(1861) Incident in the American Civil War involving freedom of the seas. On Nov. 8, 1861, the Union frigate San Jacinto stopped the neutral British steamer Trent to seize Confederate commissioners John Slidell and James Murray Mason, who were en route to England and France to seek support for the Confederacy. Protests in Britain denounced the action and called for war. On December 26, William Seward admitted the Union's error in not bringing the ship into a U.S. port for adjudication, and the two men were soon released.
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The Trent Affair, also known as the Mason and Slidell Affair, was an international diplomatic incident that occurred during the American Civil War. On November 8, 1861 the USS San Jacinto, commanded by Union Captain Charles Wilkes, intercepted the British mail packet Trent and removed two Confederate diplomats, James Mason and John Slidell. The envoys were bound for Great Britain and France to press the Confederacy’s case for diplomatic recognition by Europe.
The initial reaction in the United States was enthusiastically in support of the capture, but many American leaders had doubts as to the wisdom and the legality of the act. In the Confederate States, the hope was that the incident would lead to a permanent rupture in Union-British relations, diplomatic recognition by Britain of the Confederacy, and ultimately, Southern independence. In Great Britain, the public expressed outrage at this apparent insult to their national honor. The British government demanded an apology and the release of the prisoners while it took steps to strengthen its military forces in Canada and in the Atlantic.
After several weeks of tension during which the United States and the United Kingdom came dangerously close to war, the issue was resolved when the Lincoln administration released the envoys and disavowed Captain Wilkes’ actions. No formal apology was issued. Mason and Slidell resumed their voyage to England but failed in their goal of achieving diplomatic recognition. The Union had successfully navigated its way through its most crucial diplomatic challenge of the war.
The Confederacy, and its president Jefferson Davis, believed from the beginning that European dependence on cotton for its textile industry would lead to diplomatic recognition and intervention, in the form of mediation. Historian Charles Hubbard writes:
The Union’s main focus in foreign affairs was just the opposite -- to prevent any British recognition of the South that might encourage France and other nations to follow suit. There had been continuous improvement in Anglo-American relations throughout the 1850s. The issues of the “Oregon territory, British involvement in Texas, and the Canadian border dispute” had all been resolved. Secretary of State William H. Seward, the primary architect of American foreign policy during the war, intended to maintain the policy principles that had served the country well since the American Revolution – non-intervention by the United States in the affairs of other countries and resistance to foreign intervention in the affairs of the United States and other countries in this hemisphere.”
Even before the war, British Prime Minister Henry Palmerston urged a policy of neutrality. His international concerns were centered in Europe where he had to watch both Napoleon III’s ambitions in Europe and Bismarck’s rise in Germany. During the Civil War, British reactions to American events were shaped by past British policies and their own national interests, both strategically and economically. In the Western Hemisphere, as relations with the United States improved, Britain had become cautious about confronting the United States over issues in Central America. As a naval power, Britain had a long record of insisting that neutral nations abide by its blockades, a perspective that led from the earliest days of the war to de facto support for the Union blockade and frustration in the South.
Outside of Britain, there were questions concerning where Britain’s actual interests were. The Russian Minister in Washington Eduard de Stoeckl noted, “The Cabinet of London is watching attentively the internal dissensions of the Union and awaits the result with an impatience which it has difficulty in disguising.” De Stoeckl advised his government that Great Britain would recognize the Confederate States at its earliest opportunity. Cassius Clay, the United States Minister in Russia, stated, “I saw at a glance where the feeling of England was. They hoped for our ruin! They are jealous of our power. They care neither for the South nor the North. They hate both.”
At the beginning of the Civil War, the United States minister to Great Britain was Charles Francis Adams. Appointed in early March, Adams delayed his departure to England to attend the wedding of his son and did not arrive until May 13. An important part of his mission was to make clear to the British that the war was strictly an internal insurrection affording the Confederacy no rights under international law. Any movement by Britain towards officially recognizing the Confederacy would be considered an unfriendly act towards the United States. Seward’s instructions to Adams included the suggestion that it be made clear to Britain that a nation with widely scattered possessions, as well as a homeland that included Scotland and Ireland, should be very wary of “set[ting] a dangerous precedent.”
Lord Lyons was appointed as the British minister to the United States in April 1859. An Oxford graduate, he had two decades of diplomatic experience before being given the American post. Lyons, like many British leaders, had reservations about Seward, reservations he shared freely in his correspondence which was widely circulated within the British government. As early as January 7, 1861, well before the Lincoln administration had even assumed office, Lyons wrote to British Foreign Secretary Lord Russell about Seward:
Despite his distrust of Seward, throughout 1861 Lyons maintained a “calm and measured” diplomacy that contributed to a peaceful resolution to the Trent crisis.
The Trent affair did not erupt as a major crisis until late November and December 1861. The first link in the chain of events occurred in February 1861 when the Confederacy created a three person European delegation consisting of William Lowndes Yancey, Pierre Rost, and Ambrose Dudley Mann. Their instructions from Confederate Secretary of State Robert Toombs were to explain to these governments the nature and purposes of the southern cause, to open diplomatic relations, and to “negotiate treaties of friendship, commerce, and navigation.” Toomb’s instructions included a long legal argument on states’ rights and the right of secession. By relying on the two-pronged attack of cotton and legality, many important issues were absent from the instructions including the blockade of Southern ports, privateering, trade with the North, and slavery.
Mann arrived first in London and arranged an informal meeting with Lord Russell for May 3. Although word of Fort Sumter had just reached Great Britain, the immediate implications of open warfare was not discussed at the meeting. Instead the envoys emphasized the peaceful intent of their new nation and the legality of secession as a remedy to Northern violations of states’ rights. They closed with their strongest argument – the importance of cotton to Europe. Slavery was only discussed when Russell asked Yancey whether the international slave trade would be reopened by the Confederacy (a position Yancey had advocated in recent years); Yancey’s reply was that this was not part of the Confederacy’s agenda. Russell, who had opened the meeting by indicating he would be glad to listen to the commissioners but expected to have little to say in return, remained noncommittal. He only promised that the matters raised would be discussed with the full Cabinet. A follow-up meeting was held on May 9 at the request of the Confederates, but again no commitments were received.
