Nov 8

This Day in History: The Trent Affair

Thursday, November 8, 2018 12:01 AM

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November 8 marks the anniversary of the Trent Affair of 1861. During the opening months of the Civil War, the U.S. Navy stopped the British mail steamer RMS Trent and seized two Confederate diplomats bound for England in the hope of negotiating diplomatic recognition for the secessionist states. The Trent Affair itself threatened to achieve exactly that and brought the United States and Great Britain close to war.

Author James D. Hill wrote extensively of the Trent Affair and one of its main players—Captain Chalres Wilkes, U.S. Navy—in the July 1931 issue of Proceedings. It is excerpted here.

When the seriousness of the secession movement was fully realized by the Lincoln administration, the best of the far-flung cruisers were ordered home. As a part of this movement, Flag Officer Inman, com­manding on the African station, transferred Captain [Charles] Wilkes to the steam sloop San Jacinto, then temporarily commanded by her executive officer, Lieutenant D[onald] McN[eil] Fair­fax. “You will then make the best of your way with the San Jacinto to Monrovia, Liberia, and thence to Philadelphia, Penn­sylvania. . . . You are authorized to stop where it may be necessary for coal or other supplies.”

e USS San Jacinto underway.

Engraving of the USS San Jacinto (Naval Institute Photo Archive)

After the usual delay typical of that age of slow communications, the San Jacinto ar­rived at Fernando Po from St. Paul de Loando, and Captain Wilkes took com­mand. In accordance with his instructions, he proceeded to Monrovia. Toward the last of September, he was at the Cape Verde Islands, where newspapers informed him of President Davis’s having issued letters of marque to privateers, which were then preying upon Union commerce in the West Indies. Thereupon he decided to cruise by way of those islands before reporting in at Philadelphia.

The San Jacinto reached St. Thomas October 13, where Captain Wilkes found the Powhatan , Commander D. D. Porter, and the Iroquois, Commander J. S. Palmer, in search of the C.S.S. Sumpter. While they were taking on supplies, an English brig brought news of the marauder to south­ward. With this information, Captain Wilkes at once exercised his authority as senior officer present. He sent the Iroquois to cruise among the Lesser Antilles, while he cruised westward along the southern shores of the Greater Antilles to Cienfuegos, Cuba, the route the Iroquois would have followed, had not Wilkes interposed. The Powhatan was to make a similar search along the northern shores of Porto Rico, Santo Domingo, and Cuba to Key West. Following events justified this diversion of the Iroquois, for a few weeks later Com­mander Palmer actually caught and block­aded the phantom Sumpter in St. Pierre Harbor, Martinique, only to be outwitted by the elusive Semmes, subsequently of Ala­bama fame.

After a fruitless search, the San Jacinto reached Cienfuegos, October 23. There Captain Wilkes heard news that led to a decision to linger two weeks longer in the West Indies before “making the best of” his “way with the San Jacinto…. to Philadelphia” as Flag Officer Inman had ordered.

Since early in October, news of the ap­pointment of Messrs. Mason and Slidell as “commissioners” to England and France respectively by President Davis, had been known in the North. It was also known that they intended to slip through the block­ade off Charleston and proceed to Europe on the fast converted merchantman, C.S.S. Nashville. The blockaders off that port were increased and such a close watch kept upon the chosen steamer that the commis­sioners gave up hopes of getting to Europe in that manner, and chartered the privately owned, 15-knot blockade runner Gordon to carry them to Nassau. For some reason the name of this craft was changed to Theodora immediately after her charter for this trip. She carried them through the blockade, Saturday, October 12, and the fol­lowing Monday afternoon at four she was off Nassau. Without landing, it was learned that there was no connecting steamer be­tween that port and St. Thomas, as they had thought there would be at the time of their departure. The Theodora then laid a course for Havana, but a coal shortage forced her to put into Cardenas, October 16. Thence the commissioners, accompanied by much publicity, proceeded overland to Havana. A few days later the Nashville got through the blockade and started on a commerce- destroying cruise to the English Channel. Under the impression that she was carry­ing the diplomatic agents, Flag Officer Du­pont dispatched the U.S.S. James Adger, Commander Marchand, to Europe in hopes of intercepting her outside one of the chan­nel ports.

