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The Trent Affair

In 1861, the USS San Jacinto, commanded by Captain Charles Wilkes, intercepted the British mail packet, RMS Trent, and captured two Confederate diplomats, James Mason and John Slidell. The incident was a diplomatic incident of the first order.

Diplomacy

United States Naval Officer, Penny Illustrated News, 16 Nov. 1861, p. 85

At the outbreak of the Civil War, and lacking an industrial base, the Confederate government quickly identified the need to win material and diplomatic support from Britain and France.

In November 1861, the British mail packet RMS Trent, carrying the Confederate commissioners James M. Mason and John Slidell to London and Paris, was intercepted in the international waters of the Bahamas Canal by the US warship San Jacinto. Acting without official instructions, her commander, Captain Charles Wilkes, forcibly removed the commissioners and the secretaries, interning them at Fort Warren in Boston, and receiving wild acclaim in the North. The seizure of the men contravened earlier understandings of the laws of the sea; Wilkes counted the men as enemy contraband, designating them 'embodied dispatches'.

Britain drafted a sharp response, which although softened somewhat by Prince Albert, demanded the release of the men within seven days, otherwise war would be declared and the Confederacy diplomatically recognised.  Lord Palmerston convened a special cabinet committee to prepare for war, ordering reinforcements to Canada and to the British Navy in North American waters, and ceased the sale of saltpeter (vital for gunpowder) to foreign nations. The newspapers were full of talk of war.

Although the Atlantic cable had been laid it was not in operation, and both sides had to wait for news and orders to cross the ocean.  The British minister in Washington, D.C., however, delayed presenting the note, and alerted the Secretary of State, William H. Seward instead.  A diplomatic compromise was arranged and as popular feelings of indignation cooled, war between Britain and the Union was averted. Mason, Slidell and the other seized men were released by January 1862.

Find out more

  • Correspondence relative to the case of Messrs. Mason and Slidell
    ([S.l. : s.n, 1861?]) Mic.F.232 [no. 22897]
  • Warren, Gordon H. Fountain of Discontent: the Trent Affair and freedom of the seas (1981).

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