The Significance of the 1861 Trent Affair

A unique aspect of the American Civil War was that there was very little foreign intervention in the conflict. However, the Trent Affair of 1861 was an explosive incident that nearly changed this fact.

In the leadup to the American Civil War the southern states seceded from the Union, forming the Confederate States of America. The Confederate states certainly made a legitimate case to receive formal recognition of independence from foreign nations.

The Confederacy had a written constitution, formal representative government, standing army, and experienced officials. Despite this, foreign nations viewed the Civil War as an issue within the United States and opted to stay out of the conflict.

In stating their foreign policy towards the conflict, both Britain and France formally declared neutrality. This seemingly harmless declaration proceeded to infuriate the Union while giving hope to the Confederates.

In order to declare neutrality a nation must first recognize the belligerent status of a movement. In this case international law stated the Confederacy could receive loans and continue trade with neutral nations.

The Confederate belligerency status opened the avenue for potential formal diplomatic recognition by European powers in the future. The Union hoped to avoid such a scenario at all costs.

With the war going poorly for the Union throughout 1861, leaders were unsure how the European nations would respond.

By the end of 1861, Confederate President Jefferson Davis opted to send some of his top diplomats to Great Britain in an attempt to persuade the country to confer formal recognition on the Confederacy.

The incendiary events that followed would be known as the Trent Affair of 1861.

Background of the Trent Affair

Upon the outbreak of the Civil War the Confederacy knew the odds of a successful rebellion were stacked against them. The Union was far superior in nearly every impactful category including population, industrial capacity, net exports, and railroad mileage.

Confederate President Jefferson Davis knew that success in the war relied upon foreign diplomatic recognition and the resumption of trade with foreign nations. While securing the status of a belligerent nation was a step in the right direction, full diplomatic recognition was still needed.

Confederate trade early in the war was limited due to a Union naval blockade of all southern ports. European nations, particularly Great Britain, largely respected the blockade and did not attempt to force their rights to trade with the Confederacy.

The Confederacy opened the war in a strong position with decisive victories at Fort Sumter and First Manassas (Bull Run). Davis hoped that the military successes and the demand of “King Cotton” could persuade European nations to intervene on behalf of the Confederacy.

Read more about the impact of the cotton gin.

By the end of 1861 Davis was ready to give diplomacy another attempt. Two of the Confederacy’s top diplomats, John Slidell and James Murray, were tasked with convincing Great Britain to issue formal diplomatic recognition.

Murray and Slidell, both former US Senators in the 1850s, were arguably the Confederacy’s most experienced diplomats. Upon learning of the ploy through intelligence reports, the Union was concerned about these developments. If anyone were to persuade the British, it was these two men.

Slipping the Union blockade Murray and Slidell boarded the steamer Theodora which brought them first to Nassau, Bahamas, and then to Cuba so they could catch a British mail ship that would bring them to Britain.

The Trent Affair of 1861

Upon their arrival in Cuba, Slidell and Murray needed to wait three weeks until the next mail ship, the RMS Trent, was due to set sail. In that time word traveled that the two Confederate diplomats would be departing on the Trent.

Captain Charles Wilkins of the Union frigate USS San Jacinto discovered this news and positioned his ship to intercept the Trent. Wilkins could not find any legal precedent for the seizure of diplomats from a neutral vessel, though he brashly decided to proceed anyway.

Captain Charles Wilkins via Wikimedia

On November 8, 1861 the USS San Jacinto intercepted the RMS Trent. Wilkins’ second-in-command boarded the ship and presented orders to seize Slidell and Murray.

After capturing the Confederate diplomats, Wilkins allowed the RMS Trent to continue on its way. Despite claiming “contraband” in the form of Slidell and Murray, in the hope of avoiding an international incident, Wilkins did not claim the RMS Trent as a  “prize ship,” nor did he tow it to court for adjudication.

Ironically, this action spurred the subsequent so-called Trent Affair that nearly brought Great Britain to war with the United States. Had Wilkins taken the ship to a court for adjudication the United States could have potentially successfully argued that Wilkins followed international protocol.

The boarding of the RMS Trent

Instead, Wilkins sailed his new prisoners up to Boston to be held at the Fort Warren prison camp. After a year of depressing news, the news of the captured diplomats was widely celebrated as a victory of sorts for the Union.

Wilkins was a hero in the Union as the media lauded the audacity of the move. Notably, some leaders like Senator Charles Sumner were less than pleased and predicted a crisis with Britain.

The grim prediction proved correct as news of the 1861 Trent Affair reached Britain.

The Trent Affair and the Civil War

Great Britain predictably responded with outrage over the incident. They viewed the seizure of the RMS Trent to be a flagrant violation of their neutrality and of international maritime law.

Tensions rose and Britain responded with harsh demands of the Union. The immediate release of the prisoners and a formal apology for the insult to the crown would be required. Prince Albert softened some of the harsh language to allow the Union a path forward as well.

Timeline of the Trent Affair of 1861 chart

Fortunately for the Union, the newly-laid transatlantic telegraph cable was inoperable, which helped to cool tensions. By the time correspondence reached each side of the Atlantic, both parties had more level heads when considering the events and media exuberance and outrage had died down.

As Britain delivered its response, it also made it abundantly clear that it was prepared to go to war over the slight. Eleven thousand troops were deployed to Canada with the intention of sending more and the naval squadron in the region was reinforced.

The Union knew that war with Britain while attempting to put down the Confederate rebellion would be a disaster. Northern jubilance over the capture quickly turned solemn as they decided how to respond.

While Britain was prepared for war with the Union, they also knew it would be foolish and costly. The size of the Union armies alone dwarfed anything the British could put in the field. In addition, Canadian defenses were extremely weak and likely to be a liability in a ground war.

Due to the delay in messages from transatlantic crossings, both sides were able to seek a peaceful solution.

Secretary of State William Seward (later known for Seward’s Folly) crafted the Union response. While declining to issue a formal apology, Seward acknowledged Wilkes acted of his own volition and should have brought the RMS Trent to prize court. Mason and Slidell were also released and allowed passage to Britain where they were coldly received.

The crisis was over and the Union somehow maintained British neutrality while also dimming the prospects of Confederate diplomatic recognition.

The Significance of the Trent Affair

The Trent Affair of 1861 would ultimately be a brief, but significant, event during the Civil War. Neither the Union nor the Confederacy received their ultimate desires, though Great Britain was able to successfully maintain and defend its neutrality.

The Union was able to avert the likely disaster if war had broken out with Britain. However, the Union’s desire to remove the Confederacy’s status as a belligerent power was ignored.

In addition, though acquiescing to the British demands, the Union sought to take the high ground in its response. It declared that it would respect Britain’s wishes for neutrality and grant Britain the same protections the Americans had historically wished for.

The USS San Jacinto intercepts the RMS Trent

Though Great Britain did not get its desired apology, it regarded the Union response as sufficient and viewed the affair as a diplomatic victory.

For the Confederacy the Trent Affair was a lost opportunity. While the situation once looked like an opportunity it could capitalize on, the de-escalation of the conflict left the Confederates disappointed.

While the events of 1861 brought momentum for the Confederacy for its foreign relations goals, the Trent Affair negated those gains. It appeared that King Cotton would not be able to save the day for the Confederacy,

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