Trent Affair

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Trent Affair

The Trent affair, which occurred during the early years of the U.S. Civil War, challenged the traditional concepts of freedom of the seas and the rights of neutrals and almost precipitated a war between the United States and Great Britain.

In 1861, the newly established Confederacy appointed two emissaries to represent its government overseas. James Murray Mason was assigned to London, England, and John Slidell was sent to Paris, France. The two envoys successfully made their way to Havana, Cuba, where they boarded an English ship, the Trent, which set sail on November 7. The next day, the San Jacinto, a Union warship under the command of Captain Charles Wilkes, an officer in the U.S. Navy, intercepted the Trent. Wilkes acted upon his own authority and detained the English ship. He ordered a search of the Trent, and when the two Confederates were discovered, he ordered them to be transferred to the San Jacinto and transported to Fort Warren in Boston. The Trent was allowed to continue without further interference.

Although Wilkes was praised by Northerners and several members of the cabinet of President Abraham Lincoln for his action against the Confederacy, his disregard for their rights as a neutral power angered the English. Wilkes had made the error of conducting the operation by himself rather than ordering the ship to port to undergo legal proceedings to determine if England had violated the rules of neutrality. Since Wilkes had not followed established legal procedure, he had no right to remove any cargo, human or otherwise, from another vessel.

English tempers flared and threats of war were issued. The English demands included a public apology and the release of the two Confederates. The English representative to the United States awaited orders to return to England if these demands were not met.

In England, however, news of the impending death of Prince Albert diverted attention from the Trent affair. When the English demands were received in the United States, Charles Francis Adams, U.S. diplomat to England, was ordered to explain to the English that Wilkes had acted of his own accord, without instructions from the government. In the meantime, Secretary of State William H. Seward studied the matter carefully; he knew that Wilkes's conduct had not been correct. Seward was also aware that he had two choices: war with England or release of the incarcerated Confederates. In a communiqué to England, Seward admitted the mistake of Wilkes, reported the release of Mason and Slidell, and upheld the sanctity of freedom of the seas. War with England was averted, and navigation rights were maintained.

Further readings

Ferris, Norman B. 1977. The Trent Affair: A Diplomatic Crisis. Knoxville: Univ. of Tennessee Press.

Warren, Gordon H. 1981. Fountain of Discontent: The Trent Affair and Freedom of the Seas. Boston: Northeastern Univ. Press.


Admiralty and Maritime Law.

West's Encyclopedia of American Law, edition 2. Copyright 2008 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.
References in periodicals archive ?
The first war crisis came, however, over the Trent affair in late 1861.
Andrew Lambert has argued that Palmerston's response to the Trent affair was part of a policy of "deterrence." Britain's real military strength was in the Royal Navy, but sending troops to Canada also sent a signal to the Americans.
The Trent affair also poisoned public attitudes in the two countries.
In spite of ill health, the Prince Consort was deeply concerned with the Trent Affair. He discussed the draft with Queen Victoria in great detail.
Elements of political and military leadership of both England and the United States had been fully prepared to escalate into war over the Trent Affair. Washington with a Union Army of 685,000 men was more than willing to test their mettle against British redcoats.
Here's the fifth, last and most fascinating "what if" of the Trent Affair. What if England had come into the war in December 1861?
Sources: Ferris, Norman B., The Trent Affair: A Diplomatic Crisis.
Civil War on the side of the South because of the Trent Affair? Would the combined strength of Britain and the Confederacy have been enough to force Lincoln and the North to their knees, creating southern independence and two separate American nations?
The Trent Affair may well be one of the least thought of, yet greatest, "what ifs" of history.
Seward as secretary of state, the passage of a protective tariff, and anti-British newspaper editorials in the North following the Trent Affair dissipated sympathy for the Lincoln administration.
A chapter on the Trent Affair, primarily a diplomatic imbroglio, seems extraneous.
Lincoln's uneven performance during the Trent affair is omitted.