The Peterhoff Affair

An international crisis threatened to erupt when the British merchant ship Peterhoff was seized by the warship U.S.S. Vanderbilt off St. Thomas in the West Indies. The Peterhoff was shipping cargo to Matamoros, Mexico, just across the Rio Grande from Brownsville, Texas. While Matamoros was a neutral port, its proximity to Texas and its sudden boom in trade led U.S. officials to believe that the ship was running the blockade to trade with the Confederates.

Ironically, the seizure was ordered by Rear-Admiral Charles Wilkes, who had also ordered the seizure of the British ship Trent in 1861 that nearly sparked a war between the U.S. and Great Britain. The Peterhoff was escorted to New York by the Federal Navy to await adjudication by a prize court. U.S. officials argued that neutral ships bringing goods to neutral ports could be seized if those goods were being sent overland to a belligerent (i.e., the Confederacy).

The Peterhoff’s mail was to be opened to determine her true destination, but Secretary of State William H. Seward feared another potential conflict with Britain and ordered that the mail remain unopened. Seward may have also wanted to avoid national embarrassment, as it was soon learned that most of the trade coming into Matamoros came from New York rather than Britain. This angered Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles, who felt that Seward had exceeded his authority. President Abraham Lincoln ultimately sided with Seward.

British officials protested that the U.S. had no right to interfere with trade between Britain and Mexico, even if most of the shipments to Mexican ports were being funneled into the Confederacy. The protests were tempered by the intervention of international courts, and no crisis ensued. The courts later ruled that the U.S. could not halt the shipping of goods into neutral ports, regardless of those goods’ ultimate destination. 


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