Drawing Us Into Their Quarrel

The government of Great Britain received the official news that the United States would release Confederate envoys James Mason and John Slidell, thus averting an international crisis. Mason, Slidell, and their secretaries had been imprisoned at Fort Warren in Boston Harbor after being seized by Federals while traveling aboard the British steamer R.M.S. Trent. Federal Captain Charles Wilkes of the U.S.S. San Jacinto had sought to prevent the men from going to Europe to try to obtain foreign recognition of Confederate independence.

The British had reacted to the seizure with outrage, with the U.S. finally backing down in late December and agreeing to give the envoys up to their care. Lord Richard Lyons, British minister to the U.S., notified his government that the U.S. response to their demands “constitute the reparation which Her Majesty and the British nation had a right to expect.” Although the two-month affair had been somewhat humiliating for U.S. foreign relations, it actually benefited the Federals because Britain had withheld vital supplies from the Confederacy in case they would be needed in a war against the U.S.

Lord Lyons arranged for Commander W. Hewett to take the English screw sloop-of-war H.M.S. Rinaldo to pick up Mason and Slidell. Lyons informed Hewett that the envoys had “no official character. It will be right for you to receive them with all courtesy and respect as gentlemen of distinction, but it would be improper to pay them any of those honors which are paid to official persons.”

Without fanfare, Federal authorities released Mason, Slidell, and their secretaries on New Year’s Day. They boarded the tugboat Starlight, which took them to Provincetown on Cape Cod where they were taken aboard the Rinaldo. Hewett reported that the men were picked up “without form or ceremony… The gentlemen remarked that their only wish was to proceed to Europe.”

Though originally scheduled to be taken to Halifax, Nova Scotia, the envoys were instead taken to the Danish island of St. Thomas. From there they continued on to Southampton, England, aboard the British mail packet La Plata. Hewett had instructions not to “convey them to any part of the coast of the States which have seceded from the Republic.”

When the British learned of the envoys’ surrender a week later, they hailed it as a diplomatic victory over the U.S. However, Prime Minister Lord Palmerston maintained that Secretary of State William H. Seward’s response of December 27 listed “many doctrines of international law” that Britain refuted, and Foreign Minister Lord John Russell wrote to Seward challenging his legal arguments. Nevertheless, there would be no war between the U.S. and Britain, much to the Confederacy’s disappointment.

Mason and Slidell finally arrived in England on January 30. They were warmly greeted at Southampton, but when their train arrived at London, the reception was much colder. Only the London Times reported their arrival:

“We sincerely hope that our countrymen will not give these fellows anything in the shape of an ovation. The civility that is due to a foe in distress is all that they can claim. The only reason for their presence in London is to draw us into their own quarrel. The British public has no prejudice in favor of slavery, which these gentlemen represent. What they and their secretaries are to do here passes our experience. They are personally nothing to us. They must not suppose, because we have gone to the verge of a great war to rescue them, that they are precious in our eyes.”


  • 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.
  • 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.

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