Tag Archives: James Mason

Foreign Affairs: Seward Rejects Mediation

February 6, 1863 – Secretary of State William H. Seward unilaterally declined an offer by French Emperor Napoleon III to mediate the conflict between the U.S. and the Confederacy.

Horace Greeley, the influential editor of the New York Tribune, had been publishing editorials in his newspaper calling for an armistice to negotiate a peace that would restore “the Union as it was.” William C. “Colorado” Jewett, a mining speculator with a questionable reputation, informed Greeley after returning from France that Napoleon had offered to mediate a peace between the warring factions.

Greeley responded by going to Washington to try getting the French minister to the U.S., Henri Mercier, to mediate on Napoleon’s behalf. Mercier offered his services on February 3, proposing that officials of the U.S. and the Confederacy come together in a neutral country to discuss a possible peace, and that Mercier would “chair” the meeting.

President Abraham Lincoln neither accepted nor declined the offer. Senator Charles Sumner, chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, wanted to continue the war until the Federals achieved total victory. Seward considered arresting Greeley for violating the Logan Act, which barred American citizens from negotiating with a foreign nation on behalf of the U.S. government.

U.S. Secretary of State William H. Seward | Image Credit: Wikimedia.org

Three days later, Seward officially turned down Mercier’s request, explaining that the Lincoln administration would not under any circumstances abandon the effort to preserve the Union, and would also not relinquish any authority to France as the proposal seemed to have implied. Lincoln endorsed Seward’s rejection. Seward took offense to “interference by a foreign power in a family dispute.” Many Republicans in Congress also expressed anger toward the French trying to involve themselves in what they considered to be a domestic insurrection.

Great Britain would not go so far as to offer mediation services. In an address to the British Parliament, Queen Victoria declared that Britain had not tried to “induce a cessation of the conflict between the contending parties in the North American States, because it has not yet seemed to Her Majesty that any such overtures could be attended with a probability of success.”

James Mason, the Confederate envoy in Britain, continued working to gain Confederate recognition. This included delivering a prominent speech at the Lord Mayor’s banquet in London calling for the British to recognize Confederate independence. However, Commander James H. North of the Confederate navy wrote to Navy Secretary Stephen R. Mallory from Glasgow, Scotland:

“I can see no prospect of recognition from this country… If they will let us get our ships out when they are ready, we shall feel ourselves most fortunate. It is now almost impossible to make the slightest move or do the smallest thing, that the Lincoln spies do not know of it.”

Part of the reason the British government was so reluctant to recognize Confederate independence was Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, which proved very popular among the British people. Mass meetings took place on the 19th at Liverpool and Carlisle in support of Lincoln’s decree. Therefore, recognizing the Confederacy would defy the will of many British subjects.

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References

Catton, Bruce, The American Heritage Picture History of the Civil War (New York: American Heritage Publishing Co., 1960), p. 253; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 259, 261-62; Donald, David Herbert, Lincoln (Simon & Schuster, Kindle Edition, 2011), Loc 8767-78; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 2: Fredericksburg to Meridian (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), p. 157; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 261-63; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 318-20, 322

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: British Reaction Reaches the U.S.

December 15, 1861 – News of the British reaction to the seizure of Confederate envoys James Mason and John Slidell reached the U.S.

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

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

U.S. Secretary of State William H. Seward interrupted a meeting between President Lincoln and Illinois Senator Orville Browning by showing them a British newspaper that had been aboard a ship recently arrived from England. The paper reported that the British would demand for the envoys’ release and an official apology, otherwise they would declare war.

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

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

Seward expressed concern that Britain would assert that the seizure of Mason and Slidell had violated international law. Browning said, “I don’t believe England has done so foolish a thing. But if she is determined to force a war upon us why so be it. We will fight her to the death!” Lincoln likened this to a story about a bulldog whom onlookers said would not bite, until one man said, “I know the bulldog will not bite. You know he will not bite, but does the bulldog know he will not bite?”

The U.S. remained cautiously defiant. At a diplomatic reception that evening, London Times correspondent William Howard Russell overheard Seward say, “We will wrap the whole world in flames.” But the next day the House of Representatives would not approve a resolution introduced by Democrat Clement L. Vallandigham of Ohio commending Captain Charles Wilkes for seizing Mason and Slidell, and refusing to release the envoys as a matter of national honor. Members referred it to committee instead.

Charles Francis Adams | Image Credit: Wikipedia.org

Charles Francis Adams | Image Credit: Wikipedia.org

At London, Charles Francis Adams, U.S. minister to Britain, received Seward’s message stating that Wilkes had acted without orders. Adams shared this with British Foreign Minister Lord John Russell, who felt it was a step in the right direction. However, Russell would not endorse any formal action until the U.S. government officially responded to the British communique.

The British public continued expressing outrage, no doubt influenced by editorials like one from the London Times that declared: “By Capt. Wilkes let the Yankee breed be judged. Swagger and ferocity, built on a foundation of vulgarity and cowardice, these are the characteristics, and these are the most prominent marks by which his countrymen, generally speaking, are known all over the world.”

Lord Russell’s formal instructions to Lord Richard Lyons arrived in the U.S. aboard the Europa on the 18th. Lyons met with Seward the next day and verbally communicated the demands from “Her Majesty’s Government.” Lyons explained that Britain deemed the seizure of Mason and Slidell “an affront to the national honor” that could only be corrected if the U.S. unconditionally returned the envoys to “British protection.”

Lyons also stated that his government required “a suitable apology for the aggression,” and if the U.S. did not comply in a timely manner, Lyons and his legation would return to Britain. Lyons granted Seward’s request for a copy of the message, which demanded a U.S. reply within seven days. However, since the governments had not yet officially discussed this matter, Lyons made the message unofficial to give Seward more time to respond.

President Lincoln held several cabinet meetings over the next few days to discuss the affair and a potential U.S. response to British demands. During that time, two British transports began conveying 8,000 troops from England to Canada, as bands played “Dixie” and “The British Grenadiers.” Lieutenant General Sir William F. Williams, commanding British forces in North America, began training 38,000 men of the Sedentary Militia for possible combat.

The Trent affair began affecting Wall Street, as a war with Britain would prove decidedly bad for northern business. Treasury Secretary Salmon P. Chase could not sell his railroad stock because it had become nearly worthless; Chase’s broker advised him that U.S. business interests “trust you will have allayed this excitement with England: one war at a time is enough.”

Lyons tried meeting with Seward again on the 23rd but was informed by State Department officials that Seward would not answer the British demands until after Christmas. He stormed out of the State Department building and formally presented the British ultimatum to the U.S. government. Lyons wrote to Russell: “I am so convinced that unless we give our friends here a good lesson this time, we shall have the same trouble with them again very soon… Surrender or war will have a very good effect on them.”

However, British-perceived U.S. arrogance was slowly giving way as Lincoln and his cabinet continued discussing the matter. Editorials in southern newspapers jubilantly expressed hope that war between Britain and the U.S. would facilitate Confederate independence. Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts, Chairman of the Foreign Services Committee, feared that the British might break the Federal blockade or the French might try colonizing Latin America. Pressure was increasing on the Lincoln administration to release Mason and Slidell.

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References

CivilWarDailyGazette.com (multiple dates); Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government (Kindle Edition 2008, 1889), Loc 8236; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 102-03; Donald, David Herbert, Lincoln (Simon & Schuster, Kindle Edition, 2011), Loc 6797-807; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 91-92; Goodwin, Doris Kearns, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2005), p. 398; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 149-51; 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