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Close Call: During America's Civil War, Britain Almost Sided with the South

September 18, 2019 Topic: History Region: Europe Blog Brand: The Buzz Tags: Civil WarMilitary HistoryAlternate HistoryGreat BritainUnited States

Close Call: During America's Civil War, Britain Almost Sided with the South

Here's why.

Key point: The U.S. Navy stopped a British ship and kicked off a major incident that nearly led 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.

In Cienfuegos, on the southern coast of Cuba, Wilkes learned from a newspaper that Mason and Slidell were in Havana waiting to take passage on Trent, sailing first for St. Thomas and then on to England. Wilkes knew that Trent would have to use the Bahama Channel between Cuba and the Great Bahama Bank. He thought over the legal implications of trying to remove the Confederate envoys from the British vessel, asking the opinion of his executive officer, Lieutenant D.M. Fairfax. He decided that Mason and Slidell could be considered “contraband” and legally seized.

Boarding the RMS Trent

Trent left Havana on November 7 with Mason and Slidell on board; Slidell was accompanied by his wife and children. Diplomatic secretaries James E. Macfarland and George Eustis were also part of the official company. Passing through the Bahama Channel they found San Jacinto waiting. The Federal ship spotted Trent about noon on November 8; the mail ship was flying the Union Jack. Wilkes ordered a shot fired across Trent’s bow. It was ignored. A second shot landed close to the bow. Trent hove to. Wilkes gave detailed instructions to Fairfax. “Should Mister Mason, Mister Slidell, Mister Eustis and Mister Macfarland be on board,” he said, “make them prisoners and send them on board this ship immediately and take possession [of the Trent] as a prize.” Fairfax was also instructed to seize any dispatches and official correspondence he might find.

Armed with cutlasses and pistols, Fairfax and a boarding party of 20 men approached Trent in two cutters. Fairfax boarded alone, not wishing to enflame the situation, but found Captain James Moir furious that his ship had been stopped at sea. Fairfax told him his orders, Moir refused to cooperate, and Fairfax soon found himself surrounded and threatened by passengers and crew. He had little choice but to order the armed party in the waiting boats to join him. Once again Moir refused permission for the boarding party to search the ship. Mason and Slidell came forward willingly, and Fairfax backed down, belatedly realizing that such a search would constitute a de facto seizing of the ship—a clear act of war.

Mason and Slidell formally refused to go with Fairfax but did not resist when led to the boats. Wilkes had hoped to find important documents in the captured men’s luggage but found nothing. All their dispatches had been taken in hand by Trent’s mail agent, Richard Williams, who promised to deliver them to Confederate authorities in London. In the meantime, Slidell’s furious wife and daughters heaped verbal abuse on the Union sailors, even after Fairfax grabbed one of the daughters and saved her from falling overboard after a sudden wave.

Mixed Reactions in the North About the Capture

Wilkes was still keen to seize Trent, but Fairfax talked him out of it. A prize crew would be needed, he warned, and the inconvenience to Trent’s other passengers and mail recipients was unacceptable. Wilkes reluctantly agreed, and Trent was allowed to proceed on her way. Meanwhile, San Jacinto reached Hampton Roads on November 15 for coaling, and Wilkes was able to contact Washington. He was ordered on to Boston, where his captives were imprisoned in Fort Warren. A congratulatory telegram was waiting for Wilkes from Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles. “Your conduct in seizing these public enemies was marked by intelligence, ability, decision, and firmness, and has the emphatic approval of this Department,” Welles informed him.

Others in the North likewise praised Wilkes and his crew. Congress thanked him for his “brave, adroit and patriotic conduct in the arrest of the traitors” and had a gold medal struck for him. He was the toast of Boston and celebrated throughout the country as a hero of the republic. The New York Times stoked the patriotic fervor. “We do not believe the American heart ever thrilled with more genuine delight than it did yesterday, at the intelligence of the capture of Messrs. Slidell and Mason,” the newspaper reported. To a Northern public conditioned to believe that Great Britain was decidedly pro-Confederate, the Trent affair seemed like a perfect way to put the haughty Britons in their place.