The Trent Affair of 1861: Definition & Summary

Instructor: Matthew Hill
The Trent Affair involved a Union admiral removing two Confederate diplomats off a British ship. The affair ended without incident, though it created a serious diplomatic crisis for Lincoln during the American Civil War.

Background to the Trent Affair

President Abraham Lincoln's chime 'one war at a time' became the key to squashing a potential diplomatic and military crisis for the Union. When the Civil War broke out, the Union blockaded southern ports to prevent the coming and going of ships, though some ships managed to slip through.

The South needed an ally and held out hope that Europeans would extend it diplomatic recognition. To add pressure, the South withheld cotton shipments to European markets, the primary buyers of its 'white gold'. 'King Cotton Diplomacy' was rooted in the hope that by depleting the European textile industry of cotton, Europeans would offer diplomatic recognition and bust up the Union blockage.

Admiral Charles Wilkes
Admiral James Wilkes

Intercepting the HMS Trent

In hopes of bargaining with England and France, Confederate President Jefferson Davis sent James Mason of Virginia and John Slidell of Louisiana on a diplomatic mission to Europe. In October 1861, Mason and Slidell departed Charleston for Cuba where they then boarded the British mail steamer HMS Trent. However, Union Admiral Charles Wilkes, commander of the USS San Jacinto, discovered their plan and on November 8, 1861, stopped and boarded the HMS Trent.

He had Mason, Slidell, and their secretaries removed as 'contraband of war,' and let the ship go. Wilkes then had Mason and Slidell imprisoned in Fort Warren, in Boston. In the U.S., many saw Wilkes as a hero who had thwarted Confederate plans to draw Europe into the war, but the British saw things very differently.

Confederate Agent James Mason
James Mason

The British Response

Back in England, the British government was livid that the U.S. had boarded one of its ships and saw the affair as an insult to the British flag. British Prime Minister Lord Palmerston organized a cabinet meeting and drafted a strongly worded ultimatum demanding an apology and the release of Mason and Slidell. Palmerston even instructed his military forces in Canada to prepare for a possible war. Members of his cabinet softened the war talk, but sent the letter to the British Ambassador Lord Lyons in Washington.

Lyons became the chief negotiator for the British in America, and he discussed the matter with Lincoln's Secretary of State William Seward who was caught in the middle. Back in London, the chief U.S. Ambassador in England, Charles Francis Adams negotiated with British Foreign Minister Lord Russell and skillfully smoothed relations with the British cabinet and proved a calming influence in a heated situation.

Confederate Agent John Slidell
John Slidell

Lincoln's Dilemma

Lincoln was upset that despite British overtures to neutrality, they were carrying Confederate agents on one of their own ships. Lincoln also knew that despite the fact that Wilkes' actions had not been authorized, his actions were highly popular with the media. If he were to release Mason and Slidell, he would appear to be sanctioning British interference. More importantly, Lincoln reasoned that he could not risk war with the British which would all but guarantee a Confederate victory.

William Seward came up with a workable solution and in a carefully worded letter in December 1861, that Lincoln approved of, managed to both pacify British honor and withheld a formal apology. Adams in England then became the chief delegate to discuss the matter in England.

American Ambassador Charles Francis Adams
Charles Francis Adams

Seward's Solution

The illegality of Wilkes' actions hinged on the fact that after he took Mason and Slidell off the HMS Trent, he was then required under international law to haul the entire ship into port for adjudication. The process of adjudication meant that maritime courts should have decided the legality of his actions. The British were eager to remind the U.S. that such action is what led to the War of 1812.

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