The War that Never Was: Britain, the U.S. and the Trent Affair

By William F.B. Vodrey
The Cleveland Civil War Roundtable
Copyright © 2000, 2008, All Rights Reserved

Editor’s note: This article was originally published in The Charger in the fall of 2000.

They say when it rains, it pours. And just when the United States was locked in a deadly struggle with the Confederacy, just when the military picture was at its bleakest, just when Abraham Lincoln’s desk was piled highest, it looked very likely that Great Britain – the mightiest empire on the face of the Earth – would, for the third time in ninety years, wage war against us. Fortunately, it didn’t happen. A conflict spanning the Atlantic was averted, and the U.S.-British war of 1861 became the war that never was.

By the fall of 1861, the Confederacy looked like it had a real chance to succeed. There had been victories at Ft. Sumter, at Bull Run, Big Bethel, Carthage, Wilson’s Creek and Ball’s Bluff, and more were in the offing. But Confederate President Jefferson Davis knew that if his new nation was to be assured of survival, powerful friends across the seas would be invaluable. He dispatched two diplomats, James M. Mason of Virginia and John Slidell of Louisiana, to be Confederate commissioners, or envoys. Mason and Slidell were to go to Britain and France, respectively. These were the military and economic superpowers of the day. Davis knew his history: French and Dutch help had been key to American success in the Revolution; now, perhaps, foreign assistance would help win Southern independence.

Mason and Slidell were originally to leave aboard the newly-refitted warship C.S.S. Nashville but, when the U.S. Navy got wind of the scheme and posted four warships to stop it, they left instead aboard a blockade runner and former privateer, the Gordon (also sometimes called the Theodora), on a $10,000 charter. They snuck out from Charleston harbor after 1 a.m. on October 12, 1861 under cover of a heavy downpour. Their mission was no secret, although when and how they’d leave Southern shores was supposed to be.

Five days later the Gordon put Mason and Slidell ashore at Cardenas, Cuba, and they took a train to Havana. The island of Cuba was at the time still part of the Spanish Empire, another European power remaining neutral in the Civil War but leaning a bit towards the Confederacy. In Havana, Mason and Slidell were wined and dined by the diplomatic community before transferring to a British mail steamer, the Trent, to continue their voyage to Europe.

Charles Wilkes

However, patrolling off the Cuban coast was the steam sloop U.S.S. San Jacinto, commanded by Charles Wilkes. Wilkes had already made a name for himself as, according to historian Jay Monaghan, it was “a success partly marred by a [U.S. Navy] court-martial held after his return on charges [filed] by his disgruntled companions.”

When he learned of the presence of Mason and Slidell on Cuban soil, Wilkes met with his officers to discuss the possibility of seizing the two Confederate emissaries. His first officer, Lt. Donald M. Fairfax, advised against it, noting that Americans had fought the War of 1812 in part because the British (ironically enough) had done just what Wilkes was now proposing to do – stop a neutral ship and remove, at gunpoint, those he wished.

Fairfax didn’t change Wilkes’s mind, though. On his own authority and without orders, he decided to stop the Trent and capture her Confederate passengers. On November 7, 1861, Wilkes intercepted the unarmed Trent in the Old Bahamas Channel, 300 miles east of Havana. He hoisted the Stars and Stripes and twice fired warning shots over her bow, forcing her to halt.

The USS San Jacinto intercepts the British mail ship Trent

By coincidence, the trans-Atlantic telegraph cable was out of commission at the time of Mason and Slidell’s capture, and it was nearly two weeks before the Trent arrived in England, bringing news of the incident. The British government was furious when it learned, on November 28, the full story of the illegal seizure. Lord Palmerston, the Prime Minister, told his Cabinet, “You may stand for this, but [I’ll be] damned if I will!” The British monarch, Queen Victoria, shared Palmerston’s outrage. One report from the time about the reaction among the British public claimed, “I have never seen so intense a feeling of indignation in my life.” A senior American diplomat in London wrote that Mason and Slidell’s seizure would “do more for the Southerners than ten victories, for it touches John Bull’s honor, and the honor of his flag.” (John Bull was the symbol of Britain at the time, much as Uncle Sam was and is of the U.S.)

Abraham Lincoln

As one historian wrote, “Lincoln watched every word that might be used against him by his enemies at home, who suspected that he planned to turn loose the prisoners. At the same time he left an open passage for retreat with honor if popular sentiment were sufficiently to permit him to do so. Had he said definitely that he would hold the commissioners it would have amounted to an ultimatum to Her Majesty’s Government, and had he said definitely that he would return them he would have lost power at home. Only a few intimates noted Lincoln’s guarded words, his hope for the cooling influence of time. Most of the people raged at what they called his indecision. Later they called it masterly intuition.”

After some stalling, the President decided to find a peaceful way out of the Trent crisis. “One war at a time,” he is said to have remarked. In Cabinet meetings on Christmas Day and the day after, 1861, his administration adopted a face-saving compromise: Mason and Slidell would be released, but the U.S. would stand by its right to have arrested them in the first place. Seward briefed senior members of Congress, none of whom were delighted with the decision, but all of whom understood it.

The crisis was over. As historian Chester Hearn wrote, “The United States had lost face, but the Confederacy had lost her best opportunity for European intervention. During the balance of the war no other issue brought Great Britain so close to war.” The U.S. had also obeyed international law, much to its credit; virtually any objective observer would agree that Capt. Wilkes had acted illegally in seizing diplomatic envoys from a neutral ship bound for a neutral port.

The Trent incident and its peaceful resolution by no means ended the threat of foreign intervention in the war. Still, the risk of foreign intervention was never as great as it was immediately after the Trent incident.

Related link:
One War at a Time, Again: The Chesapeake Affair