Tag Archives: Charles Wilkes

End of the Trent Affair

January 8, 1862 – The government of Great Britain received the official news that the U.S. would release Confederate envoys James Mason and John Slidell, thus averting an international crisis.

Confederate envoys James M. Mason and John Slidell | Image Credit: CivilWarDailyGazette.com

Confederate envoys James M. Mason and John Slidell | Image Credit: CivilWarDailyGazette.com

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 and obtaining 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. 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 Richard Lyons, British minister to the U.S., 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.”

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References

CivilWarDailyGazette.com (January 1); Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 107, 119; Donald, David Herbert, Lincoln (Simon & Schuster, Kindle Edition, 2011), Loc 6916; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War, A Narrative: Fort Sumter to Perryville (New York: Vintage Books, 1958), p. 220; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 95, 102; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 156-57, 164; White, Howard Ray, Bloodstains, An Epic History of the Politics that Produced and Sustained the American Civil War and the Political Reconstruction that Followed (Southernbooks, Kindle Edition, 2012), Q162; Wikipedia: Trent Affair

The Trent Affair: The Lincoln Administration Decides

December 25, 1861 – President Lincoln held a lengthy cabinet meeting on Christmas Day to finally decide upon a course of action regarding Great Britain’s demands to release the Confederate envoys seized aboard the British steamer Trent.

The cabinet members gathered in the morning, along with Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Charles Sumner, whom Lincoln had invited to attend. Sumner shared two letters he had received from British Liberals John Bright and Richard Cobden urging the release of James M. Mason and John Slidell. Lincoln remarked that it would be foolish to have “two wars on his hands at a time.”

Confederate envoys James M. Mason and John Slidell | Image Credit: CivilWarDailyGazette.com

Confederate envoys James M. Mason and John Slidell | Image Credit: CivilWarDailyGazette.com

A letter was also read from Charles Francis Adams, U.S. minister to Britain at London, written on December 6:

“The passions of the country are up and a collision is inevitable if the Government of the United States should, before the news reaches the other side, have assumed the position of Captain (Charles) Wilkes (of U.S.S. San Jacinto) in a manner to preclude the possibility of explanation… Ministers and people now fully believe it is the intention of the (U.S.) Government to drive them into hostilities.”

U.S. Secretary of State William H. Seward | Credit: Wikispaces.com

U.S. Secretary of State William H. Seward | Credit: Wikispaces.com

Secretary of State William H. Seward shared a paper he had drafted acknowledging that Captain Charles Wilkes had violated international law by stopping the Trent, and agreeing it would be best to release Mason and Slidell because it was consistent with the traditional U.S. position of demanding free navigation on the open seas. Seward wrote, “We are asked to do to the British nation just what we have always insisted all nations ought to do to us.”

Treasury Secretary Salmon P. Chase, alarmed by how the Trent affair might affect the already burgeoning financial downturn due to the war, agreed with Seward. Chase wrote in his diary that releasing the envoys “… was like gall and wormwood to me. But we cannot afford delays while the matter hangs in uncertainty, the public mind will remain disquieted, our commerce will suffer serious harm, our action against the rebels must be greatly hindered.”

Lincoln still resisted surrendering the envoys without some form of arbitration. He said, “Governor Seward, you will go on, of course, preparing your answer, which, as I understand it, will state the reasons why they ought to be given up. Now I have a mind to try my hand at stating the reasons why they ought not to be given up. We will compare the points on each side.” The meeting ended and the attendees left to spend the rest of Christmas Day with their families.

The next day, Seward read the final draft of his paper. His lengthy, legalistic treatise acknowledged that Wilkes had acted improperly in taking the envoys off a neutral ship but accepted no official responsibility for his actions. In this way, the U.S. would give up Mason and Slidell without being internationally embarrassed, and the British would get the explanation they sought without having their honor disgraced.

Seward argued that the U.S. would surrender the envoys in keeping with the principles they had defended against the British in the War of 1812. Moreover, he cleverly maintained that the British protest over the seizure pleased the U.S. because it meant that Britain now adhered to those same principles a half-century later. This helped turn a foreign relations defeat for the U.S. into a victory for U.S. values.

