Trent affair

Trent affair

Overview
The Trent Affair, also known as the Mason and Slidell Affair, was an international diplomatic incident that occurred during the American Civil War
American Civil War
The American Civil War was a civil war fought in the United States of America. In response to the election of Abraham Lincoln as President of the United States, 11 southern slave states declared their secession from the United States and formed the Confederate States of America ; the other 25...

. On November 8, 1861, the USS
San Jacinto
USS San Jacinto (1850)
The first USS San Jacinto was an early screw frigate in the United States Navy during the mid-19th century. She was named for the San Jacinto River, site of the Battle of San Jacinto during the Texas Revolution. She is perhaps best known for her role in the Trent Affair of 1861.San Jacinto was laid...

, commanded by Union
Union (American Civil War)
During the American Civil War, the Union was a name used to refer to the federal government of the United States, which was supported by the twenty free states and five border slave states. It was opposed by 11 southern slave states that had declared a secession to join together to form the...

 Captain Charles Wilkes
Charles Wilkes
Charles Wilkes was an American naval officer and explorer. He led the United States Exploring Expedition, 1838-1842 and commanded the ship in the Trent Affair during the American Civil War...

, intercepted the British mail packet
Packet ship
A "packet ship" was originally a vessel employed to carry post office mail packets to and from British embassies, colonies and outposts. In sea transport, a packet service is a regular, scheduled service, carrying freight and passengers...

 RMS
Trent
RMS Trent
RMS Trent was a British Royal Mail paddle steamer built in 1841 by William Pitcher of Northfleet for the Royal Mail Steam Packet Company. She measured 1,856 gross tons and could carry 60 passengers....

 and removed, as contraband of war, two Confederate diplomats, James Mason and John Slidell
John Slidell
John Slidell was an American politician, lawyer and businessman. A native of New York, Slidell moved to Louisiana as a young man and became a staunch defender of southern rights as a U.S. Representative and Senator...

. The envoys were bound for Great Britain
United Kingdom
The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern IrelandIn the United Kingdom and Dependencies, other languages have been officially recognised as legitimate autochthonous languages under the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages...

 and France
France
The French Republic , The French Republic , The French Republic , (commonly known as France , is a unitary semi-presidential republic in Western Europe with several overseas territories and islands located on other continents and in the Indian, Pacific, and Atlantic oceans. Metropolitan France...

 to press the Confederacy’s case for diplomatic recognition
Diplomatic recognition
Diplomatic recognition in international law is a unilateral political act with domestic and international legal consequences, whereby a state acknowledges an act or status of another state or government in control of a state...

 by Europe.

The initial reaction in the United States
United States
The United States of America is a federal constitutional republic comprising fifty states and a federal district...

 was to rally against Britain, threatening war; but President Abraham Lincoln
Abraham Lincoln
Abraham Lincoln was the 16th President of the United States, serving from March 1861 until his assassination in April 1865. He successfully led his country through a great constitutional, military and moral crisis – the American Civil War – preserving the Union, while ending slavery, and...

 and his top advisors did not want to risk war.
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Encyclopedia
The Trent Affair, also known as the Mason and Slidell Affair, was an international diplomatic incident that occurred during the American Civil War
American Civil War
The American Civil War was a civil war fought in the United States of America. In response to the election of Abraham Lincoln as President of the United States, 11 southern slave states declared their secession from the United States and formed the Confederate States of America ; the other 25...

. On November 8, 1861, the USS
San Jacinto
USS San Jacinto (1850)
The first USS San Jacinto was an early screw frigate in the United States Navy during the mid-19th century. She was named for the San Jacinto River, site of the Battle of San Jacinto during the Texas Revolution. She is perhaps best known for her role in the Trent Affair of 1861.San Jacinto was laid...

, commanded by Union
Union (American Civil War)
During the American Civil War, the Union was a name used to refer to the federal government of the United States, which was supported by the twenty free states and five border slave states. It was opposed by 11 southern slave states that had declared a secession to join together to form the...

 Captain Charles Wilkes
Charles Wilkes
Charles Wilkes was an American naval officer and explorer. He led the United States Exploring Expedition, 1838-1842 and commanded the ship in the Trent Affair during the American Civil War...

, intercepted the British mail packet
Packet ship
A "packet ship" was originally a vessel employed to carry post office mail packets to and from British embassies, colonies and outposts. In sea transport, a packet service is a regular, scheduled service, carrying freight and passengers...

 RMS
Trent
RMS Trent
RMS Trent was a British Royal Mail paddle steamer built in 1841 by William Pitcher of Northfleet for the Royal Mail Steam Packet Company. She measured 1,856 gross tons and could carry 60 passengers....

 and removed, as contraband of war, two Confederate diplomats, James Mason and John Slidell
John Slidell
John Slidell was an American politician, lawyer and businessman. A native of New York, Slidell moved to Louisiana as a young man and became a staunch defender of southern rights as a U.S. Representative and Senator...

. The envoys were bound for Great Britain
United Kingdom
The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern IrelandIn the United Kingdom and Dependencies, other languages have been officially recognised as legitimate autochthonous languages under the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages...

 and France
France
The French Republic , The French Republic , The French Republic , (commonly known as France , is a unitary semi-presidential republic in Western Europe with several overseas territories and islands located on other continents and in the Indian, Pacific, and Atlantic oceans. Metropolitan France...

 to press the Confederacy’s case for diplomatic recognition
Diplomatic recognition
Diplomatic recognition in international law is a unilateral political act with domestic and international legal consequences, whereby a state acknowledges an act or status of another state or government in control of a state...

 by Europe.

The initial reaction in the United States
United States
The United States of America is a federal constitutional republic comprising fifty states and a federal district...

 was to rally against Britain, threatening war; but President Abraham Lincoln
Abraham Lincoln
Abraham Lincoln was the 16th President of the United States, serving from March 1861 until his assassination in April 1865. He successfully led his country through a great constitutional, military and moral crisis – the American Civil War – preserving the Union, while ending slavery, and...

 and his top advisors did not want to risk war. In the Confederate States
Confederate States of America
The Confederate States of America was a government set up from 1861 to 1865 by 11 Southern slave states of the United States of America that had declared their secession from the U.S...

, the hope was that the incident would lead to a permanent rupture in Anglo-American relations and even diplomatic recognition by Britain of the Confederacy. Confederates realized their independence potentially depended on a war between Britain and the U.S. In Britain, the public expressed outrage at this violation of neutral rights and 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
British North America
British North America is a historical term. It consisted of the colonies and territories of the British Empire in continental North America after the end of the American Revolutionary War and the recognition of American independence in 1783.At the start of the Revolutionary War in 1775 the British...

 and the Atlantic.

After several weeks of tension and loose talk of war, the crisis was resolved when the Lincoln administration released the envoys and disavowed Captain Wilkes's actions. No formal apology was issued. Mason and Slidell resumed their voyage to Britain but failed in their goal of achieving diplomatic recognition.

General background


The Confederacy and its president, Jefferson Davis
Jefferson Davis
Jefferson Finis Davis , also known as Jeff Davis, was an American statesman and leader of the Confederacy during the American Civil War, serving as President for its entire history. He was born in Kentucky to Samuel and Jane 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:

The Union’s main focus in foreign affairs was just the opposite: to prevent any British recognition of the South. There had been continuous improvement in Anglo-American relations throughout the 1850s. The issues of the Oregon territory
Oregon boundary dispute
The Oregon boundary dispute, or the Oregon Question, arose as a result of competing British and American claims to the Pacific Northwest of North America in the first half of the 19th century. Both the United Kingdom and the United States had territorial and commercial aspirations in the region...

