On this day in 1861, the captain of the USS San Jacinto fires shots at a British mail steamer, the RMS Trent. He seizes two Confederate emissaries who were aboard.
The so-called “Trent Affair” nearly provoked a war between the United States and Great Britain.
Can you imagine? What if Union forces had been at war with the Confederacy and Great Britain simultaneously? Abraham Lincoln certainly did not want that! He is reported to have simply stated: “One war at a time.”
The seeds for the Trent Affair had been sown months earlier. The Confederate government was trying to obtain help from either Great Britain or France. Indeed, Confederate emissaries had been present in Europe since the outbreak of the Civil War. Unfortunately for the South, these diplomats were failing. At the end of the summer of 1861, two new diplomats were dispatched to Europe: James Mason and John Slidell.
The two men managed to get around a Union blockade and made their way to Cuba. Once there, they boarded the Trent. They hoped to cross the Atlantic safely aboard a British ship.
Union Captain Charles Wilkes had different ideas. He was then returning from a voyage around the African coast, and he knew that Mason and Slidell’s escape from the American blockade had embarrassed the U.S. Navy. Wilkes heard that the Confederate emissaries had found passage aboard the Trent.
Could he capture the Confederate diplomats and save face for the U.S. Navy? He certainly intended to try!
Wilkes found the British ship, fired shots across its bow, sent a search party aboard, and removed the Confederate diplomats. His claim to legality was rather weak:
“There was no doubt I had the right to capture a vessel with written despatches . . . if the captain of the vessel had knowledge of their being on board,” he later wrote. “But these gentlemen were not despatches in the literal sense . . . . I then considered them as the embodiment of despatches, and it therefore became my duty to arrest their progress and capture them . . . .”
Americans in the North were ecstatic. But, on the other side of the Atlantic, British citizens were furious! Wilkes’s action was an affront to British sovereignty and a violation of international law! The British sent a demand to the U.S. government: The Confederate captives must be released immediately. In the meantime, the British began moving troops toward Canada in anticipation of war.
Fortunately, several factors ensured that cooler heads would prevail:
First, dispatches and letters between America and Great Britain were necessarily slow, given the slow communications of the day. The multi-week delays provided time for emotions to subside.
Second, Prince Albert, the consort of Queen Victoria, intervened from his death bed. He softened the language of early communications from England. Importantly, language was added expressing the hope that Wilkes had acted without authorization from the U.S. government.
Finally, British India was an important source of saltpeter for the Union. Saltpeter was a critical ingredient in gunpowder. Clearly, Lincoln and Secretary of State William H. Seward could not endanger their supply of gunpowder.
Ultimately, Seward wrote a long letter that averted the crisis. He conceded that Wilkes had violated international law, but he saved face for the U.S. by noting that Wilkes had acted without instructions. He indicated his willingness to release Mason and Slidell.
Both sides were really relieved to avoid a war! Perhaps unsurprisingly, then, the Trent Affair actually strengthened U.S.-British relations and left the Confederacy out in the cold.