Lincoln and the rest of the cabinet agreed to release Mason and Slidell. After the meeting adjourned, Seward asked Lincoln, “You thought you might frame an argument for the other side?” Lincoln said, “I found I could not make an argument that would satisfy my own mind, and that proved to me your ground was the right one.”

Seward informed Congress on the 27th that Mason and Slidell would be turned over to Britain. He then notified Lord Richard Lyons, British minister to the U.S. at Washington: “The four persons in question (Mason, Slidell, and their secretaries) are now held in military custody at Fort Warren, in the State of Massachusetts. They will be cheerfully liberated. Your lordship will please indicate a time and place for receiving them.” As Seward explained, “The comparative unimportance of the captured persons themselves” made their incarceration no longer necessary.

Seward delivered his lengthy explanation for the Trent affair to Lyons so that he and his government could draw their own conclusions. Lyons accepted the prisoners’ release while forwarding Seward’s response to London. He would not withdraw his legation from Washington as threatened until his government reviewed the explanation and issued further instructions.

Many disappointed northerners saw the release of Mason and Slidell as another example of Lincoln’s perceived weakness. The release also angered Wilkes, who called it “a craven yielding to an abandonment of all good… done by (their) capture.” However, it averted a serious diplomatic crisis, allowing the administration to return its focus to destroying the Confederacy. For the Confederates, the war between the U.S. and Britain that they hoped would secure their independence would not come.

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References

Angle, Paul M., A Pictorial History of the Civil War Years (New York: Doubleday, 1967), p. 51, 52; Bailey, Ronald H., Forward to Richmond: McClellan’s Peninsular Campaign (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 64-65; Catton, Bruce, The American Heritage Picture History of the Civil War (New York: American Heritage Publishing Co., 1960), p. 257; Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government (Kindle Edition 2008, 1889), Loc 8236-48; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 104; Donald, David Herbert, Lincoln (Simon & Schuster, Kindle Edition, 2011), Loc 6807, 6818; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War, A Narrative: Fort Sumter to Perryville (New York: Vintage Books, 1958), p. 162; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 93; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 151-52; Maddox, Robert J., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 762-63; Pollard, Edward A., Southern History of the War (New York: The Fairfax Press, 1990), p. 215-16; Time-Life Editors, The Blockade: Runners and Raiders (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 116-19; Ward, Geoffrey C., Burns, Ric, Burns, Ken, The Civil War (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1990), p. 81; White, Howard Ray, Bloodstains, An Epic History of the Politics that Produced and Sustained the American Civil War and the Political Reconstruction that Followed (Southernbooks, Kindle Edition, 2012), Q461; Wikipedia: Trent Affair

The Trent Affair: Awaiting Official Reactions

December 1, 1861 – The U.S. and Great Britain awaited each other’s official reactions to the seizure of Confederate envoys James Mason and John Slidell aboard the neutral British steamer Trent.

James M. Mason and John Slidell | Image Credit: CivilWarDailyGazette.com

James M. Mason and John Slidell | Image Credit: CivilWarDailyGazette.com

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 the instructions from British Foreign Minister Lord John Russell listing British terms for settling the Trent affair, which had been toned down by Prince Albert, husband of Queen Victoria.

The modified version still demanded the envoys’ release and a U.S. apology, but if the U.S. 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.”

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.”

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.

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References

Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 102; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 87; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 149; Wikipedia: Trent Affair

The Trent Affair: British Outrage

November 27, 1861 – News of the U.S. seizure of Confederate envoys James Mason and John Slidell aboard the British steamer Trent officially reached Great Britain, where it was met with immediate outrage.

James M. Mason and John Slidell | Image Credit: CivilWarDailyGazette.com

James M. Mason and John Slidell | Image Credit: CivilWarDailyGazette.com

Commander Richard Williams of the Royal Navy, who had been aboard the R.M.S. Trent, submitted a report on the envoys’ seizure 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 hailed 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 Britain itself. As news of the incident spread, signs in city streets called the seizure of Mason and Slidell an “Outrage on the British Flag.”

