Tag Archives: U.S.S. San Jacinto

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: 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