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Trent Affair

Abraham Lincoln

Trent Affair: Abraham Lincoln was the 16th American President who served in office from March 4, 1861 to April 15, 1865. A Important diplomatic crisis that occured during his presidency was the Trent Affair which brought the Union to the brink of war with the British.

Definition and Summary of the Trent Affair
Summary and definition:
The Trent Affair was a serious diplomatic incident in November 1861 that brought the Union near to another war with the British during the American Civil War (1861 - 1865). Two Confederate diplomats, James Mason and John Slidell, were taken from the British mail ship, the RMS Trent, by Captain Wilkes of the USS San Jacinto. 

Trent Affair: President Lincoln orders the Blockade
The blockade against the Confederacy started when President Lincoln ordered this strategy against the CSA on April 19, 1861, only 6 days after the fall of Fort Sumter.

Trent Affair: British & French Reaction to the Blockade
As soon as the strategy of the Union blockade was acted upon, the British and French governments gave the Confederate States of America the same rights in their European ports as were granted to the United States.

Trent Affair for kids: The Confederate Envoys
The Trent Affair erupted when two diplomatic envoys were sent to from the Confederate States of America to Europe. The names of the Southern envoys were James Mason (17981871) and John Slidell (17931871). Their mission was to ask the foreign governments in Great Britain and France to recognize the independence of the Confederacy and even to declare war on the United States. The goals of the Confederacy during the Civil War was not only to secure international recognition from Europe but also to enter a military alliance with Britain which would legitimize the Confederacy and justify its cause. The diplomatic mission of Mason and Slidell led to the Trent Affair.

Trent Affair for kids: Confederacy Leverage
The Confederate government, lacking an industrial base, quickly identified the need to win diplomatic and material support from Britain and France. Confederates believed that "Cotton was king" and that unless there were a regular supply of cotton from the Southern states to England and France the cotton mills would grind to a halt and severely damage the economy.

Trent Affair for kids: The British Point of View
The two diplomatic envoys, James Mason and John Slidell, had the full support of Jefferson Davis, the President of the CSA. Jefferson Davis believed that Mason and Slidell would achieve recognition, and the legitimacy pf the Confederate States of America, from the powers of Europe based on the power of "King Cotton". However, Britain had a long insisted that neutral nations honor its blockades of hostile countries.

Trent Affair: Mason and Slidell board the Trent
Their attempts of the envoys to travel to London via the two gun CSS Nashville (CSS means Confederate States Ship) had been thwarted due to the blockade, so they made their way to Cuba in the hope of using a British mail ship to make the journey. On November 7, 1861 Mason and Slidell, accompanied by their wives and children, boarded the RMS Trent (RMS meanS Royal Mail Ship), a British Royal Mail paddle steamer from Cuba.  The Union Secretary of the Navy, Gideon Welles, was made aware of the Confederate mission and assuming the diplomats were on the Nashville, ordered Flag Officer Samuel Du Pont to send a warship to pursue the CSS Nashville to intercept Mason and Slidell.

Trent Affair for kids: Captain Wilkes and the San Jacinto
Captain Charles Wilkes of the United States ship USS San Jacinto had learned that Mason and Slidell had boarded  the RMS Trent on November 7. Captain Wilkes was ambitious and impulsive and decided to take the opportunity to intercept the diplomats on the San Jacinto. On November 8, the RMS Trent was spotted and was brought to after the USS San Jacinto fired two warning shots. The two diplomats were taken from the British steamer Trent on to the USS San Jacinto and headed for Hampton Roads port in Norfolk Virginia. It was here that Captain Wilkes received orders to take James Mason and John Slidell to Fort Warren in Boston, Massachusetts. Wilkes delivered his prisoners and was initially hailed as a hero and was even given banquets in his honor. Word spread to Washington where Wilkes was again praised by many.

Trent Affair: The Tide of Northern Opinion turns
Following the initial expressions of approval for the boarding of the RMS Trent and the capture of Mason and Slidell and public opinion in the North about the 'Trent Affair' quickly changed. Northerners became concerned the actions taken during the Trent Affair by Captain Wilkes would be perceived as excessive and lacking in legal precedent. Others compared the removal of Mason and Slidell was similar to the actions taken by the Royal Navy prior to the War of 1812 when the British had Impressed American seamen. Above all Northerners wanted to avoid trouble with Great Britain.

Trent Affair: Threat of War with the British
News of the Trent Affair reached London on November 27, 1861 and immediately incited public anger and outrage. The British government led by Lord Palmerston viewed the whole Trent Affair as a violation of maritime law. The British demanded that the Union released of the Confederate diplomats with an apology. And the British began to reinforce their military position in Canada. The Trent Affair escalated into a crisis as a possible war loomed between the United States and Great Britain.

Trent Affair for kids: Threat of War with the British
The United States Secretary of State, William Seward, worked to diffuse the crisis with the British and the Trent Affair by clearly stating that Captain Wilkes had acted without orders. President Lincoln had already said that the actions taken by Captain Wilkes in the Trent Affair had done to the British was one of very reasons why Americans had fought the War of 1812. President Lincoln went on to say "We must stick to American principles and restore the prisoners." Then William Seward made the statement that while stopping Trent had been consistent with international law, the failure to take it port was a severe error on the part of Captain Wilkes. The Confederate diplomats were duly released "to do to the British nation just what we have always insisted all nations ought to do to us." Although no formal apology was made for the Trent Affair the actions of the United States were viewed favorable by Lord Palmerston and his government in London and the diplomatic crisis caused by the Trent Affair passed.

Trent Affair: Southerners Hopes Dashed
The Southerners hopes of applying leverage on the British government came to nothing. Before the supplies of Southern cotton in Britain were used up, new supplies began to come in from India and from Egypt. The Union armies then started to occupy portions of the cotton belt early in 1862, and resumed the export of cotton to the British.

US American History
1850-1865: Civil War Era

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