Newspaper editorials condemned the U.S., with many blaming 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 | Image Credit: Wikipedia.org

Charles Francis Adams | Image Credit: Wikipedia.org

Charles Francis Adams, U.S. minister to Great Britain, was in London when the news broke. 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 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, with Emperor Napoleon III meeting 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 such as this. Lyons recommended that Britain dispatch troops to Canada in 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 | Image Credit: Wikipedia.org

British Foreign Minister Lord John Russell | Image Credit: Wikipedia.org

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 urged 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 residing 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.

Queen Victoria of England | Image Credit: Wikispaces.com

Queen Victoria of England | Image Credit: Wikispaces.com

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.”

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.”

Unaware of the outrage the Trent affair had caused, U.S. Navy Secretary Gideon Welles sent a complimentary letter to Wilkes:

“I congratulate you on your safe arrival, and especially do I congratulate you on the great public service you have rendered in the capture of the rebel emissaries. Messrs. Mason and Slidell have been conspicuous in the conspiracy to dissolve the Union and it is well known that when seized by you they were on a mission hostile to the Government and the country. Your conduct in seizing these public enemies was marked by intelligence, ability, decision and firmness and has the emphatic approval of this Department.”

Americans remained largely unaware of the British reaction, though many surely had a notion, until Russell’s letter reached Lyons at Washington three weeks later.

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References

Angle, Paul M., A Pictorial History of the Civil War Years (New York: Doubleday, 1967), p. 51, 52; Catton, Bruce, The American Heritage Picture History of the Civil War (New York: American Heritage Publishing Co., 1960), p. 257; CivilWarDailyGazette.com (multiple dates); Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 97-98; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War, A Narrative: Fort Sumter to Perryville (New York: Vintage Books, 1958), p. 157; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 86; Goodwin, Doris Kearns, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2005), p. 396-98; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 143-44; 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), p. 390; Ward, Geoffrey C., Burns, Ric, Burns, Ken, The Civil War (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1990), p. 81; White, Howard Ray, Bloodstains, An Epic History of the Politics that Produced and Sustained the American Civil War and the Political Reconstruction that Followed (Southernbooks, Kindle Edition, 2012), Q461; Wikipedia: Trent Affair

The Trent Affair: American Reaction

November 16, 1861 – News of the capture of Confederate envoys James Mason and John Slidell spread throughout America and was met with mixed reactions in North and South.

Captain Charles Wilkes of the U.S.S. San Jacinto, who had directed boarding the British steamer R.M.S. Trent and seizing the envoys, dispatched Captain Albert Taylor from Fort Monroe to deliver a first-hand account of the action to Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles at Washington. The San Jacinto then continued on with her prisoners after refueling. The next day, the New York Times printed the official dispatches on the “Trent affair” in its Sunday edition. Most other newspapers published their versions of the story on Monday the 18th.

The U.S.S. San Jacinto | Image Credit: Longstreet.Typepad.com

The U.S.S. San Jacinto | Image Credit: Longstreet.Typepad.com

Most northerners seemed “universally engulfed in a massive wave of chauvinistic elation” upon learning the news. Many hoped that seizing the envoys, along with capturing Port Royal, would finally shift the war’s momentum after defeats at Big Bethel, Bull Run, Wilson’s Creek, and Ball’s Bluff.

Wilkes became an instant northern hero, even though boarding an unarmed mail vessel was not necessarily heroic. The New York Times proposed creating a second Independence Day holiday in the captain’s honor. At the same time, correspondents referred to Mason and Slidell as “the caged ambassadors,” “knaves,” “cowards,” “snobs,” and “cold, cruel, and selfish.” Lincoln wrote to prominent statesman and orator Edward Everett, expressing happiness with the fall of Port Royal, “And the capture of Mason and Slidell!”

Secretary of State William H. Seward, who asserted that the envoys must remain in U.S. custody, received a message of assurance from influential Massachusetts friend Philo S. Shelton:

“I have conversed with many of our leading merchants, heard the opinions of many of our ablest lawyers, and all agree that the action of Captain Wilkes in seizing these men is commendable and that the Administration ought to sustain him and hold them at all hazards.”

Shelton stated that British supporters in New York “ought not to be heeded… the results will justify the act of Wilkes and there are precedents in abundance in the records of the British courts to sustain it.”

