Cabinet Held.
Fortress Monroe, Nov. 15, 1861.
The United States steam frigate San Jacinto, Captain Wilkes, arrived in the roadstead at half-past twelve p.m., having on board the rebel Commissioners Slidell and Mason. They were taken from the English mail steamer on the 8th instant off Bermuda.
Lieutenant Fairfax and thirty-five armed men from the San Jacinto, with five officers, who boarded the steamer and picked out the Commissioners. Messrs. Slidell and Mason made feeble resistance, but were induced to leave with Lieutenant Fairfax. The captain of the steamer raved and swore, and called the United States officers “piratical Yankees” and other abusive names. One of the secretaries of the rebel Commissioners named Eustis also showed resistance, but himself and colleague accompanied their employers to confinement. Mr. Slidell had his wife and four children on board, who were allowed to proceed to Europe.
Commodore Wilkes came ashore and had a lengthy conversation with General Wool. He expressed the opinion that he had done right, and said that, right or wrong, these men had to be secured and if he had done wrong he could no more than be cashiered for it.
When it became known that these two worthies were in Hampton Roads the excitement was intense.
Washington, Nov. 16, 1861.
Captain Taylor has arrived as bearer of despatches from Captain Wilkes, of the San Jacinto, which vessel arrived at Fortress Monroe at half-past one o’clock yesterday afternoon, with Mason and Slidell, and their secretaries, Eustis and McFarland.
The San Jacinto overhauled the British packet Trent, about twenty-four hours out from Havana, bound to St. Thomas. The ladies and other gentlemen accompanying the prisoners were allowed to proceed to England.
The Trent belongs to a private company, and plies between Vera Cruz, Havana and St. Thomas. She had no pennant flying when boarded. She is a merchant vessel, carrying the British mails, which are usually, as in this case, in charge of some retired British officer and mail agent. No resistance was made by the prisoners, nor any protest offered by the officers of the Trent, but the arrest produced great consternation among the families and attendants of the prisoners.
The trunks belonging to the parties arrested were also taken, and are on board the San Jacinto, which put into Fortress Monroe to coal, and is now en route to New York. The arrest was made by Lieutenant Fairfax, who was informed by Mason and Slidell that they would not be taken except by force. He answered, “Then I shall take you by force.”
…A special meeting of the Cabinet had already been called, in anticipation of the arrival of Capt. Taylor, which was pre-announced by telegraph. The intelligence of the capture of Messrs. Slidell and Mason has diffused the greatest possible job among all classes, including, of course, government officials, from the President down to the humblest messenger.
Washington, Nov. 16, 1861.
…No special instructions had been given to Captain Wilkes in reference to the arrest of Mason and Slidell and their secretaries on board of any foreign vessel; but general orders for their arrest, emanating from the Navy Department, had been issued to the officers of our naval vessels. These orders were based upon the information that the rebel commissaries had sailed in the Theodora. They contemplated the arrest upon that vessel; but as their orders were to arrest the parties, and information had been conveyed to Captain Wilkes that they had sailed from Havana, he only did his duty as a loyal American officer in bringing them back to the country they were endeavoring to betray. His assumption of responsibility in the premises will be applauded by the whole people of the loyal states.
There is authority for saying that it is a matter of very little moment at present whether the passenger steamer upon which they were found was an American or a foreign vessel. They were fugitives from justice. They were endeavoring to escape from the country in violation of the proclamation of our government forbidding any one—citizen or foreigner—to leave the country without the permission of the State Department. There is no question as to the manner of the arrest before either the government or the country. If there are any circumstances attending it requiring governmental action, that can be had hereafter. The great fact of importance now is, the custody of the parties. The country will be rejoiced that their escape has been prevented, and that they are now prisoners.
No action has yet been taken by Lord Lyons on the subject of the arrest of Mason and Slidell on board of a British vessel. He has no official information to act upon yet. It is stated that the Spanish Minister was quite indignant when he heard of the arrest of the arch traitors, and is reported to have expressed the hope that the vessel from which they were taken was a Spanish ship, in which event Spain would immediately declare war against the United States.
The President is quite elated over the capture of Slidell and Mason and their secretaries, as are the members of the Cabinet.
The proposition now is, if England demands satisfaction, to disavow the act, assert that Captain Wilkes made the arrest upon his own responsibility, apologize if necessary, and in a few months promote Captain Wilkes to be an Admiral, which office Congress will cheerfully create. This programme may be varied slightly by discussing the matter for a year or two, and then settle it.
Effect of the News in the City.
Excitement among the People—What the English Residents Think—The Vox Populi Endorses Captain Wilkes and Is in Favor of Holding the Conspirators, etc., etc.
