The Crew Of The U.S.S. San Jacinto Intercepts Trent

On November 8, 1861, U.S. Navy Captain Charles Wilkes commanded the crew of the U.S.S. San Jacinto to intercept the British mail steamer Trent and arrest Confederate commissioners James M. Mason and John Slidell.

En route to Europe to rally support for the Confederate cause, the two men and their secretaries were brought ashore and imprisoned at Fort Warren in Boston Harbor.

The seizure of Mason and Slidell sparked an international controversy that brought the United States to the brink of war with Great Britain. Claiming violation of international law, Britain demanded release of the commissioners and ordered troops to Canada to prepare for a potential Anglo-American conflict. To avoid a clash, Secretary of State William H. Seward apologized for the incident. The diplomats were released in early January 1862, bringing the Trent Affair to a peaceful close.

The Trent Affair, also known as the Mason and Slidell Affair, was an international diplomatic incident that occurred during the American Civil War. On November 8, 1861, the USS San Jacinto, commanded by Union Captain Charles Wilkes, intercepted the British mail packet Trent and removed two Confederate diplomats, James Mason and John Slidell. The envoys were bound for Great Britain and France to press the Confederacy’s case for diplomatic recognition by Europe.

The initial reaction in the United States was enthusiastically in support of the capture, but many American leaders had doubts as to the wisdom and the legality of the act. In the Confederate States, the hope was that the incident would lead to a permanent rupture in Union-British relations, diplomatic recognition by Britain of the Confederacy, and ultimately, Southern independence. In Great Britain, the public expressed outrage at this apparent insult to their national honour. The British government demanded an apology and the release of the prisoners while it took steps to strengthen its military forces in Canada and in the Atlantic.

After several weeks of tension during which the United States and the United Kingdom came dangerously close to war, the issue was resolved when the Lincoln administration released the envoys and disavowed Captain Wilkes’ actions. No formal apology was issued. Mason and Slidell resumed their voyage to England but failed in their goal of achieving diplomatic recognition.