However, some northerners expressed concern that seizing Mason and Slidell could cause an international incident. Senator Charles Sumner, chairman of the Foreign Services Committee, met with President Lincoln along with Postmaster General Montgomery Blair and urged the president to let Mason and Slidell go immediately. Lincoln, who had initially approved of their seizure, now began reconsidering.

In the Confederacy, an article in the Richmond Daily Dispatch called this “a small loss,” depending on “the treatment it may receive from the British Government.” Since “the deck of a British vessel is as sacred as British soil,” to board a “British vessel forcibly and carry off persons, is as great an insult to British sovereignty, as to send armed men to London and to capture ambassadors assembled amid her Court.” Since the U.S. could not hope to fight the Confederacy and Britain at the same time, many southerners saw that this could eventually work to their benefit.

For now, the San Jacinto was on her way to New York. Welles directed the New York Navy Yard commander to forward the vessel to Fort Warren in Boston Harbor, where Mason and Slidell would be confined until further notice. The San Jacinto arrived at Newport, Rhode Island, on the 20th, for refueling before finishing her trip to Boston.

Mason and Slidell received newspapers and learned that they would be imprisoned in freezing Fort Warren. They wrote a protest to Wilkes: “The voyage from Newport to Boston by sea at this season of the year will probably be tempestuous and disagreeable, still we should with the exception of one of the signers of this letter who is much indisposed prefer that mode of conveyance to Fort Warren to that by land.”

That being said, the envoys “would much prefer to be placed in custody at Newport on account of comparative mildness of climate and the delicate health of the undersigned, and we are willing to pledge ourselves not to make any attempt to escape nor to communicate with any person while there unless permitted so to do.” Wilkes forwarded this to Welles, who declined their request and reiterated that they be sent to Boston.

Three days later, the San Jacinto arrived at Boston Harbor, sat through an evening storm, and delivered the envoys to Fort Warren on the morning of the 24th. The envoys were escorted to the fort’s gates, led by Mason. According to the New York Times, he embodied “the most forlorn picture of chop-fallen chivalry ever witnessed.” Slidell followed “with a somewhat less timid air, but still his knees every now and then betraying by their shaky motions the trepidation which their owner strove to conceal.” Colonel Justin Dimick, commanding Fort Warren, received the envoys, along with their six trunks, six valises, and numerous cases of fine wines, brandies, liquors, and cigars.

Captain Wilkes put into Boston Harbor, where he received a telegram from Welles: “Your conduct in seizing these public enemies was marked by intelligence, ability, decision, and firmness, and has the emphatic approval of this Department.” However, Welles made it clear that not taking the Trent before a prize court “must by no means be permitted to constitute a precedent hereafter for the treatment of any case of similar infraction of neutral obligations.”

A banquet was held to honor Wilkes at Boston’s Revere House. Massachusetts Governor John Andrew hailed Wilkes for displaying “not only wise judgment but also manly and heroic success.” He described the “exultation of the American heart” when Wilkes “fired his shot across the bows of the ship that bore the British Lion at its head.” Massachusetts Chief Justice George T. Bigelow declared: “In common with all loyal men of the North, I have been sighing, for the last six months, for someone who would be willing to say to himself, ‘I will take the responsibility.’”

While Wilkes accepted the overflowing adulation of the press and public, officials began considering the ramifications of what he had done. Wilkes had the right to stop a neutral vessel suspected of carrying contraband, but some may not consider envoys as contraband. Moreover, under international law Wilkes should have towed the Trent into a prize court for adjudication rather than release her after seizing the envoys.

The celebrations on the U.S. side of the Atlantic would be met by a completely different reaction on the other side when official news of the envoys’ seizure reached the British government on the 27th.

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References

CivilWarDailyGazette.com (multiple dates); Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 96-97; Donald, David Herbert, Lincoln (Simon & Schuster, Kindle Edition, 2011), Loc 6785; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War, A Narrative: Fort Sumter to Perryville (New York: Vintage Books, 1958), p. 157; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 85; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 140, 143; Maddox, Robert J., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 762-63; Time-Life Editors, The Blockade: Runners and Raiders (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 116-17; Ward, Geoffrey C., Burns, Ric, Burns, Ken, The Civil War (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1990), p. 81; Wikipedia: Trent Affair

The Trent Affair

November 8, 1861 – Captain Charles Wilkes of the U.S.S. San Jacinto halted the neutral British steamship R.M.S. Trent on the open sea and seized two Confederate envoys under dubious circumstances.

