The collections

The Trent Affair (November 8, 1861)

As a major strategic objective, the recognition formality of the Confederate States of America by European powers had been sought from the very first days of the new nation's existence. In February 1861, a delegation had been created for this purpose, then sent to Europe. She had made encouraging contacts with the French and British governments. On May 13, the United Kingdom officially declared its neutrality in the conflict, which implicitly recognized the Confederation as a belligerent in its own right.

A complex diplomatic game

This proclamation had the advantage of allowing access to British ports to Confederate ships, and therefore to their cotton cargo; a vital asset for the South, which could in return buy in Great Britain weapons and materials that he lacked. It did not, however, have only drawbacks for the Union, since it guaranteed the military non-intervention of the British. The latter, however, did not go much further, contenting themselves with receiving Southern delegates informally and infrequently.

In fact, the British government, led by the enduring 76-year-old Viscount Palmerston, was walking on eggshells. For the United Kingdom as for France, the southern question was complex. Some saw secession as a fait accompli, and would gladly have given the South the recognition it asked for. Moreover, seeing the United States divided could only facilitate the extension of its sphere of influence on the American continent, hitherto limited by the growing power of the United States. This was especially true for France, which was soon to be drawn into its expedition to Mexico.

However, it was about not betting on the wrong horse, because the outcome of the fight was still good. uncertain. Despite the southerners' victories at Bull Run in July and Wilson’s Creek in August, the UK had good reason not to rush. Recognizing Confederation could spark a hostile Union reaction, and perhaps even war, for which British forces were ill-prepared: most of the army was in India, and Canada's defenses were very poor. In addition, overly displayed support for such a separatist enterprise, at a time when Ireland's independence tendencies were becoming more and more pressing, could turn out to be a regrettable example - which the head of diplomacy of the United Kingdom. Union Secretary of State William Seward was sure to point out to his British counterpart.

The Southern delegates continued their efforts anyway, but by mid-August it became clear that they were running out of steam. John Russell, the British Foreign Minister, had made it clear to them that as it stood, his country would do nothing more for Confederation. He had also implicitly ended the discussions. President Davis then decided to send two men with more diplomatic experience, John Slidell and James Mason, to Europe. No precautions were taken to hide their departure, so that the identity of the two plenipotentiaries was known to the Northerners, through the press, even before their departure.

Sea chase race

The two men left Charleston on October 12 aboard the steamer. Theodora bound for the British colony of Nassau, Bahamas, with the hope of boarding an English vessel there, the neutrality of which would ensure that they would not be intercepted by the Union Navy. However, they missed the correspondence for England, learning that the next departure would be from Havana on November 7th. They reached Cuba, then Spanish possession, on October 16.

Meanwhile, a Northerner warship, the steam frigate USS San Jacinto, cruised in the Caribbean. She served until then within the Africa squadron, a detachment that the federal government had maintained in the South Atlantic for decades as part of a treaty with the United Kingdom. Its purpose was to fight the slave trade - the transport of slaves from Africa to the Americas. The San Jacinto had been ordered to join the squadron that was to attack Port Royal in early November, and was therefore heading north.

The frigate was commanded by the captain Charles Wilkes, a man renowned for his obsession with discipline and his execrable temperament. Years earlier he had led an exploration mission to Antarctica and the Pacific, between 1838 and 1842. During this, Wilkes had been so hard on his officers that they, once l 'expedition ended, had him court martialed. They accused him in particular of increasing the punishments against his men, a count for which Wilkes was ultimately convicted and reprimanded - which did not prevent him from continuing his career.

En route, Wilkes learned that a Confederate warship, the CSS Sumter, had captured several northern vessels in Cuban waters, which he diverted to hoping to intercept. He did not succeed, but while making a stopover in the port of Cienfuegos, he learned from the newspapers that two southern plenipotentiaries, Mason and Slidell, would leave Havana on November 7 for England, aboard a courier. British RMS Trent. He decided impulsively, despite the enormous diplomatic risks it posed, toboard the ship on leaving the port.

On November 8, the San Jacinto intercepted the Trent and fired two cannon shots across his path to force him to stop. A rowboat boarded the British ship, despite protests from its captain. Wilkes argued that the Confederate emissaries had been exfiltrated in violation of the blockade to consider them… “war contraband”! He made them Stop and transfer to his ship, as well as their secretaries. The Trent was allowed to continue on his way, although normally, having transported “contraband”, he should have been seized.

Diplomatic crisis

Upon arriving in Boston at the end of November, Wilkes was welcomed as a hero ; he even received official congratulations from Congress for his initiative. However, doubts as to the legality of this do not take long to emerge. In fact, boarding a foreign ship to arrest passengers or crew was a practice the British Navy used in the early 19th century: English vessels regularly boarded American ships in search of deserters or British citizens. By dint of protest, the US government ended up declaring war on the UK for this reason in 1812 - a conflict that would last three years. A growing body of opinion, for this reason, began to consider the need to release Slidell and Mason.

Especially since once it was known in Britain, the incident triggered the wrath of the British. As the press called for revenge for Britain's scorned honor, the Palmerston government struggled to find an adequate response. 1er In December, Palmerston sent what was essentially an ultimatum to Washington: the United States government had seven days to apologize and release the two captives, failing which the United Kingdom would sever diplomatic relations. This step won the Tacit support of France shortly after, anxious not to alienate England.

The possibility of war was seriously considered by the British, as they did not know whether the boarding of the Trent whether or not it was a deliberate provocation on the part of the Americans. Hasty preparations were made to strengthen Canada's defenses and train the local militia there. Naval operations were also envisaged, aimed at lifting the blockade of the southern coasts, after which the Royal Navy prepared to impose its own blockade on the northern ports. However, none of these war preparations did not go before.

As the British ultimatum left for Washington, Seward wrote to his British counterpart Russell to inform him that Captain Wilkes had acted without orders and on his own initiative. When the ultimatum was received, with further alarming news indicating that the UK was preparing for war, the Secretary of State issued a response disavowing Wilkes's action - though supporting its legality - and announcing the release of the two southern emissaries. Although it did not contain an apology, the British considered it satisfactory.

Mason and Slidell arrived in Southampton at the end of January 1862, putting an end to the crisis. Although the Union had come relatively close to an armed conflict with the United Kingdom, it would ultimately benefit greatly from the peaceful resolution of the Trent. Once normalized, Anglo-Northern relations would remain cordial. Even if they were able to continue their mission, the southern plenipotentiaries were ultimately never able to obtain the official recognition they had come for. Britain was not going to break out of its neutrality during the remainder of the conflict. As for Captain Wilkes, he continued his career, not without being marked by a heated argument with the Secretary of the Navy, Gideon Welles. This resulted in him being once again court-martialed and having his promotion to rear admiral delayed until his retirement in 1866.


A full article on the case of Trent and its consequences

An article by Mark Grimsley, originally published in the magazine History in 1989

Video: What was: The Trent Affair? (January 2022).