Trent Affair. The near war with Britain. President Davis Appoints John Slidell and James Mason as diplomatic agents with power to enter into agreements with France and England . Purpose. A. recognition of the Confederate Government B. Departed to Cuba aboard the blockade runner Theodora.
The near war with Britain
President Davis Appoints John Slidell and James Mason as diplomatic agents with power to enter into agreements with France and England
The intended departure of the diplomats was no secret, and the Union government received daily intelligence on their movements. By October 1 Slidell and Mason were in Charleston, South Carolina. Their original plan was to run the blockade in CSS Nashville, a fast steamer, and sail directly to Britain. But the main channel into Charleston was guarded by five Union ships, and Nashville’s draft was too deep for any side channels. A night escape was considered, but tides and strong night winds prevented this. An overland route through Mexico and departure from Matamoros was also considered, but the delay of several months was unacceptable.
On the 14th, she arrived at Nassau in the Bahamas, but had missed connections with a British steamer going to St. Thomas in the Danish West Indies, the main point of departure for British ships from the Caribbean to Britain
However, they discovered that British mail ships might be anchored in Spanish Cuba, and the Theodora turned southwest towards Cuba. The Theodora appeared off the coast of Cuba on October 15, with its coal bunkers nearly empty. An approaching Spanish warship hailed the Theodora. Slidell and George Eustis, Jr. went aboard, and were informed that British mail packets did indeed dock at the port of Havana, but that the last one had just left, and that the next one, the paddle steamer RMS Trent, would arrive in three weeks.
Meanwhile, rumors reached the Federal government that Mason and Slidell had escaped aboard the Nashville.Union intelligence had not immediately recognized that Mason and Slidell had left Charleston on Theodora. U.S. Navy Secretary Gideon Welles reacted to the rumor that Mason and Slidell had escaped from Charleston by ordering Admiral Samuel F. DuPont to dispatch a fast warship to Britain to intercept the Nashville
When Nashville arrived on November 21, the British were surprised that the envoys were not on board.
The Union steam frigate USS San Jacinto, commanded by Captain Charles Wilkes, arrived in St. Thomas on October 13
Wilkes learned from a newspaper that Mason and Slidell were scheduled to leave Havana on November 7 in the British mail packet RMS Trent, bound first for St. Thomas and then England. He realized that the ship would need to use the “narrow Bahama Channel, the only deepwater route between Cuba and the shallow Grand Bahama Bank.” Wilkes discussed legal options with his second in command, Lt. D. M. Fairfax, before making plans to intercept and also reviewed law books on the subject. Wilkes adopted the position that Mason and Slidell would qualify as “contraband” subject to seizure by a United States ship
This aggressive decision making was typical of Wilkes' command style. On one hand, he was recognized as “a distinguished explorer, author, and naval officer”. On the other, he “had a reputation as a stubborn, overzealous, impulsive, and sometimes insubordinate officer.” Treasury officer George Harrington had warned Seward about Wilkes: “He will give us trouble. He has a superabundance of self-esteem and a deficiency of judgment. When he commanded his great exploring mission he court-martialed nearly all his officers; he alone was right, everybody else was wrong
The Trent left on November 7 as scheduled, with Mason, Slidell, their secretaries, and Slidell’s wife and children aboard. Just as Wilkes had predicted, the Trent passed through Bahama Channel, where the San Jacinto was waiting. Around noon on November 8, lookouts aboard the San Jacinto spotted Trent, which unfurled the Union Jack as it neared. The San Jacinto then fired a shot across the Trents bow, which Captain James Moir of the Trent ignored. The San Jacinto's forward pivot gun fired a shot which landed right in front of the Trent. The Trent stopped following the second shot. Lieutenant Fairfax was summoned to the quarterdeck, where Wilkes presented him with the following written instructions
On boarding her you will demand the papers of the steamer, her clearance from Havana, with the list of passengers and crew. Should Mr. Mason, Mr. Slidell, Mr. Eustice and Mr. McFarland be on board make them prisoners and send them on board this ship and take possession of her [the Trent] as a prize. … They must be brought on board.
Fairfax then boarded the Trent from a cutter. Two cutters carrying a party of twenty men armed with pistols and cutlasses sidled up to the Trent. Fairfax, certain that Wilkes was creating an international incident and not wanting to enlarge its scope, ordered his armed escort to remain in the cutter. Upon boarding, Fairfax was escorted to an outraged Captain Moir, and announced that he had orders "to arrest Mr. Mason and Mr. Slidell and their secretaries, and send them prisoners on board the United States war vessel nearby". The crew and passengers then threatened Lieutenant Fairfax, and the armed party in the two cutters beside the Trent responded to the threats by climbing aboard to protect him. Captain Moir refused Fairfax’s request for a passenger list, but Slidell and Mason came forward and identified themselves.
Mason and Slidell made a formal refusal to go voluntarily with Fairfax, but did not resist when Fairfax's crewmen escorted them to the cutter
San Jacinto arrived in Hampton Roads, Virginia on November 15, where Wilkes wired news of the capture to Washington. He was then ordered to Boston where he delivered the captives to Fort Warren, a prison for captured Confederates
Wilkes and the San Jacinto returned to Fortress Monroe with its captured diplomats and Wilkes was hailed as a hero ( temporarily)
Lincoln was at first enthused about the capture and reluctant to let them go, but as reality set in he stated:
Britain demanded an apology and the return of the prisoners which the Lincoln administration was forced to do. Seward sent the apology and arranged for the exchange of said prisoners.
The resolution of the Trent affair dealt a serious blow to Confederate diplomatic efforts. First, it deflected the recognition momentum developed during the summer and fall of 1861. It created a feeling in Great Britain that the United States was prepared to defend itself when necessary, but recognized its responsibility to comply with international law. Moreover, it produced a feeling in Great Britain and France that peace could be preserved as long as the Europeans maintained strict neutrality in regard to the American belligerents