Skip to main content

1861 One Hundred And Twenty-five Years Ago

March 2023
2min read

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.

We hope you enjoy our work.

Please support this 72-year tradition of trusted historical writing and the volunteers that sustain it with a donation to American Heritage.


Stories published from "October/November 1986"

Authored by: John Lukacs

For a few weeks Hitler came close to winning World War II. Then came a train of events that doomed him. An eloquent historian reminds us that however unsatisfactory our world may be today, it almost was unimaginably worse.

Authored by: Maura Moynihan

Despite his feeling that “we are beginning to lose the memory of what a restrained and civil society can be like,” the senior senator from New York—a lifelong student of history—remains an optimist about our system of government and our extraordinary resilience as a people

Authored by: Louis Auchincloss

It took half a century for his critics to see his subjects as clearly as he did; but today he stands as America’s preeminent portraitist

Authored by: David Halberstam

He invented modern mass production. He gave the world the first people’s car, and his countrymen loved him for it. But at the moment of his greatest triumph, he turned on the empire he had built—and on the son who would inherit it.

Authored by: Edward L. Beach

Seventy-five years ago a powered kite landed on a cruiser. From that stunt grew the weaponry that has defined modern naval supremacy.

Authored by: Ray Broekel

It was born in America, it came of age in America, and in an era when foreign competition threatens so many of our industries, it still sweetens our balance of trade

Authored by: Ray Broekel

Drawing upon a lifetime of study, our author chooses ten classic American candy bars worthy of special attention.

Authored by: John Demos

Had Thomas Morton raised his maypole anywhere but next door to the Pilgrims, history and legend probably would have no record of him, his town, or his “lascivious” revels

Authored by: The Editors

A newly discovered record of a proud Southern society that few people ever thought existed

Authored by: Howard Mansfield

Since 1930, more than half of America’s splendid elm trees have succumbed to disease. But science is now fighting back and gaining ground.

Featured Articles

Famous writers including Emerson, Thoreau, Hawthorne, and the Alcotts turned Sleepy Hollow Cemetery into our country’s first conservation project.

Native American peoples and the lands they possessed loomed large for Washington, from his first trips westward as a surveyor to his years as President.

In his Second Inaugural Address, Abraham Lincoln embodied leading in a time of polarization, political disagreement, and differing understandings of reality.

A hundred years ago, America was rocked by riots, repression, and racial violence.

During Pres. Washington’s first term, an epidemic killed one tenth of all the inhabitants of Philadelphia, then the capital of the young United States.

Now a popular state park, the unassuming geological feature along the Illinois River has served as the site of centuries of human habitation and discovery.  

The recent discovery of the hull of the battleship Nevada recalls her dramatic action at Pearl Harbor and ultimate revenge on D-Day as the first ship to fire on the Nazis.

Our research reveals that 19 artworks in the U.S. Capitol honor men who were Confederate officers or officials. What many of them said, and did, is truly despicable.

Here is probably the most wide-ranging look at Presidential misbehavior ever published in a magazine.

When Germany unleashed its blitzkreig in 1939, the U.S. Army was only the 17th largest in the world. FDR and Marshall had to build a fighting force able to take on the Nazis, against the wishes of many in Congress.

Roast pig, boiled rockfish, and apple pie were among the dishes George and Martha enjoyed during the holiday in 1797. Here are some actual recipes.

Born during Jim Crow, Belle da Costa Greene perfected the art of "passing" while working for one of the most powerful men in America.