November and December 2021 mark the 160th anniversary of the Trent affair. Centered around Confederate diplomatic legitimacy, it caused controversy and embarrassment for the United States, the Confederacy, and United Kingdom, with some surprising winners and losers.
In the fall of 1861, Confederate President Jefferson Davis appointed James Mason and John Slidell as representatives to the United Kingdom and France respectively. They, along with Slidell’s family and two secretaries, escaped Charleston on the blockade runner Theodora, travelling to Nassau and Cuba, where they boarded the British Royal Mail Steamer Trent for passage to Europe.[i] Learning the Confederate plan, famed naval explorer Captain Charles Wilkes patrolled Trent’s anticipated route, intercepting the vessel on November 8, 1861.
Naval aspects of international law impacted things. Trent was British-flagged, carrying British mail and Confederate representatives. Diplomats were often exempt from capture, but the Confederacy remained unrecognized with only belligerent status granted by Queen Victoria. Whether the diplomats, or Trent itself, could be seized was the question. The general consensus internationally was that if Mason and Slidell were found on a foreign ship, that vessel could be seized and brought “to a port of the United States for adjudication by a Prize Court,” but US warships would “have no right” to seize only the commissioners, allowing the vessel they traveled on to freely “continue her voyage.”[ii]
Captain Wilkes ultimately bungled the legal fine line. His sailors boarded and temporarily detained Trent, but the mail steamer’s master refused to turn over passenger manifests or allow a search of the vessel. Mason, Slidell, and their aides and baggage, were identified and forcibly transferred, amid protests from Trent’s master, Slidell’s family, and the vessel’s mail agent – a Royal Navy officer.
There were Confederate diplomatic letters of instruction on Trent, but when Mason and Slidell were taken, those documents were hastily and secretly transferred to others. If Wilkes’ sailors had completed a search of Trent and found these, he would have had more justification in condemning and seizing the mail steamer. Instead, “no passports or papers” from the Confederate government were seized and Trent was allowed to go free because Wilkes did not wish to impede innocent passengers, nor did he have the manpower to safely operate both a seized Trent and his own San Jacinto.[iii] By failing to condemn and instead releasing Trent, Wilkes inherently acquiesced that Trent violated no international laws, and thus the Confederates taken were not subject to seizure either.
A firestorm erupted over Captain Wilkes’ actions. British legal scholars declared the removal of Mason and Slidell “illegal and unjustifiable,” while businessmen barked for war against the United States, hoping that Confederate recognition would provide guaranteed bolstering to the island nation’s textile mills.[iv]
While British politicians debated responses, military officers planned for potential war. Admiral Sir Alexander Milne’s naval squadron was directed to ensure “the safety of her Majesty’s possessions in North America,” and 10,000 regulars were dispatched to reinforce Canada.[v] British diplomats and military leaders even halted sending communiques across the isthmus of Panamá, lest the US-operated Panama Railroad Company seize them. The British War Secretary boasted his forces would “iron the smile” off the United States if war sparked.[vi]
As British outrage grew, Mason and Slidell were confined at Fort Warren, in Boston Harbor. Wilkes was praised for his “great public service” in stopping the Confederates, but many across the United States also speculated about war.[vii] It was a conflict neither side wanted. The US had its hands full with internal rebellion and the potential for a blockade of the Atlantic seaboard worried many, while UK leaders were wary of a costly and lengthy conflict risking their North American colonies and their advantages over a resurging France.
Britain officially condemned Charles Wilkes’ actions, demanding an apology. Thanks to efforts from Prince Albert, Queen Victoria’s dangerously ill husband, a door was left open for calming. Ambassador to Britain Charles F. Adams insisted Captain Wilkes’ action “was not done by the authority of the [US] government.”[viii] Prince Albert jumped at this opening, convincing British Foreign Secretary Earl Russell and Prime Minister Lord Palmerston that their official demand should include “the restoration” of Mason and Slidell “and a suitable apology” for Wilkes’ unauthorized actions.[ix] Abraham Lincoln and Secretary of State William Seward painstakingly debated the appropriate response. An apology would admit US guilt. The wrong response, or lack of one, could trigger war.
