On November 8, 1861, USS San Jacinto Captain Charles Wilkes set out towards the Bahama Channel near Havana to intercept Confederate commissioners James M. Mason and John Slidell. The man who led the controversial U.S. Exploring Expedition two decades previous found himself leaving scientific endeavors for the new prospect of war. Mason and Slidell were heading to Europe to arbitrate agreements with nations for their support in the Confederate war effort, stopping for transport in Havana. During his search for the elusive CSS Sumter, Wilkes heard of the breakout of Mason and Slidell from Charleston and decided to take action. The USS San Jacinto intercepted the two on board the British mail steamer Trent under threat of cannon fire, taking Mason, Slidell, and their secretaries back to Boston. Although heroic, Captain Wilkes’ seizure of diplomats aboard a neutral ship almost fanned the flames of war between the United States and Great Britain, as they claimed that Wilkes clearly violated international law. After a swift apology for the event by Secretary of State William H. Seward, Mason and Slidell were released in January 1862, nearly two months after their capture.
Reproduced below is Captain Charles Wilkes’ report to Union Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles seven days after the event unfolded. You can read more about Captain Wilkes and the Trent Affair at the Library of Congress website here or find out more about Charles Wilkes here from the Naval History and Heritage Command.
U. S. S. SAN JACINTO, November 15, 1861.
SIR: I have written to you relative to the movements of this ship from Cienfuegos, on the south coast of Cuba.
There I learned that Messrs. Slidell and Mason had landed on Cuba, and had reached the Havana from Charleston. I took in some 60 tons of coal and left with all dispatch on the 26th October to intercept the return of the Theodora, but on my arrival at The Havannah on the 31st I found she had departed on her return, and that Messrs. Slidell and Mason, with their secretaries and families, were there and would depart on the 7th of the month in the English steamer Trent for St. Thomas, on their way to England.
I made up my mind to fill up with coal and leave the port as soon as possible, to await at a suitable position on the route of the steamer to St. Thomas to intercept her and take them out.
On the afternoon of the 2d I left The Havannah, in continuation of my cruise after the Sumter on the north side of Cuba. The next day, when about to board a French brig, she ran into us on the starboard side at the main chains and carried away her bowsprit and foretopmast, and suffered other damages. I inclose you herewith the reports of the officers who witnessed the accident. I do not feel that any blame is due to the officer in charge of this ship at the time the ship was run into, and the brig was so close when it was seen probable she would do so that even with the power of steam, lying motionless as we were, we could not avoid it; it seemed as if designed.
I at once took her in tow, and put an officer on board with a party to repair her damages. This was effected before night, but I kept her in tow till we were up with The Havannah and ran within about 8 miles of the light, the wind blowing directly fair for her to reach port.
I then went over to Key West in hopes of finding the Powhatan or some other steamer to accompany me to the Bahama Channel, to make it impossible for the steamer in which Messrs. Slidell and Mason were to embark to escape either in the night or day. The Powhatan had left but the day before, and I was therefore disappointed and obliged to rely upon the vigilance of the officers and crew of this ship, and proceeded the next morning to the north side of the island of Cuba, communicated with Sagua la Grande on the 4th, hoping to receive a telegraphic communication from Mr. Shufeldt, our consul-general, giving me the time of the departure of the steamer.
In this, also, I was disappointed, and ran to the eastward some 90 miles, where the old Bahama Channel contracts to the width of 15 miles, some 240 miles from The Havannah, and in sight of the Paredon Grande light-house. There we cruised until the morning of the 8th, awaiting the steamer, believing that if she left at the usual time she must pass us about noon of the 8th, and we could not possibly miss her. At 11:40 a.m., on the 8th, her smoke was first seen; at 12 m. our position was to the westward of the entrance into the narrowest part of the channel and about 9 miles northeast from the light-house of Paredon Grande, the nearest point of Cuba to us.
We were all prepared for her, beat to quarters, and orders were given to Lieutenant D. M. Fairfax to have two boats manned and armed to board her and make Messrs. Slidell, Mason, Eustis, and Macfarland prisoners, and send them immediately on board. (A copy of this order to him is herewith enclosed.)
The steamer approached and hoisted English colors. Our ensign was hoisted, and a shot was fired across her bow; she maintained her speed and showed no disposition to heave to; then a shell was fired across her bow, which brought her to. I hailed that I intended to send a boat on board, and Lieutenant Fairfax with the second cutter of this ship was dispatched. He met with some difficulty, and remaining on board the steamer with a part of the boat’s crew, sent her back to request more assistance. The captain of the steamer having declined to show his papers and passenger list, a force became necessary to search her. Lieutenant James A. Greer was at once dispatched in the third cutter, also manned and armed.
Messrs. Slidell, Mason, Eustis, and Macfarland were recognized and told they were required to go on board this ship; this they objected to, until an overpowering force compelled them. Much persuasion was used and a little force, and at about 2 o’clock they were brought on board this ship and received by me. Two other boats were then sent to expedite the removal of their baggage and some stores, when the steamer, which proved to be the Trent, was suffered to proceed on her route to the eastward, and at 3:30 p.m. we bore away to the northward and westward. The whole time employed was two hours thirteen minutes. I enclose you the statements of such officers who boarded the Trent relative to the facts, and also an extract from the log book of this ship.
It was my determination to have taken possession of the Trent and sent her to Key West as a prize, for resisting the search and carrying these passengers, whose character and objects were well known to the captain, but the reduced number of my officers and crew, and the large number of passengers on board bound to Europe who would be put to great inconvenience, decided me to allow them to proceed.
Finding the families of Messrs. Slidell and Eustis on board, I tendered them the offer of my cabin for their accommodation to accompany their husbands; this they declined, however, and proceeded in the Trent.
Before closing this dispatch I would bring to your notice the notorious action of her Britannic Majesty’s subjects, the consul-general of Cuba and those on board the Trent, in doing everything to aid and abet the escape of these four persons and endeavoring, to conceal their persons on board. No passports or papers or any description were in possession of them from the Federal Government, and for this and other reasons which will readily occur to you I made them my prisoners, and shall retain them on board here until I hear from you what disposition is to be made of them.
I can not close this report without bearing testimony to the admirable manner in which all the officers and men of this ship ‘performed their duties, and the cordial manner in which they carried out my orders. To Lieutenant Fairfax I beg leave to call your particular attention for the praiseworthy manner in which he executed the delicate duties with which he was intrusted; it met and has received my warmest thanks.
After leaving the north side of Cuba I ran through the Santaren Passage and up the coast from off St. Augustine to Charleston, and regretted being too late to take a part in the expedition to Port Royal.
I enclose herewith a communication I received from Messrs. Slidell, Mason, Eustis, and Mcfarland, with my answer.
I have the honor to be, very respectfully, your obedient servant,
Hon. GIDEON WELLES,
Secretary of the Navy.