The Buzz

The Trent Affair: When the United States and Great Britain Nearly Went to War

In November 1861, word swept through London that an American warship, James Adger, in port at Southampton, was planning to put to sea and intercept a British ship bringing Confederate emissaries to Europe. As a result, the American minister to Great Britain found himself summoned to see the British prime minister at his residence at 94 Piccadilly. Charles Francis Adams made his way through the yellow gloom of a London fog and found Lord Palmerston waiting for him in the library. Palmerston immediately complained to Adams that Adger’s captain and crew, while “enjoying the hospitality of this country, filling his ship with coals and other supplies, and filling his own stomach with brandy should, within sight of the shore, commit an act which would be felt as offensive to the national flag.”

Earlier in the year, President Abraham Lincoln had proclaimed a blockade of Southern ports, after which Great Britain and France commenced a policy of neutrality that carried with it the rights of belligerent action by the Confederacy. It was the only important concession made to the Confederate states by European powers during the war. The Confederate commissioners in Britain at that time were a poor lot, while the United States foreign minister, Adams, the son of former President John Quincy Adams, was a skilled diplomat who had been urged by Secretary of State William H. Seward to be bold in asserting American rights.

Confederate diplomacy in Europe was more complacent, based on a belief in the economic power of “King Cotton” upon which British and French mills were dependent. Confederate President Jefferson Davis subscribed to this view. Prior to the war, England and Europe had imported nearly 85 percent of their cotton from the South. Nearly one-fifth of the British population earned its livelihood from the cotton industry, while one-tenth of Britain’s capital was invested in cotton as well. However, there was no official Confederate policy to produce a phony cotton famine in Europe or rush cotton abroad to fill the coffers of the South. It would be a short war, in Davis’s view. If it lasted longer, a concomitant cotton famine would inevitably bring Great Britain into the war to safeguard her economic interests and rescue the South.

Mason and Slidell: The Confederacy’s European Diplomats

William L. Yancey had resigned as Confederate envoy to Britain. In his place, Davis assigned a pair of trusted political cronies to represent Southern interests in London and Paris. James M. Mason, Yancey’s replacement, was a strange choice in the view of well-connected political wife Mary Boykin Chesnut, who wrote in her diary: “My wildest imagination will not picture Mr. Mason as a diplomat. He will say ‘chaw’ for ‘chew’ and he will call himself ‘Jeems’ and he will wear a dress coat to breakfast. Over here whatever a Mason does is right. He is above the law.” His Paris-based associate John Slidell was a better choice. Slidell was a skilled politician and sophisticated New Yorker who had married a French-speaking Creole and moved to New Orleans.

In October, Mason and Slidell were in Charleston waiting to run the blockade aboard CSS Nashville, a fast steamer heading directly for England. However, Nashville had a deep draft and could only use one of Charleston’s channels, which were heavily guarded by Union warships. The diplomats booked passage on Gordon, a ship chartered for $10,000 by George Trenholm, who ran a cotton brokerage, finance, and shipping firm, with offices in Liverpool. The Fraser, Trenholm Company did much of the banking for the Confederacy in Great Britain. The shallow-draft Gordon, renamed Theodora to confuse Union blockaders, could use any channel; she left Charleston at 1 am on October 12 and easily evaded the blockade. “Here we are,” Mason wrote gleefully, “on the deep blue sea, clear of all the Yankees. We ran the blockade in splendid style.”

Two days later the diplomats arrived in Nassau but missed their connection with a British steamer. They turned for Cuba, hoping to find a British mail ship bound for England. Arriving in Cuba on October 15, they found that British mail ships did dock at Havana but that they would have to wait three weeks for the next ship, RMS Trent.

The Union’s Hunt For the Diplomats

Union intelligence sources thought Mason and Slidell had escaped aboard Nashville. Thus the U.S. Navy dispatched James Adger, commanded by John B. Marchand, with orders to intercept Nashville. On October 3 the Union steam frigate San Jacinto, commanded by 62-year-old Captain Charles D. Wilkes, arrived at St. Thomas in the Danish West Indies. He was hunting the Confederate raider CSS Sumter.

Wilkes, a gifted astronomer, had experienced many ups and downs in his naval career. Early on, he had won accolades for his voyages of discovery to Antarctica and the Fiji Islands. But repeated displays of bad temper and insubordination had landed him in hot water with his superiors, and Wilkes had been shunted aside to a minor bureaucratic desk in Washington before receiving orders to take command of the steam warship San Jacinto on patrol off the coast of West Africa. He was directed to sail the ship home for refitting. Characteristically disobeying orders, Wilkes determined instead to prowl the West Indies for Rebel shipping.