James M. Mason and John Slidell | Image Credit: CivilWarDailyGazette.com

James M. Mason and John Slidell | Image Credit: CivilWarDailyGazette.com

Mason and Slidell had eluded the Federal blockade in October in an effort to persuade European leaders to recognize Confederate independence. They waited at Havana, Cuba, for three weeks before a neutral British mail steamer, the R.M.S. Trent, arrived on her usual delivery route and took them to England.

On November 7, Mason, Slidell, 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 Wilkes of the steam-frigate U.S.S. San Jacinto was also aware, and he sought to stop the envoys’ journey 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, 240 miles from Havana, early next afternoon, where the San Jacinto awaited her in the narrowest point of the waterway to 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; Wilkes raised the U.S. flag and directed gunners to 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 a detachment of U.S. Marines, led by Lieutenant Donald Fairfax, Wilkes’s second in command, to board the ship and demanded the surrender of Mason, Slidell, and their secretaries.

Boarding the Trent | Image Credit: CivilWarDailyGazette.com

Boarding the Trent | Image Credit: CivilWarDailyGazette.com

Fairfax, who opposed Wilkes’s plan to seize Mason and Slidell, told the Marines to wait while he spoke with Captain Moir. As Moir refused to give up his passenger list, Mason and Slidell appeared. Fairfax told them that he had orders to take them off the ship. This infuriated the British sailors, who confronted Fairfax but were met by the Marines. Fairfax calmed the Marines before the confrontation became violent.

The envoys claimed protection under the British flag, citing 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, causing deep resentment among Americans and helping to 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 argued that he did not have enough crewmen to commandeer the vessel. Had he taken her, the prize court could have considered whether his novel 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 officials learned of a U.S. naval captain boasting that he would detain Confederate envoys bound for England if the opportunity arose. Prime Minister Lord Palmerston informed Charles Francis Adams, U.S. minister to England, that the British government would be offended if U.S. personnel removed Confederate envoys from a British ship. Palmerston told Adams that boarding British ships to seize envoys would be “highly inexpedient,” especially since their arrival in England would not “produce any change in 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 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 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.”

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References

Angle, Paul M., A Pictorial History of the Civil War Years (New York: Doubleday, 1967), p. 51, 52; Catton, Bruce, The American Heritage Picture History of the Civil War (New York: American Heritage Publishing Co., 1960), p. 250; CivilWarDailyGazette.com (multiple dates); Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government (Kindle Edition 2008, 1889), Loc 8215-25; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 94, 96; Donald, David Herbert, Lincoln (Simon & Schuster, Kindle Edition, 2011), Loc 6752; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War, A Narrative: Fort Sumter to Perryville (New York: Vintage Books, 1958), p. 157; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 80-81; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 137-38, 140; Maddox, Robert J., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 762-63; 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), p. 389; McPherson, James M., War on the Waters: The Union and Confederate Navies, 1861-1865 (Littlefield History of the Civil War Era, University of North Carolina Press, Kindle Edition, 2012), p. 44; Pollard, Edward A., Southern History of the War (New York: The Fairfax Press, 1990), p. 214; Time-Life Editors, The Blockade: Runners and Raiders (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 116; Wikipedia: Trent Affair

Mason and Slidell Escape

October 11, 1861 – Confederate envoys James M. Mason and John Slidell boarded a steamship in the hopes of eluding the Federal blockade and reaching Europe to gain Confederate recognition.

James M. Mason and John Slidell | Image Credit: CivilWarDailyGazette.com

James M. Mason and John Slidell | Image Credit: CivilWarDailyGazette.com

Mason and Slidell, two former U.S. senators, had recently been appointed as envoys to England and France respectively, with a mission to persuade those countries to recognize Confederate independence and provide supplies for the war effort. U.S. State Department officials were aware that the men would try to leave the country to fulfill their mission, and they hoped that the blockading fleet would prevent their departure.

