- Historic Sites
1861 One Hundred And Twenty-five Years Ago
October/November 1986 | Volume 37, Issue 6
Steaming through the calm waters off Cuba on November 8, the British Royal Mail packet Trent was accosted by the USS San Jacinto . The event nearly led to war between England and the already embattled Union. The warship fired twice across the packet’s bow; the Briton slowed to a stop, and its outraged captain bellowed through a speaking trumpet: “What do you mean by heaving my vessel to in this way?” His answer came when three boatloads of Union men clambered aboard the Trent and—against the law of the high seas—seized James M. Mason and John Slidell, the Confederacy’s newly appointed commissioners to Great Britain and France, who were en route to those countries. The Trent ’s indignant passengers heaped abuse upon the Yankees, shouting, “Pirates! Villains!” and threatening to toss the Union lieutenant into the sea. But their anger was nothing beside the storm of fury that broke in England when news of the Trent affair reached its shores.
The habitually vitriolic London press fanned the flames of British resentment. The Times excoriated Capt. Charles Wilkes, commander of the San Jacinto : “He is an ideal Yankee. Swagger and ferocity, built on a foundation of vulgarity and cowardice, these are his characteristics. …” The London Morning Chronicle lambasted Secretary of State William Seward, whom they described as “exerting himself to provoke a quarrel with all of Europe, in that spirit of senseless egotism which induces the Americans, with their dwarf fleet, and shapeless mass of incoherent squads, which they call an army, to fancy themselves the equal of France by land, and of Great Britain by sea.”
British statesmen leaped into the fray. Lord Palmerston, the prime minister, and Lord John Russell, secretary for foreign affairs, wrote to Washington requesting to be informed whether Captain Wilkes had acted under orders. If he had, their note made clear, hostilities would result. Without awaiting an answer, they dispensed eight thousand troops to Canada and ordered the British fleet to be made war-ready.
In the meantime the Union had been toasting the capture of Mason and Slidell as a brilliant victory. Captain Wilkes was paraded down Broadway in New York to a City Hall reception, and Congress hailed his “brave, adroit and patriotic conduct.” But the celebration was brief. The Union had no wish to antagonize the European powers into aiding the Confederacy; a diplomatic dodge was deemed necessary. Before long Seward surrendered Mason and Slidell to the British in a document that achieved the remarkable feat of simultaneously lauding Wilkes while upholding the law of the freedom of the seas. Handing over the Confederates “was a pretty bitter pill to swallow,” President Lincoln said later, but to the disappointment of the South, Britain was satisfied, and war averted. The President nevertheless harbored hopes “that England’s triumph would be short-lived,” he said, “and that after ending our war successfully we would be so powerful that we could call her to account for all the embarrassments she had inflicted on us.”
October 1: The Army Balloon Corps is formed. Under the direction of T. S. C. Lowe, balloons are sent aloft above battlefields to determine enemy strength and movement.
October 24: The first transcontinental telegram travels from Chief Justice Stephen J. Field in California to President Lincoln in Washington, D.C.