There is a good old saying to the effect that “evils never come singly,” and this has been amply verified within the last few days by the series of heavy reverses which [have] overtaken the confederacy of Jeff. Davis. The Port Royal affair, brilliant and decisive as it was, thrilled the loyal heart of the North with joy and hope; but yesterday morning a piece of intelligence was received which completely electrified our people, and cast all the other achievements of the national government into the shade. Allusion is made, of course, to the capture of Messrs. Slidell and Mason, the two rebel emissaries, who were considered to have made good their escape to Europe in spite of the vigilance of our blockading squadron. But it seems a smart Yankee captain was in the right place just at the right time, and nabbed the unlucky conspirators just as they thought all danger had been surmounted.
It would be impossible to describe the excitement created in the city by the news. The report was looked upon with incredulity at first, for the public mind has been so often distracted by unreliable news of late that every rumor is regarded with suspicion now, until all doubt is removed by the most certain intelligence. So it was yesterday. Early in the day the people downtown read the bulletins posted in front of the newspaper offices announcing, in flaming characters, “The arrest of the Arch-traitors Slidell and Mason,” and shook their heads dubiously, regarding the news as being too good to be true. But as despatch after despatch arrived, confirming the intelligence, the people began to believe, and the most extravagant joy was everywhere exhibited. The masses gave vent more particularly to their feelings, the capture being regarded as the best thing that has occurred since the commencement of the rebellion, and however grave the international aspects of the affair may be, it is quite certain that the popular voice fully endorses the action of Captain Wilkes. The news completely shut out every other subject of conversation. The merchants on ’Change discussed it from a speculative point of view. The numerous British residents in our midst evinced an unusually agitated frame of mind, considering the business in the light of a very high-handed and outrageous proceeding, which would be given prompt attention by her Majesty’s government. It was the opinion of this class that nothing short of the surrender of the rebel emissaries to British protection, the cashiering of Captain Wilkes and an ample apology from the President, would satisfy the majesty of British honor. An absurd report was circulated during the afternoon to the effect that the English merchants hereabouts have been so grievously exercised by the news that they had suspended all business and were about to draw up a remonstrance to the United States government against the supposed violation of international law in boarding a British steamer. It is needless to state that the rumor was a complete hoax. No such thing occurred, and nothing of the kind, so far as could be learned, was contemplated. On the contrary, British merchants went on much as usual, pursuing their daily avocations, without troubling their heads unnecessarily about what does not concern them. The folks at the British Consulate, it may be added, evinced little feeling, and were very diplomatic and guarded in giving expression to any opinion on the subject. The accomplished and polite Vice Consul could not, he said, say how the British government would act, inasmuch as he did not presume to know how her Majesty’s Ministry would see fit to view the affair. The United States government being at present the de facto government here, he thought it likely that England would be disposed to make all reasonable concessions.
Among the people the probability of a rupture with John Bull was freely talked over, and it must be stated candidly that the prospect was not at all disliked. “Let us have a war with England, if necessary. There’s enough blood yet left in the old North to give Mr. Bull another lesson in capering like that he received in 1776 and in 1812.” This was the substance of the remarks one heard among all classes, and whenever a man quietly intimated that the government was wrong, ought to give up the rebels and apologize to England, twenty voices immediately drowned his utterance.
Our Irish citizens exhibited the most marked evidences of excitement and pleasure. “Let the rebels hang Col. Corcoran now if they dare, and let England help the South if she dare,” were not infrequently heard among this patriotic class of our people. There can be little doubt that, in the event of a war with England, thousands of sturdy Irishmen would enroll themselves all over the States for the defence of the country against British invasion, and there is just as little doubt that the vox populi is in favor of holding fast to Messrs. Slidell and Mason, no matter what remonstrances England may make, or what she may threaten, in case due reparation is not given.
The Albany Journal (Albany, New York) acknowledged there might be some legal issues involved in the capture, but emphasized the approval of the public, printing this report on Nov. 18, 1861:
We are rapidly approaching the crisis of the great conflict. The pressure of hurrying events is bringing us face to face with issues that must speedily determine, for weal or woe, the destinies of the Republic…The intelligence that Slidell and Mason, Agents Plenipotentiary of the Rebel Government to London and Paris, had been arrested on board an English steamer, has naturally absorbed public attention. The general joy that these prominent Traitors have fallen into the hands of the Government they labored so hard to destroy, is somewhat dampened by an apprehension that the act may bring us into controversy with England.
…We do not pretend to expound the “law of nations.” We are by no means clear that the act of Com. Wilkes was entirely “regular,” according to the law of nations. It was certainly bold, and whatever view our Government may take of it, public sentiment will applaud at once his courage and his patriotic zeal.
