The Trent Affair: American Reaction

November 16, 1861 – News of the capture of Confederate envoys James Mason and John Slidell spread throughout America and was met with mixed reactions in North and South.

Captain Charles Wilkes of the U.S.S. San Jacinto, who had directed boarding the British steamer R.M.S. Trent and seizing the envoys, dispatched Captain Albert Taylor from Fort Monroe to deliver a first-hand account of the action to Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles at Washington. The San Jacinto then continued on with her prisoners after refueling. The next day, the New York Times printed the official dispatches on the “Trent affair” in its Sunday edition. Most other newspapers published their versions of the story on Monday the 18th.

The U.S.S. San Jacinto | Image Credit:
The U.S.S. San Jacinto | Image Credit:

Most northerners seemed “universally engulfed in a massive wave of chauvinistic elation” upon learning the news. Many hoped that seizing the envoys, along with capturing Port Royal, would finally shift the war’s momentum after defeats at Big Bethel, Bull Run, Wilson’s Creek, and Ball’s Bluff.

Wilkes became an instant northern hero, even though boarding an unarmed mail vessel was not necessarily heroic. The New York Times proposed creating a second Independence Day holiday in the captain’s honor. At the same time, correspondents referred to Mason and Slidell as “the caged ambassadors,” “knaves,” “cowards,” “snobs,” and “cold, cruel, and selfish.” Lincoln wrote to prominent statesman and orator Edward Everett, expressing happiness with the fall of Port Royal, “And the capture of Mason and Slidell!”

Secretary of State William H. Seward, who asserted that the envoys must remain in U.S. custody, received a message of assurance from influential Massachusetts friend Philo S. Shelton:

“I have conversed with many of our leading merchants, heard the opinions of many of our ablest lawyers, and all agree that the action of Captain Wilkes in seizing these men is commendable and that the Administration ought to sustain him and hold them at all hazards.”

Shelton stated that British supporters in New York “ought not to be heeded… the results will justify the act of Wilkes and there are precedents in abundance in the records of the British courts to sustain it.”

However, some northerners expressed concern that seizing Mason and Slidell could cause an international incident. Senator Charles Sumner, chairman of the Foreign Services Committee, met with President Lincoln along with Postmaster General Montgomery Blair and urged the president to let Mason and Slidell go immediately. Lincoln, who had initially approved of their seizure, now began reconsidering.

In the Confederacy, an article in the Richmond Daily Dispatch called this “a small loss,” depending on “the treatment it may receive from the British Government.” Since “the deck of a British vessel is as sacred as British soil,” to board a “British vessel forcibly and carry off persons, is as great an insult to British sovereignty, as to send armed men to London and to capture ambassadors assembled amid her Court.” Since the U.S. could not hope to fight the Confederacy and Britain at the same time, many southerners saw that this could eventually work to their benefit.

For now, the San Jacinto was on her way to New York. Welles directed the New York Navy Yard commander to forward the vessel to Fort Warren in Boston Harbor, where Mason and Slidell would be confined until further notice. The San Jacinto arrived at Newport, Rhode Island, on the 20th, for refueling before finishing her trip to Boston.

Mason and Slidell received newspapers and learned that they would be imprisoned in freezing Fort Warren. They wrote a protest to Wilkes: “The voyage from Newport to Boston by sea at this season of the year will probably be tempestuous and disagreeable, still we should with the exception of one of the signers of this letter who is much indisposed prefer that mode of conveyance to Fort Warren to that by land.”

That being said, the envoys “would much prefer to be placed in custody at Newport on account of comparative mildness of climate and the delicate health of the undersigned, and we are willing to pledge ourselves not to make any attempt to escape nor to communicate with any person while there unless permitted so to do.” Wilkes forwarded this to Welles, who declined their request and reiterated that they be sent to Boston.

Three days later, the San Jacinto arrived at Boston Harbor, sat through an evening storm, and delivered the envoys to Fort Warren on the morning of the 24th. The envoys were escorted to the fort’s gates, led by Mason. According to the New York Times, he embodied “the most forlorn picture of chop-fallen chivalry ever witnessed.” Slidell followed “with a somewhat less timid air, but still his knees every now and then betraying by their shaky motions the trepidation which their owner strove to conceal.” Colonel Justin Dimick, commanding Fort Warren, received the envoys, along with their six trunks, six valises, and numerous cases of fine wines, brandies, liquors, and cigars.

Captain Wilkes put into Boston Harbor, where he received a telegram from Welles: “Your conduct in seizing these public enemies was marked by intelligence, ability, decision, and firmness, and has the emphatic approval of this Department.” However, Welles made it clear that not taking the Trent before 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.”

A banquet was held to honor Wilkes at Boston’s Revere House. Massachusetts Governor John Andrew hailed Wilkes for displaying “not only wise judgment but also manly and heroic success.” He described 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.” Massachusetts Chief Justice George T. Bigelow declared: “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.’”

While Wilkes accepted the overflowing adulation of the press and public, officials began considering the ramifications of what he had done. Wilkes had the right to stop a neutral vessel suspected of carrying contraband, but some may not consider envoys as contraband. Moreover, under international law Wilkes should have towed the Trent into a prize court for adjudication rather than release her after seizing the envoys.

The celebrations on the U.S. side of the Atlantic would be met by a completely different reaction on the other side when official news of the envoys’ seizure reached the British government on the 27th.


References (multiple dates); Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 96-97; Donald, David Herbert, Lincoln (Simon & Schuster, Kindle Edition, 2011), Loc 6785; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War, A Narrative: Fort Sumter to Perryville (New York: Vintage Books, 1958), p. 157; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 85; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 140, 143; Maddox, Robert J., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 762-63; Time-Life Editors, The Blockade: Runners and Raiders (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 116-17; Ward, Geoffrey C., Burns, Ric, Burns, Ken, The Civil War (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1990), p. 81; Wikipedia: Trent Affair

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