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With two Confederate emissaries in U.S. custody, Britain’s Prince Albert stepped in to prevent a second war.

A pleasant breeze blew across the deck of the USS San Jacinto as Captain Charles Wilkes unwittingly brought the United States to the brink of war with Britain.

Almost seven months after the fall of Fort Sumter, the San Jacinto, a screw-powered frigate under Wilkes’ command, was stalking a pair of high-profile Confederates. John Slidell of Louisiana and James Mason of Virginia, former U.S. senators dispatched by President Jefferson Davis to win diplomatic recognition of the Rebel government by Britain and France, were bound for Europe aboard the Trent, a British mail steamer. If their mission proved successful, the Confederacy would gain powerful allies whose support could tip the outcome of the war in its favor.

As he sailed the balmy waters off the coast of Cuba, Wilkes resolved to stop them.

The hunt for Slidell and Mason had begun October 26, 1861, when Wilkes brought the San Jacinto into the Cuban port of Cienfuegos. As he took on coal to continue his patrol for Confederate vessels, Wilkes learned Mason and Slidell had evaded the Union blockade of Charleston, S.C., and were in Cuba, preparing to depart for Europe. The significance of this intelligence was clear. With Mason headed to London and Slidell to Paris, Wilkes believed it was essential to arrest them before their “mischievous and treacherous errands” could produce “treaties and alliances with foreign States” that would hinder suppression of the rebellion.

Wilkes hastened to Havana, where he learned Mason and Slidell were expected to leave November 7 for St. Thomas before crossing the Atlantic. That gave Wilkes some time, and over the next several days, the San Jacinto darted around Cuba in preparation. Finally, on the morning of November 8, the San Jacinto lay in wait 240 miles east of Havana. It was only a matter of time, Wilkes believed, before Slidell and Mason fell into his hands. That they would be aboard a vessel flying the Union Jack seemed of no consequence.

The day began uneventfully. Two vessels appeared on the horizon, but neither interested the captain. Wilkes, 63, continued his vigil—certain, as he put it later, that the ship he was seeking would come by “and we could not possibly miss her.”

At 11:40 a.m., the San Jacinto spied another ship to the west. It was the Trent.

The San Jacinto beat to quarters, raised the Stars and Stripes and fired a shot across the bow of the British vessel as it approached. The Trent, however, continued without slowing down. Fifteen minutes later, the San Jacinto fired again. This time, the message could not be ignored. The Trent stopped, and Lieutenant D.M. Fairfax of the San Jacinto came aboard.

The British commander rebuffed Fairfax’s demand to inspect the passenger list and search the Trent, but any hopes of keeping his Confederate passengers hidden quickly evaporated. As the officers continued their parley, Slidell, Mason and their aides joined the discussion. Not surprisingly, they protested their seizure and declined to cooperate with the Union naval officer. Fairfax then summoned additional sailors, including eight Marines, to assist with the arrest of the rebels. When “a great deal of noise” erupted in Slidell’s cabin, the Marines burst in. Their appearance outraged the Trent’s mail agent Richard Williams, a former Royal Navy commander who witnessed the incident and called the Americans “cowardly poltroons” for “advanc[ing] with their bayonets pointed at the undefended breast of Slidell’s daughter.”

For their part, the Union officers believed their men behaved honorably and that the British regarded them with contempt. “Most all of the officers of the vessel showed an undisguised hatred for the northern people, and a sympathy for the Confederates,” reported Lieutenant James A. Greer. “The officers and men of our party took no apparent notice of the remarks that were made, and acted with the greatest forbearance.”

Confronted with superior force, Mason and Slidell offered no further resistance and were brought aboard the San Jacinto with their families and aides. Wilkes had successfully seized representatives of the Confederacy from a vessel sailing under the British flag.

Now he needed to justify his actions. And little in his background or temperament prepared him for the task.