, British involvement in Texas
Texas
Texas is the second largest U.S. state by both area and population, and the largest state by area in the contiguous United States.The name, based on the Caddo word "Tejas" meaning "friends" or "allies", was applied by the Spanish to the Caddo themselves and to the region of their settlement in...

, and the Canadian border dispute had all been resolved in the 1840s. Secretary of State
United States Secretary of State
The United States Secretary of State is the head of the United States Department of State, concerned with foreign affairs. The Secretary is a member of the Cabinet and the highest-ranking cabinet secretary both in line of succession and order of precedence...

 William H. Seward
William H. Seward
William Henry Seward, Sr. was the 12th Governor of New York, United States Senator and the United States Secretary of State under Abraham Lincoln and Andrew Johnson...

, 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 the Western hemisphere.

British Prime Minister Lord Palmerston urged a policy of neutrality. His international concerns were centered in Europe, where he had to watch both Napoleon III
Napoleon III of France
Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte was the President of the French Second Republic and as Napoleon III, the ruler of the Second French Empire. He was the nephew and heir of Napoleon I, christened as Charles Louis Napoléon Bonaparte...

’s ambitions in Europe and Bismarck
Otto von Bismarck
Otto Eduard Leopold, Prince of Bismarck, Duke of Lauenburg , simply known as Otto von Bismarck, was a Prussian-German statesman whose actions unified Germany, made it a major player in world affairs, and created a balance of power that kept Europe at peace after 1871.As Minister President of...

’s rise in Prussia
Prussia
Prussia was a German kingdom and historic state originating out of the Duchy of Prussia and the Margraviate of Brandenburg. For centuries, the House of Hohenzollern ruled Prussia, successfully expanding its size by way of an unusually well-organized and effective army. Prussia shaped the history...

. 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
Central America
Central America is the central geographic region of the Americas. It is the southernmost, isthmian portion of the North American continent, which connects with South America on the southeast. When considered part of the unified continental model, it is considered a subcontinent...

. As a naval power, Britain had a long record of insisting that neutral nations honor (abide by) its blockades of hostile countries, a perspective that led from the earliest days of the war to de facto support for the Union blockade and frustration in the South.

The Russian Minister in Washington, Eduard de Stoeckl
Eduard de Stoeckl
Eduard Andreevich Stoeckl was a Russian diplomat best known today for having negotiated the American purchase of Alaska on behalf of the Russian government. He was son of Andreas von Stoeckl, Austrian diplomat in Constantinople, and Maria Pisani, daughter of Nicolas Pisani, Russian dragoman in...

, 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 Britain would recognize the Confederate States at its earliest opportunity. Cassius Clay, the U.S. 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 U.S. minister to the Court of St. James was Charles Francis Adams
Charles Francis Adams, Sr.
Charles Francis Adams, Sr. was an American lawyer, politician, diplomat and writer. He was the grandson of President John Adams and Abigail Adams and the son of President John Quincy Adams and Louisa Adams....

. He made clear that Washington considered 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
Richard Lyons, 1st Viscount Lyons
Richard Bickerton Pemell Lyons, 1st Viscount Lyons, GCB, GCMG, PC, DCL was an eminent British diplomat.-Biography:...

, an experienced diplomat, was the British minister to the U.S. He warned London 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.

Issue of diplomatic recognition (February–August 1861)



The
Trent affair did not erupt as a major crisis until late November 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
William Lowndes Yancey
William Lowndes Yancey was a journalist, politician, orator, diplomat and an American leader of the Southern secession movement. A member of the group known as the Fire-Eaters, Yancey was one of the most effective agitators for secession and rhetorical defenders of slavery. An early critic of...

, Pierre Rost
Pierre Adolphe Rost
Pierre Adolphe Rost was a Louisiana politician, diplomat, lawyer, judge, and plantation owner.- Early Life and Emigration to the United States :...

, and Ambrose Dudley Mann
Ambrose Dudley Mann
Ambrose Dudley Mann was the first United States Assistant Secretary of State and a commissioner for the Confederate States....

. Their instructions from Confederate Secretary of State Robert Toombs
Robert Toombs
Robert Augustus Toombs was an American political leader, United States Senator from Georgia, 1st Secretary of State of the Confederacy, and a Confederate general in the Civil War.-Early life:...

 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.” Toombs' instructions included a long legal argument on states’ rights and the right of secession. Because of the reliance on the double attack of cotton and legality, many important issues were absent from the instructions including the blockade of Southern ports, privateering, trade with the North, slavery, and the informal blockade the Southerners had imposed whereby no cotton was being shipped out.

British leaders—and those on the Continent—generally believed that division of the U.S. was inevitable. They considered Union efforts to resist a fait accompli to be unreasonable, but they also had to accept Union resistance as a fact that they had to deal with. Believing the war’s outcome to be predetermined, the British saw any action they could take to encourage the end of the war as a humanitarian gesture. Lyons was instructed by Russell to use his own office and any other parties who might promote a settlement of the war.

The commissioners met informally with Foreign Secretary Lord Russell
John Russell, 1st Earl Russell
John Russell, 1st Earl Russell, KG, GCMG, PC , known as Lord John Russell before 1861, was an English Whig and Liberal politician who served twice as Prime Minister of the United Kingdom in the mid-19th century....

 on May 3. Although word of Fort Sumter
Battle of Fort Sumter
The Battle of Fort Sumter was the bombardment and surrender of Fort Sumter, near Charleston, South Carolina, that started the American Civil War. Following declarations of secession by seven Southern states, South Carolina demanded that the U.S. Army abandon its facilities in Charleston Harbor. On...

 had just reached London, 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 discussed only when Russell asked Yancey whether the international slave trade
Atlantic slave trade
The Atlantic slave trade, also known as the trans-atlantic slave trade, refers to the trade in slaves that took place across the Atlantic ocean from the sixteenth through to the nineteenth centuries...

 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 was noncommittal, promising the matters raised would be discussed with the full Cabinet.

In the mean time, the British were attempting to determine what official stance they should have to the war. On May 13, 1861, on the recommendation of Russell, Queen Victoria
Victoria of the United Kingdom
Victoria was the monarch of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland from 20 June 1837 until her death. From 1 May 1876, she used the additional title of Empress of India....

 issued a declaration of neutrality that served as recognition of Southern belligerency
Belligerent
A belligerent is an individual, group, country or other entity which acts in a hostile manner, such as engaging in combat. Belligerent comes from Latin, literally meaning "to wage war"...

—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 purchase 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 declaration 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 by 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 Britain was 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 to restrict the Confederate use of privateers.

However, on May 18 Russell had instructed Lyons to seek Confederate agreement to abide by the Paris Declaration. Lyons assigned this task to Robert Bunch, the British consul in Charleston, South Carolina
Charleston, South Carolina
Charleston is the second largest city in the U.S. state of South Carolina. It was made the county seat of Charleston County in 1901 when Charleston County was founded. The city's original name was Charles Towne in 1670, and it moved to its present location from a location on the west bank of the...

, who was directed to contact South Carolina
South Carolina
South Carolina is a state in the Deep South of the United States that borders Georgia to the south, North Carolina to the north, and the Atlantic Ocean to the east. Originally part of the Province of Carolina, the Province of South Carolina was one of the 13 colonies that declared independence...

 Governor Pickens
Francis Wilkinson Pickens
Francis Wilkinson Pickens was an American lawyer and politician who served as the 69th Governor of South Carolina when the state seceded from the United States during the American Civil War.-Early life and career:...

. Bunch exceeded his instructions: he bypassed Pickens, and openly assured the Confederates that agreement to the Paris Declaration was "the first step to [British] recognition." His indiscretion soon came to Union ears. Robert Mure, a British-born Charleston merchant, was arrested in New York
New York
New York is a state in the Northeastern region of the United States. It is the nation's third most populous state. New York is bordered by New Jersey and Pennsylvania to the south, and by Connecticut, Massachusetts and Vermont to the east...

