November 8, 1861 – Captain Charles Wilkes of the U.S.S. San Jacinto halted the neutral British steamship R.M.S. Trent on the open sea and seized two Confederate envoys under dubious circumstances.
Mason and Slidell had eluded the Federal blockade in October in an effort to persuade European leaders to recognize Confederate independence. They waited at Havana, Cuba, for three weeks before a neutral British mail steamer, the R.M.S. Trent, arrived on her usual delivery route and took them to England.
On November 7, Mason, Slidell, their secretaries, and Slidell’s wife and children left Havana for St. Thomas, a Danish island in the West Indies. From there they would continue to Europe. The U.S. consul in Havana, aware of their journey, alerted officials in Washington. Captain Wilkes of the steam-frigate U.S.S. San Jacinto was also aware, and he sought to stop the envoys’ journey by awaiting the Trent’s passage through Bahama Channel.
Both Wilkes and Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles knew that international maritime law prohibited a nation at war from seizing persons traveling aboard a neutral vessel. However, Wilkes noted that a nation at war could seize dispatches from a neutral vessel if they were suspected of belonging to the enemy. Wilkes reasoned that Mason and Slidell were the “embodiment of dispatches,” and thus could be taken off the Trent.
The Trent entered the Old Bahama Channel, 240 miles from Havana, early next afternoon, where the San Jacinto awaited her in the narrowest point of the waterway to easily identify and stop her. The crew of the Trent sounded “Beat to quarters” upon seeing smoke on the horizon. The San Jacinto soon appeared; Wilkes raised the U.S. flag and directed gunners to fire a shot over the Trent’s bow. When this did not stop the Trent, Wilkes fired a second round closer to her.
Trent Captain James Moir called out to the San Jacinto: “What do you mean by heaving my vessel to in this manner?” Wilkes responded that he would send over a boat. He directed a detachment of U.S. Marines, led by Lieutenant Donald Fairfax, Wilkes’s second in command, to board the ship and demanded the surrender of Mason, Slidell, and their secretaries.
Fairfax, who opposed Wilkes’s plan to seize Mason and Slidell, told the Marines to wait while he spoke with Captain Moir. As Moir refused to give up his passenger list, Mason and Slidell appeared. Fairfax told them that he had orders to take them off the ship. This infuriated the British sailors, who confronted Fairfax but were met by the Marines. Fairfax calmed the Marines before the confrontation became violent.
The envoys claimed protection under the British flag, citing international maritime law. Wilkes’s action was a form of “visit and search,” which the British had practiced against the U.S. a half-century earlier, causing deep resentment among Americans and helping to spark the War of 1812.
Mason and Slidell then informed Fairfax that they would “yield only to force.” The Marines then took the envoys and placed them on the cutters, from which they were transferred to the San Jacinto.
On Fairfax’s recommendation, Wilkes allowed the Trent to continue to England instead of following custom by taking her to a prize court for adjudication. Wilkes argued that he did not have enough crewmen to commandeer the vessel. Had he taken her, the prize court could have considered whether his novel interpretation of maritime law was valid.
The breakdown of the transatlantic cable meant that news of the Trent affair would not reach England for nearly three weeks. During that time, British officials learned of a U.S. naval captain boasting that he would detain Confederate envoys bound for England if the opportunity arose. Prime Minister Lord Palmerston informed Charles Francis Adams, U.S. minister to England, that the British government would be offended if U.S. personnel removed Confederate envoys from a British ship. Palmerston told Adams that boarding British ships to seize envoys would be “highly inexpedient,” especially since their arrival in England would not “produce any change in policy already adopted.”
The San Jacinto arrived at the Federal naval base at Hampton Roads, Virginia, on the 15th, where Mason and Slidell acknowledged that they had “uniformly been treated with great courtesy and attention.” Wilkes telegraphed Welles that the envoys had been captured. He also discussed the capture with General John E. Wool, commanding Federals at Fort Monroe. Wool agreed with the seizure but conceded, “right or wrong, he could only be cashiered for it.” Wilkes received orders to take Mason and Slidell to Fort Warren in Boston Harbor after refueling.
As news of the envoys’ capture spread, President Lincoln met with Welles that evening. Lincoln listened to the details and concluded:
“I fear the traitors will prove to be white elephants. We must stick to American principles concerning the rights of neutrals. We fought Great Britain for insisting, by theory and practice, on the right to do precisely what Captain Wilkes has done. If Great Britain shall now protest against the act, and demand their release, we must give them up, apologize for the act as a violation of our doctrines, and thus forever bind her over to keep the peace in relation to neutrals, and so acknowledge that she has been wrong for 60 years.”
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