A Navy veteran who had served the United States since he was appointed a midshipman in 1818, the bearded New York native possessed a sterling reputation as an explorer and navigator. As a young officer, Wilkes sailed to South America and the Mediterranean before taking charge of the Navy’s Depot of Charts and Instruments, the predecessor of the Naval Observatory and the Naval Oceanographic Office. In 1838, President Martin Van Buren sent Wilkes on an expedition to the South Seas that took him through the waters of the Antarctic to Australia, Thailand, the Philippines, Hawaii and the Pacific Northwest. For his triumph, the Geographical Society of London awarded him its Founders Medal for “the services he had rendered to the progress of geography.”

While his achievements won admiration, his conduct as an officer earned less acclaim. In Twenty Years Before the Mast, Charles Erskine recounted how the captain reacted when he confessed to inadvertently dropping important correspondence into a puddle. “I was seized and placed over the breech of a sixty-two pound Paxon gun and whipped…so severely that I could not sit down with any comfort for several weeks.” Erskine never forgot the ordeal nor entirely forgave Wilkes, but conceded that “with all his tyranny, he was a true American, and dearly loved the old flag.” While Wilkes distinguished himself as a disciplinarian, he was not as rigorous when it came to his own conduct, Navy Secretary Gideon Welles observed in his diary. “He is very exacting towards others, but is not as obedient as he should be,” Welles wrote less than a year after the seizure of the Trent. “He has abilities but not good judgment in all respects.”

Wilkes’ report on the incident revealed he was better suited to exploring distant seas than navigating the treacherous waters of international law and diplomacy. He argued that he was well within his rights to raid a vessel he suspected was carrying dispatches from the Confederate government, but as it turned out, Wilkes found no such dispatches aboard the Trent. So he advanced a more unusual rationale—that Slidell and Mason, as ambassadors, represented the “embodiment” of diplomatic dispatches. Unfortunately, many observers agreed, Wilkes’ arrest of Slidell and Mason lacked any legal merit, no matter what he claimed. “I am unable to see a shadow of ground for us to stand upon,” James Shepherd Pike, the U.S. minister to The Hague, confided in a letter to Senator William Pitt Fessenden of Maine.

In addition to its rickety legal justification, the capture dripped with irony. The United States had gone to war with Great Britain in 1812 in large part because of the Royal Navy’s practice of stopping American ships and impressing sailors for service in the war against France. Now, thanks to Wilkes, the roles were reversed—the U.S. Navy had stopped and boarded a neutral British ship to imprison passengers. Freedom of the seas for neutral countries during time of war, a hallowed principle of American foreign policy, had been compromised by an American naval vessel.

But historical consistency and legal niceties mattered little to the North, demoralized by early losses on the battlefield. As news of Wilkes’ action spread, politicians, newspapers and the public reacted with jubilation. Charles Francis Adams Jr., son of the U.S. minister to Britain and scion of the distinguished Massachusetts family of presidents, recalled that news of the affair “came like a bolt from a clouded and lowering sky” in Boston. In a story from Washington, D.C., the New York Times reported that “The city was made joyful to-day” by news of the capture of Mason and Slidell. On Capitol Hill, the House of Representatives approved a resolution commending Wilkes for his action. Horace Greeley’s New York Tribune gleefully joined the chorus. “Whatever complications may arise,” the Tribune editorialized on November 18, “it is certain that the faces of loyal Americans broadened into a universal grin” at the news.

Wilkes became a celebrity whose pocket card-sized photograph, along with images of Mason and Slidell, were sold under the title “Wilkes Takes the Responsibility” by a Broadway merchant. When Wilkes deposited the Confederates at Fort Warren in Boston, he was honored by Governor John Andrew and a host of Massachusetts dignitaries at a dinner where orators served plentiful helpings of patriotic bombast. “The speakers on this occasion,” Adams recalled 50 years later, “seemed to vie with each other in establishing a record from which thereafter it would be impossible to escape.”

The exultation isn’t so difficult to understand. With few exceptions, the summer and fall of 1861 brought little relief from the despair that set in after the Union defeat at Bull Run in July. Following that northern Virginia defeat, Greeley himself had despondently confessed in a letter to President Abraham Lincoln that he was willing to accept secession. But now a Union naval officer had captured a pair of notorious Confederate leaders—“none were more active, treacherous and virulent,” the Tribune declared—and twisted the tail of the deeply unpopular British Lion in the process. “But what will Great Britain say to the taking of these would-be envoys by force from one of her merchant vessels?” the Tribune asked facetiously. “We do not know, and do not greatly care.”