U.S. Secretary of State William H. Seward received daily reports on the envoys’ whereabouts and knew that Mason and Slidell had arrived at Charleston on October 1. That harbor was patrolled by three Federal steamers and a sloop-of-war, making it difficult for Mason and Slidell to find a captain willing to risk capture by running the blockade.

Seward was informed that the men would try leaving aboard the C.S.S. Nashville, a ship fast enough to escape and strong enough to reach Europe. However, Mason and Slidell chartered the private steamer Theodora, formerly known as the Gordon, for $10,000. This 500-ton side-wheeler could not reach Europe, so the envoys planned to go to Havana, Cuba, and from there charter a British ship to take them to England.

Boarding a neutral British ship would allow Mason and Slidell to travel to Europe with no fear of U.S. interference. If a U.S. vessel tried seizing the ship as contraband of war, the Confederacy would be granted belligerent status under international law, which the U.S. would be forced to acknowledge. If a U.S. vessel tried seizing the ship for carrying traitors, boarding a neutral ship to get to them would violate international law.

Mason and Slidell, with their secretaries and families, boarded the Theodora on the 11th and waited for nightfall to try leaving. The ship steamed out of Charleston at 1 a.m. through a dark storm that shielded her from the view of Federal blockaders. Confederate statesman William H. Trescot telegraphed the Confederate State Department that afternoon:

“Charleston, October 12, 186(1). Our friends left here last night at 1 o’clock. A fast steamer, good officers, and very dark night, with heavy rain. The guard boat reported that they crossed the bar about 2 o’clock, and that they could neither have been seen nor heard by the fleet. A strong northwest wind helped them, and the fleet this morning seems not to have changed position at all. As soon as we hear further I will telegraph. The steamer ought to be back in about a week, and nothing said until her return. Communicate to Mrs. Mason.”

The Theodora was bound for Nassau in the Bahamas, the first leg of the envoys’ journey. She arrived two days later, when Mason and Slidell discovered that they had missed connecting with a British steamer. The Theodora then took them to Cuba, where Spanish authorities informed them that a British mail packet had just left Havana. The next ship, the paddle-steamer R.M.S. Trent, would not arrive for three weeks.

Meanwhile, U.S. officials still believed that Mason and Slidell had boarded the Nashville. Navy Secretary Gideon Welles cabled Flag Officer Samuel F. Du Pont commanding the blockading squadron: “It is reported that the steamer Nashville has run the blockade at Charleston, with Messrs. Mason and Slidell on board. Have you a fast steamer that can be spared? If so, let her be dis-patched to intercept the Nashville.” Du Pont dispatched the U.S.S. James Adger and Curlew, unaware that the envoys had taken the Theodora instead.

As Mason and Slidell waited for the next British steamer to arrive at Havana, the Curlew stopped her search for the Nashville due to lack of coal, and the James Adger patrolled around Queenstown, Ireland. Both crews remained unaware that 1) the envoys never boarded the Nashville, and 2) the Nashville was still in Charleston Harbor.

Hiram Paulding, commander of the Federal Navy Yard at New York, received intelligence on October 30 that Mason and Slidell had reached Havana aboard the Gordon, now known as the Theodora. That same day, the U.S.S. San Jacinto docked in southern Cuba where her commander, Captain Charles Wilkes, learned that Mason and Slidell were in the country. He refueled and steamed northward.

The next day, Wilkes was informed that Mason, Slidell, their wives, and their secretaries had reached Cuba via the Theodora and were awaiting the arrival of the Trent on November 7. Since he was unable to seize the envoys from a neutral port, Wilkes resolved to refuel the San Jacinto and capture them once they entered international waters.

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References

CivilWarDailyGazette.com (multiple dates); Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 87; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War, A Narrative: Fort Sumter to Perryville (New York: Vintage Books, 1958), p. 136; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 72; Linedecker, Clifford L. (ed.), The Civil War A to Z (New York: Ballantine Books, 2002), p. 252; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 126; Official Records of the Union and Confederate Navies in the War of the Rebellion, Series I, Vol. VI, p. 738; Time-Life Editors, The Blockade: Runners and Raiders (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 116