Trent Affair
(1861)
   A diplomatic incident that threatened to bring about a war between Britain and the United States in the midst of the American Civil War. On November 8, 1861, a Union warship commanded by Charles Wilkes intercepted a British mail packet, the Trent, in the Bahaman channel. Wilkes removed two Confederate diplomats bound for Europe, James M. Mason and John Slidell, and took them to Boston where they were confined as prisoners. Wilkes clearly had violated international law: the two Confederates had sailed under the protection of a neutral flag. According to law, the most that Wilkes should have done was to seize the ship and take it to port for an admiralty court to judge whether the Trent had done anything wrong. Instead he had seized only the two men. Worst of all, the removal of the Confederate diplomats had insulted Britain whose Royal Navy was accustomed to dominate the high seas.
   Public opinion in the Northern states applauded Captain Wilkes’ bold action, but public opinion in Britain was outraged. Prime Minister Lord Palmerston began preparations for war. For him this was a matter of national honor and not part of any pro-Confederate policy. Foreign Secretary Lord John Russell and Prince Consort Albert, then struggling with a terminal illness, persuaded Palmerston to moderate his demands in the diplomatic note that he sent to Washington. The British diplomat there, Lord Lyons, delayed until December 23 his formal presentation of the note to give passions a chance to cool. After Secretary of State William H. Seward received the note, he reluctantly conceded the British demand for the release of Mason and Slidell, as did President Abraham Lincoln. It was not realistic for the United States to risk a naval war with Britain while fighting a civil war with the seceding states of the Confederacy. As Lincoln said, “one war at a time.” Historians are divided about how serious the danger of war had been but agree that if Britain had declared war on the United States, the Confederacy might well have secured its independence. In January 1863, the Confederate diplomats were released, Mason going to London and Slidell to Paris, where neither of them accomplished anything.
   FURTHER READING:
    Warren, Gordon H. Fountain of Discontent: The Trent Affair and the Freedom of the Seas. Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1981.
   DAVID M. FAHEY

Encyclopedia of the Age of Imperialism, 1800–1914. 2014.

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