Trent Affair

The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.

Trent Affair

Trent Affair, incident in the diplomatic relations between the United States and Great Britain, which occurred during the American Civil War. On Nov. 8, 1861, the British mail packet Trent, carrying James M. Mason and John Slidell, Confederate commissioners to London and Paris respectively, was halted in the Bahama Channel by the U.S. warship San Jacinto, commanded by Capt. Charles Wilkes. The commissioners and their secretaries were forcibly removed from the Trent and taken to Boston, where they were interned in Fort Warren. This act was strictly opposed to the laws of the sea as they had been previously upheld by the United States, since Wilkes did not seize the vessel and bring it in for admiralty adjudication but merely exercised search and seizure of the men. Nevertheless, Wilkes's action was greeted with wild acclaim and he was thanked by the U.S. House of Representatives. In Great Britain the act aroused popular indignation. The British drafted a sharp note to the U.S. government, the terms of which were softened by Prince Albert; they demanded the release of the commissioners and an explanation. A seven-day limit was set for reply. It seemed for a time that Great Britain would not only recognize the Confederacy but declare war against the Union. However, Lord Lyons, the British minister to the United States, delayed presentation of the note for several days, meanwhile notifying Secretary of State William H. Seward of its contents. The note was presented Dec. 23, 1861. By that time popular feeling in the United States had died down, and the prospect of war with Britain was anything but welcome. A cabinet meeting on Dec. 26 led to a decision to send to Britain a note by Seward disavowing Wilkes's act and promising to release the prisoners. They were released in Jan., 1862, and probable war with Great Britain was averted.

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