The Trent Affair (1861)

The Trent Affair 

By Geoffrey Rothenberg

In the early stages of the Civil War, the Confederacy sent out diplomats to Europe in order to secure recognition and, more importantly, possible military aid.  The southern leadership was confident that European powers would quickly intervene because they believed that cotton would be too important for the supply to be cut off (Jones 84).  The importance of foreign intervention, or lack thereof, was widely recognized by both sides of the conflict.  Two of these envoys were James Mason and John Slidell.  They sailed on the Theodora from Charleston, SC to Nassau in the Bahamas, and eventually Havana.  From there they were to go to Britain, which was officially neutral, aboard the RMS Trent.

The USS San Jacinto was returning from Africa when Captain Charles Wilkes stopped in St. Thomas, in the Virgin Islands, learned that two Confederate envoys were in the area. He had been aware of the Civil War happening back in the US and was determined to seize this opportunity.  He followed the envoys, under no orders, to Havana and settled off the coast of Florida where the envoys had to travel through.  On November 8th he stopped the Trent, seized the envoys,  and let the ship continue to Britain.

When he arrived in Boston, envoys in tow, he was immediately praised immensely as a hero.  Dinners were held in his honor, Congress passed resolutions praising his bold actions.  Almost everyone, except for a cautious few, in the north celebrated the capture. The South was also happy, primarily because the though t that thisevent would lead to British intervention (Cohen 206).

People in Britain were incensed, however, that a Untied States warship would attack a neutral ship.  Further, that they would attacked a British ship.  The British government demanded that the envoys should be released immediately.  In order show how serious they were, troop reinforcements were sent to Canada and a fleet should war occur.  After deliberating on whether or not to release the prisoners, Abraham Lincoln and his cabinet decided that it was not worth it to go to war with Britain so they released Mason and Slidell.  In their reply, Secretary of State William Seward offered a flimsy defense of Wilkes’ actions in that the envoys were contraband and that Wilkes conducted the search according to proper standards (Cohen 213).

The problem with Wilkes’ capture of Mason and Slidell, was that he had violated international law.  He attacked a neutral ship and captured two passengers of the ship.  The Trent was not in American waters and Wilkes was acting independent of the blockade that the North had established.  This violated established maritime customs that all nations abided by (Jones 91).

That is the key issue that makes this incident important.  Throughout the war, the Union leadership, most notably Secretary of State William Seward, worked to keep Europe from recognizing the South and from intervening in the conflict.  Lincoln and Seward were especially concerned about Britain because of its naval power and because of colonial holdings in Canada. The British navy would have broken the blockade set up by the north, and could have then attack major cities such as New York and Boston along the coastline (Bourne 621).  That is why the North wanted Britain to stay out of the war and the Confederacy wanted Britain in the war.

In the end, Britain did not join the war.  There is doubt as to how close they were to attacking.  What mattered to the Union, though, was that they seemed serious enough.  Rhetoric on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean was inflamed. The Union was allowed to fight against the South without also fighting against Europe.  This was the closest Britain ever was to directly intervening in the American conflict.

As to the map itself, the main secondary source used is a journal article in the American Review of Historyby Charles Francis Adams.  Adams was the ambassador to Great Britain during the Civil War.  The article, written in 1912, first describes the events in the affair in detail and then captures the responses from the press and from some policymakers.  Adams includes excerpts of letters from Lord Palmerston, the Prime Minister of England at the time, discussing the British governments possible actions.

A second source is an article by Victoria Cohen for the Journal of Southern History.  The article is about Senator Charles Sumner (R-MA) and his role in the Affair.  The article goes into detail about the international law issues surrounding the affair. Sumner was called into help advise Lincoln’s decision.  The article contained Sumner’s correspondence with friends in london gauging the mood of each side.  Sumner’s initial stance was stance on the issue was that Wilkes’ capture of Mason and Slidell was legal, but then he changed his mind as time passed and that they should be released.

The third source is an article by Kenneth Bourne, writing in the English Historical Review.  The article details British military preparations in case of them joining the war.  The article offers a glimpse into how the British governement thought about going to war  The British sent troops to Canada in order to reinforce their holdings.  The British felt that they had to prepare for both an offensive and defensive war.  The defensive plans were there in case the North pre-emptivly attacked Canada.  The offensive plan was to send a fleet to break the Union blockade and attack the major cities.  The British admiral in charge, Admiral Milne thought that it would be necessary to cripple the North economically by destroying cities such as New York, Boston, and Philadelphia.  He seemed unwilling to do this because these cities were fortified and that commerce in London would suffer as well (Bourne 621-626).

The last source is Blue and Gray Diplomacy by Howard Jones.  The book gives an account of both the North’s and South’s efforts during this time.  The book provides details about the rhetoric each side employed and what they wanted to do policy wise.  The book also gives a good account of the decision-making involved on both sides.  Those were the sources used to complete this map.

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