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The Trent Affair

 

In November of 1861, Captain Charles Wilkes of the San Jacinto captured a British mail ship carrying two Confederate envoys on their way to Europe. The two envoys had left the Confederacy through South Carolina, slipped through the US Naval blockade and made it to Cuba, where the Trent allowed them to board, fully aware of their diplomatic status. Designated as “Special Commissioners of the Confederate States of America”, James Mason and John Slidell had been tasked with getting England and France to recognize the sovereignty of the Confederacy.

The San Jacinto arrived in San Thomas on October 10, and Cuba not long after. Captain Wilkes became aware of the presence of the envoys through the newspapers, and after hearing of their plan to leave on the Trent, he made a plan to intercept the vessel. The question of legality does not seem to have entered Captain’s Wilke’s mind, but he did inform his second in command, Lieutenant Fairfax of his plan. Fairfax protested the plan and urged Wilkes to take caution not to cause an international incident.

On November 8, despite the protests of Lieutenant Fairfax, as the vessel grew closer to the San Jacinto, a shell hit the bow of the Trent, causing her to stop. Although The Trent showed neutral colors, Wilkes boarded the vessel and forcibly removed James Mason and John Slidell. Wilkes allowed the Trent to continue on its voyage to England, the envoys and the San Jacinto set their course to Fortress Monroe. 

Upon Wilke’s arrival at Fortress Monroe, he received celebratory praise for his actions and an order to take prisoners to Boston, where they arrived on November 24, 1861. Influential Bostonians threw a party Captain Wilkes and his officers at the Revere house. When Congress assembled that December, Mr. Lovejoy of Illinois made sure to thank Captain Wilkes for “for his brave, adroit and patriotic conduct in the arrest and detention of the traitors, James M. Mason and John Slidell.” (1)

At Fort Warren, a prisoner from North Carolina had been detailed to serve Mason and Slidell. They both received gifts from northern friends and ate well, much to the distress of some staunch Unionists, which included Massachusetts governor John Andrew, though Andrew discovered nothing could be done about the gifts. (2)

The British quickly determined the actions of Captain Wilkes had been illegal and requested both the immediate release of Mason and Slidell and an apology. France declared that if Britain went to war, it would support them. While the British maintained their neutrality, they ordered troops to Canada and ships to Western Atlantic. The letter which contained the British demands took almost an entire month to reach Washington D.C, and by that time the situation had cooled down slightly. President Lincoln knew that beginning another conflict while already at war would not be a good move, famously saying “One war at a time.” 

On December 21, the cabinet voted to release Mason and Slidell. (3) In late December, British diplomat Lord Lyons received a letter which defended the actions of Wilkes, but stated he should have allowed a court to affirm the legality of the matter. Commander of Fort Warren, Colonel Justin Dimick received orders to transfer Mason and Slidell into the custody of E.D Webster of the State Department. A Boston newspaper reported that when Webster arrived to tell them of their departure, Slidell took as long as possible to pack up his stuff, though this incident is not noted in Mason’s account of the event.  Dimick escorted the former prisoners to the ship that took them off of the island. Dimick refused to allow the other prisoners to leave as they left the grounds of Fort Warren. (4) After their release from Fort Warren, Mason and Slidell made their way to Europe to continue their mission, although they returned to Confederacy unsuccessful. (5) 

Footnotes 

(1) Charles Francis Adams, “The Trent Affair,” The American Historical Review, Apr., 1912, Vol. 17, No. 3 (Apr., 1912),https://www.jstor.org/stable/pdf/1834388.pdf, 542- 550.

(2) Shurcliff & Merill, Landscape Architects, “History and Master Plan Georges Island and Fort Warren Boston”; Horne Mclein “Prison Conditions In Fort Warren, Boston, During the Civil War,” (unpublished dissertation ,1955),Prison Conditions,17,138.

(3) Margaret Gach, “TWE Remembers: The Trent Affair,” last modified November 8, 2021, accessed April 23, 2023, TWE Remembers: The Trent Affair | Council on Foreign Relations; Neil P. Chatelain, “The Trent Affair’s Diplomatic Winners and Losers,” last modified November 8,2021, accessed April 23, 2023, The Trent Affair’s Diplomatic Winners and Losers.

(4) Shurcliff & Merill, Landscape Architects, “History and Master Plan Georges Island and Fort Warren Boston,” (Boston: Metropolitan District Commission; – Parks Division, 1960), 22; Minor Horne Mclein “Prison Conditions in Fort Warren, Boston, During the Civil War,” (unpublished dissertation, 1955), https://open.bu.edu/ds2/stream/?#/documents/101766/page/1, 137-140; History.com editors, “The Trent Affair,” last modified August 21, 2018, accessed April 23, 2023, Trent Affair.

(5) History.com editors, “The Trent Affair,” last modified August 21, 2018, accessed April 23, 2023, Trent Affair.

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