James M. Mason and John Slidell, the Confederate envoys to Great Britain and France respectively, had evaded the Federal blockade in October aboard the Theodora and arrived at Havana, Cuba. From there, they had been waiting for safe passage to Europe. Their mission was to persuade European leaders to recognize Confederate independence. After three weeks, a neutral British mail steamer, the R.M.S. Trent, arrived on her usual delivery route and took them on her return trip to England.
On November 7, the envoys, 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 Charles Wilkes, commanding the steam frigate U.S.S. San Jacinto, was also aware, and he intended to stop the envoys 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 in the early afternoon of the 8th. The San Jacinto waited for her at the narrowest point in the waterway so Wilkes could 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, and Wilkes raised the U.S. flag and had gunners 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 Lieutenant Donald Fairfax, his second-in-command, along with a contingent of officers and U.S. Marines, to board the ship and demand the surrender of Mason, Slidell, and their secretaries. The Federals approached the Trent in two cutters.
Fairfax, who opposed Wilkes’s plan to seize Mason and Slidell, told the Marines to wait while he spoke with Captain Moir. The captain refused to allow a search of his vessel, nor would he give up his passenger list. But then Mason and Slidell appeared and identified themselves. Fairfax told them that he had orders to take them off the ship. This infuriated the British sailors, who tried to confront Fairfax until they were stopped by the Marines. Fairfax calmed the Marines before the confrontation became violent.
Mason and Slidell argued that Great Britain had recognized the Confederacy as a belligerent nation, and as such, the envoys could claim sanctuary under the British flag according to 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. This had caused deep resentment among Americans at the time, and it helped 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 later explained to Navy Secretary Welles that he did not have enough crewmen to commandeer the Trent. Had Wilkes taken her, the prize court could have decided whether his unique 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 Prime Minister Lord Palmerston met with Charles Francis Adams, U.S. minister to England. Palmerston told Adams that a vessel from the West Indian mail route may be returning to England with Confederate commissioners on board. Palmerston also said that he heard rumors of a U.S. naval captain boasting that he would detain Confederate envoys bound for England if the opportunity presented itself. The prime minister then told Adams:
“I am not going into the question of your right to do such an act. Perhaps you might be justified in it or perhaps you might not. Such a step would be highly inexpedient. It would be regarded here very unpleasantly if the captain should within sight of the shore commit an act which would be felt as offensive to the national flag. Nor can I see the compensating advantage to be gained by it. It surely could not be supposed that the addition of one or two more to the number of persons who had already been some time in London on the same errand would be likely to produce any change in the 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 Major 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 Abraham 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.”
- Angle, Paul M., A Pictorial History of the Civil War Years. New York: Doubleday, 1967.
- Catton, Bruce, The American Heritage Picture History of the Civil War. New York: American Heritage Publishing Co., 1960.
- Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government: All Volumes. Heraklion Press, Kindle Edition 2013, 1889.
- Donald, David Herbert, Lincoln. New York: Simon & Schuster, (Kindle Edition), 2011.
- Foote, Shelby, The Civil War, A Narrative: Fort Sumter to Perryville. New York: Vintage Books, 1958.
- Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day. New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971.
- Maddox, Robert J. (Patricia L. Faust ed.), Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War. New York: Harper & Row, 1986.
- McPherson, James M., Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era. Oxford History of the United States Book 6, Oxford University Press (Kindle Edition), 1988.
- McPherson, James M., War on the Waters: The Union and Confederate Navies, 1861-1865. Littlefield History of the Civil War Era, The University of North Carolina Press (Kindle Edition), 2012.
- Pollard, Edward A., Southern History of the War (facsimile of the 1866 edition). New York: Fairfax Press, 1990.
- Rhodes, James Ford, History of the Civil War, 1861-1865. New York: The MacMillan Company (Kindle Edition, Reservoir House, 2016), 1917.
- Time-Life Editors, The Blockade: Runners and Raiders. Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983.