Charles Wilkes Cabinet Card

Charles Wilkes (Naval History and Heritage Command)

This was the status of affairs when Cap­tain Wilkes reached Cienfuegos and decided to take a part in this international game of hide and seek. While “at Cienfuegos . . . I determined to intercept them [the com­missioners and their secretaries] and care­fully examined all the authorities on inter­national law to which I had access, viz., Kent, Wheaton, Vattel, besides various de­cisions of Sir William Scott and other judges of the admiralty court of Great Britain, which bore upon the rights of neu­trals and their responsibilities.” He had found that dispatches were contraband of war and made a neutral ship carrying them, if it were known to her officers, liable to seizure. He then hypothesized, without a case in point to support such a supposition, that the Confederate agents, not being ac­credited diplomats but merely rebels, con­stituted living “embodiment of dispatches.” Hence, he concluded that a neutral carry­ing them was subject to capture.

His first desire, however, was to capture the Theodora on her return trip. As soon as he had filled his coal bunkers, water tanks, and storerooms, he sailed for Havana “with all dispatch.” There he found that he was too late for the Theodora, but that the commissioners were still the social lions of the city, and would not leave until Novem­ber 7, when they were to take passage on the English mail steamer Trent, plying regularly between Vera Cruz and St. Thomas with Havana as a call port. At St. Thomas, the Trent made connections with the regular West India packet for England. At no time did she enter Union or Con­federate ports. In addition to this infor­mation, Wilkes received news of the Union amphibious expedition then in operation against Port Royal, and he began to make plans for going by there, after he had cap­tured the Trent  in hopes of getting in on any action the men-of-war might find off that port.

With this full knowledge of the com­missioners’ itinerary, Captain Wilkes made up his “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 intercept her.” After leaving Havana he still had several days to wait be­fore the arrival of the Trent in those waters. He spent the time cruising along the Cuban north coast and stopping merchantmen in hopes of hearing something of the Sumpter. Then it occurred to him that in spite of the comparatively narrow waters of the Old Bahama Channel, the Trent might slip by him under cover of darkness. Nursing this fear, he hastened to Key West where he expected to find the Powhatan or some other man-of-war that he might order out to help patrol the path of the mail steamer.

In the meantime he had confided his in­tentions to Lieutenant Fairfax. This offi­cer opposed the entire scheme as being con­trary to American interpretations of inter­national law, and particularly hazardous to the Union cause should England, with her strong Navy, consider such an act sufficient cause to enter the war in favor of the Con­federacy. When he found, however, that his chief had fully made up his mind, he stopped urging his views upon the captain. He took advantage of this trip to Key West, however, to reopen the question and to sug­gest that it might be well to consult Federal Judge Marvin, an authority on admiralty law, as to the legality of such a seizure. Captain Wilkes did not consider it worth while, however, and when he found no men-of-war at Key West, he hastened back to the Cuban coast to keep the vigil alone.

He ran eastward along the north coast to a position off Paradon light, some three hundred miles east of Havana. At this well-chosen point, where the Old Bahama Channel contracts to a width of fifteen miles, he cruised slowly back and forth. According to the known speed of the Trent, Captain Wilkes reasoned that she should be off Paradon light at high noon, Novem­ber 8. At 11:45, the lookout reported her smoke to westward, and the crew of the San Jacinto was sent to battle stations. The customary blank shot was fired as a signal to heave to. This was disregarded. The second shot was a shell, which ex­ploded squarely in the path of the steamer. Naturally, Captain Moir, of the Trent, hove to.

Trent affair engraving

San Jacinto fires a warning shot as the Trent heaves to (Naval Institute Photo Archive)

Mr. Fairfax, second in command, for the moment became the leading character in the episode. That officer, still thoroughly dis­concerted over the possible outcome of the affair, launched himself upon a plan of action calculated to nullify in some measure the rashness of his captain. In harmony with this plan he had demanded, as the sen­ior lieutenant, the honor of commanding the boarding party of seamen, marines, en­gineers, and firemen that were to constitute the proposed prize crew. The request was granted, but just before he shoved off for the Trent, Captain Wilkes handed him a set of instructions that permitted no leeway for action or misinterpretation: “Should Mr. Mason, Mr. Slidell, Mr. Eustis, and Mr. McFarland be on board, you will take them as prisoners and send them on board this ship immediately and take possession of her as a prize.”

