High Seas Brouhaha
High Seas Brouhaha

By Kenneth P. Czech

When an overzealous Union captain stopped and searched the British vessel Trent, a full-blown diplomatic crisis erupted between the United States and Great Britain. Interested Southerners watched with glee.

As U.S. Navy Lieutenant D.M. Fairfax stood in the bow of a bobbing whaleboat at midday of November 8, 1861, he was faced with a dilemma. Ahead loomed the bulk of the British mail steamer Trent. His orders were to remove–forcibly if necessary–two Confederate agents on their way to London. He was also to seize the vessel as a prize of war. Either act, he believed, could lead to war between the United States and Britain. Yet the instructions received from his commanding officer were explicit.

Fairfax’s confusion stemmed from several factors, most notably Britain’s declaration of neutrality in May 1861 and its recognition of the Northern and Southern states as formal belligerents. Such a dictate opened British ports to Confederate shipping as well as Northern. Likewise, British munitions and supplies could be transported by Union or Rebel vessels to North American ports.

To many observers and politicians in the North, however, London’s declaration was but a short step away from recognizing the Confederate states as a sovereign nation. The Richmond government banked on the hope that both France and England could be induced to accept the Confederacy into the family of nations because of the need for Southern cotton by European mills. Prior to the Civil War, England and Continental Europe imported from 80 to 85 percent of its cotton from the South. Nearly one-fifth of the British population earned its livelihood from the cotton industry, while one-tenth of Britain’s capital was invested in it as well. There was good reason for the South to court the European governments.

Confederate President Jefferson Davis assigned a pair of trusted political cronies to represent the South in London and Paris. James M. Mason, a former senator from Virginia, had gained experience as the chairman of the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee. His assignment as minister to Britain was not to beg “for material aid or alliances offensive and defensive but for. . . a recognized place as a free and independent people.”

Sixty-eight-year-old John Slidell was to transact diplomatic business with France. A wily politician, Slidell had served as a Louisiana senator and had only minor diplomatic experience in previous dealings with Mexico. He was, however, fluent in French.

Both Mason and Slidell hurried to Charleston, S.C., to gain passage on the fast blockade runner Nashville. Accompanying them were two secretaries, James E. Macfarland and George Eustis, as well as members of Slidell’s family. When they reached Charleston in early October 1861, they found several Union warships blockading the harbor just beyond the range of Confederate coastal defense guns. Though armed, Nashville was too weak to provoke a battle with Yankee cruisers and usually relied on speed to sneak past picket ships.

Realizing the dangers of trying to run the blockade, Mason and Slidell opted for going overland through Texas and into Mexico, where they hoped they could book passage on a British ship to take them to London. Before they could attempt the journey, however, the captain of a shallow-draft coastal packet, Gordon, offered to take the diplomats to Cuba, where British vessels regularly docked.

Rain squalls buffeted Charleston as Gordon slipped from her quay just after midnight on October 12. The little ship, packed with coal and passengers, threaded its way through shallow waters where the deep-draft Nashville could not have gone. The storms and darkness served as perfect cover as the Rebels slid past Federal blockaders and steamed toward the open sea. “Here we are,” Mason wrote gleefully, “on the deep blue sea; clear of all the Yankees. We ran the blockade in splendid style.”

To confuse prowling Federal cruisers, Gordon’s name was changed to Theodora. The packet sailed into Nassau, in the Bahamas, where the Confederates had hoped a British vessel might be docked. When they discovered that English mail ships could be anchored at Cuba, Theodora did an about-face and steamed southwest.

On October 15, with coal bunkers nearly empty, Theodora cruised in sight of Cuba. An approaching Spanish warship hailed the little vessel. Slidell and Eustis went on board and were informed that British mail steamers did indeed dock at the port of Havana, but the latest one had just left. The next British packet would not arrive for three weeks. Mason decided they would wait in Cardenas, Cuba, and enjoy that city’s hospitality before making an overland trek to Havana.

