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Former U. S Senator John Slidell of Louisiana and Former U. S Senator James Mason of Virginia were en route to France and Britain when officers of the San Jacinto boarded the British ship Trent and demanded these passengers. Slidell and Mason were removed and taken to Fort Warren in Boston. The resulting international incident almost sparked a war between Britain, France and the United States.
Confederate papers announced the arrival of James Mason and John Slidell at Charleston, South Carolina early in October, 1861 as the start of a journey to London and Paris, where they would become ministers from the new Confederate States of America. As a ruse, the papers also published that the C. S. S. Nashville would carry them out of Charleston Harbor on October 10, 1861 in an effort to throw off any federals watching the papers for information. Instead, Slidell and Mason left on the Thedora on October 12 with family members, friends, and personal secretaries. After escaping the Union blockade, the Confederate runner made way to Nassau, Bahamas where the ministers were to transfer to a steamer headed for Liverpool. On entering the port, Mason and Slidell discovered the vessel they intended to board was heading for New York before Liverpool, so they continued on the Thedora to Havana.
Once in Havana, Cuba the ministers boarded the British ship Trent, an unarmed packet ship that carried mail and passengers between Vera Cruz and St. Thomas, (now the Virgin Islands). A U. S. warship, the San Jacinto, a sloop mounted with 15 guns, was laying in wait in a narrow part of the Bahama Channel after learning from the U. S. Consul in Havana the time the Trent was going to depart. The warship brought its guns to bear and fired two shots across the bow of the Trent a day into its journey. Captain Charles Wilkes of the San Jacinto sent a boarding party on three cutters under the command of Executive Officer Lieutenant D. Macneill Fairfax. The Trent slowed and permitted Fairfax to board the ship.
After Lt. Fairfax spoke to Captain James Moir of the Trent on the quarterdeck, John Slidell stepped out of a crowd that assembled and introduced himself. Almost immediately James Mason arrived and Fairfax took the Confederate ministers, along with their secretaries, George Eustis and James McFarland, into custody, but the ministers refused to return peaceably to the San Jacinto. Fairfax sent for an armed boarding party to escort him and the prisoners to the U. S. ship, along with three boats to carry the prisoners, their luggage and provisions. Although Mason went without a struggle, Slidell, after returning to his cabin, tried to allude capture and briefly struggled with some U. S. Marines, who physically restrained him and carried him aboard one of the cutters.
When the four prisoners were aboard the Trent, Captain Wilkes set sail to Fort Monroe. From here he headed to Boston, but was force to weigh anchor at Newport, Rhode Island to ride out a storm. Arriving in Boston on November 24, Captain Wright turned his prisoners over to Colonel Justin Dimmick, then commanding Fort Warren.
After leaving the Bahama Channel, the Trent made its way to St. Thomas, where the passengers disembarked and most continued on to Southhampton aboard the La Plata. Meanwhile, the Trent returned to its normal mail run. The Admiralty agent from the ship, Commodore Williams, wired information to London about the boarding of the Trent when the La Plata arrived in Southhampton on November 27.
Although it was seen in the North as pro-South, Britain had not taken sides in the American conflict, mostly because it realized the South had little chance of winning. Gaining Britain's support, and to a lesser extent, France's support, was viewed as a key to Confederate success, especially among high-ranking national officials including Jefferson Davis.
Following news of the Trent Affair reaching Great Britain and France, popular support for the South in those countries increased as rumors spread claiming that Abraham Lincoln and his Cabinet had authorized the boarding of the ship and the taking of Slidell and Mason. Britain's pro-South factions, especially the industrialists and some politicians and bureaucrats, strongly supported Britain's entry into the war on the Southern side. Led by Lord Palmerston, the British prepared a strongly worded response to the seizure of the Trent. Queen Victoria's husband Albert intervened from his deathbed, softening the tone of the message. Some British historians consider this the Prince Consort's most historic act.
Besides sending the note via diplomatic channels, the British began mobilizing a portion of its armed forces for war. By the time U. S. Secretary of State William Seward received the note, France had declared its support for Britain in the matter, even if it meant war with the United States. In Canada, nationalistic leader John MacDonald mobilized militia across the southern frontier. Seward was willing to go to war over the matter, but Lincoln cautioned him "One war at time." Lincoln did not want a war with either Britain or France, so Seward came up with a response and Lincoln presented to the Cabinet for input on December 23 (this date is occasionally given as the date Seward received the note.) The American response stated that Wilkes had acted without orders and that Mason and Slidell could continue on their journey. This note was delivered to Lord Lyons, British minister to the United States on December 27, 1861 and John Slidell and James Mason were released from their prison on New Year's Day, 1862. Their mission to Britain and France was a complete failure.
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The Trent Affair
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Trent Affair was last changed on - June 16, 2007
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