Portrait of Donald McNeil Fairfax

Donald McNeil Fairfax, U.S. Navy (Naval History and Heritage Command)

Lieutenant Fairfax, nevertheless, had no intention of making a prize of the Trent. With studied, calm politeness, and a down­right deference to Captain Moir, who he feared might out of indignation throw the ship on his hands and thereby defeat his in­tentions, he went about the task of getting the commissioners and their secretaries without seizing the vessel. This he did, though an over-zealous subordinate, because of a commotion among the rabidly pro-­Southern passengers and crew, did order marines aboard and by an offensive show of strength all but defeated Mr. Fairfax’s plan. He also had to use technical force, consisting of three officers laying their hands first on one Confederate and then on the other, to get the commissioners into the cutter. Though Fairfax’s playing fast and loose with his superior’s orders may not stimulate one’s admiration for him, it must be admitted that his capture of the commissioners with so little friction was no mean task, especially when it is consid­ered that it was done to a constant chorus of: “Did you ever hear of such an out­rage?” “Marines aboard!” “These Yankees will have to pay . . . . ”; “England will open the blockade”; and “. . . . such a piratical act.” And the most offensive spectator was the mail agent, clad in the uniform of a commander in the Royal Navy. The commissioners, however, were probably more than willing to be captured.

Trent engraving

The commissioners being brought on board the San Jacinto (Naval Institute Photo Archive)

Now that Lieutenant Fairfax had been aboard the Trent and transferred the Con­federates to the San Jacinto without undue bluster, the next step was to get Captain Wilkes to stop with that. For his hand in the game, the Goddess of Luck had dealt him an ace in the hole. He truthfully de­scribed the crowded and hostile conditions aboard the contemplated prize; reported that the English crew would probably refuse to aid in sailing the ship to Key West, all of which would require a large prize crew. This, he pointed out, would leave the San Jacinto with but little more than a skeleton crew for the possible action before Port Royal. The captain was convinced, and the Trent was permitted to go her way.

The North, depressed by the first Bull Run and afflicted with a growing hatred toward England because of the critical Brit­ish press and open sympathy for the South, received the news with unrestrained and undisguised joy. Newspapers proclaimed Captain Wilkes to be the man of the hour. Secretary Welles congratulated him, though he splashed a little cold water on the warmth thereof by remarking that the release of the Trent without being carried into an ad­miralty court “must not be permitted to constitute a precedent.” On the first day of the session of Congress, December 2, Wilkes was unanimously voted a medal for “his adroit and patriotic conduct.” By the time the San Jacinto had proceeded from Norfolk to Boston, by way of New York, to commit the prisoners to Fort War­ren, the outpouring of superlatives had reached its greatest volume. The city of Boston gave Wilkes and his officers a ban­quet at the Revere House, where men, prominent in semiofficial and official circles, vied with one another in lauding the sea captain and in making undiplomatic re­marks. Governor Andrew, of Massachusetts, for example, doubted if there was anything left to “crown the exultation of the American heart” now that Captain Wilkes had “fired his shot across the bows of the ship that bore the British Lion at its head.” The city government then voted the popular idol a sword, which, including expenses of pres­entation, cost $1,200.

True enough, a few men in the high places of the government looked askance upon this high-handed stopping of a neutral ship, en route between neutral ports, and the removing therefrom men of a quasi-diplomatic status, and felt that even if England did not choose to make a fuss over it, she certainly had the right to do so. Secretary of State Seward apparently did not think it could lead to a serious complaint, but confided to his diary that “Captain Wilkes, having acted without any instructions from the government, the subject is therefore free from embarrassment which might have resulted if the act had been specially directed by us.” Obviously he intended to repudiate Wilkes if England should vigorously protest. Postmaster General cabinet meeting, denounced Wilkes’s act as “unauthorized, irregular, and illegal” and suggested that the popular captain be or­dered to carry Messrs. Mason and Slidell to Europe in the San Jacinto and hand them over to the English government. General McClellan is credited with having held the same opinion, and the usually impulsive Senator Sumner, of the foreign affairs com­mittee, is said to have kept his poise (for once) on the subject. But these few were unheard, unquoted, and ignored in the great wave of effervescent enthusiasm then sweep­ing over the press, orators, and masses.

