The Trent Affair

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The Trent Affair

Trent Affair: 1861-1862

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.

Seeking international support against the North, Confederate President Jefferson Davis 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 Wilkes, 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, many 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, was vastly 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 U.S. 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. Finally arriving in Europe, 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 later 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 moderate and sensible behavior during the Trent Affair, however, promoted greater confidence between Great Britain and the United States. 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. (See: Preventing Diplomatic Recognition of the Confederacy and American Civil War and International Diplomacy.)

Sources: U.S. State Department; Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies

Recommended Reading: King Cotton Diplomacy: Foreign Relations of the Confederate States of America. Description: On its initial publication King Cotton Diplomacy was hailed as a definitive study of Confederate foreign affairs. It was most highly acclaimed for its fresh interpretations of the reasons why England and France refused to grant recognition and aid to the Confederacy. Harriet Chappell Owsley presents a new and revised edition . . . and has in many places tightened and improved the literary style, but she has permitted the new volume to retain both the substance and the flavor of the earlier edition. Continued below...
This book is the exhaustive, definitive study of Southern attempts to gain international support for the Confederacy by leveraging the cotton supply for European intervention during the Civil War. Using previously untapped sources from Britain and France, along with documents from the Confederacy’s state department, Frank Owsley’s King Cotton Diplomacy is the first archival-based study of Confederate diplomacy.

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Recommended Reading: Secret History of Confederate Diplomacy Abroad (Hardcover). Description: One of the South's most urgent priorities in the Civil War was obtaining the recognition of foreign governments. Edwin De Leon, a Confederate propagandist charged with wooing Britain and France, opens up this vital dimension of the war in the earliest known account by a Confederate foreign agent. First published in the New York Citizen in 1867-68, De Leon's memoir subsequently sank out of sight until its recent rediscovery by William C. Davis, one of the Civil War field's true luminaries. Both reflective and engaging, it brims with insights and immediacy lacking in other works, covering everything from the diplomatic impact of the Battle of Bull Run to the candid opinions of Lord Palmerston to the progress of secret negotiations at Vichy. Continued below...

De Leon discusses, among other things, the strong stand against slavery by the French and a frustrating policy of inaction by the British, as well as the troubling perceptions of some Europeans that the Confederacy was located in South America and that most Americans were a cross between Davy Crockett and Sam Slick. With France's recognition a priority, De Leon published pamphlets and used French journals in a futile attempt to sway popular opinion and pressure the government of Napoleon III. His interpretation of the latter's meeting with Confederate diplomat John Slidell and the eventual mediation proposal sheds new light on that signal event. De Leon was a keen observer and a bit of a gossip, and his opinionated details and character portraits help shed light on the dark crevices of the South's doomed diplomatic efforts and provide our only inside look at the workings of Napoleon's court and Parliament regarding the Confederate cause. Davis adds an illuminating introduction that places De Leon's career in historical context, reveals much about his propagandist strategies, and traces the history of the Secret History itself. Together they open up a provocative new window on the Civil War.


Recommended Reading: Union in Peril: The Crisis over British Intervention in the Civil War. Review: The Lincoln administration feared that Great Britain would officially recognize the Confederacy during the Civil War, thereby granting legitimacy to secession and undermining the U.S. Constitution. What did happen, and why, is brilliantly described by Howard Jones in Union in Peril: The Crisis over British Intervention in the Civil War. Continued below…

“An attractively written, cogently argued study that merits a prominent place on the bookshelves of Anglo-American and Civil War scholars.”—Journal of American History

(Journal of American History)

“Jones offers a fresh revision . . . on why England failed to intervene in the American fratricidal struggle. . . . [His] book combines a delightful writing style with excellent bibliography and footnotes. It is based on solid research, primarily in original sources. It is a work that will serve well both the scholar and the general reader.”—American Historical Review (American Historical Review)

“Thought-provoking . . . Jones does a laudable job of presenting both the British arguments for and against intervention and the foundations of the crisis in the relationship between [Great Britain and the United States].”—Library Journal

(Library Journal)

About the Author: Howard Jones, University Research Professor in history at the University of Alabama, is the author of numerous books, including To the Webster-Ashburton Treaty: A Study in Anglo-American Relations, 1783–1843 and Course of American Diplomacy: From the Revolution to the Present.


Recommended Reading: One War at a Time: The International Dimensions of the American Civil War. Review: One War at a Time - Lincoln's axiom for Union diplomacy- refutes the opinion of most historians and biographers that Lincoln played only a minor role in U.S. foreign relations. It reveals his continuing efforts to avoid a war with England or France while using the threat of war to prevent European recognition of Confederate independence. Mahin covers Confederate efforts to obtain diplomatic recognition, the construction of warships for the Confederacy in Britain, the British role in the blockade-running operation, and the postwar "Alabama claims" against Britain. Mahin also provides the first full analysis of U.S. and Confederate reactions to the French intervention in Mexico and to the efforts to establish an imperial government in Mexico.

Recommended Reading: The Trent Affair: Including A Review Of English And American Relations At The Beginning Of The Civil War (Hardcover: 288 pages)

Recommended Reading: Civil War High Commands (1040 pages) (Hardcover). Description: Based on nearly five decades of research, this magisterial work is a biographical register and analysis of the people who most directly influenced the course of the Civil War, its high commanders. Numbering 3,396, they include the presidents and their cabinet members, state governors, general officers of the Union and Confederate armies (regular, provisional, volunteers, and militia), and admirals and commodores of the two navies. Civil War High Commands will become a cornerstone reference work on these personalities and the meaning of their commands, and on the Civil War itself. Errors of fact and interpretation concerning the high commanders are legion in the Civil War literature, in reference works as well as in narrative accounts. Continued below...

The present work brings together for the first time in one volume the most reliable facts available, drawn from more than 1,000 sources and including the most recent research. The biographical entries include complete names, birthplaces, important relatives, education, vocations, publications, military grades, wartime assignments, wounds, captures, exchanges, paroles, honors, and place of death and interment. In addition to its main component, the biographies, the volume also includes a number of essays, tables, and synopses designed to clarify previously obscure matters such as the definition of grades and ranks; the difference between commissions in regular, provisional, volunteer, and militia services; the chronology of military laws and executive decisions before, during, and after the war; and the geographical breakdown of command structures. The book is illustrated with 84 new diagrams of all the insignias used throughout the war and with 129 portraits of the most important high commanders.


Recommended Reading: The Real Lincoln: A New Look at Abraham Lincoln, His Agenda, and an Unnecessary War. Description: It hardly seems possible that there is more to say about someone who has been subjected to such minute scrutiny in thousands of books and articles. Yet, Thomas J. DiLorenzo’s The Real Lincoln manages to raise fresh and morally probing questions, challenging the image of the martyred 16th president that has been fashioned carefully in marble and bronze, sentimentalism and myth. In doing so, DiLorenzo does not follow the lead of M. E. Bradford or other Southern agrarians. Continued below...

He writes primarily not as a defender of the Old South and its institutions, culture, and traditions, but as a libertarian enemy of the Leviathan state. DiLorenzo holds Lincoln and his war responsible for the triumph of "big government" and the birth of the ubiquitous, suffocating modern U.S. state. He seeks to replace the nation’s memory of Lincoln as the “Great Emancipator” with the record of Lincoln as the “Great Centralizer.”

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