Lincoln and Seward used Prince Albert’s opening and ultimately decided on partial appeasement. Seward dispatched a letter to Britain, admitting Wilkes acted “without any direction or instruction,” acquiescing that he should have seized Trent for adjudication in a prize court, and ordering Mason and Slidell “cheerfully liberated.”[x] The letter however, did not include an official state apology. Not wishing to start an intercontinental war, Earl Russell and Prime Minister Palmerston acquiesced to the de facto apology in the release of the Confederate diplomats. Prince Albert never saw this easing of tensions, passing away twelve days before the US reply was written.
Claiming a diplomatic victory, James Mason and John Slidell reached Europe in early 1862, where they fought for Confederate recognition. At the insistence of Seward and Lincoln, Captain Wilkes was appointed to command the West India Squadron with the rank of acting rear admiral, possibly because of his handling of the Trent affair. Wilkes continued the trend of upsetting foreign powers in that capacity however, and was relieved in 1863 and court martialed into retirement a year later. William Seward continued as secretary of state for the remainder of Lincoln’s administration, as well as that of Andrew Johnson. Earl Russell rose to become Britain’s Prime Minister, replacing Lord Palmerston after that leader’s death.
The Trent affair was the closest the UK and US came to blows during the Civil War. It was a conflict neither party wanted and the question of Confederate diplomats was ultimately resolved with US and British leaders dodging potential conflict. Many point to it as a major what-if of the Civil War, and a British declaration of war could have had major repercussions. Instead, it fizzled out, especially considering Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation a year later guaranteed Britain would never ally itself with the Confederacy. For the British, honor was satisfied enough to prove their empire could flex its muscles against foreign challenges. For the United States, it successfully de-escalated potential war with the world’s premier naval power while simultaneously defending the Monroe Doctrine’s claim of US hegemony of the Americas. The ultimate loser in the Trent affair was the Confederacy. Even though their commissioners were released, a political victory that demonstrated their quasi-legitimacy, neither convinced foreign governments to recognize the fledgling country.
[i] Slidell, Mason, Eustis, and Macfarland to Wilkes, November 9, 1861, Letters Received by the Secretary of the Navy from Captains [Captain’s Letters], 1805-61, 1866-85, M125, RG 260, US National Archives.
[ii] The Law Offices of the Crown to Earl Russell, November 12, 1861, James P. Baxter, ed., “Papers Relating to Belligerent and Neutral Rights, 1861-1865”, The American Historical Review, Vol. 34, No. 1 (Oct 1928), 85.
[iii] Wilkes to Welles, November 15, 1861 and Fairfax to Wilkes, November 11, 1861, Captain’s Letters.
[iv] The Law Offices of the Crown to Earl Russell, November 28, 1861, Baxter, ed., “Papers Relating to Belligerent and Neutral Rights, 1861-1865”, 86.
[v] Earl Russell to the Lords Commissioners of the Admiralty, November 30, 1861, Official Records of the Union and Confederate Navies in the War of the Rebellion [ORN] (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1880-1901), Series 1, Volume 1, 161; Trevor Cox, The American Civil War and the British Imperial Dilemma, Ph.D. Thesis, University of Wolverhampton, UK, January 2015, 111-112.
[vi] Lewis to Twisleton, December 5, 1861, Gilbert Frankland Lewis, ed., Letters of the Right Hon. Sir George Cornewall Lewis, Bart. To Various Friends (London: Longman’s, Green, and Co., 1870), 406; Bedford Pim, The Gate of the Pacific (London: Lovell Reeve & Co., 1863), 6.
[vii] Welles to Wilkes, November 30, 1861, ORN, Series 1, Volume 1, 148.
[viii] Charles Francis Adams diary, December 1, 1861, Adams Family Papers, Massachusetts Historical Society, Boston, MA.
[ix] Queen Victoria to Earl Russell, December 1, 1861, Arthur Christopher Benson and Viscount Esher, eds., The Letters of Queen Victoria: A Selection of Her Majesty’s Correspondence Between the Years 1857 and 1861, Vol. 3 (London: John Murray, 1911), 470.; Norman B. Ferris, “The Prince Consort, ‘The Times,’ and the ‘Trent’ Affair”, Civil War History, Vol. 6, No. 2 (June 1960), 153.
[x] Seward to Lord Lyons, December 26, 1861, ORN, Series 1, Volume 1, 179, 187.