The Trent Affair: an early Civil War crisis

Nov 08, 2011

The Washington Post held a live-chat about the Nov. 8, 1861 Trent Affair, the most crucial diplomatic crisis of the early Civil War. Join author Amanda Foreman and Washington Post editor Robert B. Mitchell during a live-chat at 2 p.m.

On Nov. 8, 1861, Capt. Charles Wilkes, commander of the U.S.S. San Jacinto, stopped a British packet steamer, the R.M.S. Trent, off the coast of Cuba. He sent crew members aboard the British ship and seized two Confederate diplomats, James Mason and John Slidell. Wilkes’s act set off an international dispute between the U.S. and Great Britain and almost started a war between the two nations. Joining me today to discuss the Trent Affair and its impact on the war are Robert Mitchell, an editor at The Post and a Civil War historian and Amanda Foreman, author of the new book “A World on Fire: Britain’s Crucial Role in the American Civil War.” Mr. Mitchell and Dr. Foreman, thanks for joining us.

Mr. Mitchell, could you tell us a little about Capt. Wilkes?

Capt. Wilkes was a veteran Navy officer and accomplished explorer. In addition to acquiring a well-deserved reputation for his skills as a navigator, he was something of a martinet.

First to you, Dr. Foreman, who were James Mason and John Slidell and what was their diplomatic mission?

James Murray Mason and John Slidell were two Southern Senators sent by the Confederate Government in Richmond to Europe to replace Pierre Rost and William Lowndes Yancey. Richmond was unhappy with the lack of diplomatic progress made by Rost and Yancey and wanted Mason and Slidell to pick up the pace. In particular, the new Confederate envoys were to impress upon the French and British governments that the Federal Blockade wasn't effective and shouldn't be recognized. But in the main, the mission was - as always with the South - to secure European recognition of the Confederate States of America. 

Capt. Wilkes fired across the Trent's bow. Was that considered an act of war? 

I would add that in modern terms - Wilkes's act was the equivalent of an Iranian fighter squadron forcing down an American Airlines plane in neutral air space and taking off two Iranina dissidents before allowing the plane to take off again for its original destination.

It was certainly provocative.

I did my college thesis on the Trent Affair, so I'm thrilled to see a spotlight on it here. I concluded that Seward was perhaps the key figure in salvaging the situation for the Union. He acknowledged that the U.S. was at war, a position contrary to the official stance of the Lincoln government, thus giving a blockade legal weight. Would you agree with that conclusion?

I"m afraid that I'm not in complete agreement. Seward's position on the blockade was very much a moveable feast - incoherent and inconsistent. Once Britain and Europe recognized the legality of the Blockade he insisted that they had made the wrong and politically motivated to grant belligerent rights to both the North and South. This was a completely crazy idea since recognition of the blockade entails granting belligerent rights to both parties.

What was the initial public reaction in the United States?

Northern public opinion rejoiced in the capture of Mason and Slidell. Each had achieved a great degree of notoriety in the North for their ardent defense of slavery in the 1850s. In addition, their seizure off a British ship was regarded with great glee by many. Twisting the tail of the British Lion was always popular. On top of everything else, it was a victory at a time in which Northern public opinion was still reeling from the defeat during the summer at Bull Run and the realization that the war would not end quickly.

Been saving that trivia nugget for awhile!

Interesting.

Dr. Foreman, what was the public reaction like in Britain?

The British were both shocked but also determined that this would be the last time that the Americans thumbed their noses at England. Seward's blustering and threatening letters - for the domestic market mostly - to the Foreign Office had turned him into a bogeyman in the British press. The public genuinely believe that he wanted a war with the US - and it was to Seward's detriment that his previous statements to people like the Duke of Newcastle, to the effect that insulting was good domestic policy, were repeatedly dredged up in the press. The British government felt it had no choice but to respond militarily while also offering a negoitated way out.

 

Have to jump in here on Seward: Throughout the crisis he displayed a politician's preference for keeping his options open. Rather early on he had indicated to Charles Francis Adams, the U.S. minister to Britain, his belief that the U.S. was protected by the fact that Wilkes had acted independently, without instructions from the government. This was an idea that Prince Albert advanced as well.

Why was European recognition so important to the South? Was Britain that crucial to its overall mission?

At that time Britain was the most powerful nation on the planet and its recognition of the South would have secured the way to international recognition - basically an invitation to all countries to ignore the blockade and perhaps even give military and strategic aid to the South. The North, which had no real navy at the beginning of the war, would have been the one isolated - at the very least a huge psychological blow - and then might have found itself fighting several wars on different fronts. I don't believe the North could have continued for long. The North-West would have had every enducement to continue along its own path towards a Northwestern confederacy.

So did Seward grow as a Secretary of State out of this crisis? Did his foreign policy later in the war become less "incoherent" and "inconsistent?"