. Mure, a colonel in the South Carolina militia, had a British diplomatic passport issued by Bunch, and was carrying a British diplomatic pouch. The pouch contained some actual correspondence from Bunch to Britain, and also pro-Confederate pamphlets, personal letters from Southerners to European correspondents, and a Confederate dispatch which recounted Bunch's dealings with the Confederacy, including the talk of recognition.

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. He did demand Bunch's recall, but Russell refused.

Under Napoleon III, France's overall foreign policy objectives were at odds with Britain's, but France generally took positions regarding the Civil War combatants similar to, and often supportive of, Britain's. Cooperation between Britain and France was begun in the U.S. between Mercier, the French minister, 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 him not to expect diplomatic recognition.

William L. Dayton
William L. Dayton
William Lewis Dayton was an American politician.A distant relation of U.S. House Speaker and U.S. Constitution signatory Jonathan Dayton, he was born in Basking Ridge, New Jersey to farmer Joel Dayton and his wife...

 of New Jersey was appointed by Lincoln as U.S. minister to France. He had no foreign affairs experience and did not speak French, but was assisted a great deal by the U.S. consul general in Paris
Paris
Paris is the capital and largest city in France, situated on the river Seine, in northern France, at the heart of the Île-de-France region...

, John Bigelow
John Bigelow
John Bigelow was an American lawyer and statesman.-Life:Born in Malden-on-Hudson, New York, John Bigelow, Sr.graduated from Union College in 1835 where he was a member of the Sigma Phi Society and the Philomathean Society, and was admitted to the bar in 1838...

. 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 victory at the First Battle of Bull Run
First Battle of Bull Run
First Battle of Bull Run, also known as First Manassas , was fought on July 21, 1861, in Prince William County, Virginia, near the City of Manassas...

 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 Davis had decided that he needed diplomats in Britain and France better suited to serve as Confederate ministers once diplomatic recognition was granted. His choices were John Slidell
John Slidell
John Slidell was an American politician, lawyer and businessman. A native of New York, Slidell moved to Louisiana as a young man and became a staunch defender of southern rights as a U.S. Representative and Senator...

 of Louisiana
Louisiana
Louisiana is a state located in the southern region of the United States of America. Its capital is Baton Rouge and largest city is New Orleans. Louisiana is the only state in the U.S. with political subdivisions termed parishes, which are local governments equivalent to counties...

 and James Mason of Virginia
Virginia
The Commonwealth of Virginia , is a U.S. state on the Atlantic Coast of the Southern United States. Virginia is nicknamed the "Old Dominion" and sometimes the "Mother of Presidents" after the eight U.S. presidents born there...

. 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
James K. Polk
James Knox Polk was the 11th President of the United States . Polk was born in Mecklenburg County, North Carolina. He later lived in and represented Tennessee. A Democrat, Polk served as the 17th Speaker of the House of Representatives and the 12th Governor of Tennessee...

 at the end of the Mexican War
Mexican–American War
The Mexican–American War, also known as the First American Intervention, the Mexican War, or the U.S.–Mexican War, was an armed conflict between the United States and Mexico from 1846 to 1848 in the wake of the 1845 U.S...

, and Mason had been chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee from 1847 to 1860.

R. M. T. Hunter
Robert Mercer Taliaferro Hunter
-References:* Patrick, Rembert W. . Jefferson Davis and His Cabinet. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press. pp. 90–101.-External links:* – A speech by R. M. T. Hunter before the U.S. House of Representatives, May 8th, 1846...

 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
Maryland
Maryland is a U.S. state located in the Mid Atlantic region of the United States, bordering Virginia, West Virginia, and the District of Columbia to its south and west; Pennsylvania to its north; and Delaware to its east...

, Missouri
Missouri
Missouri is a US state located in the Midwestern United States, bordered by Iowa, Illinois, Kentucky, Tennessee, Arkansas, Oklahoma, Kansas and Nebraska. With a 2010 population of 5,988,927, Missouri is the 18th most populous state in the nation and the fifth most populous in the Midwest. It...

, and Kentucky
Kentucky
The Commonwealth of Kentucky is a state located in the East Central United States of America. As classified by the United States Census Bureau, Kentucky is a Southern state, more specifically in the East South Central region. Kentucky is one of four U.S. states constituted as a commonwealth...

 would also eventually join the new nation. An independent Confederacy would restrict the industrial and maritime ambitions of the United States 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 United States’ territorial ambitions would be restricted. They were to liken the Confederate situation to Italy
Italy
Italy , officially the Italian Republic languages]] under the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages. In each of these, Italy's official name is as follows:;;;;;;;;), is a unitary parliamentary republic in South-Central Europe. To the north it borders France, Switzerland, Austria and...

’s struggles for independence which Britain had supported, 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 Union blockade. Along with their formal written instructions, Mason and Slidell carried a number of documents supporting their positions.

Pursuit and capture (August–November 1861)


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, South Carolina
Charleston, South Carolina
Charleston is the second largest city in the U.S. state of South Carolina. It was made the county seat of Charleston County in 1901 when Charleston County was founded. The city's original name was Charles Towne in 1670, and it moved to its present location from a location on the west bank of the...

. Their original plan was to run the blockade in CSS Nashville
CSS Nashville (1861)
Originally a United States Mail Service ship, the USMS Nashville, was a brig-rigged, side-paddle-wheel passenger steamer built at Greenpoint, Brooklyn in 1853. Between 1853 and 1861 she was engaged in running between New York City and Charleston, South Carolina...

, a fast steamer, and sail directly to Britain. But the main channel into Charleston was guarded by five Union ships, and
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
Mexico
The United Mexican States , commonly known as Mexico , is a federal constitutional republic in North America. It is bordered on the north by the United States; on the south and west by the Pacific Ocean; on the southeast by Guatemala, Belize, and the Caribbean Sea; and on the east by the Gulf of...

 and departure from Matamoros
Matamoros, Tamaulipas
Matamoros, officially known as Heroica Matamoros, is a city in the northeastern part of Tamaulipas, in the country of Mexico. It is located on the southern bank of the Rio Grande, directly across the border from Brownsville, Texas, in the United States. Matamoros is the second largest and second...

 was also considered, but the delay of several months was unacceptable.

The steamer
Gordon was suggested as an alternative. She had a shallow enough draught to use the back channels and could make over 12 knots, more than enough to elude Union pursuit. The Gordon was offered to the Confederate government 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 1 A.M. on October 12, and successfully evaded Union ships enforcing the blockade. On the 14th, she arrived at Nassau
Nassau, Bahamas
Nassau is the capital, largest city, and commercial centre of the Commonwealth of the Bahamas. The city has a population of 248,948 , 70 percent of the entire population of The Bahamas...

 in the Bahamas, but had missed connections with a British steamer going to St. Thomas
Saint Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands
Saint Thomas is an island in the Caribbean Sea and with the islands of Saint John, Saint Croix, and Water Island a county and constituent district of the United States Virgin Islands , an unincorporated territory of the United States. Located on the island is the territorial capital and port of...

 in the Danish West Indies
Danish West Indies
The Danish West Indies or "Danish Antilles", were a colony of Denmark-Norway and later Denmark in the Caribbean. They were sold to the United States in 1916 in the Treaty of the Danish West Indies and became the United States Virgin Islands in 1917...

