The Trent Affair — Britain and U.S. in crisis
The Trent Affair, a diplomatic crisis involving the doctrine of freedom of the seas that brought Britain and the United States to their closest point of possible hostilities early in the Civil War, reaches a boiling point this week 150 years ago.
Word that the Union warship USS San Jacinto had stopped the neutral British ship Trent east of Cuba on Nov. 8, 1861, and seized two Confederate diplomats bound for Britain, inflames tensions between the two nations. The Trent steams on without the pair, arriving with its remaining passengers in London on Nov. 27, 1861.
An emergency British Cabinet meeting is called. Britain demands an apology and the release of the seized Confederates, arguing the San Jacinto acted in violation of international law.
Northerners overwhelmingly laud the detention of Confederate envoys James Mason and John Slidell, then on a mission to seek British and French support for the Confederacy. Southern authorities condemn the detentions. The Times-Picayune of New Orleans proclaims Nov. 23, 1861: “The act of the San Jacinto was in flagrant violation of the law of nations.”
After heated Cabinet meetings, President Abraham Lincoln adopts a conciliatory approach, seeking to avert any armed conflict with Britain. In December, the U.S. government concedes in a note to Britain that the San Jacinto captain erred in failing to bring the Trent to port for a court ajudication of the matter.
The U.S. releases Mason and Slidell in January 1862 to continue their mission to Europe. But European powers decline to intervene in the Civil War on behalf of the Confederacy and the successful resolution of the Trent Affair builds confidence between the British and U.S. governments.