I believe that Seward's growth as politician to an elder statesman during the war is one of the great American stories of 19th century politics. Certainly, one can see how he grew from being a local, domestic politician with short term goals in mind, into a far-seeeing, altruistic Secretary of State who was prepared to isolate himself from his friends and Cabinet in order to pursue a policy of restraint with Europe. He could still create havoc when he wanted - but his position of peace and negotiation during the Trent Affair, for example, is enough to ensure him a place on the pantheon of Great Secretaries - even though a lot of the bad blood between the US and Europe was his fault to begin with.

Lincoln has always impressed me with his soundness and reasonableness in decision making. I have often wondered what other directions the Civil War would have taken had it not been for the reasoned decisions Lincoln made. What were other leading politicians advising Lincoln to do?

In the Trent Affair, the majority of the Cabinet advised Lincoln to go to war with Britain. Thank goodness he listened to Seward instead.

What sort of political pressure did Lincoln face during the Trent Affair?

Lincoln faced conflicting pressures from diplomats and policymakers on the one hand and the public on the other. Avoluble element of Northern public opinion wanted to try Mason and Slidell as traitors and stand up to Britain. "If we are to be humilated, I prefer to take it after a war, and not before," said Sen. John Parker Hale of New Hampshire. Politicians and diplomats, on the other hand, understood full well of the dangers posed by war w/ Britain. One diplomat warned that the North would "surely go under in a bloody whirpool of ruin" if war broke out with Britain.

Was there a cabinet member in particular who pushed Lincoln for war with Britain? Chase? Bates?

Chase, as I recall, was perhaps the most outspoken proponent of war. But there were others as well. Bates was terrible too.

How did the British political factions in Parliament stand on the issue? Was there much difference between the Tory and Liberal positions during the affair?

Generally, you will find, that parties tend to keep their differences relatively quiet during times of national crisis. This was as  true of the Falklands War in 1982 as it was in the Trent Affair in 1861. The  Conservatives and the Liberals both agreed that British honour was at stake - one could say - the threat of contagion was a prime motivator - in that if one country in this case the US could get off scott free, then many other countries would start testing the waters to see what else they could get away with.

Queen Victoria’s husband Prince Albert played a crucial role in placating the dispute. Could you speak to that Dr. Foreman?

Prince Albert remains one of the unsung heroes of British history. His poor sense of humour is better remembered than his contribution to the development of commerce and industry. He was instrumental in maintaining peace between the US and the UK. I believe is the 3rd party, after Lord Lyons and Seward, who should get the most credit. If he had died before having had the chance to amend the UK government's letter to Washington, a very different outcome would have followed. The original letter was gauche, threatening and gave no graceful way out to Washington. It would have forced, for the sake of national honour, the North to reject Britain's demands to have the two Southerners released. Prince Albert cleverly softened the language and reworked the more aggressive passages. 

What, ultimately, resolved this dispute?

Decision-makers on both sides of the Atlantic identified -- independently -- a solution to the crisis stemming from the recognition that Wilkes had acted without instructions from Washington. Cooler heads in Washington, I think, also realized that war w/ Britain while hostitilies continued with the Confederacy was a formula for disaster.

During the crisis, what were Mason and Slidell up to. Were they in jail? Did they roam about freely?

Wilkes sailed into Boston with Mason and Slidell, where they were imprisoned until the dispute was resolved. Wilkes was hailed as a conquering hero upon his arrival and feted at a banquet which became known in later years as an occasion for patriotic bloviating.

Through the remainder of the war, what were relations like between Britain and the Union?

Relations between the two were always simmering - sometimes heading towards relative quiet, sometimes towards boiling point. There were so many moving parts, so many different points of contention that often had no one directing them but everyone reacting to them, that it was impossible for the two governments to prevent disuptes. But underneath, there was always a strong sense of kinship between the two peoples, and at the top of the ladder, the major participants - the two Ministers Adams and Lyons - and Seward, Lord John Russell, and others, wanted to see peace and good understanding prevail.

Why did Mason and Slidell go through Cuba? Was the blockade less stiff there?

They evaded the blockade at Charleston. Cuba was nearby, neutral  and a good embarkation point for Europe.

The problem with Seward's argument re: legality of the blockade is that the U.S. Government couldn't admit that it was at war, because that would be a de facto admission that the Confederacy was a foreign nation potentially worthy of diplomatic recognition by others. Accordingly, because of this logical conundrum, isn't it more likely to believe that Seward's inconsistency and back-pedaling were part of an obfuscation strategy designed to defer resolution of the issue until such time as the "minor conflict" with the Confederacy was concluded and the issue of the Confederate "diplomats" was moot? Particularly given that it was still early in the conflict (1861), and most on the Federal side still believed they were in for a short "war."

I think that is a good point, but one that could obviously carry no weight with international law - Seward would have done much better to concentrate on forging an alliance - either strategic, economic, or military with Britain and France - for example by promising to ensure that cotton would be exported via Northern ports in the event of a blockade, rather than bloviating his wishful thinking into quasi US foreign policy.

It seems the British analysis was the Confederacy was likely to emerge the victors in the war. What did the British base this evaluation upon?