In the meantime, the British were attempting to determine what official stance they should have to the warfare in North America. On May 13, 1861, on the recommendation of Russell, Queen Victoria issued a declaration of neutrality that served as recognition of Southern belligerency -- a status that provided Confederate ships the same privileges in foreign ports that U.S. ships received. Confederate ships could obtain fuel, supplies and repairs in neutral ports but could not secure military equipment or arms. The availability of Britain’s far-flung colonial ports made it possible for Confederate ships to pursue Union shipping throughout much of the world. France, Spain, the Netherlands and Brazil followed suit. Belligerency also gave the Confederate government the opportunity to purchase supplies, contract with British companies, and create a navy to search out and seize Union ships. The Queen’s Proclamation made clear that Britons were prohibited from joining the military of either side, equipping any ships for military use in the war, breaking any proper blockade, and from transporting military goods, documents, or personnel to either side.
On May 18 Adams met with Russell to protest the Queen’s Proclamation of Neutrality. Adams argued that Great Britain had recognized a state of belligerency “before they [the Confederacy] had ever showed their capacity to maintain any kind of warfare whatever, except within one of their own harbors under every possible advantage … it considered them a maritime power before they had ever exhibited a single privateer upon the ocean.” The major United States concern at this point was that the recognition of belligerency was the first step towards diplomatic recognition. While Russell indicated that recognition was not currently being considered, he would not rule it out in the future, although he did agree to notify Adams if the government’s position changed.
Meanwhile in Washington, Seward was upset with both the proclamation of neutrality and Russell’s meetings with the Confederates. In a May 21 letter to Adams, which he instructed Adams to share with the British, Seward protested the British reception of the Confederate envoys and ordered Adams to have no dealings with the British as long as they were meeting with them. Formal recognition would make Britain an enemy of the United States. President Lincoln reviewed the letter, softened the language, and told Adams not to give Russell a copy but to limit himself to quoting only those portions that Adams thought appropriate. Adams in turn was shocked with even the revised letter, feeling that it almost amounted to a threat to wage war against all of Europe. When he met with Russell on June 12, after receiving the dispatch, Adams was told that Great Britain had often met with representatives of rebels against nations that Great Britain was at peace with, but that he had no further intention of meeting with the Confederate mission.
Further problems developed over possible diplomatic recognition when, in mid-August, Seward became aware that the British were secretly negotiating with the Confederacy in order to obtain its agreement to abide by the Declaration of Paris. The 1856 Declaration of Paris abolished privateering, protected neutral goods shipped to belligerents except for “contrabands of war,” and recognized blockades only if they were proved effective. The United States had failed to sign the treaty originally, but after the Union declared a blockade of the Confederacy, Seward ordered the U.S. ministers to Britain and France to reopen negotiations in an effort to restrict the South’s use of privateers.
On May 18 Russell had instructed Richard Lyons to attempt to obtain Confederate agreement to abide by the Paris Declaration. The cousin of the British consul in New Orleans, Robert Mure, was intercepted in New York where he was carrying a sealed diplomatic bag intended for Lord Russell which contained dispatches from the Confederate government to its agents in Europe. When confronted Russell admitted that his government was attempting to get agreement from the Confederacy to adhere to the provisions of the treaty relating to neutral goods (but not privateering), but he denied that this was in any way a step towards extending diplomatic relations to the Confederates. Rather than reacting as he had to the earlier recognition of belligerency, Seward let this matter drop.
The French under Napoleon III, while their overall foreign policy objectives were often at odds with the British, generally took positions regarding the Civil War combatants similar to, and often supportive of, the British. Cooperation between the British and French was originated in the United States between Mercier, the French minister to the United States, and Lyons. For example, on June 15 they tried to see Seward together regarding the Proclamation of Neutrality, but Seward insisted that he meet with them separately.
Edouard Thouvenel was the French Foreign Minister for all of 1861 until the fall of 1862. He was generally perceived to be pro-Union and was influential in dampening Napoleon’s initial inclination towards diplomatic recognition of Confederate independence.” Thouvenel met unofficially with Confederate envoy Pierre Rost in June and told not to expect diplomatic recognition.
William L. Dayton of New Jersey was appointed by Lincoln as the United States minister to France. He had no foreign affairs experience and did not speak French, but was assisted a great deal by the United States consul general in Paris, John Bigelow. When Adams made his protest to Russell on the recognition of Confederate belligerency, Dayton made a similar protest to Thouvenel. Napoleon offered “his good office” to the United States in resolving the conflict with the South and Dayton was directed by Seward to acknowledge that “if any mediation were at all admissible, it would be his own that we should seek or accept.” When news of The Confederate military victory at the First Battle of Bull Run reached Europe it reinforced British opinion that Confederate independence was inevitable. Hoping to take advantage of this battlefield success, Yancey requested a meeting with Russell but was rebuffed and told that any communications should be in writing. Yancey submitted a long letter on August 14 detailing again the reasons why the Confederacy should receive formal recognition and requesting another meeting with Russell. Russell’s August 24 reply, directed to the commissioners “of the so-styled Confederate States of America” reiterated the British position that it considered the war as an internal matter rather than a war for independence. British policy would change only if “the fortune of arms or the more peaceful mode of negotiation shall have determined the respective positions of the two belligerents.” No meeting was scheduled and this was the last communication between the British government and the Confederate diplomats. When the Trent Affair erupted in November and December the Confederacy had no effective way to communicate directly with Great Britain and they were left totally out of the negotiation process.
By August 1861, Yancey was sick, frustrated, and ready to resign. Also in August president Jefferson Davis had decided that he needed diplomats in England and France better suited to serve as Confederate ministers once diplomatic recognition was granted. His choices were John Slidell of Louisiana and James Mason of Virginia. Both men were widely respected throughout the South and had some background in foreign affairs. Slidell had been appointed as a negotiator by President Polk at the end of the Mexican War, and Mason had been chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee from 1847 to 1860.
