South's effort at diplomacy brings 'Trent Affair'

By Dr. Terry L. Jones
Special to The Journal

John Slidell namesake of
the City of Slidell in South
Louisiana adkacent to
New Orleans.
(Northwind Picture Archives)

On January 1, 1862, the Civil War's most dangerous diplomatic crisis came to an end when Louisiana diplomat John Slidell was released from U.S. custody at Fort Warren, Massachusetts.

A Yankee by birth, Slidell moved to New Orleans as a young man and became one of the state's most prominent politicians, serving as a state legislator, U.S. congressman, minister to Mexico, and U.S. senator. The city of Slidell, Louisiana, is his namesake. In late 1861, Confederate President Jefferson Davis appointed Slidell and Virginian James Mason envoys to Great Britain and France, respectively. Their mission was to convince the Europeans to extend diplomatic recognition to the fledgling nation.

Learning that Mason and Slidell were onboard the British mail packet Trent, Captain Charles Wilkes, commander of the USS San Jacinto, decided to intercept the Rebel diplomats. Described by one man as having "a superabundance of self-esteem and a deficiency of judgment," Wilkes had gained some fame before the war by discovering Antarctica. When Herman Melville learned of the captain's harsh treatment of sailors during the cruise, he based Moby Dick's Captain Ahab partly on Wilkes's abusive personality.

On November 8, Wilkes intercepted the Trent east of Cuba and forced it to stop by firing two shots across its bow. Trent's Captain Moir was outraged at the Yankee's action and yelled at Wilkes, "What do you mean by heaving my vessel to in this manner?" Wilkes's response was to send executive officer McNeil Fairfax and a handful of sailors to board the Trent.

Fairfax recalled, "I immediately asked if I might see his passenger-list, saying that I had information that Messrs. Mason and Slidell were on board." Moir politely, but firmly, refused to comply with Fairfax's request, but Slidell made Moir's refusal a moot point by walking up and declaring, "I am Mr. Slidell; do you want to see me?" According to Fairfax, "I informed Captain Moir that I had been sent by my commander to arrest Mr. Mason and Mr. Slidell and their secretaries, and send them prisoners on board the United States war vessel near by."

Upon hearing this, the mostly Southern passengers became unruly and threatened to throw Fairfax overboard. Fairfax advised Captain Moir to calm his passengers and then reminded them all that Captain Wilkes was watching everything from the San Jacinto and that its heavy guns were trained on the packet. Any violence, he warned, might lead to "dreadful consequences." This warning, plus what Fairfax described as Moir's "excellent commanding manner," calmed the passengers.

As Fairfax prepared to depart with his prisoners, Slidell's wife Mathilde asked him who commanded the San Jacinto, and Fairfax replied, "Your old acquaintance, Captain Wilkes." As it turned out, Mathilde and Wilkes had known each other for some time. According to Fairfax, Mrs. Slidell "expressed surprise that he should do the very thing the Confederates were hoping for, something to arouse England. . . ."Really," she added, "Captain Wilkes is playing into our hands!"

When Fairfax informed Mason and Slidell it was time to depart they declared they would not climb into the boat sent for them unless forced. Fairfax had prepared for this and had two officers escort each man into the boat. Turning to Captain Moir, Fairfax told him he was free to leave. "The steamers soon separated," Fairfax recalled, "and thus ended one of the most critical events of our civil war."

Initially, Northerners praised Captain Wilkes as a hero, despite the fact that he had acted without orders and had violated the long-held American principle of freedom of the seas. Wilkes justified his actions by claiming international law allowed belligerents to stop neutral vessels to search for contraband or enemy dispatches. With rather ingenious logic, he argued Mason and Slidell were dispatches by virtue of their knowledge of Rebel plans.

British Prime Minister Lord Palmerston was outraged at the seizure and roared at the cabinet, "You may stand for this but damned if I will!" Palmerston rightfully complained that British neutral rights had been violated and demanded an apology and the envoys' release. Even if Mason and Slidell were contraband, he pointed out, the ship should have been taken to a Union port and the seizure carried out properly through a prize court.

The Trent Affair put Lincoln in a difficult situation. Despite Captain Wilkes's arguments to the contrary, Lincoln and Secretary of State William Seward knew the seizures were indefensible and worried that the incident might bring Great Britain into the war on the Confederates' side. Releasing the diplomats, however, would make Lincoln appear weak and could damage the administration politically.

While the Union government pondered what to do, the British prepared for action. In a dangerous display of saber rattling, Palmerston formed a War Committee, alerted the navy for possible action, and shipped 11,000 troops to Canada while bands on the dock played "Dixie." Conflict with Great Britain and the Confederates at the same time could have stretched Union resources to the limit and possibly ensured Southern independence.

Ultimately, it was Seward who solved the crisis. On Christmas Day, he convinced the cabinet to release the Confederate envoys but without an apology. Seward pointed out that Wilkes's action was essentially impressment, the same British policy that started the War of 1812. By releasing the diplomats, he argued, the United States was simply staying true to its long-standing commitment to freedom of the seas. Lincoln put it succinctly when he stated, "We must stick to American principles concerning the rights of neutrals. We fought Great Britain [in 1812] for insisting, by theory and practice, on the right to do precisely what Wilkes has done." Interestingly, by condemning the capture of Mason and Slidell, the British were publicly denouncing their own former impressment policy and recognizing America's concept of freedom of the seas.

Although he claimed it was "the bitterest pill" he had ever had to swallow, Lincoln released Mason and Slidell on January 1, 1862, and they continued to Europe. As it turned out, they had no luck whatsoever convincing the Europeans to recognize the Confederacy. After all the trouble their capture had caused, the Virginian and Louisianian turned out to be complete failures.

Dr. Terry L. Jones is a professor of history at the University of Louisiana at Monroe and has published six books on the American Civil War.