Trent Affair Threatens Anglo-US War
The 8th of November 1861 AD
Britain’s position over the American Civil War was confused and complex. Our textile mills in Lancashire and Yorkshire relied on the supply of cotton from what became the Confederacy. There were many other business links to both northern and southern states – famously both their armies wore cloth produced in Britain for example. While some of our leaders had sympathies for the rebels, it would be a dangerous precedent for a widespread empire (with nationalist pressures in Scotland and Ireland too) to support those breaking from the established state.
In this context what became known as The Trent Incident threatened for a time to bring Britain and the Union States to war – by no means a far-fetched idea given we had fought a brief war with the USA within living memory, burning Washington in August 1814 .
Two experienced envoys were despatched from Charleston by the Confederacy with a view to winning support in Britain and France. Their journey was an adventurous one: Charleston was blockaded by the Union Navy, but they used a fast steamer, the Theodora, that sped through side channels to evade the warships. They made the Bahamas then Cuba, trekked across the island to Havana and met up with a British mail packet, RMS Trent. A Union naval captain, Charles Wilkes, was passing through the Caribbean with his ship the San Jacinto, and learned of their mission. Wilkes decided to intercept the Trent and capture its two Confederate passengers.
On November 8 1861 the San Jacinto, lying in wait for the Trent, fired two shots across the latter’s bows and forced her to stop. Wilkes’ second-in-command, Lt Fairfax, boarded the Trent and arrested the envoys Slidell and Mason.
The boarding and seizure were tantamount to acts of war. Matters quickly escalated. Lord Palmerston sent reinforcements to Canada to strengthen Britain’s military position; a moratorium was placed on arms exports to the Union side; English newspapers talked up the Union actions as deliberate provocation. The British government prepared an ultimatum couched in extremely strong terms for presentation to the Union side and sent it for Queen Victoria to review.
Had that document been delivered it is likely war would have ensued. Happily Prince Albert , already ill with the typhoid that would kill him in mid-December, saw to it that a calmer version was composed. The Federal American government did not apologize formally, but diplomatic channels ensured that their contrition was understood. Mason and Slidell were released from custody and put on a British ship bound from Massachusetts. Wilkes was presented as having acted independently. A crisis and a war were averted.
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