R. M. T. Hunter of Virginia was the new Confederate Secretary of State. His instructions to Mason and Slidell were to emphasize the stronger position of the Confederacy now that it had expanded from seven to eleven states with the likelihood that Maryland, Missouri, and Kentucky would also eventually join the new nation. An independent Confederacy would restrict the industrial and maritime ambitions of the North and lead to a mutually beneficial commercial alliance between Great Britain, France, and the Confederate States. A balance of power would be restored in the Western Hemisphere as the North’s territorial ambitions would be restricted. They were to liken the Confederate situation to the British support for Italy’s struggles for independence and were to quote Russell’s own letters which justified that support. Of immediate importance, they were to make a detailed argument against the legality of the Northern blockade. Along with their formal written instructions, Mason and Slidell carried a number of documents supporting their positions.
The intended departure of the diplomats was no secret, and the Union government received daily intelligence on their movements. By October 1 Slidell and Mason were in Charleston. Their original plan was to attempt to run the blockade in the CSS Nashville, a fast steamer, but the main channel into Charleston was guarded by five Union ships and the Nashville’s draft was too deep for any side channels. A night escape was considered, but tides and strong night winds prevented this. An overland route through Mexico and departure from Matamoros was also considered, but the delay of several months was unacceptable.
The steamer Gordon was suggested as an alternative. It had a shallow enough draught to use the back channels and was capable of speeds exceeding twelve knots, more than enough to elude Union pursuit. The Gordon was offered to the Confederate government for either as a purchase for $62,000 or as a charter for $10,000. The Confederate Treasury could not afford this, but a local cotton broker, George Trenholm, paid the $10,000 in return for half the cargo space on the return trip. Renamed the Theodora, the ship left Charleston at one in the morning on October 12. On the 14th they arrived at Nassau but had missed connections with the British steamer going to St. Thomas, the main point of departure for British ships from the Caribbean to Great Britain. They moved on towards Cuba and arrived in Cardenas on October 16. They learned that the next British mail packet would leave Havana on November 7 for St. Thomas. .
On the Union side, the USS San Jacinto, commanded by Captain Charles Wilkes, arrived in St. Thomas on October 13, fresh off its duty on the African coast. Wilkes’ orders were to join a US Naval force preparing for an assault of Port Royal, South Carolina. However in St. Thomas Wilkes learned that the Sumter, a Confederate raider, had captured three merchant ships near Cinfuegos in July. Wilkes headed there, despite the unlikelihood that it would have remained in the area. In Cinfuegos he learned from a newspaper that Mason and Slidell were scheduled to leave Havana on November 7 in the RMS Trent. He realized that the ship would need to use the “narrow Bahama Channel, the only deepwater route between Cuba and the shallow Grand Bahama Bank.” Wilkes discussed legal options with his second in command, Lt. D. M. Fairfax, before making plans to intercept and also reviewed law books on the subject. Wilkes adopted the position that Mason and Slidell would qualify as “contraband”, subject to seizure by a United States ship.
This aggressive decision making was typical of Wilkes' command style. On one hand, he was recognized as “a distinguished explorer, author, and naval officer”. On the other, he “had a reputation as a stubborn, overzealous, impulsive, and sometimes insubordinate officer.” Treasury officer George Harrington had warned Seward about Wilkes, “He will give us trouble. He has a superabundance of self-esteem and a deficiency of judgment. When he commanded his great exploring mission he court-martialed nearly all his officers; he alone was right, everybody else was wrong.”
The Trent left as scheduled with Mason, Slidell, their secretaries, and Slidell’s wife and children aboard. Around noon on the 8th the San Jacinto spotted the Trent, and two shots were fired across her bow. Captain Moir of the Trent ignored the first shot but stopped after the second one. Two cutters from the San Jacinto had been prepared for boarding, but Fairfax first went over to the Trent in a third cutter. Wilkes had given Fairfax the following written instructions:
Fairfax boarded alone and was escorted to Captain Moir. Captain Moir refused Fairfax’s request for a passenger list, but Slidell and Mason came forward and identified themselves. Moir also refused to allow a search of the vessel for contraband, and Fairfax failed to force the issue which would have required seizing the ship as a prize. Mason and Slidell made a formal refusal to go voluntarily with Fairfax, but did not resist when Fairfax had his crewmen escort them to the cutter.
Wilkes would later claim that he believed that the Trent was carrying “highly important dispatches and were endowed with instructions inimical to the United States”. Along with the failure of Fairfax to insist on a search of the Trent, there was another reason why no papers were found in the luggage that was carried with the diplomats. Mason’s daughter, writing in 1906, said that the Confederate dispatch bag had been secured by Commander Williams of the Trent and later delivered to the Confederate envoys in London. This was a clear violation of the Queens Neutrality Proclamation.
International law required that when “contraband” was discovered on a ship it should be taken to the nearest prize court for adjudication. While this was Wilkes’ initial determination, Fairfax argued against this since taking crew from the San Jacinto to the Trent would weaken the already minimally staffed San Jacinto and would seriously inconvenience the other passengers as well as mail recipients. Wilkes, whose ultimate responsibility it was, agreed and the ship was allowed to proceed to Saint Thomas, absent the two Confederate envoys and their secretaries.
The San Jacinto arrived in Hampton Roads, Virginia on November 15 where he wired news of the capture to Washington. He was then ordered to Boston where he delivered the captives to Fort Warren, a prison for captured Confederates.
Most Northerners learned of the Trent capture on November 16 when the news hit afternoon newspapers. By Monday the 18th the press seemed “universally engulfed in a massive wave of chauvinistic elation.” Mason and Slidell, “the caged ambassadors” were denounced as “knaves”, “cowards”, “snobs”, “cold, cruel, and selfish”.