, the main point of departure for British ships from the Caribbean
Caribbean
The Caribbean is a crescent-shaped group of islands more than 2,000 miles long separating the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean Sea, to the west and south, from the Atlantic Ocean, to the east and north...

 to Britain. However, they discovered that British mail ships might be anchored in Spanish Cuba
Cuba
The Republic of Cuba is an island nation in the Caribbean. The nation of Cuba consists of the main island of Cuba, the Isla de la Juventud, and several archipelagos. Havana is the largest city in Cuba and the country's capital. Santiago de Cuba is the second largest city...

, and the Theodora turned southwest towards Cuba. The Theodora appeared off the coast of Cuba on October 15, with its coal bunkers nearly empty. An approaching Spanish
Spain
Spain , officially the Kingdom of Spain languages]] under the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages. In each of these, Spain's official name is as follows:;;;;;;), is a country and member state of the European Union located in southwestern Europe on the Iberian Peninsula...

 warship hailed the
Theodora. Slidell and George Eustis, Jr. went aboard, and were informed that British mail packets did indeed dock at the port of Havana
Havana
Havana is the capital city, province, major port, and leading commercial centre of Cuba. The city proper has a population of 2.1 million inhabitants, and it spans a total of — making it the largest city in the Caribbean region, and the most populous...

, but that the last one had just left, and that the next one, the paddle steamer
Paddle steamer
A paddle steamer is a steamship or riverboat, powered by a steam engine, using paddle wheels to propel it through the water. In antiquity, Paddle wheelers followed the development of poles, oars and sails, where the first uses were wheelers driven by animals or humans...

 RMS
Trent
RMS Trent
RMS Trent was a British Royal Mail paddle steamer built in 1841 by William Pitcher of Northfleet for the Royal Mail Steam Packet Company. She measured 1,856 gross tons and could carry 60 passengers....

, would arrive in three weeks. The
Theodora docked in Cárdenas, Cuba on October 16, and Mason and Slidell disembarked. The two diplomats decided to stay in Cardenas before making an overland trek to Havana to catch the next British ship.

Meanwhile, rumors reached the Federal government that Mason and Slidell had escaped aboard the
Nashville. U.S. Navy Secretary Gideon Welles
Gideon Welles
Gideon Welles was the United States Secretary of the Navy from 1861 to 1869. His buildup of the Navy to successfully execute blockades of Southern ports was a key component of Northern victory of the Civil War...

 reacted to the rumor that Mason and Slidell had escaped from Charleston by ordering Admiral Samuel F. DuPont to dispatch a fast warship to Britain to intercept the
Nashville. On October 15, the heavily armed Union sidewheel steamer USS James Adger began steaming towards Europe with orders to pursue the Nashville to the English Channel
English Channel
The English Channel , often referred to simply as the Channel, is an arm of the Atlantic Ocean that separates southern England from northern France, and joins the North Sea to the Atlantic. It is about long and varies in width from at its widest to in the Strait of Dover...

 if necessary. The
James Adger reached Britain and docked in Southampton Harbor in early November.

The Union steam frigate USS
San Jacinto
USS San Jacinto (1850)
The first USS San Jacinto was an early screw frigate in the United States Navy during the mid-19th century. She was named for the San Jacinto River, site of the Battle of San Jacinto during the Texas Revolution. She is perhaps best known for her role in the Trent Affair of 1861.San Jacinto was laid...

, commanded by Captain Charles Wilkes
Charles Wilkes
Charles Wilkes was an American naval officer and explorer. He led the United States Exploring Expedition, 1838-1842 and commanded the ship in the Trent Affair during the American Civil War...

, arrived in St. Thomas on October 13. The
San Jacinto had cruised off the Africa
Africa
Africa is the world's second largest and second most populous continent, after Asia. At about 30.2 million km² including adjacent islands, it covers 6% of the Earth's total surface area and 20.4% of the total land area...

n coast for nearly a month before setting course westward with orders were to join a U.S. Navy force preparing to attack Port Royal, South Carolina
Port Royal, South Carolina
Port Royal is a town in Beaufort County, South Carolina, United States. Largely because of annexation of surrounding areas , the population of Port Royal rose from 3,950 in 2000 to 10,678 in 2010, a 170% increase. As defined by the U.S...

. However in St. Thomas, Wilkes learned that the Confederate raider CSS
Sumter
CSS Sumter
CSS Sumter, a 473-ton bark-rigged screw steam cruiser, was built as the merchant steamship Habana at Philadelphia in 1859 for McConnell's New Orleans & Havana Line. Purchased by the Confederate Government at New Orleans in April 1861, she was converted to a cruiser and placed under the command of...

 had captured three U.S. merchant ships near Cienfuegos
Cienfuegos
Cienfuegos is a city on the southern coast of Cuba, capital of Cienfuegos Province. It is located about from Havana, and has a population of 150,000. The city is dubbed La Perla del Sur...

 in July. Wilkes headed there, despite the unlikelihood that
Sumter would have remained in the area. In Cienfuegos he learned from a newspaper that Mason and Slidell were scheduled to leave Havana on November 7 in the British mail packet RMS Trent
RMS Trent
RMS Trent was a British Royal Mail paddle steamer built in 1841 by William Pitcher of Northfleet for the Royal Mail Steam Packet Company. She measured 1,856 gross tons and could carry 60 passengers....

, bound first for St. Thomas and then England. He realized that the ship would need to use the “narrow Bahama Channel
Old Bahama Channel
The Old Bahama Channel is a strait off the northern coast of Cuba and the Sabana-Camagüey Archipelago and south of the Great Bahama Bank. It is approximately long and wide....

, 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
Donald Fairfax
Donald MacNeil Fairfax was an officer in the United States Navy during the American Civil War.The son of George William Fairfax, and Isabella McNeill, grandson of Ferdinando Fairfax, and great-grandson of Bryan Fairfax, he was born at the family seat of Mount Eagle, Virginia. Fairfax entered the...

, 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
United States Exploring Expedition
The United States Exploring Expedition was an exploring and surveying expedition of the Pacific Ocean and surrounding lands conducted by the United States from 1838 to 1842. The original appointed commanding officer was Commodore Thomas ap Catesby Jones. The voyage was authorized by Congress in...

 he court-martialed nearly all his officers; he alone was right, everybody else was wrong.”

The Trent left on November 7 as scheduled, with Mason, Slidell, their secretaries, and Slidell’s wife and children aboard. Just as Wilkes had predicted, the Trent passed through Bahama Channel, where the San Jacinto was waiting. Around noon on November 8, lookouts aboard the San Jacinto spotted Trent, which unfurled the Union Jack as it neared. The San Jacinto then fired a shot across the Trents bow, which Captain James Moir of the Trent ignored. The San Jacintos forward pivot gun fired a shot which landed right in front of the Trent. The Trent stopped following the second shot. Lieutenant Fairfax was summoned to the quarterdeck, where Wilkes presented him with the following written instructions:
Fairfax then boarded the Trent from a cutter. Two cutters carrying a party of twenty men armed with pistols and cutlasses sidled up to the Trent. Fairfax, certain that Wilkes was creating an international incident and not wanting to enlarge its scope, ordered his armed escort to remain in the cutter. Upon boarding, Fairfax was escorted to an outraged Captain Moir, and announced that he had orders "to arrest Mr. Mason and Mr. Slidell and their secretaries, and send them prisoners on board the United States war vessel nearby". The crew and passengers then threatened Lieutenant Fairfax, and the armed party in the two cutters beside the Trent responded to the threats by climbing aboard to protect him. 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, arguably an act of war. Mason and Slidell made a formal refusal to go voluntarily with Fairfax, but did not resist when Fairfax's crewmen escorted 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 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 RN
Royal Navy
The Royal Navy is the naval warfare service branch of the British Armed Forces. Founded in the 16th century, it is the oldest service branch and is known as the Senior Service...