Secretary Welles, however, held back from the unreserved praise showered on the headstrong hero. In a November 30 letter to Wilkes, he offered congratulations leavened with gentle criticism. Welles hailed “the great public service you have rendered” in the capture of Mason and Slidell, but expressed dismay that Wilkes had failed to take the Trent to a port where U.S. claims could be adjudicated. Wilkes countered that he let the British ship go because of the small size of his own crew and a desire to avoid inconveniencing its passengers any more than necessary, but Welles found the departure from standard practice troubling.

“It is not necessary that I should in this communication— which is intended to be one of congratulation to yourself, officers and crew—express an opinion on the course pursued in omitting to capture the vessel which had these public enemies on board,” Welles conceded. Then he proceeded to do it anyway. The “forbearance exercised in this instance must not be permitted to constitute a precedent hereafter for infractions of neutral obligations,” the secretary warned.

The cautionary note foreshadowed events of the next several weeks as repercussions of the Trent Affair reverberated in Europe. What the North saw as an unadulterated triumph was viewed on the other side of the Atlantic as a grave violation of international law—and potential justification for war.

Fury swept across Britain as news of the seizure broke on November 27. A standing-room-only meeting in Liverpool, convened the day the news arrived, cheered a resolution calling for the government to “assert the dignity of the British flag by requiring prompt reparation for this outrage.” Williams, who had denounced the Marines who entered Slidell’s cabin as “poltroons,” became a national hero honored at a public dinner by the Royal Western Yacht Club of England. The Times of London published a vituperative attack on Wilkes, characterizing him as “an ideal Yankee” whose “[s]wagger and ferocity” were “built on a foundation of vulgarity and cowardice.”

As public outrage intensified, Britain prepared for war. Armories and dockyards hummed with activity as the government stockpiled cannons and outfitted warships. Troops mustered in London. On a visit to the British capital, New York Republican bigwig Thurlow Weed beheld troops in formation as they prepared to depart for North America and recalled seeing redcoats in action against Americans 50 years earlier. “Something of the old feeling—a feeling which I supposed had died out, began to rise, and, after a few moments of painful thought, I turned away,” he recalled.

More troublesome than jingoistic public opinion, martial preparations or difficult memories was London’s decision to deprive the North of the basic materials needed to wage war. On November 30, Britain banned exports of saltpeter, an essential ingredient in the manufacture of gunpowder. A December 4 proclamation from Queen Victoria expanded the restriction by prohibiting the export of gunpowder and weapons.

There could be no doubting the potential dangers. If the conflict with the Confederacy expanded to include Britain, “the last hope of restoring the Union will vanish, and we shall be overwhelmed with the double calamities of civil and foreign war at the same time,” former President Millard Fillmore warned Lincoln. From The Hague, Pike agreed. A wider war, he confided to Fessenden, raised the prospect that the North would “pretty surely go under in a bloody whirlpool of ruin.” In the weeks to come, much would depend on the machinery of diplomacy.

The British government began deliberations on the crisis as news of the Trent Affair sped across the country. The Cabinet under Lord Palmerston quickly settled on a draft instruction for Lord Lyons, Britain’s U.S. ambassador, which left little doubt about Whitehall’s displeasure. The proposal called for Lyons to brusquely inform the American government that the seizure of the Trent violated international law and demand the release of the Confederates into British custody. The U.S. government would be given seven days to respond, and if it failed to acquiesce to Britain’s demands, Lyons would leave Washington—a sure prelude to war. Palmerston advised the queen that she should be ready to insist on nothing less than “reparation and redress” from the United States.

