On Nov. 8, 1861, Capt. Charles Wilkes, commanding the USS San Jacinto, captured two “contraband of war” from the British mail packet RMS Trent. While initially hailed as a great victory for the Union on the high seas, Wilkes’ actions eventually caused an international incident and even threatened a war with Great Britain.
The “contraband” that Wilkes secured was Confederate diplomats, James Mason and John Slidell. The two were bound for Great Britain to seek diplomatic recognition of the Confederacy.
President Jefferson Davis counted on Europe’s need for American cotton in their textile mills as a driving factor in recognition from the likes of Great Britain and France. From the 1850s to the 1860s, cotton was the equivalent of oil today. Whatever region produced King Cotton, enjoyed economic riches. Nowhere was this more evident that in Mississippi.
Although Mississippi was sparsely populated, wealthy planters in the Delta and Black Belt enjoyed enormous riches. Before the Civil War, Mississippi was the fifth-wealthiest state in the nation. Natchez had more millionaires per capita than any city in the United States. This wealth was thanks to King Cotton and the slave labor which harvested the crop.
Mason and Slidell were selected to be diplomats for the Confederacy with Europe. Mason was a Virginian and Slidell was a New Yorker who had made Louisiana his adopted home.
The two men were aboard the Trent which carried mail from Europe to the western hemisphere and back. Mason and Slidell left Charleston, slipping through the blockade. At Cuba, the two diplomats gained passage on the Trent, along with their secretaries, and Slidell’s wife and children.
The San Jacinto was returning from Africa to join the Union fleet for a possible attack on Port Royal, S. C. While in Cuba, Wilkes heard that Mason and Slidell were on the Trent.
Before seizing his contraband, Wilkes poured over books aboard the San Jacinto looking for a legal precedent for his actions. Wilkes was a naval officer known for his aggressive command style and for being impulsive and over zealous.
Treasury officer George Harrington had cautioned Secretary of State William Seward of Wilkes, “He will give us trouble. He has a super abundance of self-esteem and a deficiency of judgment.”
Wilkes concluded he had the power to capture vessels carrying enemy dispatches. Since Mason and Slidell, were in Wilkes’ eyes, traitors, they were the same as enemy dispatches.
The San Jacinto stopped the Trent in international waters near St. Thomas as it passed through Bahamas Channel. Armed marines boarded the British vessel. Once aboard, Mason, Slidell and their secretaries were captured as contraband of war. The Confederate diplomats were eventually brought to Fort Warren in the Boston Harbor.
Initially, Wilkes’ actions were hailed by Northerners as a great feat. For weeks, the capture of Mason and Slidell was lauded in northern papers and by Washington’s politicians.
The reality began to set in as the Trent, which had been allowed to continue its journey after the capture of Mason and Slidell, arrived in Europe. British officials did not respond positively to the San Jacinto’s Marines boarding their vessel and capturing its passengers. The country demanded an apology, the release of Mason and Slidell and there was even talk of war against America.
President Abraham Lincoln, who had initially applauded the capture of Mason and Slidell, now realized the dangers of Wilkes’ actions. Lincoln lamented, “I fear the traitors will prove to be white elephants. We must stick to American principles concerning the rights of neutrals. We fought Great Britain for insisting on the right to do precisely what Captain Wilkes has done. If Great Britain shall now protest against the act, and demand their release, we must give them up, apologize for the act as a violation of our doctrines, and thus forever bind her over to keep the peace in relation to neutrals, and so acknowledge that she has been wrong for sixty years.”
For the next few weeks, the Trent Affair raged between the United States and Britain while the Confederacy hoped for European involvement against the Union. A solution would not be reached until mid-December 1861.