Everyone was eager to present a legal justification for the capture. The British consul in Boston remarked that every other citizen was “walking around with a Law Book under his arm and proving the right of the S. Jacintho [sic] to stop H.M.’s mail boat.” Many newspapers likewise argued for the legality of Wilkes’ actions, and numerous lawyers stepped forward to add their approval.Harvard law professor Theophilus Parsons wrote, “I am just as certain that Wilkes had a legal right to take Mason and Slidell from the Trent, as I am that our government has a legal right to blockade the port of Charleston.” Franklin Pierce’s attorney general Caleb Cushing concurred, “In my judgment, the act of Captain Wilkes was one which any and every self- respecting nation must and would have done by its own sovereign right and power, regardless of circumstances.” Richard Henry Dana, Jr., considered an expert on maritime law, justified the detention because the envoys were engaged “solely [in] a mission hostile to the United States”, making them guilty of “treason within our municipal law.” Edward Everett, a former minister to great Britain and a former secretary of State also argued that “the detention was perfectly lawful [and] their confinement in Fort Warren will be perfectly lawful.”
A banquet was given to honor Wilkes at the Revere House in Boston on November 26th. Massachusetts governor John A. Andrew praised Wilkes for his “manly and heroic success” and spoke of the “exultation of the American heart” when Wilkes “fired his shot across the bows of the ship that bore the British Lion at its head.” George T. Bigelow, the chief justice of Massachusetts, spoke admiringly of Wilkes, “In common with all loyal men of the North, I have been sighing, for the last six months, for someone who would be willing to say to himself, ‘I will take the responsibility.’” On December 2 Congress passed unanimously a resolution thanking Wilkes “for his brave, adroit and patriotic conduct in the arrest and detention of the traitors, James M. Mason and John Slidell” and proposing that he receive a “gold medal with suitable emblems and devices, in testimony of the high sense entertained by Congress of his good conduct.”
As it was given closer study, people began to have doubts. The secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles reflected the ambiguity that many felt when he wrote to Wilkes of “the emphatic approval” of the Navy Department for his actions while cautioning him that the failure to take the Trent to a prize court “must by no means be permitted to constitute a precedent hereafter for the treatment of any case of similar infraction of neutral obligations.” On November 24, the New York Times claimed to find no actual on point precedent. Thurlow Weed’s Albany Evening Journal suggested that if Wilkes had “exercised an unwarranted discretion, our government will properly disavow the proceedings and grant England ‘every satisfaction’ consistent with honor and justice.” It did not take long for others to comment that the capture of Mason and Slidell very much resembled the search and impressment that the United States had opposed since its founding. The idea of humans as contraband failed to strike a resonant chord with many.
Henry Adams wrote to his brother on the impressment issue:
People also started to realize that the issue might be resolved less on legalities and more on the necessity of avoiding a serious conflict with Britain. James Buchanan, Thomas Ewing, Lewis Cass, and Robert J. Walker all publicly came out for the necessity of releasing them. By the third week of December much of the editorial opinion started to mirror these opinions and prepare the American citizens for the release of the prisoners. The opinion that Wilkes had operated without orders and had erred by, in effect, holding a prize court on the deck of the San Jacinto was being spread.
The United States was initially very reluctant to back down. Seward had lost the initial opportunity to immediately release the two envoys as an affirmation of a long-held US interpretation of international law. He had written to Adams at the end of November that Wilkes had not acted under instructions, but would hold back any more information until it had received some response from Great Britain. He reiterated that recognition of the Confederacy would likely lead to war.
Lincoln was at first enthused about the capture and reluctant to let them go, but as reality set in he stated:
On December 4, Lincoln met with Alexander Galt, the Canadian Minister of Finance. Lincoln told him that he had no desire for troubles with England or any unfriendly designs toward Canada. When Galt asked specifically about the Trent incident, Lincoln replied, “Oh, that’ll be got along with.” Galt forwarded his account of the meeting to Lyons who forwarded it to Russell. Galt wrote that, despite Lincoln’s assurances, “I cannot, however, divest my mind of the impression that the policy of the American Govt is so subject to popular impulses, that no assurance can be or ought to be relied on under present circumstances.” Lincoln’s annual message to Congress did not touch directly on the Trent Affair but, relying on estimates from Secretary of War Simon Cameron that the US could field a 3,000,000 man army, stated that he could “show the world, that while engaged in quelling disturbances at home we are able to protect ourselves from abroad.”
Finance also played as role as Secretary of the Treasury Salmon P. Chase was concerned with any events that might affect American interests in Europe. Chase was aware of the intent of New York banks to suspend specie payments, and he would later make a lengthy argument at the Christmas cabinet meeting in support of Seward. In his diary, Chase wrote that the release of Mason and Slidell “…was like gall and wormwood to me. But we cannot afford delays while the matter hangs in uncertainty, the public mind will remain disquieted, our commerce will suffer serious harm, our action against the rebels must be greatly hindered. Warren pg. 173. Warren notes, “Although the Trent affair did not cause the national banking crisis, it contributed to the virtual collapse of a haphazard system of war finance, which depended on public confidence.”
On December 15 the first news on British reaction reached the United States. Britain first learned of the events on November 27. Lincoln was with Senator Orville Browning when Seward brought in the first newspaper dispatches which indicated Palmerston was demanding a release of the prisoners and an apology. Browning thought the resort to war by Britain was “foolish” but said “We will fight her to the death”. That night at a diplomatic reception Seward was overheard by William H. Russell saying, “We will wrap the whole world in flames.” The mood in Congress had also changed. When they debated the issue on December 16 and 17, Clement L. Vallandigham, a peace Democrat, proposed a resolution stating that the US maintain the seizure as a matter of honor. The motion was opposed and referred to a committee by the vote of 109 to 16. The official response of the government still awaited the formal British response which did not arrive in America until December 18.
Union intelligence had not immediately recognized that Mason and Slidell had left Charleston on the Theodora rather than the Nashville. Secretary of the Navy Welles ordered Captain John B. Marchand of the U.S.S. Alger to intercept the Nashville and detain the commissioners. The British government was aware that the United States would attempt to capture the diplomats and also believed they were on the Nashville. Palmerston ordered a warship to patrol within the three mile limit around the expected docking place of the Nashville to assure that any capture would occur outside British territorial waters, avoiding the diplomatic crisis that would be occasioned if the Confederate ship were apprehended within British waters. When the Nashville arrived on November 21, the British were surprised that the Confederates were not on board.
