The Trent Affair 

US #4522-23 – The first stamps in the Civil War Sesquicentennial Series.

On November 8, 1861, the Trent Affair began an international incident that nearly sparked a war between the US and Great Britain during the Civil War.

As America moved toward war in early 1861, the North and South both considered what role the British might play in a potential future conflict.  Britain depended on Southern cotton, so the South believed that would aid them in earning diplomatic recognition.  However, the Union saw the conflict as an internal issue that the British should stay away from.

In February 1861, the Confederacy appointed a three-man delegation to travel to Europe to explain the Southern cause, open diplomatic relations, and “negotiate treaties of friendship, commerce, and navigation.”  Much of their argument centered on the right of secession and the importance of cotton.  The delegation met with British representatives that May.  Word of the Battle of Fort Sumter had just reached London, so the outbreak of open warfare wasn’t discussed at the meeting.

Canada #52 was issued for Queen Victoria’s 60th anniversary as queen.

The British considered the Southerners’ argument, and then on May 13, 1861, Queen Victoria declared neutrality in the conflict, which served as recognition of Southern belligerency.  This gave Confederate ships the same privileges in foreign ports that US ships had – they could get fuel and supplies, but not military equipment or weapons.  France, Spain, the Netherlands, and Brazil soon made the same declarations.

The American diplomat in England was outraged, claiming that this declaration of neutrality was the first step toward diplomatic recognition.  Secretary of State William H. Seward exclaimed that formal recognition of the Confederacy would make Britain an enemy of the US.

US #370 was issued for the 1909 Alaska-Yukon Pacific Exposition.

After the Confederates won the First Battle of Bull Run, the British believed that Confederate independence was inevitable, but they still planned to stay out of the internal conflict unless “the fortune of arms or the more peaceful mode of negotiation shall have determined the respective positions of the two belligerents.”

The Southern secretary of state grew impatient and decided to send his own diplomats to Britain and France, John Slidell and James Mason. The Confederates considered several options to get their diplomats over to Europe, having to get through Union blockades.  They decided to charter the steamer Gordon, which could outrun Union ships.  Renamed Theodora, it left Charleston, South Carolina, at 1 am on October 12 and slipped through the Union blockade.  They made their way to Cuba, where they would board the British RMS Trent after it arrived in three weeks.

US #2387 from the Antarctic Explorers issue.

Back in the US, the Union government knew they South was sending diplomats to Europe but didn’t know which ship they left on.  For a time, they believed it was the Nashville and sent a ship to Britain to pursue it.  Eventually, Captain Charles Wilkes of the USS San Jacinto discovered the Confederate plan to board the Trent in Cuba.  He stationed his ship near the Bahamas Channel, which they’d need to pass through, and waited.

On November 8, 1861, the Trent passed through the channel.  Around noon, the San Jacinto fired two shots across the bow of the Trent, after which the British ship came to a halt.  The Union sailors then boarded the Trent and took Mason, Slidell, and their secretaries prisoner.   They reached America on November 15 and transferred the prisoners to Fort Warren in Boston.

US #2387 – Classic First Day Cover.

Though Northerners celebrated Wilkes’ actions, the British were outraged. They had not taken sides in the war and had a policy to accept any paying customer on their ships. The British demanded the men be released and the US issue an apology. They also began preparing for war – banning exports to America, sending troops to Canada, and planning several attacks. Additionally, France announced it would support Britain if war erupted.

US #584 from the Series of 1923-26.

Lincoln chose to avoid war with Britain and had a message sent to Britain condemning Wilkes’ actions. The men were released in January and finally made their journey to Europe. However, they failed to convince any European leaders to support the Confederate cause in the war.

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  1. There is a marvelous ferry tour in the summer of the Boston Harbor islands, especially to Georges island and Fort William, which was actually manned by troops in both WW1 and WW2. The Revolutionary War fort on Castle Island (no longer an island) was replaced in 1833 by Fort Independence. In growing up in Boston in the 1930s, the Castle Island fort was a favorite place to take a Sunday picnic Thanks, Mystic, for these nuggets of our history.

  2. Mystic always does a great job sharing a fact filled historic episode succinctly & with excitement. Thank you so much!

  3. Nice detailed account of an incident that nearly led to British support for the Confederacy. On the British side the dying Prince Albert advised his govt not to act to hasty in response to this incident. In addition, the trans-Atlantic cable broke, delaying communications between the two nations and allowing more time for tempers to cool on both sides of the Atlantic. Lincoln deftly handled the episode.

  4. The British did the right thing in not taking sides until the conflict was decided. They did support the states right of secession, but in the long run would have caused them more trouble with the union than it was worth.

  5. A key part of President Lincoln’s message to the British has been left out. Lincoln indeed condemned Wilkes’ action and ordered that the three Confederate be released. He pointedly did not apologize for the incident, but thanked the British for finally accepting America’s position since the War of 1812, that passengers or crewmen on the ships of neutral nations could not legally be seized. The British practice of seizing suspected British subjects who were crewmen on American ships was one of the leading causes of the U.S. declaration of war in 1812.

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