The Federal government, in the meantime, reacted to the rumors that Slidell and Mason had made good their escape from Charleston aboard Nashville. Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles ordered Admiral Samuel F. DuPont to dispatch a fast warship to Britain to intercept the blockade runner. On October 15, Commander John B. Marchand steamed the heavily armed James Adger toward Europe with orders to pursue Nashville all the way to the English Channel if necessary. Little did Marchand or any of the Washington hierarchy realize that the Confederate emissaries were soaking up the Caribbean sun in Cuba while Nashville remained placidly moored to her pier in Charleston.

When James Adger docked in England’s Southampton harbor in early November, British officials were clearly worried. They were well aware that Mason and Slidell would eventually arrive on a British mail packet. Certainly Marchand could do little against the ship if it was in British territorial waters, but on the high seas it was understood that the American vessel could, in fact, search the English steamer and claim it as a prize of war if Confederate dispatches were found aboard it. Once claimed, a maritime prize court, acting under international law, would determine whether the mail ship had been seized legally and if it should be sold for profit or released to the British government. London legal experts, however, determined that James Adger “would have no right to remove Messrs. Mason and Slidell and carry them off as prisoners, leaving the ship [the mail packet] to pursue her voyage.” If seizure was the name of the game, it would have to be an all-or-nothing case.

While a Federal envoy to London, Charles Francis Adams, worked to convince British authorities that Marchand was on the lookout for Nashville alone, another Union naval officer in the Caribbean was about to light the fuse that would drive the United States and Great Britain to the brink of war. Sixty-two-year-old Captain Charles D. Wilkes had a less than enviable reputation in the United States Navy. Early in his career he had won accolades on his voyages of discovery to Antarctica and the Fiji Islands. A gifted astronomer, Wilkes had run afoul of his superiors with untimely displays of temper and insubordination. Consequently, he had been shunted aside to a minor bureaucratic role in Washington until receiving orders to take command of the steam warship San Jacinto on patrol off the coast of West Africa. Wilkes was simply to sail the ship home for refitting.

When Wilkes stepped aboard San Jacinto at the island of Fernando Po (now Bioka, Equatorial Guinea) on August 28, 1861, he was in no mood to simply steam complacently back to the Philadelphia Navy Yard. He believed that this command might be his only chance for action, so he proceeded to cruise along the African coast for nearly a month in search of Confederate raiders. When he finally turned the prow of his ship westward, he set course for the West Indies, once more in search of Rebel shipping. After stops at Jamaica and Grand Cayman, Wilkes eased into Cienfuegos on Cuba’s southern coast. There he learned that Mason and Slidell were leaving Havana for Europe.

Wilkes was ecstatic when he discovered that the Confederate diplomats were still in Havana on October 30. They were due to leave on November 7 aboard the British mail ship Trent, which was bound for the island of St. Thomas before heading for England. Poring over his maritime law books, Wilkes decided he could legally take Trent with its passengers once she left Spanish territorial waters. “If she [Trent] left at the usual time,” Wilkes noted, “she must pass us about noon on the 8th” in the Bahama Channel, “and we could not possibly miss her.”

At 11:40 a.m. on November 8, 1861, lookouts on San Jacinto spotted Trent. As the mail packet neared, it unfurled the Union Jack. Wilkes responded by firing a shot well in front of its bow. When the British ship did not slow down, he ordered his forward pivot gun to place a shell just in front of the little steamer. Finally, Trent hove to.

Lieutenant Fairfax was summoned to the quarterdeck, where Wilkes presented him with his orders. “Should Mr. Mason, Mr. Slidell, Mr. Eustis and Mr. Macfarland be on board,” they read, “make them prisoners and send them on board this ship immediately and take possession of [Trent] as a prize.” He was also to seize any dispatches and correspondence he might find.

