The news that a U.S. warship had seized Confederate envoys James M. Mason and John Slidell aboard the British steamer R.M.S. Trent officially reached Great Britain on November 27. Commander Richard Williams of the Royal Navy, who had been aboard the Trent, submitted a report of the incident to British officials at London. He wrote, “The commander of the Trent and myself at the same time protested against, this illegal act, this act of piracy carried out by brute force, as we had no means of resisting the aggression the San Jacinto being at the time on our port beam about 200 yards off, her ship’s company at quarters, ports open and tompions out.”
While northerners lionized Captain Charles Wilkes of the U.S.S. San Jacinto for preventing the envoys from reaching Europe, British officials viewed the boarding of one of their vessels as an invasion of Great Britain itself. As news of the incident spread, signs appeared in city streets calling the seizure of Mason and Slidell an “Outrage on the British Flag.”
Newspaper editorials condemned the U.S. Many blamed Secretary of State William H. Seward for trying “to provoke a war with England for the purpose of getting Canada.” An article in the London Chronicle went even further: “Abraham Lincoln… has proved himself a feeble, confused and little-minded mediocrity. Mr. Seward, the firebrand at his elbow, is exerting himself to provoke a quarrel with all Europe, in that spirit of senseless egotism which induces the Americans, with their dwarf fleet and shapeless mass of incoherent squads which they call an army, to fancy themselves the equal of France by land and Great Britain by sea.”
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.” The London Post declared, “In one month, we could sweep all the San Jacintos from the seas, blockade the Northern ports and turn to a direct and speedy issue the war.” The British demanded “reparation and apology” for this blatant violation of international law.
The British Parliament immediately approved an embargo on all shipments of saltpeter from British India to the U.S. Seward had arranged for the du Pont company to buy Indian saltpeter to use in gunpowder, so such an embargo threatened to affect the U.S. ability to wage war. Plans were also quickly drawn to build more warships in case of war with the U.S. The British military buildup soon became its largest since the Napoleonic Wars.
Charles Francis Adams, U.S. minister to Great Britain, was at Frystone when he received a telegram informing him that the envoys had been seized. When asked if he would like to be taken back to London, Adams said that he would much rather avoid the city for now. He stated that “while a storm of enthusiastic approval was sweeping over the northern part of the United States in the 12 days between November 15th and November 27th, a storm of indignation of quite equal intensity swept over Great Britain between November 27th and the close of the year.”
British Liberal leader John Bright wrote to Charles Sumner, chairman of the Foreign Services Committee in the U.S. Senate, of the news: “It has made a great sensation here, and the ignorant and passionate and ‘Rule Britannia’ class are angry and insolent as usual.” Sumner also had a letter from the Duchess of Argyll, whose husband served in Lord Palmerston’s cabinet, stating the envoy’s capture was “the maddest act that ever was done, and, unless the (U.S.) government intend to force us to war, utterly inconceivable.”
British public opinion had already tended to favor the Confederacy because the U.S. blockade was depriving the British textile industry of precious southern cotton. Confederate support grew all the more with this U.S. insult to British honor.
News of the “Trent affair” reached France the following day, and Emperor Napoleon III met with his cabinet to discuss their options. Although they had not yet learned of the British response or heard from Henri Mercier, French minister to the U.S., they agreed that the Trent’s boarding was illegal and resolved to support any British demands in response. Edouard Thouvenel communicated this policy to Count Charles de Flahault in London.
An emergency cabinet meeting took place in London on the 29th. Members read dispatches from Lord Richard Lyons, British minister to the U.S., describing the wild celebrations throughout the North and reminding them that he had warned Seward may try a move like this. Lyons recommended that Britain dispatch troops to Canada as a show of force. Prime Minister Lord Palmerston instructed the War Office to suspend budget reductions for 1862. He then read a legal brief he had requested from the Law Office, which confirmed that Captain Wilkes’s seizure of the envoys was “illegal and unjustifiable by international law.” Palmerston exclaimed to his cabinet, “You may stand for this, but damned if I will!”
British Foreign Minister Lord John Russell met with Adams, who was unaware that Seward had already notified Russell that Wilkes had acted without orders and could provide no further information. The men did not exchange official information, but Adams saw “little reason to doubt that the same steamer which bears this (letter to Washington) will carry out a demand for an apology and the restoration of the men.” Palmerston believed that he and Adams had a verbal agreement that the U.S. would not interfere with British shipping. Palmerston informed Russell that the affair may have been planned as a “deliberate and premeditated insult” by Seward to “provoke” a war with Britain.
Scottish poet Charles MacKay wrote to Seward, “There never was within memory such a burst of feeling as has been created by the news of the boarding of the La Plata (Trent).” MacKay stated that the British were “frantic with rage, and were the country polled I fear that 999 men out of 1,000 would declare for immediate war.” Confederate sympathies, formerly “coldly expressed,” were now “warm and universal.”
MacKay wrote, “Englishmen would rather fight with any power in the world than with America, but I do assure you their blood is up and they mean mischief in this business.” This feeling was felt in all “classes of society,” even among those who normally favored peace. One such peace monger in Parliament told MacKay “that if this insult were not atoned for he saw no use for a flag; that he would recommend the British colors to be torn into shreds and sent to Washington for the use of the Presidential water-closets.”
James L. Graham, Jr., an American living in Edinburgh, wrote that the Trent affair had “entirely monopolized the public mind.” He had never witnessed such “intense a feeling of indignation exhibited in my life. It pervades all classes and may make itself heard above the wiser theories of the cabinet officers.”
Lord Russell instructed Lord Lyons to notify Seward that Britain considered the seizure of Mason and Slidell an act of aggression. Lyons was to give Seward seven days to turn the envoys over to British authorities and apologize for the seizure, otherwise the British legation would leave Washington. Russell also directed naval forces to mobilize.
Before finalizing these messages, Russell sent them to Queen Victoria for review. Prince Albert, the Queen’s ailing consort, persuaded Russell to soften the demands so as to prevent the certainty of war. Under the new position, the Queen would accept Seward’s acknowledgement that Wilkes, “the U. S. naval officer who committed the aggression was not acting in compliance with any authority from his Government;” that the U.S. had not meant to intentionally insult Great Britain, and that the U.S. government would “spontaneously offer such redress as alone would satisfy this country, viz., the restoration of the unfortunate passengers and a suitable apology.”
Russell expressed certainty that once “this matter shall have been brought under the consideration of the Government of the United States, that Government will of its own accord offer to the British Government such redress as alone could satisfy the British nation, namely, the liberation of the four gentlemen (Mason, Slidell, and their secretaries) and their delivery to your lordship in order that they may again be placed under British protection and a suitable apology for the aggression which has been committed.”
If Seward did not comply within seven days of receipt of this letter, Lyons would “repair immediately to London.” Russell ordered the naval forces to act only in self-defense. He warned that “the act of wanton violence and outrage which has been committed makes it not unlikely that other sudden acts of aggression may be attempted. Vice-Admiral Sir A. Milne will take care not to place his ships in positions where they may be surprised or commanded by batteries on land of a superior force.”
Americans remained largely unaware of the British reaction, though many surely had a notion. The breakdown of the transatlantic cable meant that it would take three weeks for Russell’s letter to reach Lyons at Washington. This breakdown may have provided the time needed for tempers to cool on both sides.
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