, a passenger on Trent, and later delivered to the Confederate envoys in London. This was a clear violation of the Queen's Neutrality Proclamation.

International law required that when “contraband” was discovered on a ship, the ship should be taken to the nearest prize court for adjudication. While this was Wilkes’ initial determination, Fairfax argued against this since transferring crew from San Jacinto to Trent would leave San Jacinto dangerously undermanned, and it would seriously inconvenience Trents other passengers as well as mail recipients. Wilkes, whose ultimate responsibility it was, agreed and the ship was allowed to proceed to St. Thomas, absent the two Confederate envoys and their secretaries.

San Jacinto arrived in Hampton Roads
Hampton Roads
Hampton Roads is the name for both a body of water and the Norfolk–Virginia Beach metropolitan area which surrounds it in southeastern Virginia, United States...

, Virginia on November 15, where Wilkes wired news of the capture to Washington. He was then ordered to Boston
Boston
Boston is the capital of and largest city in Massachusetts, and is one of the oldest cities in the United States. The largest city in New England, Boston is regarded as the unofficial "Capital of New England" for its economic and cultural impact on the entire New England region. The city proper had...

 where he delivered the captives to Fort Warren
Fort Warren (Massachusetts)
Fort Warren is a historic fort on the Georges Island at the entrance to Boston Harbor. The fort is pentagonal, made with stone and granite, and was constructed from 1833–1861, completed shortly after the beginning of the American Civil War...

, a prison for captured Confederates.

American reaction (November 16–December 18, 1861)


Most Northerners learned of the
Trent capture on November 16 when the news hit afternoon newspapers. By Monday, November 18, 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.” Caleb Cushing
Caleb Cushing
Caleb Cushing was an American diplomat who served as a U.S. Congressman from Massachusetts and Attorney General under President Franklin Pierce.-Early life:...

, a prominent Democrat, and former Attorney General
United States Attorney General
The United States Attorney General is the head of the United States Department of Justice concerned with legal affairs and is the chief law enforcement officer of the United States government. The attorney general is considered to be the chief lawyer of the U.S. government...

 (under Franklin Pierce
Franklin Pierce
Franklin Pierce was the 14th President of the United States and is the only President from New Hampshire. Pierce was a Democrat and a "doughface" who served in the U.S. House of Representatives and the Senate. Pierce took part in the Mexican-American War and became a brigadier general in the Army...

) 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.
Richard Henry Dana, Jr.
Richard Henry Dana Jr. was an American lawyer and politician from Massachusetts, a descendant of an eminent colonial family who gained renown as the author of the American classic, the memoir Two Years Before the Mast...

, 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
Edward Everett
Edward Everett was an American politician and educator from Massachusetts. Everett, a Whig, served as U.S. Representative, and U.S. Senator, the 15th Governor of Massachusetts, Minister to Great Britain, and United States Secretary of State...

, 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
Revere House
Revere House was an upscale hotel in 19th-century Boston, Massachusetts, located on Bowdoin Square in the West End. Fire destroyed the building in 1912.-Brief history:...

 in Boston on November 26. Massachusetts
Massachusetts
The Commonwealth of Massachusetts is a state in the New England region of the northeastern United States of America. It is bordered by Rhode Island and Connecticut to the south, New York to the west, and Vermont and New Hampshire to the north; at its east lies the Atlantic Ocean. As of the 2010...

 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.”

But as the matter was given closer study, people began to have doubts. Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles
Gideon Welles
Gideon Welles was the United States Secretary of the Navy from 1861 to 1869. His buildup of the Navy to successfully execute blockades of Southern ports was a key component of Northern victory of the Civil War...

 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
Thurlow Weed
Thurlow Weed was a New York newspaper publisher, politician, and party boss. He was the principal political advisor to the prominent New York politician William H...

’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 practices that the United States had always opposed since its founding and which had previously led to the War of 1812
War of 1812
The War of 1812 was a military conflict fought between the forces of the United States of America and those of the British Empire. The Americans declared war in 1812 for several reasons, including trade restrictions because of Britain's ongoing war with France, impressment of American merchant...

 with Britain. 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. Elder statesmen James Buchanan
James Buchanan
James Buchanan, Jr. was the 15th President of the United States . He is the only president from Pennsylvania, the only president who remained a lifelong bachelor and the last to be born in the 18th century....

, Thomas Ewing
Thomas Ewing
Thomas Ewing, Sr. was a National Republican and Whig politician from Ohio. He served in the U.S. Senate as well as serving as the Secretary of the Treasury and the first Secretary of the Interior.-Biography:...

, Lewis Cass
Lewis Cass
Lewis Cass was an American military officer and politician. During his long political career, Cass served as a governor of the Michigan Territory, an American ambassador, a U.S. Senator representing Michigan, and co-founder as well as first Masonic Grand Master of the Grand Lodge of Michigan...

, and Robert J. Walker
Robert J. Walker
Robert John Walker was an American economist and statesman.- Early life and education :Born in Northumberland, Pennsylvania, the son of a judge. He lived in Bellefonte, Pennsylvania from 1806 to 1814, where his father was presiding judge of the judicial district. Walker was educated at the...

 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 U.S. 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
Alexander Tilloch Galt
Sir Alexander Tilloch Galt, GCMG, PC was a politician and a father of Canadian Confederation.He was born in Chelsea, England, the son of Scottish novelist and colonizer, John Galt, and Elizabeth Tilloch Galt. He was a cousin of Sir Hugh Allan.Alexander Galt is interred in the Mount Royal Cemetery...

, 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
United States Secretary of War
The Secretary of War was a member of the United States President's Cabinet, beginning with George Washington's administration. A similar position, called either "Secretary at War" or "Secretary of War," was appointed to serve the Congress of the Confederation under the Articles of Confederation...

 Simon Cameron
Simon Cameron
Simon Cameron was an American politician who served as United States Secretary of War for Abraham Lincoln at the start of the American Civil War. After making his fortune in railways and banking, he turned to a life of politics. He became a U.S. senator in 1845 for the state of Pennsylvania,...

 that the U.S. 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 a role: Treasury Secretary
United States Secretary of the Treasury
The Secretary of the Treasury of the United States is the head of the United States Department of the Treasury, which is concerned with financial and monetary matters, and, until 2003, also with some issues of national security and defense. This position in the Federal Government of the United...

 Salmon P. Chase
Salmon P. Chase
Salmon Portland Chase was an American politician and jurist who served as U.S. Senator from Ohio and the 23rd Governor of Ohio; as U.S. Treasury Secretary under President Abraham Lincoln; and as the sixth Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court.Chase was one of the most prominent members...

 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
Hard money (policy)
Hard money policies are those which are opposed to fiat currency and thus in support of a specie standard, usually gold or silver, typically implemented with representative money....

 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 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
United States Senate
The United States Senate is the upper house of the bicameral legislature of the United States, and together with the United States House of Representatives comprises the United States Congress. The composition and powers of the Senate are established in Article One of the U.S. Constitution. Each...

 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 threat of 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 U.S. 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.

British reaction (November 27-December 31, 1861)


Union intelligence had not immediately recognized that Mason and Slidell had left Charleston on Theodora rather than Nashville. Navy Secretary Welles ordered Commander John B. Marchand of USS James Adger to intercept Nashville as she approached Britain 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 Nashville. Palmerston ordered a warship to patrol within the three mile limit around Nashvilles expected port of call, to assure that any capture would occur outside British territorial waters. This would avoid the diplomatic crisis that would result if James Adger pursued Nashville into British waters. When Nashville arrived on November 21, the British were surprised that the envoys were not on board.

