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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.
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.