Along with defiance toward England, the Northern papers were quick to express scorn toward the Southern press. This sarcastic article was printed by the New York Herald (New York, New York) on the front page of its Nov. 18, 1861, issue:
The Rebel Ambassadors as They Are and as the Rebels Fancied They Would Be
The rebel Commissioners are now safely in the hands of the government. How different that is from the “crowing” statement that appeared in the Richmond Examiner of October 29, which was worded as follows:
By this time our able representatives abroad, Messrs. Mason and Slidell, are pretty well over the briny deep towards the shores of Europe. We commit no indiscretion in stating that they have embarked upon a vessel which will be abundantly able to protect them against most of the Yankee cruisers they may happen to meet, and the chances are consequently a hundred to one that they will reach their destination with safety. The malice of our Yankee enemies will thus be foiled, and the attempt to capture them fail of success. Great will be the mortification of the Yankees when they shall have learned this result. Our ministers did not choose to leave at any other port than one of our own, or under any but the Confederate flag. We believe that, at no distant day, Mr. Mason will have the pleasure of signing a treaty of amity on behalf of the Confederate States with one of the oldest and grandest dynasties of Europe, and thus cement those relations of commerce upon which our future so largely depends.
Northern defiance, even to the extent of war with Great Britain, was expressed in this article printed by the New York Herald (New York, New York) on Nov. 20, 1861:
News from Washington.
What the British Minister Says Respecting the Capture of Slidell and Mason.
Washington, Nov. 20, 1861.
The seizure of my Lord Mason and Monsieur Slidell, on board of the British mail steamer Trent, has produced an unusual degree of fluttering among the whole diplomatic corps here today. Without waiting to ascertain how far the act of Capt. Wilkes is justified by the acknowledged and established principles of international law, some of the Ministers from foreign parts have allowed themselves to be betrayed into expressions exhibiting infinitely more passion and prejudice than judgment and diplomatic intelligence.
…The diplomatic circle will, however, rave in vain. The government is determined not to be moved from its conviction of right by all the menaces they can possibly utter. It has decided that the proceeding of Captain Wilkes shall be sustained, although he acted without special instructions, and that the right shall be maintained at all cost, even if it should involve the government in war with Great Britain.
The South recognized in the Trent Affair a confrontation that would clarify Great Britain’s policy toward the Confederacy, as expressed by the Daily Picayune (New Orleans, Louisiana) on Nov. 20, 1861:
A Point Reached
The taking of Messrs. Mason and Slidell by force from a British steamer at sea, must have one good effect which is much desired at the South. It will constrain the British Government, by an act of our enemies—not ours—to define a policy towards us. We shall learn by the conduct of England in respect to it, whether she is sufficiently our friend to be just, at the cost of some little effort; whether she will practice towards us, effectively, the neutrality she has professed. She must either resent the violence offered to her flag, and demand redress, including the restoration of the persons unlawfully taken from its protection, or she must submit to it, and approve all the consequences, which carry with them an effectual, if not formal, taking of side with our enemy, which no fair exposition of duties and rights requires of her as a neutral.
…We do not anticipate any such action from the British Government on the hollow pretension of supporting a neutrality by giving unlimited license to one of two belligerents, and aiding it to close the other hermetically against all communication with the world. Great Britain has been slow to take a position; she may have, or thinks she has, good political reasons for putting off the evil day of an unavoidable collision which Lincolnism is crowding upon her; but it is not within the range of probability, in our estimate of British character and British interests, that she will make such humiliating concessions to Lincolnism.
…If the public were not surfeited with proofs of the facility with which the Administration at Washington, at any prospect of advantage, either of greed or of revenge, throws over, without hesitation or shame, the principles and policy of the past, they might be astonished at the profligate versatility with which it has turned to be the most audacious assailant of neutral rights and the freedom of the seas.
These things have ceased to startle, because they are so numerous and so monstrous; but they will serve to exhibit the nature of the demands which an apostate republic is attempting to make on the patience of the world, in the support of the abandoned practices of old despotisms.
Another example of the Northern reaction is expressed in this article, printed by the New Hampshire Sentinel (Keene, New Hampshire) on Nov. 21, 1861:
The Capture of Mason and Slidell
The arrest of Messrs. Slidell and Mason by Capt. Wilkes, of the San Jacinto, is one of the best achievements of the war. The thrill of joy which the announcement of their capture diffused among loyal men, was scarcely less than that caused by the capture of Port Royal. The holding of two such rebel prisoners will prove a bitter pill for rebellion, and can hardly fail to exert a salutary influence in Europe and throughout this country. Before this article is in type these rebel champions will be safely ensconced in Fort Warren, in Boston harbor, where we hope they will be safely kept until all such traitor scoundrels are thoroughly subdued.
…As to the right, and even duty, to take these rebels from on board the British mail steamer, there can be no question. It is true that we hear doubts expressed, coupled with fears that England will resist the act. But these doubts come from suspicious sources—from men who have never been more than half loyal. The same class of men have all along shrugged the shoulder, and giving a significant growl, would frequently exclaim: “Shouldn’t wonder if England interfered and broke our blockade. She must have cotton,” &c. These same men have lofty ideas of Southern prowess—Southern skill and bravery—wonder at the great number of rebel officers, while they at the same time lament the dearth of good officers on the side of the Union. Their croakings have become chronic.
