The Trent Affair U.S. Department of Seal
Department of State

The Trent Affair was the diplomatic crisis that potentially brought Great Britain and the United States closest to war during the first year of the American Civil War. Although war seemed possible, both sides managed to avoid an armed conflict, and in the process gained greater confidence in one another.

Confederate President Jefferson Davis, seeking support against the North, sent diplomats James Mason of Virginia as minister to Britain and John Slidell of Louisiana as minister to France. Eluding the Union blockade, the Southerners reached Cuba, where they boarded a British mail steamer, the Trent, for passage across the Atlantic Ocean. On November 8, 1861, Captain James of the USS San Jacinto, halted the Trent 300 miles east of Havana with two shots across the bow. A boarding party from the San Jacinto seized the Confederate diplomats and their secretaries but then allowed the Trent to resume its voyage. This decision became a source of controversy, with the British claiming that the San Jacinto had violated international law by removing persons from a ship without taking the ship to a prize court for adjudication.

The San Jacinto met with acclaim when it landed in Boston on November 23 to deposit the Confederate prisoners at Fort Warren. The war had been going badly for the Union, and this was a bright spot in an otherwise dismal year. Northern newspapers vied with one another to praise Wilkes' conduct. The U.S. House of Representatives passed a resolution to honor him. Reaction to the news in Great Britain, although equally passionate, could hardly have been more different. News of the capture arrived in London on November 27, where many perceived it as an outrageous insult to British honor. Lord Palmerston, Britain's cantankerous Prime Minister, commenced an emergency cabinet meeting by throwing his hat on the table and declaring, "I don't know whether you are going to stand this, but I'll be damned if I do." The British Government composed an ultimatum that demanded an apology and the return of the Confederate diplomats. Prince Albert, the consort of Britain's Queen Victoria, although deathly ill with typhoid, intervened from his sickbed to soften the ultimatum, which he felt was too belligerent. This was his last official act, as he died a couple of weeks later. The revised message was sent to Lord Lyons, the British minister in Washington. Lyons presented it to Secretary of State Seward on December 19. Meanwhile, the Government of France declared its willingness to support Britain in a conflict against the United States.

Capitulation to Britain's demands was difficult for the U.S. Government, due to the popularity in the North of Wilkes' action. Nonetheless, President Lincoln and Secretary of State Seward had given themselves room for maneuver by waiting to hear the British reply before they decided the fate of the Confederate prisoners. After heated meetings with his cabinet, Lincoln decided upon a policy of "One war at a time." The question remained how to accept British demands while maintaining U.S. popular support. Seward resolved this conundrum by presenting to Lyons a brilliantly crafted reply of December 27 to the British note. Seward conceded the substance at issue by announcing that the Confederates would be freed, but he salvaged American pride by forcefully asserting that Britain had finally adopted the American conception of neutral rights over which the two nations had fought a war in 1812. On January 1, 1862, Mason and Slidell were released. Reaching Europe at last, their mission proved a failure, as they found themselves unable to entice the European powers to intervene in the American Civil War on behalf of the Confederacy.

The Trent affair built confidence between the Governments of Britain and the United States. Before the crisis many English officials, whose sympathies lay with the Confederacy, had seen U.S. Secretary of State Seward as an aggressive demagogue who sought a war with Britain. Seward's generally moderate and sensible behavior during the Trent affair gave them greater confidence that they could work effectively with him. The successful resolution of this crisis produced a sense that continued peace with the United States was possible, and this perception became a self-fulfilling prophecy despite subsequent strains in the Anglo-American relationship.

Additional Reading:
Gordon H. Warren. Fountain of Discontent: The Trent Affair and Freedom of the Seas (Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1981).
Norman B. Ferris. The Trent Affair: A Diplomatic Crisis (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1977).