Marchand arrived in Southampton
Southampton
Southampton is the largest city in the county of Hampshire on the south coast of England, and is situated south-west of London and north-west of Portsmouth. Southampton is a major port and the closest city to the New Forest...

 soon after the Nashville and learned from The Times
The Times
The Times is a British daily national newspaper, first published in London in 1785 under the title The Daily Universal Register . The Times and its sister paper The Sunday Times are published by Times Newspapers Limited, a subsidiary since 1981 of News International...

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 Office 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 Adger 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
London
London is the capital city of :England and the :United Kingdom, the largest metropolitan area in the United Kingdom, and the largest urban zone in the European Union by most measures. Located on the River Thames, London has been a major settlement for two millennia, its history going back to its...

 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:
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
Flush toilet
A flush toilet is a toilet that disposes of human waste by using water to flush it through a drainpipe to another location. Flushing mechanisms are found more often on western toilets , but many squat toilets also are made for automated flushing...

.”

The Times published its first report from the United States on December 4, and its correspondent, W. H. Russell
William Howard Russell
William Howard Russell was an Irish reporter with The Times, and is considered to have been one of the first modern war correspondents, after he spent 22 months covering the Crimean War including the Charge of the Light Brigade.-Career:As a young reporter, Russell reported on a brief military...

, 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.” Times editor John T. Delane, however, took 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
Admiralty
The Admiralty was formerly the authority in the Kingdom of England, and later in the United Kingdom, responsible for the command of the Royal Navy...

 and the prime minister. Initial reaction among political leaders was firmly opposed to the American actions. Lord Clarendon
George Villiers, 4th Earl of Clarendon
George William Frederick Villiers, 4th Earl of Clarendon KG, GCB, PC , was an English diplomat and statesman.-Background and education:...

, 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 should be put on hold. Russell met briefly with Adams on November 29 to determine whether he could shed any light on American intent. 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 reportedly began the emergency cabinet meeting by 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
Typhoid fever
Typhoid fever, also known as Typhoid, is a common worldwide bacterial disease, transmitted by the ingestion of food or water contaminated with the feces of an infected person, which contain the bacterium Salmonella enterica, serovar Typhi...

 that would shortly take his life, Albert read through the dispatches, decided the ultimatum was too belligerent, and composed a softened version. 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 advise 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
Consols
Consol is a form of British government bond , dating originally from the 18th century. The first consols were originally issued in 1751...

, 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
Crimean War
The Crimean War was a conflict fought between the Russian Empire and an alliance of the French Empire, the British Empire, the Ottoman Empire, and the Kingdom of Sardinia. The war was part of a long-running contest between the major European powers for influence over territories of the declining...

. 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
Indochina
The Indochinese peninsula, is a region in Southeast Asia. It lies roughly southwest of China, and east of India. The name has its origins in the French, Indochine, as a combination of the names of "China" and "India", and was adopted when French colonizers in Vietnam began expanding their territory...

, in building the Suez Canal
Suez Canal
The Suez Canal , also known by the nickname "The Highway to India", is an artificial sea-level waterway in Egypt, connecting the Mediterranean Sea and the Red Sea. Opened in November 1869 after 10 years of construction work, it allows water transportation between Europe and Asia without navigation...

, in Italy, and in Mexico. Palmerston saw French stockpiling of coal
Coal
Coal is a combustible black or brownish-black sedimentary rock usually occurring in rock strata in layers or veins called coal beds or coal seams. The harder forms, such as anthracite coal, can be regarded as metamorphic rock because of later exposure to elevated temperature and pressure...

 in the West Indies as indicating France was preparing for war with Britain. The French navy remained smaller, but had otherwise shown itself equal to the British navy in the Crimean War. A possible buildup of ironclad
Ironclad warship
An ironclad was a steam-propelled warship in the early part of the second half of the 19th century, protected by iron or steel armor plates. The ironclad was developed as a result of the vulnerability of wooden warships to explosive or incendiary shells. The first ironclad battleship, La Gloire,...

s by the French would present a clear threat in the English Channel
English Channel
The English Channel , often referred to simply as the Channel, is an arm of the Atlantic Ocean that separates southern England from northern France, and joins the North Sea to the Atlantic. It is about long and varies in width from at its widest to in the Strait of Dover...

.

France quickly alleviated many of Britain's concerns. On November 28, with no knowledge of the British response or any input from Mercier in the U.S., Napoleon met with his cabinet. They had no doubts about the illegality of the U.S. actions and agreed to support whatever demands Britain made. Thouvenel wrote to Count Charles de Flahault in London to inform Britain of their decision. After learning of the actual content of the British note, Thouvenel advised the British ambassador Lord Cowley
Henry Wellesley, 1st Earl Cowley
Henry Richard Charles Wellesley, 1st Earl Cowley KG GCB PC , known as The Lord Cowley between 1847 and 1857, was a British diplomat...

, that the demand had his complete approval, and on December 4 instructions were sent to Mercier to support Lyons.

A minor stir occurred when General Winfield Scott
Winfield Scott
Winfield Scott was a United States Army general, and unsuccessful presidential candidate of the Whig Party in 1852....

, until recently the commander of all Union troops, and Thurlow Weed
Thurlow Weed
Thurlow Weed was a New York newspaper publisher, politician, and party boss. He was the principal political advisor to the prominent New York politician William H...

, 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
John Bright
John Bright , Quaker, was a British Radical and Liberal statesman, associated with Richard Cobden in the formation of the Anti-Corn Law League. He was one of the greatest orators of his generation, and a strong critic of British foreign policy...

 and Richard Cobden
Richard Cobden
Richard Cobden was a British manufacturer and Radical and Liberal statesman, associated with John Bright in the formation of the Anti-Corn Law League as well as with the Cobden-Chevalier Treaty...

, strong supporters of the United States and leaders of the Anti-Corn Law League
Anti-Corn Law League
The Anti-Corn Law League was in effect the resumption of the Anti-Corn Law Association, which had been created in London in 1836 but did not obtain widespread popularity. The Anti-Corn Law League was founded in Manchester in 1838...

 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 by 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.

Military preparations (December 1860-December 1861)


Even before the Civil War erupted, Britain, with her worldwide interests, needed to have a military policy regarding the divided United States. In 1860 Rear Admiral
Rear Admiral (Royal Navy)
Rear Admiral is a flag officer rank of the British Royal Navy. It is immediately superior to Commodore and is subordinate to Vice Admiral. It is a two-star rank and has a NATO ranking code of OF-7....

 Sir Alexander Milne
Sir Alexander Milne, 1st Baronet
Admiral of the Fleet Sir Alexander Milne, 1st Baronet, GCB was a Royal Navy admiral, the second son of the Scot Admiral Sir David Milne, and the younger brother of the advocate, geologist and meteorologist David Milne-Home.-Naval career:He entered the Royal Naval Academy, 8 February 1817...

 took command of the North America and West Indies station of the Royal Navy. 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 Royal 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 blockading 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, Britain had 2,100 regular troops in Nova Scotia
Nova Scotia
Nova Scotia is one of Canada's three Maritime provinces and is the most populous province in Atlantic Canada. The name of the province is Latin for "New Scotland," but "Nova Scotia" is the recognized, English-language name of the province. The provincial capital is Halifax. Nova Scotia is the...

, 2,200 in the rest of Canada, and scattered posts in British Columbia
British Columbia
British Columbia is the westernmost of Canada's provinces and is known for its natural beauty, as reflected in its Latin motto, Splendor sine occasu . Its name was chosen by Queen Victoria in 1858...

, Bermuda
Bermuda
Bermuda is a British overseas territory in the North Atlantic Ocean. Located off the east coast of the United States, its nearest landmass is Cape Hatteras, North Carolina, about to the west-northwest. It is about south of Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada, and northeast of Miami, Florida...