Now, that all such croakers may possess their souls in peace, we can assure them that these rebels have been arrested by the authority of the law of nations—under a principle that has been acknowledged and acted on by all the great European powers, and more especially and emphatically than all others by England herself, and a principle that has been established by the highest courts in the United States. We have no doubt that by the established law of nations, Captain Wilkes would have been justified had he seized the British steamer also.
…England is bound by solemn treaty of friendship not to aid the enemies of our Government. And if her vessels cannot carry contraband goods, nor dispatches, with how much less reason can they carry conspirators on their mission to purchase arms, and to excite the governments of Europe to interfere and aid in the overthrow of our government? The mail steamer Trent was engaged in a hostile act against this country of the most damaging character, for which she is justly liable to punishment. Instead of complaining, the English government ought to be thankful that only the rebel passengers were taken, and the steamer left to go on her way.
Although news of the capture of Mason and Slidell had not yet reached England, word had reached Canada. Some of the Northern papers looked to the Canadian reaction for an indication of England’s response. This article was printed by the St. Albans Daily Messenger (St. Albans, Vermont) on Nov. 22, 1861:
The Capture of Slidell and Mason
There is naturally much anxiety to learn the views of the English Government on the capture of Slidell and Mason. Several of the Canadian papers think that the British flag has been terribly outraged. The Toronto Leader says that it “is the most offensive outrage which Brother Jonathan has dared to perpetrate upon the British flag,” and the Toronto Globe declares that “there can be no doubt that the action of the San Jacinto’s commander was an outrage upon the British flag, and an infraction of international law.” The Globe further says: “The capture of Messrs. Mason and Slidell was a gross wrong, which can only be repaired by the offer of ample apologies by the United States Government, and the liberation of the captured. It will add infinitely to the strength and dignity of the United States Government, if, without waiting for remonstrance from Britain, they at once set free the captives, and send them on the road to Europe.” This is modest advice, but we know not whether they will adopt it. They will undoubtedly prefer to wait for “the remonstrance from Britain” before they set free such notorious rebels as the captured Confederate “Ministers.”
The Lowell Daily Citizen and News (Lowell, Massachusetts) attempted to silence Southern objections with this article, printed on Nov. 29, 1861:
In the instructions to privateers prepared by Mr. Toombs, the Confederate secretary of state, the following passage occurs: “Neutral vessels conveying enemies’ despatches, or military persons in the service of the enemy, forfeit their neutral character, and are liable to seizure and condemnation.” This is poor authority, to be sure, but it ought to silence the yelps of those rebels who are full of fiery indignation about the arrest of the emissaries from on board the Trent. Confederate authority would have justified the seizure of the steamer.
The celebration of Mason and Slidell’s capture continued unabated in the North. On Nov. 26, a banquet was held at the Revere House in Boston in honor of Captain Wilkes. The New York Herald (New York, New York) reprinted this article on Nov. 29, 1861:
Mason and Slidell.
The Dinner of the Solid Men of Boston to Captain Wilkes and Officers.
Speeches of Captain Wilkes and Lieutenant Fairfax.
(from the Boston Traveller, Nov. 27.)
In accordance with previous announcements, the dinner tendered to Captain Wilkes, of the San Jacinto, and his officers, by the merchants of Boston, took place at the Revere House last evening. The number participating in the entertainment was about two hundred, including Commodore Hudson and other representatives of the navy, Governor Andrew and staff, Chief Justice Bigelow, members of Congress from this district, and many of our leading merchants, lawyers, &c.
Speech of Captain Wilkes.
…finding that I had a right to take written despatches, I took it for granted that I had a right to take these “Commissioners” as the embodiment of despatches. (Laughter and loud cheers.) I therefore took it upon myself to say to these gentlemen that they must produce their passports from the general government, and, as they could not do that, I arrested them. I will say, for the officers and crew of the ship, that the orders I gave were carried out in the spirit in which they were given, and not a word said, or act done, which would not redound to the honor of the American Navy. (Loud cheers.)
Speech of Lieut. Fairfax.
…I am in heart a Virginian; but I am a native of the United States, and owe allegiance to the government of the United States. (Loud applause.)…When I saw those who were seeking the disruption of this Union turning their eyes to the two great Powers of Europe—England and France—as their only hope, it seemed to me a pitiful thing that men who had contended that no foreign Power should put its foot on this continent, should now be so ready to welcome their aid, and I felt the full force of the obligations which we all owe to the government.
Amidst the hoopla, some cautious eyes were turned toward England, wondering when the news would reach its shores. The answer came in this report, printed by the Cincinnati Daily Enquirer (Cincinnati, Ohio) on Dec. 13, 1861:
The Affair of the Trent—Mason and Slidell
By the arrival of a steamer from Bremen we have advices that the British steamer La Plata, from St. Thomas, had arrived at Southampton, England, on the 27th of November. That steamer brought the first news received in England of the seizure of Mason and Slidell from the Trent.