In the absence of transoceanic cables, the North Atlantic packets carried to England the news of American jubilance about the same time the West India packet from St. Thomas brought information that the viola­tion of the English flag had taken place. Their almost simultaneous arrival was too much for the English public, especially that part represented by the Tory party, which at once began leading the country along the path of war. Naval preparations were made; troops were ordered to Canada; Lord Russell wrote his testy ultimatum, the offensiveness of which was partially toned down at the request of the Prince Consort; and Seward sought a graceful manner in which to back water. The crusty English demands for the deliverance of the commissioners did not stoop so much as to argue the matter in international law, hence Seward was left to build up his own line of logic as to why he ought to return the Confederates. To disavow completely Cap­tain Wilkes’s act was now out of the ques­tion for two obvious reasons: American public opinion would not stand for it; and the captain had been officially congratulated by the Secretary of Navy and Congress, not to mention the semiofficial ovations.

In a document that is more clever than consistent, Mr. Seward explained to Lord Russell why he was disposed to liberate the prisoners. He supported Captain Wilkes’s actions as being in full harmony with American rights in the case until he took up the lack of judicial procedure prior to committing the agents to prison. This he credited not to Wilkes and his officers, but to the shortcomings of international law in that “the books of law are dumb” as to the proper procedure. “Only courts of admiralty have jurisdiction in maritime cases and these courts have formulas to try only claims to contraband chattels, but none to try claims concerning contraband persons. The courts can entertain no proceedings and render no judgment in favor of or against the alleged contraband men.” In view of this failure of maritime law to provide for the rendition of justice in such cases and the traditional policy of the United States on the rights of neutrals on the high seas, the commissioners would be cheerfully lib­erated at the time and place the British minister might direct.

Though the Confederates were released, January 1, 1862, three weeks later Lord Russell felt called upon to refute America’s “rights” in the case as set forth by Mr. Seward. This he did in a rather able man­ner.

To indulge in an academic evaluation of the merits and demerits of the English and American positions in the Trent affair would not only contribute little or nothing to the further career of our subject, Charles Wilkes, but would also require much space and unnecessarily add to an already voluminous literature on that subject. We might pause, however, to see wherein, and if, Captain Wilkes deserves the not always benevolent criticism to which American his­torians have subjected him.

The best document that can be presented in defense of Captain Wilkes was written by none other than Lord Palmerston. It is a letter to the editor of the London Times just three days after the seizure of the com­missioners but about ten days prior to the arrival of the news in England.

It will be recalled that after the departure of the Confederates from Charleston on the Theodora, theNashville, which was to have carried them to Europe, slipped through the blockade, and the U.S.S. James Adger was sent to the English Channel to intercept her, as Flag Officer Dupont thought she still had the commissioners aboard. By November 6, the Adger was in English waters, where her commander learned from an English newspaper the true whereabouts of the dip­lomatic agents, then in Havana. He may have toyed with the idea of lingering in the Channel, intercepting the West India packet from St. Thomas, and doing exactly what Wilkes did November 8, though his corre­spondence with the Navy Department por­trays intentions quite to the contrary, i.e., returning to Hampton Roads as soon as he had refitted and made sure that the Nash­ville had eluded him.