, and the West Indies. Lieutenant General Sir William Fenwick Williams, Commander in Chief, North America, did what he could with his small forces, but he wrote repeatedly to the authorities back in Britain that he needed considerable reinforcements to prepare his defenses adequately.

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
Henry Pelham-Clinton, 5th Duke of Newcastle-under-Lyne
Henry Pelham Pelham-Clinton, 5th Duke of Newcastle-under-Lyne KG, PC , styled Earl of Lincoln before 1851, was a British politician.-Background:...

, 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.

Lord Somerset
Edward Seymour, 12th Duke of Somerset
Sir Edward Adolphus Seymour , 12th Duke of Somerset, etc. KG, PC , styled Baron Seymour until 1855, was a British Whig aristocrat and politician, who served in various cabinet positions in the mid-19th century...

, 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 Britain was in the process of rebuilding her fleet with 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 U.S. 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.” Somerset suggested a naval war as opposed to a ground war.

British India
India
India , officially the Republic of India , is a country in South Asia. It is the seventh-largest country by geographical area, the second-most populous country with over 1.2 billion people, and the most populous democracy in the world...

 was the main source of the saltpeter
Potassium nitrate
Potassium nitrate is a chemical compound with the formula KNO3. It is an ionic salt of potassium ions K+ and nitrate ions NO3−.It occurs as a mineral niter and is a natural solid source of nitrogen. Its common names include saltpetre , from medieval Latin sal petræ: "stone salt" or possibly "Salt...

 used in Union gunpowder
Gunpowder
Gunpowder, also known since in the late 19th century as black powder, was the first chemical explosive and the only one known until the mid 1800s. It is a mixture of sulfur, charcoal, and potassium nitrate - with the sulfur and charcoal acting as fuels, while the saltpeter works as an oxidizer...

. Within hours of learning of the Trent Affair Russell moved to halt the export of saltpeter. Military preparation began quickly after news of the Trent reached Great Britain. Secretary of War Sir George Lewis proposed within a week to send “thirty thousand rifles, an artillery battery, and some officers to Canada.” He wrote to Lord Palmerston on December 3, “I propose to engage a Cunard
Cunard Line
Cunard Line is a British-American owned shipping company based at Carnival House in Southampton, England and operated by Carnival UK. It has been a leading operator of passenger ships on the North Atlantic for over a century...

 Steamer & send out one regiment & one battery of artillery next week” followed as quickly as possible by three more regiments and more artillery. Given that realities of the North Atlantic in winter, however, the reinforcements would have to land in Nova Scotia, since the St. Lawrence begins to ice up in December.

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, Lord Granville
Granville Leveson-Gower, 2nd Earl Granville
Granville George Leveson Gower, 2nd Earl Granville KG, PC FRS , styled Lord Leveson until 1846, was a British Liberal statesman...

 (foreign secretary) and the Duke of Cambridge
Prince George, Duke of Cambridge
Prince George, Duke of Cambridge was a member of the British Royal Family, a male-line grandson of King George III. The Duke was an army officer and served as commander-in-chief of the British Army from 1856 to 1895...

 (commander-in-chief of the British Army), advised by Earl de Grey
George Robinson, 1st Marquess of Ripon
George Frederick Samuel Robinson, 1st Marquess of Ripon KG, GCSI, CIE, PC , known as Viscount Goderich from 1833 to 1859 and as the Earl de Grey and Ripon from 1859 to 1871, was a British politician who served in every Liberal cabinet from 1861 until his death forty-eight years later.-Background...

 (Lewis’ undersecretary), Lord Seaton
John Colborne, 1st Baron Seaton
Field Marshal John Colborne, 1st Baron Seaton, GCB, GCMG, GCH, PC was a British field marshal and colonial governor.-Early service:...

 (a former commander-in-chief in Canada), General John Fox Burgoyne
John Fox Burgoyne
Field Marshal Sir John Fox Burgoyne, 1st Baronet GCB was a British Army officer.-Military career:Burgoyne was the illegitimate son of General John Burgoyne and opera singer Susan Caulfield. In 1798, he was commissioned into the Royal Engineers as a Second Lieutenant...

 (the inspector general of fortifications) and Colonel P. L. 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 transport ships 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 substantial 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 Union 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
Great Lakes
The Great Lakes are a collection of freshwater lakes located in northeastern North America, on the Canada – United States border. Consisting of Lakes Superior, Michigan, Huron, Erie, and Ontario, they form the largest group of freshwater lakes on Earth by total surface, coming in second by volume...

, 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
Portland, Maine
Portland is the largest city in Maine and is the county seat of Cumberland County. The 2010 city population was 66,194, growing 3 percent since the census of 2000...

 and large sections of Maine
Maine
Maine is a state in the New England region of the northeastern United States, bordered by the Atlantic Ocean to the east and south, New Hampshire to the west, and the Canadian provinces of Quebec to the northwest and New Brunswick to the northeast. Maine is both the northernmost and easternmost...

, requiring the U.S. 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
Hydrography
Hydrography is the measurement of the depths, the tides and currents of a body of water and establishment of the sea, river or lake bed topography and morphology. Normally and historically for the purpose of charting a body of water for the safe navigation of shipping...

, 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 from those described above. Rather than 38,000 unprepared militia, it stated that there was a Militia Army of circa 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.

Putting aside whatever volunteer and militia battalions might have been mobilized in British North America (i.e, the Province of Canada, equivalent to the southern third of modern-day Ontario and Quebec, and the colonies of New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island, and Newfoundland, which did not include much of modern Newfoundland's territory on Labrador), in 1862 (none were mobilized in 1861), the reality is that Britain's effective order of battle in the theater amounted to the following:
1860 - four infantry battalions, four batteries of garrison artillery; July, 1861 reinforcement - three infantry battalions, one field artillery battery, and personnel to bring the existing garrisons' units to strength; "Trent affair" reinforcement - eight infantry battalions, five batteries of field artillery, eight batteries of garrison artillery, three companies of engineers, various service and support elements, and the headquarters staff; the grand total in British North America by New Year's amounted to 14 infantry battalions (elements of one battalion and part of the headquarters staff were unable to land in Nova Scotia because of the North Atlantic winter; the staff officers involved had to land in Boston and travel overland to Montreal via the U.S.); six batteries of field artillery; 12 of garrison artillery; and three of engineers, plus the various headquarters, service, and support elements.

Of the above, five infantry battalions, three field artillery batteries, and six garrison artillery batteries moved by sea from Halifax, Nova Scotia, to St. John, New Brunswick, then overland by sleigh from St. John to Riviere du Loup, Province of Canada, between Jan. 1, 1852 and March 13, 1862. The 10-day-long overland passage, and the railway from Riviere du Loup to Ville du Quebec, was within a day's march of the border (in some locations, the overland trail was almost within rifle shot from U.S. territory in Maine), so the British staff planned on deploying infantry to defend the road, if necessary. Including the units sent overland and the British forces already in the Province of Canada, British field forces in the province would have amounted to nine infantry battalions and four field artillery batteries by mid-March, 1862, aa force equivalent to three brigades (ie, one division), with the equivalent of two more split between New Brunswick and Nova Scotia. .