Two weeks after England first heard the news, word of the British reaction reached the United States. This information had been eagerly and perhaps somewhat anxiously awaited, and the Albany Journal (Albany, New York) ran a lengthy article on Dec. 13, 1861:
The Mason and Slidell Affair in England.
Letter from the Purser of the Trent.
John Bull in a Rage.
Indignation of the London Press.
The Purser of the Trent sends the following letter to the Times:
To the Editor of the Times:
Sir—I hasten to forward you some particulars of the grievous outrage committed today against the English flag by the United States steam sloop San Jacinto, Capt. Wilkes.
I am, sir, your obedient servant,
The Purser of the Trent
Royal Mail Steamship Trent, at sea, Nov. 9.
The London Times on the Seizure.
The following comments upon the Trent affair appear in the Times of November 28:
It requires a strong effort of self-restraint to discuss with coolness the intelligence we publish today. An English mail steamer, sailing under the British flag, and carrying letters and passengers from a Spanish port to England, has been stopped on the high seas and overhauled. Four of the passengers have been taken out and carried off as prisoners, claiming and vainly claiming, as they were being forced away, the protection of the flag of Great Britain. These are the naked facts.
…When such tremendous interests are at stake we feel deeply the responsibility of discussing a question like this. Our first duty is to calm—certainly not to inflame—the general indignation which will be felt in these islands as the news is told. We cannot yet believe, although the evidence is strong, that it is the fixed determination of the Government of the Northern States to force a quarrel upon the Powers of Europe. We hope therefore that our people will not meet this provocation with an outburst of passion, or rush to resentment without full consideration of all the bearings of the case. On the other hand, we appeal to reasonable men of the Federal States—and they have some reasonable men among them—not to provoke war by such acts as these.
The London News Comments.
From the London News, Nov. 28:
The American Government is surely the most unfortunate of Governments, or else the most sanguine. An officer of the Federal Navy has struck a better blow for the Rebel cause than either Generals Beauregard or Johnston has yet been able to do.
…The news by the La Plata, which we publish today, will raise the spirits of the whole South. The United States Government—for until the act is disowned and atoned for, on it must fall the responsibility—has struck its best friend in the face, a friend that never yet when smitten on the left cheek turned the right for a second blow. The remote consequences of this act we shall not attempt to predict. Enough for the present that it is one which will make it the duty of our Government to insist on ample, complete and immediate satisfaction. Its wanton folly bids us hope that Lieut. Fairfax was acting without instructions, and the Washington Cabinet will no sooner learn what has taken place in the Bahama channel than it will disavow the act, restore Messrs. Mason and Slidell, and tender the fullest apology. Nothing short of this reparation can be accepted.
Until there has been time to receive news from Washington, we feel bound to believe the seizure of passengers on board the Trent was an act as much in excess of duty as it was in violation of public law.
…The circumstances of this event still more strongly compel us to disbelieve, in the absence of direct evidence, that this aggression was ordered by the United States Government. The Cabinet at Washington know perfectly well that it cannot act in this fashion with impunity. In fact, at this moment, its cause lies at our mercy. We could, with ease, remove the severe pressure which it exerts on the South by means of its blockade, and on which, far more than on the sword, it relies for success. We could open all the Southern ports at once, to receive gold, commodities and munitions of war in return for cotton; and, if need were, we could at small cost find abundant occupation for all the San Jacintos they could muster, and for half the army of the Potomac into the bargain.
We have given no provocation for this outrage. The course of our Government has been uniformly forbearing and considerate…The Washington Cabinet has shown itself sufficiently imbecile, but to authorize the forcible arrest of gentlemen under the protection of the British flag would be nothing less than madness.
If further proof were required of the meanness and cowardly bullying in the line of conduct pursued by the captain of the San Jacinto, I may remark, first, that on being asked if they would have committed this outrage if we had been a man-of-war, they replied, “Certainly not,” and, secondly, that Capt. Wilkes sent an order for Capt. Moir to go on board his ship, and a second for Capt. Moir to move the Trent closer to the San Jacinto. Of course, not the slightest notice was taken of either order, nor did they attempt to enforce them.
…A most heartrending scene now took place between Mr. Slidell, his eldest daughter, a noble girl devoted to her father, and the lieutenant [Fairfax –ed.]. It would require a far more able pen than mine to describe how, with flashing eyes and quivering lips, she threw herself in the doorway of the cabin where her father was, resolved to defend him with her life, till, on the order being given to the marines to advance, which they did with bayonets pointed at this poor, defenceless girl, her father ended the painful scene by escaping from the cabin by a window, when he was immediately seized by the marines and hurried into the boat, calling out to Captain Moir as he left that he held him and his Government responsible for this outrage.