Armed with cutlasses and pistols, Fairfax’s boarding party of 20 men rowed toward the mail packet. Realizing what was about to happen, Mason ordered Macfarland “to take the dispatch bag which contained my public papers, credentials, instructions, etc., … and deliver it to the mail agent of the steamer,” where it could be locked in the mail room.. The agent, Richard Williams, promised he would see that the papers reached London.

Fairfax was certain that Wilkes was creating an international incident and he had no intention of enlarging its scope. Ordering his armed escort to remain in the whaleboat, the lieutenant stepped aboard Trent to meet an obviously angry Captain James Moir. As British crewmen and Southern passengers crowded around, Fairfax announced he had orders “to arrest Mr. Mason and Mr. Slidell and their secretaries, and send them prisoners on board the United States war vessel near by.”

Upon hearing these words, the British crew and passengers threatened the American officer. Union sailors, in turn, clambered on deck to protect Fairfax. For a long moment, it looked as if a scuffle would break out. Fortunately, cooler heads prevailed and violence was avoided. Both Mason and Slidell decided to go into custody peacefully, especially since the latter’s family was on board. When Fairfax requested to examine the Trent’s mailroom for Confederate papers, the British firmly refused. To gain access, he was sure, would require San Jacinto to take Trent as a prize–a certain act of war.

As the Southern diplomats were being transferred to the whaleboat, Slidell’s wife and daughters heaped verbal abuse on the Yankee sailors. When Trent’s deck pitched in the roll of a wave, one of Slidell’s daughters lost her balance and half fell against Fairfax, who quickly steadied her. In later descriptions of the affair, Fairfax would be charged with callous behavior.

A strict disciplinarian, Wilkes was unhappy that Fairfax had not seized Trent as a prize of war. He did, however, accept the lieutenant’s argument that placing a prize crew aboard the packet to take her back to a Northern port would weaken San Jacinto’s capacity as a fighting ship. Fairfax also brought attention to the plight of innocent passengers, including British civilians, if the mail ship was taken north.

As Wilkes steered along the eastern seaboard, he telegraphed news of his fateful seizure of the Confederate agents. His story spread like wildfire as Northern newspapers’ headlines trumpeted the feat. The November 19 edition of The New York Times proudly proclaimed, “We do not believe the American heart ever thrilled with more genuine delight than it did yesterday, at the intelligence of the capture of Messrs. Slidell and Mason.” To a Northern populace strong in its belief that Britain was decidedly pro-South, the Trent affair seemed designed to put John Bull in his proper place.

Wilkes was ordered by an ebullient Federal administration to take the Rebel envoys to the prison at Fort Warren in Boston Harbor. But members of Abraham Lincoln’s cabinet began focusing on the broader implications of the seizure of Trent’s passengers. The affair, they urged, should be settled peacefully with Great Britain–and the quicker, the better.

In London, meanwhile, news of the Trent incident broke on November 27. Lord Palmerston,, the British prime minister, called an immediate cabinet meeting. From the information that had filtered into the Foreign Office, it appeared that Wilkes had committed an illegal act at sea by taking passengers but not seizing the ship. It also appeared that the Federal government had ordered him to do so. The British administration called the affair “a gross outrage and violation of international law.” Palmerston advocated placing an embargo on arms shipped to the United States and preparing the powerful Channel Fleet to sail to North American waters. War seemed imminent–British pride was at stake.

Indignation and war fever flared among the British populace and newspapers. Pro-Northern politician John Bright described public sentiment as being “every sword leaping from its scabbard, and every man looking about for his pistols and blunderbusses.” An American resident in London noted that “the people are frantic with rage, and were the country polled, I fear 999 men out of a thousand would declare for war.”

In assuming a bellicose posture, Britain also prepared its Canadian dominion for the likelihood of war with the North. Canada, in fact, was woefully underprepared for hostilities with its powerful neighbor to the south. At the end of March 1861 there were only 4,300 British regulars in Canada, with 2,100 of those stationed in the maritime province of Nova Scotia. The available supply of ammunition consisted mostly of balls for antiquated muskets.