Marchand arrived in Southampton soon after the Nashville and learned from The Times that his targets had arrived in Cuba. Marchand reacted to the news by boasting that he would capture the two envoys within sight of the British shore if necessary, even if they were on a British ship. As a result of the concerns raised by Marchand’s statements, the British Foreign Service requested a judicial opinion from the three Law Officers of the Crown (the queen’s advocate, the attorney general, and the solicitor general) on the legality of capturing the diplomats from a British ship. The written reply dated November 12 declared:
On November 12 Palmerston advised Adams in person that the British nonetheless would take offense if the envoys were removed from a British ship. Palmerston emphasized that seizing the Confederates would be “highly inexpedient in every way [Palmerston] could view it” and a few more Confederates in Britain would not “produce any change in policy already adopted.” Palmerston questioned the presence of the Alger in British waters, and Adams assured Palmerston that he had read Marchand’s orders (Marchand had visited Adams while in Great Britain) which limited him to seizing Mason and Slidell from a Confederate ship.
The news of the actual capture of Mason and Slidell did not arrive in London until November 27. Much of the public and many of the newspapers immediately perceived it as an outrageous insult to British honor, and a flagrant violation of maritime law. The London Chronicle’s response was typical of the negative responses:
Mr. Seward … is exerting himself to provoke a quarrel with all Europe, in that spirit of senseless egotism which induces the Americans, with their dwarf fleet and shapeless mass of incoherent squads which they call an army, to fancy themselves the equal of France by land and Great Britain by sea.
The London Standard saw the capture as “but one of a series of premeditated blows aimed at this country … to involve it in a war with the Northern States.” A letter from an American visitor written to Seward declared, “The people are frantic with rage, and were the country polled I fear 999 men out of 1,000 would declare for immediate war.” A member of Parliament stated that unless America set matters right the British flag should “be torn into shreds and sent to Washington for use of the Presidential water-closets.”
The Times published its first report from the United States on December 4, and its correspondent, W. H. Russell, wrote of American reactions, “There is so much violence of spirit among the lower orders of the people and they are … so saturated with pride and vanity that any honorable concession … would prove fatal to its authors.” John T. Delane, editor of The Times, however, struck a moderate stance and warned the people not to “regard the act in the worst light” and to question whether it made sense that the United States, despite British misgivings about Seward that went back to the earliest days of the Lincoln administration, would “force a quarrel upon the Powers of Europe.”
The government got its first solid information on the Trent from Commander Williams who went directly to London after he arrived in England. He spent several hours with the Admiralty and the prime minister. Initial reaction among political leaders was firmly opposed to the American actions. Lord Clarendon, a former foreign secretary, expressed what many felt when he accused Seward of “trying to provoke us into a quarrel and finding that it could not be effected at Washington he was determined to compass it at sea.”
Resisting Russell’s call for an immediate cabinet meeting, Palmerston again called on the Law Officers to prepare a brief based on the actual events that had occurred, and an emergency cabinet meeting was scheduled two days later for Friday, November 29. Palmerston also informed the War Office that budget reductions scheduled for 1862 be put on hold. Russell met briefly with Adams on November 29 to determine whether he could shed any light on American intent. Due to the cable outage, Adams was unaware that Seward had already sent him a letter indicating Wilkes had acted without orders and was unable to provide Russell any information that might defuse the situation.
Palmerston began the emergency cabinet meeting by reportedly throwing his hat on the table and declaring, "I don't know whether you are going to stand this, but I'll be damned if I do." The Law officers' report was read and confirmed the illegality of Wilkes’ actions. Dispatches from Lyons were given to all in attendance. These dispatches described the excitement in America in support of the capture, referred to previous dispatches in which Lyons had warned that Seward might provoke such an incident, and described the difficulty that the United States might have in acknowledging that Wilkes had erred. Lyons also recommended a show of force including sending reinforcements to Canada. Palmerston indicated to Lord Russell that it was very possible that the entire incident had been a “deliberate and premeditated insult” designed by Seward to “provoke” a confrontation with Britain.
After several days of discussion, on November 30 Russell sent to Queen Victoria the drafts of the dispatches intended for Lord Lyons to deliver to Seward. The Queen in turn asked her husband and consort, Prince Albert, to review the matter. Although ill with typhoid that would shortly take his life, Albert softened the ultimatum, which he felt was too belligerent. In his November 30 response to Palmerston, Albert wrote:
The cabinet incorporated in its official letter to Seward Albert’s suggestions that would allow Washington to disavow both Wilkes’ actions and any American intent to insult the British flag. The British still demanded an apology and the release of the Confederate emissaries. Lyons’ private instructions directed him to give Seward seven days to reply and to close the British Legation in Washington and return home if a satisfactory response was not forthcoming. In a further effort to defuse the situation, Russell added his own private note telling Lyons to meet with Seward and advised him of the contents of the official letter before it was actually delivered. Lyons was told that as long as the commissioners were released, the British would “be rather easy about the apology” and that an explanation sent through Adams would probably be satisfactory. He reiterated that the British would fight if necessary, and suggested that the “best thing would be if Seward could be turned out and a rational man put in his place.” The dispatches were shipped on December 1 via the Europa.
While military preparations were accelerated, diplomacy would be on hold for the rest of the month while Britain waited for the American response. There had been unrest in the British financial markets since the news of the Trent was first received. Consols, which had initially declined in value in the early part of the month, fell by another 2 percent, reaching the level during the first year of the Crimean war. Other securities fell another 4 to 5 percent. Railway stocks and colonial and foreign securities declined. The Times noted that the financial markets were reacting as if war were a certainty.
In the early deliberations over the appropriate British response to the capture of the diplomats, there was concern that Napoleon III would take advantage of a Union-British war to act against British interests in “Europe or elsewhere” French and British interests clashed in Indochina, in building the Suez Canal, in Italy, and in Mexico. Palmerston saw French stockpiling of coal in the West Indies as indicating they were preparing for war with England. The French navy remained smaller, but had otherwise shown itself equal to the British in the Crimean War. A possible buildup of ironclads by the French would present a clear threat in the English Channel.