On Dec. 2 Congress passed a resolution thanking Captain Wilkes for his actions, and as word of the British reaction arrived the Southern press noted how awkward it would be for the North to back down now. This article was printed by the Macon Daily Telegraph (Macon, Georgia) on Dec. 13, 1861:
The Slidell and Mason Affair
Although the Lincoln Government can be ultimately bound to the action in the Slidell and Mason case only through the State Department, yet it is already so far committed to it, that retreat will be very embarrassing and ungraceful. In another place we have published a paragraph from the Report of the Secretary of the Navy, in which Wilkes’ action is not only endorsed to its fullest extent, but he is even censured by indirection, for not seizing the vessel, and Great Britain is plainly informed that any future dereliction in her duty as a neutral will be condignly punished! Surely Lincolnism is running mad. And this from a Cabinet officer! It sets up in substance that the British packets between neutral ports shall answer to the Lincoln government for the character of their passengers, and hold them amenable to the authority of the United States.
But on the second instant, the very first day of the session of the Lincoln Congress, the House took the following action upon the same subject:
Mr. Lovejoy, (Republican) of Illinois, offered a joint resolution tendering the thanks of Congress to Captain Wilkes, for his arrest of the traitors Slidell and Mason. Mr. Edgerton, (Republican) of Ohio, moved, as a substitute, that the President be requested to present Captain Wilkes with a gold medal with suitable emblems and devices, expressive of the high sense of confidence entertained for him by Congress, in his prompt arrest of the rebels, Mason and Slidell. The substitute was rejected, and the original resolution adopted.
Thus, before any intimation of the views of the British Government is received, a member of the Cabinet and a branch of Congress take pains in an official form, and the most offensive manner, to endorse the act of Wilkes and rub it into the eyes of the British Government. Lincoln’s message made no allusion to the matter, and this silence was by many claimed to indicate a purpose on his part to keep open all the avenues of retreat. To what extent these are closed by the action of the House and the still more offensive official declarations of a member of his own Cabinet Counsel, over whom he held control, and for which all usage holds him responsible, we leave the reader to judge, but it seems to us any retreat under the circumstances must be awkward and dangerous.
Additional news of the British reaction reached the United States, and a worried tone began to creep into accounts printed by the Northern press. Great Britain had convened a war council on Dec. 9, and active preparations for war were underway. British ships around the world were told to be prepared to attack American vessels in the event of hostilities beginning. Great Britain began strengthening its forces in Canada, both as a defensive move and to prepare for a possible invasion of Maine. In the month of December 1861 Great Britain sent 11,000 troops to augment the 5,000-man army it already had in Canada, and was preparing to send an additional 28,400 soldiers at the end of the month when the Trent Affair was finally peaceably resolved.
The North American and United States Gazette (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania) reprinted this article from a British paper on Dec. 16, 1861:
Warlike News from England.
The Restitution of the Rebel Ensigns Demanded.
Arms Shipped to Canada.
The Observer adds: There is no reason why they [Mason and Slidell] should not be restored to the quarter-deck of a British admiral at New York, or Washington itself, in the face of some ten or twelve men-of-war, whose presence in the Potomac would render the blustering cabinet at Washington as helpless as the Trent was before the guns and cutlasses of the San Jacinto. It is no fault of ours if it should come even to this. The arrangements for increasing the force in Canada are not yet complete, but in a very few hours everything will be settled.
In the meantime a large ship, the Melbourne, has been taken up and is now being loaded with Armstrong guns, some 80,000 Enfield rifles, ammunition and other stores at Woolwich. It is not impossible that this vessel will be escorted by one or two ships of war. The rifles are intended for the Canadian military, and a strong reinforcement of field artillery will be dispatched forthwith.
The Philadelphia Inquirer (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania) printed this article on Dec. 16, 1861:
Exciting News from England—Warlike Attitude of the British Press
The foreign news by the [steamships] Europa and City of Washington, telegraphed from Halifax and Cape Race, certainly wears a very warlike aspect, so far as the opinions and menaces of the English newspapers are concerned. From the 28th ultimo, the date of our last devices, to the 5th inst., the Trent Affair is reported to have monopolized the attention of the press, a portion of which, led off by the Times, seem to be most industriously engaged in an attempt to fan the excitement into a blaze of war against the United States.
…There are exciting and excited rumors of activity in the British dockyards, rapid naval preparations, the shipment of arms to Canada, and of a serious fall in Canadian securities.
It was obvious by now that the British were quite serious about the affront they saw in the Trent Affair, and military preparations in Canada continued in earnest. The New York Daily Tribune (New York, New York) ran this report from a Canadian correspondent on Dec. 17, 1861:
Warlike Preparations in Canada
Toronto, Dec. 12, 1861.