Governor General of Canada Sir Charles Stanley Monck nevertheless ordered his provincial militia to be ready for action. He instructed the British military commander in North America, Sir Fenwick Williams, to assemble his troops “as quiet as possible, not on account of the Americans but lest an alarm and panic should be excited amongst our people.” Dispatches from England ordered a concentration of troops along the Beauharnois, Cornwall and Welland canals. If war erupted, Canadian regulars and militia were to seize Fort Montgomery at Rouse’s Point and Fort Niagara, both in New York state, to prevent any Yankee invasion toward Montreal and Toronto.

Eighteen British transport ships loaded with men, arms and supplies were ordered to Canada to bolster the feeble force already there. Sixteen batteries of Royal Artillery were earmarked for the dominion, along with four companies of Royal Engineers and 11 battalions of infantry, a total of more than 11,000 men. Although London’s Colonial and War offices had promised 100,000 rifles for the defense of Canada, only 50,000 were sent, with 2 1/4 million rounds of ammunition.

The first of the British transports to reach North America in December was Persia, of the Cunard Line. Ice was already forming in the St. Lawrence River as the vessel steamed past Anticosti Island. Fifty miles from the nearest railhead at Riviere du Loup, the ship was forced to stop due to heavy ice. With its screws churning to keep the ice from forming, Persia disgorged its load of soldiers, but was forced to steam upriver with nearly all the heavy baggage still on board.

Warned that ice had nearly locked in Persia, the other British transports unloaded at Halifax and St. John’s. One vessel, Victoria, ran into trouble and returned to England. Another, Parana, ran aground during a severe snow squall.

Canadians rallied to the plight of British soldiers stranded at isolated landing points, far from railways, in the dead of winter. Locals acted as guides, while sleds and sleighs were provided for both men and equipment. As British soldiers marched from New Brunswick, Lt. Col. Garnet Wolseley remarked that “all possible arrangements have been made along the road for the comfort of the men, and no expense spared in providing” them with special suits of warm clothing, including sheepskin coats, waterproof capes and “creepers for walking on snow.”

As British warships converged near Bermuda and Havana in the West Indies, public sentiment in Canada mirrored that of the mother country. One observer near the American-Canadian border at Christmas saw “every prospect of war” wherever he looked. An editorial in the St. John’s (Newfoundland) Christian Watchman was typical: “A war now would forever deliver us from all fear of our dangerous neighbour, and elevate us to a position of importance and influence.”

Amid the rumors and preparations for war, the British cabinet drafted an ultimatum to the United States calling for the return of Mason and Slidell to British protection and a complete apology from the Lincoln government. Provocative in tone, the document was sent to Queen Victoria for her signature on November 30. The Queen’s ailing consort, Prince Albert, studied the ultimatum throughout the night of the 30th until the wee hours of Sunday, December 1.

Albert, suffering from severe catarrh and insomnia, had probably been influenced by the moderating stand of the London Times. While most daily newspapers clamored for war, the Times suggested that Wilkes had operated on his own in stopping Trent, and had not been issued orders by Lincoln’s government. Albert modified the tone of the cabinet’s message, deliberately eliminating passages that would back the Americans into a corner, and leaving them a loophole to save face. War with the United States, he believed, was certainly not in the best interests of England. As he presented the revised document to the Queen, he complained that “I feel so weak I have hardly been able to hold my pen.” Albert collapsed on December 2 and died 12 days later of typhoid.

As British and Northern diplomats sorted out the tangled threads of the Trent incident, Southern newspapers trumpeted their glee. Most Southerners, noted one observer, “rejoiced in the prospect of retaliation by England” against the Federals. The Richmond Enquirer castigated Wilkes, who it charged had “violated the rights of embassy,” long “held sacred, even among barbarians.” The Confederacy seemed on the verge of gaining the recognition by European powers it so desperately sought.

