In 1861 throughout the beginning of the American Civil War, an occurrence happened which, under normal scenarios, would have been a minor diplomatic and political event between the United States and Great Britain. Since the incident, understood as the “Trent Affair” took place during among the most precarious and unpredictable durations in American history, the capacity for global crisis and, in reality, world war loomed for several weeks while American and British diplomats worked to avert disaster.
“The Trent Afffair” worried the American naval interception of the British mail package Trent by the American ship San Jacinto, commanded by Captain Wilkes.
Due to the fact that the Union had actually enforced a blockade on Confederate ports, the interception of the Trent was undertaken by the American cruiser under the auspices of the formal blockade. Aboard the Trent were two Confederate diplomats bound for England to work for the securing of British acknowledgment of the Confederate nation. Due to the ensuing climate after the First Battle of Bull-Run which was deemed a frustrating military triumph by the Confederacy, conditions were seen as ripe for the earning of global acknowledgment and maybe even British intervention in the American Civil War which would choose a favorable outcome for the Confederacy (“Trent Affair,” 2007).
Although the Trent was “a ship of a neutral nation, and it was plying a regular schedule in between neutral ports” the American marines, under the command of “Lieutenant Fairfax […] continued forcibly to get rid of the Confederate diplomats, Mason, Slidell, and their secretaries” (Rawley, 1989, p.
79) from the British ship. Although Captain Wilkes was commonly related to by the Northern American population as having actually acted as a patriot, his actions “created a global affair, whose dimensions he did not foresee. The rash officer had actually brought the sorely beset Union to the verge of foreign war versus the primary naval power on the planet” (Rawley, 1989, p. 80) and the potential for catastrophe could not have been higher offered the Union’s already rare revealing militarily in the dispute with the South.
Meanwhile, the diplomats and their secretaries were “taken to Boston, where they were interned in Fort Warren. This act was strictly opposed to the laws of the sea as they had been previously upheld by the United States, since Wilkes did not seize the vessel and bring it in for admiralty adjudication but merely exercised search and seizure of the men” (“Trent Affair,” 2007) and in fact, Wilkes failure to seize the British vessel was a violation of international law.
Of course, the British responded in haste and with a touch of anger; they “drafted a sharp note to the U.S. government[…] they demanded the release of the commissioners and an explanation. A seven-day limit was set for reply” (“Trent Affair,” 2007). Such an outcome would have proven critical to the Union. Furthermore, Britain “decided to ostentatiously make war preparations and announced an embargo on exports of saltpetre, the main ingredient of gunpowder, to America” (Putnis, 2004) so it was obvious that the British meant to take the incident quite seriously.
Obviously, war with Great Britain was unthinkable from the Union perspective. President Lincoln had to grapple with the irony that the minor incident at sea would influence the outcome of the Civil War, the “affair threatened to have explosive repercussions, for it could cause an Anglo-American war that might lead not only to a defeat for the Union but to the additional calamity of Southern independence (Jones, 1992, p. 85) so Lincoln’s response had to be swift and decisive. By the end of December, Lincoln convened a “cabinet meeting […] led to a decision to send to Britain a note by Seward disavowing Wilkes’s act and promising to release the prisoners.
They were released in Jan., 1862, and probable war with Great Britain was averted (“Trent Affair,” 2007). The overwhelming lesson to be gleaned from the incident was one of international diplomacy and public relations, balancing the patriotic fervor which was needed, in the North, to fight the civil-war and the equally important need of maintaining a dignified and responsible standing in world political affairs, and by doing so, helping to deny the South international recognition and — even worse from the Union perspective, political and military aid or outright foreign intervention.