“To arms! To arms!” is the cry from Quebec to Sarnia. Gen. Williams, the hero of Kars, is moving rapidly from one place to another, ordering the immediate repair of old forts, and the erection of new ones. At the old forts of Toronto, hundreds of soldiers are working, and large guns and great quantities of ammunition are being plentifully supplied…The merchants, lawyers, and University students have formed rifle companies; others are also actively at work, and the militia is being stirred up after long inaction. So you may easily understand that we are in earnest preparing for war…
The change in tone of the latest news from Great Britain was noted by the Cincinnati Daily Enquirer (Cincinnati, Ohio) on Dec. 17, 1861:
The European News by the Europa and the City of Washington
The great and exciting topic of conversation yesterday was the state of our relations with England, growing out of the affair of the Trent, and the seizure of Mason and Slidell and their Secretaries. The news which we published on Sunday morning, embracing liberal quotations from the London press, appeared, on the whole, so favorable to us that we said: “We do not apprehend a rupture of the peaceful relations of the two countries.” On Sunday evening, however, came the dispatches from the Europa and City of Washington, later steamers from England, that were menacing and warlike, and put an entirely different face upon affairs. If we can credit them, the British Government has sent a special messenger, with dispatches to Lord Lyons to demand the restoration of the bodies of Mason and Slidell and their Secretaries to the British Government, with the implied threat that if the demand is not complied with, a war with John Bull will be the result.
The British ambassador Lord Lyons had indeed received official instructions from the British government to demand an apology from the Lincoln government for the Trent Affair and the restoration of Mason, Slidell, and their secretaries. On Dec. 19 and 21 Lord Lyons met with Secretary of State William Seward to discuss the British demands.
News of the British demands became known, and now it was the turn of the Southern press to be gleeful, just as the Northern press had been when the Trent Affair began. The Southern cause would greatly benefit if the Lincoln government refused the British demands and risked war, as expressed in this article printed by the Macon Daily Telegraph (Macon, Georgia) on Dec. 19, 1861:
The Demand for Our Commissioners!
We had just written out some speculations upon the probable action of the British Government in the Trent case, when the glorious news reached us, putting an end to all doubt. The English government, supported by France, has peremptorily demanded the surrender of our Ministers and their suite in England by the Lincoln government! The despatch says that Europe is in a blaze of indignation at the act of arrest.
The question now remaining is, will the Lincoln government take the back track and hand them over? How can they? No government in our day was ever called upon to swallow so bitter a pill! The House of Representatives have just publicly thanked Wilkes for the very act, and a Cabinet report has not only sanctioned the act, but intimated that England has reason to bless her stars that the vessel itself was not seized, and the next time she may rest certain of condign punishment!
Now how can the Lincoln Government come down from that lofty perch—liberate the rebel commissioners and humbly escort them to England on the demand of that power. If they do it, they are lost with their own party!
…The whole question, it will be seen, rests now on the shoulders of the administration. If they have a tithe of the fight in them which the Lincoln papers have claimed, they will be in a European war in the course of three weeks, and the result will be open ports and a speedy termination of all our troubles. Heaven send them a plenty of backbone just now.
With the reality of waging a war with the Confederacy and Great Britain staring it in the face, the North began to reconcile itself to giving up Mason and Slidell and moving beyond the Trent Affair. The New York Herald (New York, New York) expressed this viewpoint on Dec. 21, 1861:
Important from Washington—Mason and Slidell to Be Delivered Up if Demanded
According to our latest advices from Washington, all apprehensions of a rupture with England upon the late affair of the Trent may be dismissed. Our Cabinet, we are informed, looking to the absorbing and paramount issue—the suppression of this Southern rebellion—will yield to the present demands of England as the conditions of her neutrality, even if these demands involve the restoration of Mason and Slidell to the protection of the British flag, and a disavowal of and an apology for their seizure by Captain Wilkes.
In adopting this alternative of submission to these peremptory demands, the administration runs the hazard of disappointing the popular sentiment of our loyal States. But a little reflection will satisfy every intelligent mind of the wisdom of deferring a final settlement with England until we shall have made an end of this Southern rebellion.
On Dec. 26, 1861, the Lincoln government decided to release Mason and Slidell and their secretaries, acceding to the British demands. Secretary of State Seward informed Lord Lyons the next day without actually offering the formal apology the British wanted. Instead, Seward declared that Captain Wilkes had acted on his own. In the end, the British were satisfied with restoration of the Southern officials, and the Trent Affair crisis was resolved.