The French quickly alleviated many of the British concerns. On November 28, with no knowledge of the British response or any input from Henri Mercier, Napoleon met with his cabinet. They had no doubts about the illegality of the United States’ actions and agreed to support whatever demands the British made. Thouvenel wrote to Count Charles de Flahault in London to inform the British of their decision. After learning of the actual content of the note, Thouvenel advised the British ambassador Henry Wellesley, Earl Cowley, that the demand had his complete approval, and on December 4 instructions were sent to Mercier to provide support for Lyons.
A minor stir occurred when General Winfield Scott, until recently the commander of all Union troops, and Thurlow Weed, a known confidant of Seward, arrived in Paris. Their mission, to counter Confederate propaganda efforts with propaganda efforts of their own, had been determined before the Trent affair, but the timing was considered odd by Cowley. Rumors circulated that Scott was blaming the whole incident on Seward who had somehow manipulated Lincoln into acquiescing with the seizure. Scott put the rumors to rest with a December 4 letter that was published in the Paris Constitutional and reprinted throughout Europe, including most London papers. Denying the rumors, Scott stated that “every instinct of prudence as well as of good neighborhood prompts our government to regard no honorable sacrifice too great for the preservation of the friendship of Great Britain.”
The benign intentions of the United States were also argued by John Bright and Richard Cobden, strong supporters of the United States and leaders of the Anti-Corn Law League in Britain. Both had expressed strong reservations about the legality of American actions, but argued strongly that the United States had no aggressive designs against Great Britain. Bright publicly disputed that the confrontation had been intentionally engineered by Washington. In an early December speech to his constituents, he condemned the British military preparations “before we have made a representation to the American Government, before we have heard a word from it in reply, [we] should be all up in arms, every sword leaping from its scabbard and every man looking about for his pistols and blunderbusses?” Cobden joined with Bright by speaking at public meetings and writing letters to newspapers, organizers of meetings that he could not attend, and influential people in and out of Britain. As time passed and voices opposing war were heard more and more, the Cabinet also began considering alternatives to war, including arbitration.
Even before the Civil War erupted, the British, with their worldwide interests, needed to have a military policy regarding the divided United States. In 1860 Sir Alexander Milne took over as British commander for the North America and West Indies station. On December 22, 1860, with secession still in its early stages, Milne’s orders were to avoid “any measure or demonstration likely to give umbrage to any party in the United States, or to bear the appearance of partizanship on either side; if the internal dissensions in those States should be carried to the extent of separation.” Until May 1861, in compliance with these instructions and as part of a long-standing policy of the British Navy to avoid ports where desertion was likely, Milne avoided the American coast. In May the Neutrality Proclamation of May 13 was issued. This increased British concern over the threat of Confederate privateers and Union blockade ships to British neutral rights, and Milne was reinforced. On June 1 British ports were closed to any naval prizes, a policy that was of great advantage to the Union. Milne did monitor the effectiveness of the Union blockade, but no effort to contest its effectiveness was ever attempted, and the monitoring was discontinued in November 1861.
Milne received a letter from Lyons on June 14 that said he did not “regard a sudden declaration of war against us by the United States as an event altogether impossible at any moment.” Milne warned his scattered forces, and in a June 27 letter to the Admiralty asked for further reinforcements and deplored the weakness of the defenses in the West Indies. Referring to Jamaica, Milne reported conditions that included, “works badly contrived and worse executed – unserviceable guns – decayed gun cartridges – corroded shot – the absence of stores of all kinds and of ammunition, with dilapidated and damp powder magazines. Milne made it clear that his existing forces were totally absorbed simply in protecting commerce and defending possessions, many inadequately. He had only a single ship available “for any special service that may be suddenly required.
On the land, at the end of March 1861, the British had 2,100 regular troops in Nova Scotia, 2,200 in the rest of Canada, and scattered posts in British Columbia, Bermuda, and the West Indies. Lieutenant General Sir William Fenwick Williams, commander of all British forces in North America did what he could with his small forces, but he wrote repeatedly to the authorities back in England that he needed considerable reinforcements in order to adequately prepare his defenses.
Some land reinforcements were sent in May and June. However when Palmerston, alarmed by the blockade and the Bunch affair, pressed for increasing the number of regular troops in Canada to 10,000, he met resistance. Sir George Cornwall Lewis, head of the War Office, questioned whether there was any real threat to Great Britain. He judged it “incredible that any Government of ordinary prudence should at a moment of civil war gratuitously increase the number of its enemies, and, moreover, incur the hostility of so formidable a power as England.” In the debate in parliament on June 21 there was general opposition to reinforcements, based on political, military, and economic arguments. A long standing issue was the attempt by Parliament to shift more of the burden on Canadian defense to the local government. Colonial secretary Newcastle, felt that the requests by Williams were part of a pattern of the “last few years” in which he had “been very fertile of demands and suggestions.” Newcastle was also concerned that there were no winter quarters available for additional troops and he feared desertions would be a serious problem.
Somerset, the First Lord of the Admiralty, opposed Palmerston’s inclination to reinforce Milne. He felt that the existing force made up largely of steam ships was superior to the primarily sail ships of the Union fleet, and he was reluctant to incur additional expenses while the British were in the process of rebuilding their fleet around iron ships. This resistance by Parliament and the cabinet led historian Kenneth Bourne to conclude, “When, therefore the news of the Trent outrage arrived in England the British were still not properly prepared for the war which almost everyone agreed was inevitable if the Union did not back down.”
From the beginning of the Trent crisis British leaders were aware that a viable military option was an essential part of defending the nation’s interests. The First Lord of the Admiralty believed Canada could not be defended from a serious attack by the US and winning it back later would be difficult and costly. Bourne noted, “After 1815 the ambiguity of Anglo-American relations, the parsimony of the house of commons [sic] and the enormous practical difficulties involved always seemed to have prevented adequate preparations being made for an Anglo-American war.” The Duke of Somerset suggested a naval war as opposed to a ground war.