Palmerston, nevertheless, gained the im­pression from some source that the Adger was going to stop the West India packet, and called a conference of the law officers of the Crown to ascertain British rights in such an event. The result was the letter to J. T. Delane, of the Times :

94, Piccadilly, November 11, 1861. My dear Delane:

It may be useful to you to know that the Chancellor, Dr. Lushington, the three Law Offi­cers, Sir G. Grey, the Duke of Somerset, and myself, met at the Treasury today to consider what we could properly do about the American cruiser, come, no doubt, to search the West In­dian packet supposed to be bringing hither the two Southern envoys; and, much to my regret, it appeared that, according to the principles of international law laid down in our courts by Lord Stowell, and practiced and enforced by us, a belligerent has a right to stop and search any neutral not being a ship of war, and being found on the high seas and being suspected of carrying enemy’s despatches; and that consequently this American cruiser might, by our own principles of international law, stop the West Indian packet, search her, and if the Southern men and their despatches and credentials were found on board, either take them out, or seize the packet and carry her back to New York for trial. Such be­ing the opinion of our men learned in the law, we have determined to do no more than order the Phaeton frigate to drop down to Yarmouth Roads and watch the proceedings of the American within our three-mile limit of territorial jurisdic­tion, and to prevent her from exercising within that limit those rights which we cannot dispute as belonging to her beyond that limit.

In the meanwhile the American captain, having got very drunk this morning at Southampton with some excellent brandy, and finding it blowing heavily at sea, has come to an anchor for the night within Calshot Castle, at the entrance of the Southampton River.

I mention these things for your private infor­mation.

Yours sincerely,
Palmerston”

Apparently Lord Palmerston expected the influential Times to help the ministry weather adverse pubic opinion that he ex­pected would follow such a violation of the English flag as Wilkes had already com­mitted. In view, however, of the tremen­dous howl of vindictive protest that went up from the English public when the news of Captain Wilkes’s deed, and the manner in which United States had greeted it, reached England, there is little wonder that the English ministry felt that it could pre­serve its existence better by sending the already greatly embarrassed United States an ultimatum than by shaping public opinion to accord with English precedents on the rights of belligerents.

Some writers have been disposed to base their criticisms of Captain Wilkes upon his failure to carry theTrent into port for ad­judication by an American admiralty court. Such an objection is a result of having taken too seriously Secretary Seward’s analysis of the situation when he was searching for legal technicalities that would justify him in surrendering the prisoners. Had Captain Wilkes refused to listen to the cajolery of his unenthusiastic subordinate, Lieutenant Fairfax, and forced him to seize the Trent, as it was intended that he should, indig­nation would have been even higher in Eng­land than it was; Secretary Seward would have had one less excuse to present, and the United States would have had the ad­ditional humiliation of releasing the Trent, regardless of the verdict of the prize court. We may dismiss this point by saying that it was well that Captain Wilkes lapsed from his customary role of martinet par excel­lence by failing to hold his lieutenant to the letter of his boarding instructions.

The real criticism of Captain Wilkes rests upon his failure to study the American ad­miralty decisions and more thoroughly American policy on the rights of neutrals, which had been set forth by American sec­retaries of state, as closely as he did the opinions of the English admiralty judges. He ignored one of the cardinal differences between international and municipal law, i.e., that in the enforcement of the former in time of war, each nation acts not only as its own policeman but also as its own judge and jury. Obviously he should have sought legal sanction for his plan of action, not in English policy and decisions, but in those of America. Certainly, he should have committed no deed, the upholding of which would necessitate a reversal of America’s known policy, without specific orders to do so, which, of course, he did not have.

In connection with his looking into the legality of his proposed act before its com­mission, one cannot but wonder why he refused to consult Judge Marvin while at Key West. It cannot be said that he was in duty bound to seek judicial advice, or that as a naval officer it was obligatory upon him to abide by any opinions the judge might have offered; but, to say the least, his avoid­ance of authoritative advice as to whether or not he should commit the very kind of act that, when committed by England, the United States had made the nominal cause of the War of 1812, is by no means com­mendable.

In dealing with his shortcomings in the legal aspects of the Trent affair, posterity can afford to be charitable. They were mis­takes that many zealous naval officers might have made. Furthermore, a man mentally trained in the exact laws of physical science, as was Captain Wilkes, would naturally seek the same exactitude in maritime law. As England had exerted more influence in that field than any other power, together with the fact that it was an English ship he was about to intercept, he probably felt justified in attaching primary importance to the poli­cies and court decisions of that nation. Tak­ing it all in all, we can overlook his inter­pretation of international law with more generosity than we can the dilatory manner in which he made “the best of his way” from the African coast to Philadelphia.