The Trent Affair

What Happened?


            In 1861, the Confederacy’s hopes for victory were running high. The Confederates had won a stunning victory at Bull Run and routed the Union army. The Confederacy quickly realized that ministers had to be sent to Europe, especially England and France, in order to get diplomatic recognition and military assistance. Jefferson Davis dispatched James Mason of Virginia to England and John Slidell of Louisiana to France. In mid October of 1861 Mason and Slidell left Charleston, past the Union blockade to Havana. In Havana they boarded a British steamship, the Trent, were they were to go to St. Thomas and board another ship to Europe. However, on November 8, the U.S.S San Jacinto, acting without orders from Washington, fired two warning shots across the Trent’s bow, boarded the ship and arrested the two Confederate diplomats as contraband. The San Jacinto retuned to a port in Virginia and sent the two diplomats to captivity in Boston among massive fanfare. Northerner’s believed that this action had help avenge the loss at Bull Run and righted a long succession of British actions at sea. Wilkes, the captain of the San Jacinto, was a hero, despite violating international law. However, never had men been declared contraband and the vessel was not heading for an enemy port. Also, if Wilkes would have searched the ship, he would have discovered a mail bag hidden by the Trent’s captain, which would have erased the ship’s neutral status and allowed it to be captured. When word reached England, public outrage was severe. The British believed that it was a direct violation of national honor. The stock market in England plunged as they prepared for possible war. The stage was now set for a diplomatic crisis that would change the American Civil War and the world (Jones, 197-198).


Chad Kinsella