British India represented the main source of the saltpeter used in Union gunpowder, and within hours of learning of the Trent Affair Russell initiated actions to halt the export of saltpeter. Military preparation began quickly after news of the Trent reached Great Britain. Secretary of War Sir George Cornewall Lewis proposed within a week to send “thirty thousand rifles, an artillery battery, and some officers to Canada.” He wrote to Palmerston on December 3, “I propose to engage a Cunard Steamer & send out one regiment & one battery of artillery next week” followed as quickly as possible by three more regiments and more artillery.
Russell was concerned that Lewis and Palmerston might take actions prematurely that would eliminate what chances for peace that there were, so he requested “a small committee …[to] assist Lewis, & the Duke of Somerset” with their war plans. The group was created and convened on December 9. The group consisted of Palmerston, Lewis, Somerset, Russell, Newcastle, Granville Leveson-Gower, 2nd Earl Granville (foreign secretary) and the Duke of Cambridge (commander-in-chief of the British Army), advised by Earl de Grey (Lewis’ undersecretary), Lord Seaton (a former commander-in-chief in Canada), General John Fox Burgoyne (the inspector general of fortifications) and Colonel PL MacDougall (the former commander of the Royal Canadian Rifles). The first priority of the committee was Canadian defense, and the committee relied on both plans developed by previous explorations of the issue and information that the committee developed on its own from the testimony of experts.
The current resources in Canada consisted of five thousand regular troops and about an equal number of “ill-trained” militia of which only one-fifth were organized. During December the British managed to send 11,000 troops using 18 transports and by the end of the month they were prepared to send an additional 28,400 men. By the end of December, as the crisis ended, reinforcements had raised the count to 924 officers and 17,658 men against an anticipated American invasion of from 50,000 to 200,000 troops.
In Canada, General Williams had toured the available forts and fortifications in November and December. Historian Gordon Warren wrote that Williams found that, “forts were either decaying or nonexistent, and the amount of necessary remedial work was stupefying.” On December 2, at Williams’ urging, the Canadian government agreed to raise its active volunteer force to 7,500. Canadian law provided for the Sedentary Militia, which consisted of all Canadian males between ages 16 and 50. Bourne said of the Sedentary Militia and the status of the Canadian militia:
Williams, on December 20 began training one company of 75 men from each battalion of the Sedentary Militia, about 38,000 men in total. Warren describes the Sedentary militia:
His task was not dissimilar to the one that the Union and Confederates had faced at the beginning of the Civil War. Canadian governor Charles Monck believed that by April he would be able to mobilize a total of 100,000 troops from this group (assuming Britain provided most of the arms), a target suggested by Newcastle with the expectation that major British troops would be available by then in Canada.
It was within the context of a generally unprepared Canadian military that military ground plans were formulated – plans contingent on troops that would not be available until spring 1862. Canada was not prepared for war with the United States. In the War Cabinet there had been disagreement between Macdougall, who believed that the North would suspend the war and turn its full attention to Canada, and Burgoyne, who believed the war would continue. Both agreed, however that Canada would face a major ground assault from the United States – an assault that both recognized would be difficult to oppose. The defense depended on “an extensive system of fortifications” and “seizing command of the lakes”. While Burgoyne stressed the natural tactical advantages of fighting on the defense out of strong fortifications, the fact was that the fortification plans previously made had never been executed. On the Great Lakes, both Canada and the United States had no naval assets to speak of in November. The British would be vulnerable here at least until the spring of 1862.
In order to counter their weaknesses to an American offensive, the idea of a Canadian invasion of the United States was proposed. It was hoped that a successful invasion would occupy Portland and large sections of Maine, requiring the United States to divert troops that would otherwise be occupied with an invasion of Canada directed at its east-west communication and transportation lines. Burgoyne, Seaton, and Macdougall all supported the plan and Lewis recommended it to Palmerston on December 3. However no preparations for this attack were ever made, and success depended on the attack being initiated at the very beginning of the war. Macdougall believed that “a strong party is believed to exist in Maine in favor of annexation to Canada” (a belief that Bourne characterizes as “dubious”), and that this party would assist a British invasion. The Admiralty hydrographer, Captain Washington, and Milne both felt that if such a party existed that it would be best to postpone an attack and wait until it became apparent that “the state was inclined to change masters.”
It should be noted that the Times reported different numbers regarding Canadian military preparedness than that described above. Rather than 38,000 unprepared militia, it stated that there was a Militia Army of ca. 66,615 militiamen and volunteers "quite equal in all these respects to any force the United States can bring against them" The Times also reported that by February 10, 1862 modern arms and equipment for 105,550 had arrived in Canada along with 20 million cartridges .
It was at sea that the British had their greatest strength and their greatest ability to bring the war to the United States if necessary. The Admiralty, on December 1, wrote to Russell that Milne “should give his particular attention to the measures that may be necessary for the protection of the valuable trade between America, the West Indies, and England.” However Somerset issued provisional orders to British naval units around the world to be prepared to attack American shipping wherever it might be found. The Cabinet was also agreed that establishing and maintaining a tight blockade was essential to British success.
In 1864 Milne wrote that his own plan was:
Regarding possible joint operations with the Confederacy, Somerset wrote to Milne on December 15:
Somerset was opposed to attacking heavily fortified positions and Milne concurred:
The British strongly believed that they had naval superiority over the Union. Although Union ships outnumbered Milne’s available force, many of the United States fleet was simply remodeled merchant ships, and the British had an advantage in the number of total guns available. Bourne suggested that this advantage could change during the war as both sides turned more to ironclads. In particular, British ironclads had a deeper draught and could not operate in American coastal waters, leaving a close blockade dependent on wood ships vulnerable to Union ironclads.