But other matters preoccupied Victoria as the Cabinet’s draft arrived at Buckingham Palace on November 30. Her husband and trusted adviser, Albert, the prince consort, was in worrisome condition. Sleeplessness, fevered chills and rheumatic symptoms weakened the prince as he struggled to carry out his duties. Nevertheless, he reviewed the Cabinet’s draft instructions and recommended significant changes to which the queen agreed. Victoria and Albert wanted less bluster and more conciliation from her government.

The queen “upon the whole” approved of the instructions, Albert wrote in a tremulous hand, “but she cannot help but feeling that the main draft—that for communication to the American government—is somewhat meagre.” Instead of simply giving Washington seven days to respond to British demands, Albert informed the Cabinet that the queen preferred to offer the Lincoln administration a graceful way out.

“She should have liked to have seen the expression of a hope, that the American captain did not act under instructions, or if he did, that he misapprehended them,” Albert wrote. The queen also wanted Lyons to stress that Britain was “unwilling to believe that the United States Government intended wantonly to put an insult on this Country.” The instructions, still insisting on the release of Slidell and Mason but softened with Albert’s recommended language, met with the Cabinet’s approval and went to Lyons in Washington.

As it happened, Secretary of State William H. Seward was thinking along the same lines as the prince consort. In a November 30 letter to Charles Francis Adams Sr., the U.S. minister to Britain, Seward noted Wilkes had acted on his own, without instructions from Washington. Consequently, Seward advised Adams, “the subject is therefore free from the embarrassment which might have resulted if the act had been specially directed by us.”

Lincoln convened a Cabinet meeting on Christmas Day and a lengthy discussion of how to avoid war with Britain without appearing to capitulate ensued. Many, including Lincoln, balked at releasing the Southerners, but as the deliberations dragged into the next day, they concluded they had no other choice. Albert’s conciliatory language made it easier for the United States to find a way to back down with dignity.

Seward sent a long missive to Lyons in which he offered a lengthy, carefully crafted defense of Wilkes’ handling of the affair but noted that the captain had acted independently. Taking one last opportunity to twist the lion’s tail, Seward proposed “the adjustment of the present case upon principles confessedly American.” Then he finally came to the point. Mason, Slidell and their aides would be “cheerfully liberated,” consistent with the longstanding U.S. commitment to the rights of neutrals on the seas.

Elements of Northern public opinion remained firmly opposed to the release of the Southerners. Republican Senator John Parker Hale of New Hampshire declared he would rather fight than give up Mason and Slidell. “If we are to be humiliated, I prefer to take it after a war, and not before,” he thundered on the Senate floor. But others sheathed their sabers. The New York Times acknowledged that many Northerners regarded Mason and Slidell as “among those upon whom lies most of the guilt of this wicked rebellion” but argued that their release aided the Northern cause by averting a wider conflict. “For there can be no doubt,” the Times asserted, “that the prospect of a war between us and England was a source of comfort and encouragement to all Secessiondom.”

Slidell and Mason left Fort Warren for Provincetown, Mass., where they departed for St. Thomas and then Europe on January 1, 1862. Their release marked the high point of their diplomatic mission. Despite their efforts, neither Britain nor France could be persuaded to regard the secessionist government at Richmond as legitimate. Mason left England for Canada at the end of the war; he died in 1871 outside Alexandria, Va. Slidell died that same year and is buried near Paris.

Wilkes rose in the ranks after the Trent Affair but could not avoid additional controversy. After he was appointed acting rear admiral in 1864, he faced a court-martial for disparaging remarks he made in response to public criticism from Welles. Wilkes was found guilty of insubordination and suspended from service. He retired from the Navy after a year and died in 1877. He is buried at Arlington National Cemetery.

As for Prince Albert, his involvement in the Trent Affair proved to be the last official business in which he was involved. His health steadily deteriorated and he died December 14, 1861, before the Trent crisis reached its resolution. There would be bloody whirlpools aplenty for North and South in the years ahead, but thanks in no small measure to the prince consort, the Union avoided the ruinous vortex of war with Britain.


Robert B. Mitchell, author of Skirmisher: The Life, Times, and Political Career of James B. Weaver, is a confirmed landlubber.

Originally published in the November 2011 issue of America’s Civil War. To subscribe, click here