Not surprisingly, the Southern press was scornful. The Macon Daily Telegraph (Macon, Georgia) printed this article on the front page of its Dec. 27, 1861, issue:
The Mason and Slidell Affair
We turn from this affair with disgust. All our interest in upholding the honor of the British flag is fast sinking below the freezing point. As pretty a quarrel as ever was nursed by Sir Lucius O’Trigger is about to be spoiled by a prompt concession by the Lincolnites of everything demanded, no matter what it is. Canada is not to be taken and annexed by the victorious Yankees. The seas are not to be swept of the British flag—London and Liverpool are not to be bombarded by Capt. Wilkes in the San Jacinto—in short, nothing which the New York Herald promised, is to be done; and the only thing talked of now, is something they said they never could, would, or should by any possibility do, and that is apologize and make restitution. Our prayers for a stiff backbone to Lincoln have not been answered. The man, it seems, has no backbone except for fighting the South. In one word, the tone of the Northern press now clearly foreshadows a discreet submission to all that may be asked by England in the Trent case, and unless something new turns up we may as well conclude, there’ll be no British war just yet. All this is to be regretted—it is in fact, to us, a disappointment. We felt quite certain, at one time, that the Lincolnites were riding too fast and too high to down at the word—but we underrated their skill in ground and lofty tumbling.
The resolution of the Trent Affair was reported by the Albany Journal (Albany, New York) in its Dec. 28, 1861, issue with these headlines:
The Trent Difficulty Settled.
Mason and Slidell Surrendered.
Washington, Dec. 28.—Messrs. Mason and Slidell have been given up to England...
The North breathed a sigh of relief. This article was printed by the New York Herald (New York, New York) on Dec. 29, 1861:
Settlement of the Trent Difficulty—Favorable Effect on the Public Mind
The decision arrived at by the government to restore Mason, Slidell & Co. to the British authorities had a very marked and favorable effect on the public mind in this city yesterday. It removed a load of care from men’s spirits, and restored a degree of elasticity which was noticeable in every department of trade. The public pulse beat more evenly than it had done for the last five or six weeks. The Stock Exchange felt the influence, and gave evidence of it in an advance in the price of government securities and a general movement in stocks. Even those who held that the action of Commodore Wilkes was legal land justifiable felt gratified that the administration entertained a somewhat different idea, and that it found a mode of postponing war without subjecting the nation to humiliation and disgrace. Now that this trouble has passed over, let us look forward with confidence to a speedy throttling of the rebellion.
The Albany Journal (Albany, New York) printed this article on Dec. 30, 1861:
How It Is Received
There appears to be a general acquiescence on the part of the people in the disposition by our Government of the Trent affair. While it seems rather hard to deliver up men who have done so much to bring on our present troubles, the feeling that they are not of sufficient consequence to warrant us in holding them at the risk of war with a Foreign Power, is well nigh universal. Besides, the conviction that in their surrender we more eloquently vindicate a “cherished American principle” than we possibly could by refusing to give them up, reconciles us to what might otherwise seem like humiliation. We are more consistent in our concession than is England in her demand.
Confederate hopes had been dashed, but some Southern papers held onto a belief that some long-term benefit might come from the Trent Affair. This article was printed by the Daily Picayune (New Orleans, Louisiana) on Jan. 3, 1862:
But, while carefully guarding ourselves against the danger of over-confidence, we may reasonably estimate the chances of a serious conflict between Great Britain and the United States as highly probable at an early day. The affair of the Trent has brought forth, in the British journals of all parties, indications of national feeling and declaration of national necessities, which no adjustment can withdraw or change. They existed, to be suddenly developed by an occasion which licensed free utterance of the secret thought. They remain after that occasion passes, in evidence of the thoughts of the nation, which cannot but be strengthened and aggravated by the proofs of malignant purpose and feeling which the same transactions elicited on the side of Lincolnism.
The Yankee humiliation may smooth away the Trent difficulty, but the sting of compelled submission to disgrace remains with one party, and with the other there is the sense of a rupture, hardly healed, the knowledge of hostile declarations and vengeful purposes, recklessly proclaimed, and the perception of an opportunity long desired, and now completely justified, for applying to the Lincoln Government the rigor of public law, in the departure from which it has been so long and patiently indulged.
A week later the Daily Picayune (New Orleans, Louisiana) ran another article on the Trent Affair, this time taking a swipe at the Lincoln government; it printed this article on Jan. 10, 1862:
The Trent affair and the conduct of the people and Government of the North therein will be new confirmations to Europe of the low opinion formed there since the development of the present war, upon the morals, the courage and the statesmanship which have been left to the United States since the Southern States quitted them.
…Now, considering that all this is a mere piece of diplomatic impertinence—got up merely to cover defeat at home, by giving the cue to a ridiculous vaunt over an affected Americanism, and that there is no expectation of deluding foreign Cabinets with such a lesson of bold and impudent misrepresentations—the effort must be looked upon in England as a piece of aggravating impertinence, and help seriously to increase the popular dislike, and the contempt and suspicions of the Government.
Mason and Slidell completed their voyage to Europe but were unsuccessful in their diplomacy, as England and France never officially recognized the independence of the Confederate States of America or attempted to lift the Union blockade of Southern ports. For seven tense weeks at the end of 1861, however, the diplomatic mission of the two Southern ministers, resulting in the Trent Affair, almost sparked a confrontation that nearly won the Confederacy the greatest boon of all: a declaration of war by Great Britain against the United States.
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