As a point of comparison, the United States had begun its mobilization in April, 1861, with the first call for 75,000 short-service volunteers (3 months); the subsequent call for 500,000 long-service volunteers (24-36 months) came in July, 1861. By Dec. 31, 1861, U.S. forces amounting to 425,000 were listed as "present for duty" with their units in the Official Records; another 52,000 were listed variously as: present but detached for temporary “extra or daily” duty; sick; or under arrest. . These troops were organized into regiments, brigades, and divisions, with divisions made up of three brigades (each of 3-4 infantry battalions) and a divisional artillery battalion of 3-4 batteries each. The divisions had been organized in 1861 (the first, Banks' Division of the Army of the Potomac, as early as July) and by January, included 13 such formations in the Army of the Potomac; two in Western Virginia; one (Burnside's) in Maryland; one (Sherman's) in South Carolina; five more in the Army of the Ohio; and one each in Missouri and Tennessee, for a total of 24; this total does not include multiple separate brigade-level formations, much less units in garrison at various fortifications and other posts from Maine to California. Additional divisions were organized in 1862; the organizational orders of battle are listed throughout the U.S. Official Records and sources derived from them, including Dyer.

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 were 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 wooden 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:

Resolution (December 17, 1861-January 14, 1862)


On December 17, Adams received Seward’s November 30 dispatch stating that Wilkes acted without orders, and Adams immediately told Russell. Russell was encouraged by the news, but deferred any action until a formal response to the British communication was received. The note was not released to the public, but rumors were published by the press of the Union intent. Russell refused to confirm the information, and John Bright later asked in Parliament, “How came it that this dispatch was never published for the information of the people of this country?”

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.

Senator Charles Sumner
Charles Sumner
Charles Sumner was an American politician and senator from Massachusetts. An academic lawyer and a powerful orator, Sumner was the leader of the antislavery forces in Massachusetts and a leader of the Radical Republicans in the United States Senate during the American Civil War and Reconstruction,...

, 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
Elizabeth Campbell, Duchess of Argyll
Lady Elizabeth Georgiana Leveson-Gower CI VA was the eldest daughter of the 2nd Duke of Sutherland by his wife Harriet Elizabeth Georgiana Howard. She was married on the 31 July 1844 to George Douglas Campbell, Marquess of Lorne, the eldest son of the 7th Duke 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
Latin America
Latin America is a region of the Americas where Romance languages  – particularly Spanish and Portuguese, and variably French – are primarily spoken. Latin America has an area of approximately 21,069,500 km² , almost 3.9% of the Earth's surface or 14.1% of its land surface area...

, 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:
Two messages from American consuls in Great Britain were also received at the same time. From Manchester the news was that Britain 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 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 told 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
Edward Bates
Edward Bates was a U.S. lawyer and statesman. He served as United States Attorney General under Abraham Lincoln from 1861 to 1864...

 were strongly influenced by the various messages from Europe, and Postmaster Montgomery Blair
Montgomery Blair
Montgomery Blair , the son of Francis Preston Blair, elder brother of Francis Preston Blair, Jr. and cousin of B. Gratz Brown, was a politician and lawyer from Maryland...

 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. No decision was 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. Lincoln 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 Trent was consistent with international law, and Wilkes’ only error was in failing to take 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 summoned to Seward’s office on December 27 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 December 29 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 and boarded the Royal Navy
Royal Navy
The Royal Navy is the naval warfare service branch of the British Armed Forces. Founded in the 16th century, it is the oldest service branch and is known as the Senior Service...

 screw sloop
Screw sloop
A screw sloop is a propeller-driven sloop-of-war. In the 19th century, during the introduction of the steam engine, ships driven by propellers were differentiated from those driven by paddle-wheels by referring to the ship's screws...

 HMS Rinaldo at Provincetown, Massachusetts
Provincetown, Massachusetts
Provincetown is a New England town located at the extreme tip of Cape Cod in Barnstable County, Massachusetts, United States. The population was 3,431 at the 2000 census, with an estimated 2007 population of 3,174...

. The Rinaldo took them to St. Thomas; on January 14, they left on the British mail packet La Plata bound for Southampton. 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.

Aftermath


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
Battle of Shiloh
The Battle of Shiloh, also known as the Battle of Pittsburg Landing, was a major battle in the Western Theater of the American Civil War, fought April 6–7, 1862, in southwestern Tennessee. A Union army under Maj. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant had moved via the Tennessee River deep into Tennessee and...

 became known, the humanitarian reasons for European intervention seemed to have more merit. However the Emancipation Proclamation
Emancipation Proclamation
The Emancipation Proclamation is an executive order issued by United States President Abraham Lincoln on January 1, 1863, during the American Civil War using his war powers. It proclaimed the freedom of 3.1 million of the nation's 4 million slaves, and immediately freed 50,000 of them, with nearly...

 announced in September, 1862, 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
Battle of Antietam
The Battle of Antietam , fought on September 17, 1862, near Sharpsburg, Maryland, and Antietam Creek, as part of the Maryland Campaign, was the first major battle in the American Civil War to take place on Northern soil. It was the bloodiest single-day battle in American history, with about 23,000...

 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.

General sources

  • Bourne, Kenneth. British Preparations for War with the North, 1861-1862. The English Historical Review Vol 76 No 301 (Oct 1961) pp 600–632 in JSTOR
  • Campbell, W.E., The Trent Affair of 1861. The (Canadian) Army Doctrine and Training Bulletin. Vol. 2, No. 4, Winter 1999 pp 56-65
  • Moody, John Sheldon, et al. "The war of the rebellion: a compilation of the official records of the Union and Confederate armies. ; Series 3 - Volume 1; United States. War Dept., pp. 775
  • Donald, David Herbert, Baker, Jean Harvey, and Holt, Michael F. The Civil War and Reconstruction. (2001) ISBN 0-393-97427-8
  • Goodwin, Doris Kearns. Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln. (2005) ISBN 978-0-684-82490-1
  • Fairfax, D. Macneil
    Donald Fairfax
    Donald MacNeil Fairfax was an officer in the United States Navy during the American Civil War.The son of George William Fairfax, and Isabella McNeill, grandson of Ferdinando Fairfax, and great-grandson of Bryan Fairfax, he was born at the family seat of Mount Eagle, Virginia. Fairfax entered the...

    . Captain Wilkes’s Seizure of Mason and Slidell in Battles and Leaders of the Civil War: North to Antietam edited by Robert Underwood Johnson and Clarence Clough Buel. (1885).
  • Ferris, Norman B. The Trent Affair: A Diplomatic Crisis. (1977) ISBN 0-87049-169-5
  • Graebner, Norman A., Northern Diplomacy and European Neutrality in Why the North Won the Civil War edited by David Herbert Donald. (1960) ISBN 0-684-82506-6 (1996 Revision)
  • Hubbard, Charles M. The Burden of Confederate Diplomacy. (1998) ISBN 1-57233-092-9
  • Jones, Howard. Union in Peril: The Crisis Over British Intervention in the Civil War. (1992) ISBN 0-8032-7597-8
  • Mahin, Dean B. One War at A Time: The International Dimensions of the Civil War. (1999) ISBN 1-57488-209-0
  • Monaghan, Jay. Abraham Lincoln Deals with Foreign Affairs. (1945). ISBN 0-8032-8231-1 (1997 edition)
  • Musicant, Ivan. Divided Waters: The Naval History of the Civil War. (1995) ISBN 0-7858-1210-5
  • Nevins, Allan. The war for the Union: The Improvised War 1861-1862. (1959)
  • Niven, John. Salmon P. Chase: A Biography. (1995) ISBN 0-19-504653-6
  • Taylor, John M. William Henry Seward: Lincoln’s Right Hand. (1991) ISBN 1-57488-119-1
  • Walther, Eric H. William Lowndes Yancey: The Coming of the Civil War. (2006) ISBN 978-0-7394-8030-4
  • Warren, Gordon H. Fountain of Discontent: The Trent Affair and Freedom of the Seas, (1981) ISBN 0-930350-12-X
  • Weigley, Russell F., A Great Civil War. (2000) ISBN 0-253-33738-0

Primary sources


External links