Of course, the military option was not needed. If it had been, Warren concluded that, “Britain’s world dominance of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries had vanished; the Royal Navy, although more powerful than ever, no longer ruled the waves.” Military historian Russell Weigley concurs in Warren’s analysis and adds:
In February 1862 Cambridge, the British Army commander-in-chief, provided a different analysis of British military reaction to the Trent affair:
In Washington, Lyons received the official response and his instructions on December 18. As instructed, Lyons met with Seward on December 19 and described the contents of the British response without actually delivering them. Seward was told that the British would expect a formal reply within seven days of Seward’s receipt of the official communication. At Seward’s request, Lyons gave him an unofficial copy of the British response which Seward immediately shared with Lincoln. On Saturday December 21 Lyons visited Seward to deliver the “British ultimatum”, but after further discussion they agreed that the formal delivery would be postponed for another two days. Lyons and Seward reached an agreement that the seven day deadline should not be considered as part of the official communication from the British government.
Charles Sumner, Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and a frequent consultant to President Lincoln on foreign relations, had recognized immediately that the United States must release Mason and Slidell, but he had remained publicly silent during the weeks of high excitement. Sumner had traveled in England and carried on regular correspondence with many political activists in Britain. In December he received particularly alarming letters from Richard Cobden and John Bright. Bright and Cobden discussed the preparations of the government for war and the widespread doubts, including their own, of the legality of Wilkes’ actions. The Duchess of Argyll, a strong antislavery advocate in Great Britain, wrote Sumner that the capture of the envoys “the maddest act that ever was done, and, unless the [United States] government intend to force us to war, utterly inconceivable.
Sumner took these letters to Lincoln, who had just learned of the official British demand. Sumner and Lincoln met daily over the next week and discussed the ramifications of a war with Great Britain. In a December 24 letter Sumner wrote that the concerns were over the British fleet breaking the blockade and establishing their own blockade, French recognition of the Confederacy and movement into Mexico and Latin America, and the post-war (assuming Confederate independence) widespread smuggling of British manufactures via the South that would cripple American manufacturing. Lincoln thought that he could meet directly with Lyons and “show him in five minutes that I am heartily for peace”, but Sumner persuaded him of the diplomatic impropriety of such a meeting. Both men ended up agreeing that arbitration might be the best solution, and Sumner was invited to attend a cabinet meeting scheduled for Christmas morning.
Relevant information from Europe flowed to Washington right up to the time of the cabinet meeting. On December 25 a letter written on December 6 by Adams was received in Washington. Adams wrote:
Also received at the same time were two messages from American consuls in Great Britain. From Manchester the news was that England was arming “with the greatest energy” and from London the message was that a “strong fleet” was being built with work going on around the clock, seven days a week. Thurlow Weed, who had moved from Paris to London in order to insure that General Scott’s letter was circulated, also sent a letter advising Seward that “such prompt and gigantic preparations were never known.”
With all of the negative news, the official response from France also arrived. Dayton had already advised Seward of his own meeting with Thouvenel in which the French foreign minister had told him that Wilkes’ actions were “a clear breach of international law” but that France would “remain a spectator in any war between the United States and England.” A direct message was received on Christmas from Thouvenel (it was actually delivered during the cabinet meeting) urging that the United States release the prisoners and in so doing affirm the rights of neutrals on the seas that France and the United States had repeatedly argued against Great Britain.
Seward had prepared a draft of his intended response to the British prior to the cabinet meeting and he was the only one present who had a detailed, organized position to present. His main point in the debate was that releasing the prisoners was consistent with the traditional American position on the right of neutrals, and the public would accept it as such. Both Chase and Attorney General Edward Bates were strongly influenced by the various messages from Europe, and Postmaster Montgomery Blair had been in favor of releasing the captives even before the meeting. Lincoln clung to arbitration but received no support, the primary objection being the time that would be involved and an impatient Britain. A decision was not made at the meeting and a new meeting was scheduled for the next day. Lincoln indicated he wished to prepare his own paper for this meeting. The next day Seward’s proposal to release the prisoners was accepted without dissent. The president did not submit a counter argument, indicating afterwards to Seward that he had found he was unable to draft a convincing rebuttal to Seward’s position.
Seward’s reply was “a long, highly political document.” Seward stated that Wilkes had acted on his own and denied allegations by the British that the seizure itself had been conducted in a discourteous and violent manner. The capture and search of the Trent was consistent with international law, and Wilkes’ only error was in failing to take the ‘‘Trent’’ to a port for judicial determination. The release of the prisoners was therefore required in order “to do to the British nation just what we have always insisted all nations ought to do to us.” Seward’s reply, in effect, accepted Wilkes’ treatment of the prisoners as contraband and also equated their capture with the British exercise of impressment of British citizens off of neutral ships.
Lyons was summonsed to Seward’s office on the 27th and presented with the response. Focusing on the release of the prisoners rather than Seward’s stated analysis of the situation, Lyons forwarded the message and decided to remain in Washington until further instructions were received. The news of the release was published by the 29th and the public response was generally positive. Among those opposed to the decision was Wilkes who characterized it “as a craven yielding and an abandonment of all the good … done by [their] capture.”
Mason and Slidell were released from Fort Warren where the HMS Rinaldo took them to St. Thomas where, on January 14, they left on the La Plata bound for Southampton, England. The news of their release reached Britain on January 8. The British accepted the news as a diplomatic victory. Palmerston noted that Seward’s response contained “many doctrines of international law” contrary to the British interpretation, and Russell wrote a detailed response to Seward contesting his legal interpretations, but, in fact, the crisis was over.
Historian Charles Hubbard describes the Confederate perspective to the resolution of the crisis:
The issue of diplomatic recognition of the Confederacy, however, remained alive. It was considered further throughout 1862 by the British and French governments within the context of formally extending an offer, difficult to refuse, for mediation of the war. As the war in America intensified and the bloody results of the Battle of Shiloh became known, the humanitarian reasons for European intervention seemed to have more merit. However the Emancipation Proclamation made it clear that the issue of slavery was now at the forefront of the war. At first the British reaction to the Battle of Antietam and the preliminary announcement of the Emancipation proclamation was that this would only create a slave rebellion within the South as the war itself became progressively more violent. Only in November 1862 did the momentum for European intervention reverse course.