Contretemps over Contraband . . .

By Alison Arnold

 “Another historical item is the death of the Prince Consort, Albert, and one of greater consequence to me, the rendition of Mason & Slidell to the British govt, as the only means of averting war with that power. This is no doubt right, as Great Britain, no doubt justly, felt herself aggrieved by the act of Capt. Wilkes and we have done what we could to remove unpleasant feelings, but we can go no further with honor to ourselves in the way of concession. Give us a fair start with every one, justice on our side, and we are willing to abide the result, trusting in God that the right will triumph”

-Edward Baker, journal entry January 7, 1862

Capt. Ned Baker of Duxbury (lieutenant in the U.S. Navy but referred to locally as “Captain” Baker as he was master of merchant vessels) makes the above reference to what is known as the “Trent Affair.”

The Trent Affair, also known as the Mason and Slidell Affair, was an international diplomatic incident that came dangerously close to bringing Great Britain into the American Civil War on the side of the Confederacy. On November 8, 1861, the USS San Jacinto, intercepted the British ship RMS Trent and removed two Confederate diplomats, James Mason and John Slidell, who were headed for Great Britain to plead the Confederacy’s case for diplomatic recognition. The British government was infuriated by this violation of their neutrality and felt it was an insult to their national honor. Great Britain demanded an apology and the release of the prisoners. After several weeks of tension and talk of war, the Lincoln administration released the envoys and disavowed the actions of Capt. Charles Wilkes of USS San Jacinto. No formal apology was issued. Mason and Slidell went on to Britain but failed in their goal of achieving diplomatic recognition.

The Confederacy believed from the start of the war that European dependence on cotton for its textile industry would lead to diplomatic recognition and intervention. In particular, the Confederacy hoped that the British would break the Union naval blockade which was choking trade to and from the South. The Union’s main focus in foreign affairs was to prevent any British recognition of the South.

At the beginning of the war, it was made clear that the Lincoln administration considered the war strictly an internal insurrection saying the Confederacy had no rights under international law. Any movement by Britain towards officially recognizing the Confederacy would be considered an unfriendly act towards the United States.

John Slidell (1793–1871)

Mason and Slidell were going to Great Britain to emphasize the stronger position of the Confederacy now that it had expanded from seven to eleven states, with the likelihood that more states would also eventually join the new nation. An independent Confederacy would lead to a mutually beneficial commercial alliance between Great Britain, France, and the Confederate States. Of immediate importance, they were to make a detailed argument against the legality of the Union blockade.

James Murray Mason (1798–1871).

But, they ran a blockade and were on a British ship and the last thing the Union wanted was for these two “diplomats” to arrive in England to plead the case of the Confederacy.  Was Captain Wilkes correct in classifying these two men as contraband and removing them from the RMS Trent? Or was he taking the law into his own hands? I suppose it depends on which side of the ocean you lived.

For his part, Capt. Baker of Duxbury evidently felt that Great Britain had a right to feel aggrieved and we might infer, based on this, that he felt Capt. Wilkes had handled the affair inappropriately. Yet Baker also seems to agree with the Lincoln administration in that no further concessions would be appropriate. The damage was done but the United States needed to protect its honor and not bow to Great Britain.

In the end, the Trent Affair damaged the Confederacy’s ability to secure international recognition. Great Britain and France realized that the United States would strongly defend its sovereignty and any further attempts to officially interfere with the blockade would lead to a war which neither the Europeans nations nor the United States desired.

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