The U.S. and Great Britain awaited each other’s official reactions to the seizure of Confederate envoys James M. Mason and John Slidell aboard the neutral British steamer Trent. The ship Europa left England on December 1 carrying the dispatches from the British government to Lord Richard Lyons, British minister to the U.S. at Washington. The dispatches included instructions from British Foreign Minister Lord John Russell listing British terms for settling the Trent affair, which had been toned down by Prince Albert, consort to Queen Victoria.
The modified version still demanded the envoys’ release and a U.S. apology, but if the U.S. just let them go, the British would “be rather easy about the apology.” They would most likely settle for an official explanation through Charles Francis Adams, the U.S. minister in London. A private message stated the opinion of many in Britain that the “best thing would be if (U.S. Secretary of State William H.) Seward could be turned out and a rational man put in his place.”
Meanwhile, the British War Office deployed 6,000 troops to Canada, along with a naval fleet of 40 ships bearing 1,275 guns under Admiral Sir Alexander Milne. In addition, British Secretary of War George Lewis proposed to Prime Minister Lord Palmerston to send out three more regiments and more artillery in the coming days.
Henri Mercier, French minister to the U.S., received instructions from France to support the British. In an effort to stem the European outrage, former U.S. General-in-Chief Winfield Scott traveled to Paris with Republican Party boss Thurlow Weed (Seward’s political benefactor).
Scott published a letter in the Paris Constitutional stating 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.” Scott added that the Lincoln administration would gladly free Mason and Slidell if it would help “emancipate the commerce of the world.”
President Abraham Lincoln similarly assured Canadian Finance Minister Alexander Galt that the U.S. had no hostile intentions toward either Britain or Canada. Galt informed Lord Lyons that despite Lincoln’s assertions, “I cannot… 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.”
The continuing U.S. celebration of Captain Charles Wilkes as a national hero seemed to confirm Galt’s suspicions. Congress unanimously approved 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.” The resolution also proposed that Wilkes receive a “gold medal with suitable emblems and devices, in testimony of the high sense entertained by Congress of his good conduct.”
William Howard Russell, the U.S. correspondent for the London Times, wrote of U.S. sentiment regarding the affair: “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.” Adams in London also took note of the American attitude and warned Seward, “There can be not a shadow of doubt that the passions of the country are up and that a collision is inevitable if the Government of the United States should sustain Captain Wilkes.”
The death of Prince Albert in mid-December added to the tension. As a U.S. supporter, the prince had urged British firmness with moderation. Many worried that his passing meant that cooler heads would not prevail. This worry quickly spread when news of Britain’s reaction to the Trent affair reached the U.S.
- Catton, Bruce and Long, E.B. (ed.), Terrible Swift Sword: Centennial History of the Civil War Book 2. New York: Doubleday & Company, Inc. (Kindle Edition), 1963.
- Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day. New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971.
- Rhodes, James Ford, History of the Civil War, 1861-1865. New York: The MacMillan Company (Kindle Edition, Reservoir House, 2016), 1917.