I don't think that's right - opinion was divided - it was well known that the North was bigger, richer in terms of industrial capacity and population growth. But equally, it was felt that 13 million people could probably get their own way if they pressed hard enough and were organized enough. 

In either of your opinions, and with 150 years of hindsight, do you think war was ever likely between the Union and Great Britain?

If this crisis had been mishandled it could have very easily escalated into war. Dr. Foreman can offer a more informed opinion, but my sense is that British public opinion was enraged by Wilkes -- and the prospect of war w/ Britain appealed to Yankee xenophobia.

 

I agree with Mr Mitchell. I think we were days away from war between the two countries. It would have been tragic and completely unnecessary. 

What provoked Capt. Wilkes to stop the Trent?

Wilkes had learned in late October that Slidell and Mason were in Cuba, then discovered that they'd be heading out of Havana aboard the Trent. He knew approximately when the ship was leaving at Havana, and he knew what its course would be.

I find it ironic that the Confederates opposed the concept that Slidell and Mason could be taken as contraband, seeing as the Confederates were committed slave owners. Are humans chattel or are they not? In 1861, was this irony recognized and considered, or was the concept widely dismissed?

I take your point -- and sympathize with it. But by the legal standards of the time, they were two different issues.

One wonders how Prince Albert did this while on his death bed! Did Queen Victoria play any role in the affair after he died?

Queen Victoria gets high marks for not making any public comments that could have inflamed passions either way. She was, of course, resolutely anti-slavery. But it was entirely possible in Britain to be pro-abolition and pro-Southern since Southern propagandists insisted that the slavery question would be 'dealt' with once the country had independence.

Were Mason and Slidell the only people taken aboard the San Jacinto? As I recall, they had wives with them.

Their secretaries were taken off too.

Did the South ever achieve any form of diplomatic legitimacy? What became of Mason and Slidell?

Southern diplomacy had some minor luck with the Vatican which made noises in direction of recognition. Slidell became friendly with the Emperor Napoleon and managed to get his permission to use French dock yards to secretly build Confederate warships - but the permission was dependent on it remaining a secret and once the program became known the Emperor denied all knowledge of it and had the operation closed down. Slidell never returned to the US, his daughter Matilda married Baron Erlanger and the family remained in France. Mason eventually returned to the South - a broken man.

Quick note on the passengers aboard the Trent: I believe Slidell's daughter was also aboard. As a party of  Marines moved to enter Slidell's cabin and take him prisoner, a commotion broke out and a former Royal Navy commander was denounced them as "cowardly poltroons." We just don't do epithets like that anymore.

One always hears that Europe needed Southern cotton. The South certainly believed that would draw Britain and France into the war. But didn't they need Northern grain too?

The issue of Northern grain was never once - not once - in four years discussed in the UK Cabinet or by Cabinet members. One radical MP, John Bright, once brought it up in the House of Commons as a scaremongering tactic to head off Southern sympathy. In fact, Britian did not need Southern cotton either - there was a cotton glut at the beginning of the war and the subsequent embargo saved many merchants and mill owners from going bankrupt. It was almost 18 months before the cotton famine took hold and by then, although times were extremely harsh, there was sufficient cotton coming in from Indian and Egypt to prevent a total standstill - and also other industries enjoyed a boomtime thanks to the civil war, so that the UK"s economy actually grew during the war, even though in 1861, 500,000 workers were employed in the cotton mills - and the livelihoods of 1 in 5 Britons was in some way connected to Cotton. But the need for cotton was never a determining factor in whether the British government should recognize the South. As in the oil crisies in the 1970s, the Southern attempt to dictate the policy of neutrals through economic blackmail backfired.

That's our Trent Affair chat for today. Thanks to everyone who sent in questions and to Dr. Foreman, author of "A World on Fire: Britain's Crucial Role in the American Civil War" (Random House, 2011) and Mr. Mitchell, author of "Skirmisher: The Life, Times, and Political Career of James B. Weaver (Edinborough, 2009). Be sure to follower the Washington Post's Civil War Twitter page (@civilwarwp) for daily "real-time" tweets from the war, using first hand accounts.

In This Chat
Robert B. Mitchell
Robert B. Mitchell is an assistant editor with the Washington Post News Service and author of "Skirmisher: The Life, Times, and Political Career of James B. Weaver" (Edinborough Press), winner of the 2009 Benjamin F. Shambaugh Award from the State Historical Society of Iowa. His article on the Trent Affair appears in the November issue of America's Civil War.
Amanda Foreman
Amanda Foreman is the author of "A World on Fire: Britain's Crucial Role in the American Civil War" (Random House, 2011). She attended Sarah Lawrence College and Columbia University in New York, and received her doctorate in Eighteenth-Century British History from Oxford University in 1998. Her biography ?Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire? (Random House, 1999), won Britain's Whitbread Prize for Best Biography.
Timothy R. Smith
Timothy R. Smith, an editorial aide and staff writer, runs the Washington Post's Civil War Twitter account and covers local reenactments for The Post.
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