On December 23, Lord Lyons, the British minister to America, presented the revised British dispatch to U.S. Secretary of State William Seward in Washington. Seward hated the thought of knuckling under to the British, but he realized a war with both Britain and the South was a foolhardy venture. He had also learned that Emperor Louis Napoleon of France had firmly taken the British side and that “all the foreign maritime powers” had “agreed that the act [of Wilkes] was a violation of public law.” It remained, however, to convince Lincoln and the rest of the cabinet to give in to the British demands.

Tension mounted as debates over war filled the air. The atmosphere in the American legation in London “would have gorged a glutton of gloom.” “The opinion now prevails,” wrote a Confederate envoy in London, “that there will be war. . .[England] will have a vast steam fleet upon the American coast and will sweep away the blockading squadrons from before our ports.” Lord John Russell at London’s Foreign Office wrote to Palmerston that “we may now expect 40 or 50,000” Federal troops to invade Canada.

Seward, Lincoln and the cabinet met on Christmas Day to hammer out their decision. Lincoln at first wanted to procrastinate, but he was soon convinced that the surrendering of Mason and Slidell had to be carried out at once. As Lord Russell noted in London while awaiting the decision, “I am still inclined to think Lincoln will submit, but not till the clock is 59 minutes past 11.”

Seward drafted a document to Lord Lyons stating that America was releasing the prisoners because Captain Wilkes had not acted under orders, and that by not seizing Trent, instead allowing it to continue its course, a judicial examination of the act to determine its legality had been circumvented. Seward also reaffirmed that Mason and Slidell were not being released because of British principles, but because of the uniquely American stance regarding the search and seizure of neutral vessels formulated by James Madison in 1804.

The Federal government had found the loophole the prince consort had offered. Although several newspapers and politicians condemned Seward’s reply to the British, many more praised the effort since it averted a terrible war. Likewise, when news of the decision reached London on January 8, 1862, there was a long sigh of relief. “We draw a long breath, and are thankful. . .we have come out of this trial with our honour saved and no blood spilt,” editorialized the London Times.

Mason and Slidell were duly removed from Fort Warren and boarded HMS Rinaldo at Provincetown, Mass. The British ship struggled through a blinding gale as it transferred its famous guests to St. Thomas in the Caribbean. On January 14, the diplomats boarded the British mail steamer La Plata, bound for Southampton, to continue the journey that had been interrupted two months before.

Although Confederate newspapers ridiculed the North for seemingly bowing to a British dictate, the South was further away than ever from receiving international recognition as a nation. Its lever of cotton had weakened as Britain found alternative sources, especially from India. When Mason and Slidell reached England, London was wrapped in a pall of mourning over the death of Albert. Queen Victoria refused to see visitors and little attention was paid to the new diplomats. Lord Russell wrote to Lyons on February 8, “I am heart and soul a neutral…what a fuss we have had about these two men.”

Originally greeted as a hero by his nation, Wilkes soon foundered in the storm of controversy. He decried Seward’s and Lincoln’s actions “as a craven yielding and abandonment of all the good. . .done by [Mason’s and Slidell’s] capture.” He did not accept the government’s interpretation that his seizure of the envoys was tantamount to impressment–the same kind of action that had been the leading cause of the War of 1812. Had he but taken Trent to port to await a judicial decision, the affair probably would have blown over.

Still demanding the limelight, Wilkes proved to be an embarrassment to the Navy. He was promoted to commander and accepted the command of a flotilla on the James River. After disobeying an order, he was transferred to a cruiser squadron in the West Indies. Further acts of insubordination ensued and he was eventually court-martialed and discharged.

As for the ill-fated San Jacinto, she was wrecked off the Bahamas on January 1, 1865. Six years later, her hulk was sold at auction for $224.61, ironically, to the British.

Frequent contributor Kenneth P. Czech has a particular interest in the Civil War on the oceans. For further reading, try The Trent Affair, A Diplomatic Crisis, by Norman B. Ferris, or Diplomacy During the Civil War, by David R Crook.

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