The Civil War, 1861-1865

Author: John Bigelow  | Date: 1861

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The Trent Affair

A LITTLE before midnight of Friday, the 11th of October, 1861, a dozen or more ladies and gentlemen were gathered together upon the wharf in Charleston Harbor. The night was pitchy dark, and it was raining violently. In a few minutes only after their arrival, the party were seated in a ship’s pinnace, till then invisible, that had apparently been waiting for them at a few oars’ length from the landing. Two or three strokes of the oars were heard, and the boat with its new burden was swallowed up in the darkness again.

The party in the boat, who were embarking upon a voyage which was destined to make some of them more famous than any other event or their lives, consisted of James M. Mason, of Virginia, and John Slidell, of Louisiana, commissioners from the "Confederate States," the first to England and the second to France; Mr. McFarland, secretary to Mr. Mason; Mrs. Slidell, Miss Matilda Slidell, Miss Rosia Slidell, Mr. Eustis, who was Mr. Slidell’s secretary; Mrs. Eustis, a daughter of Mr. Corcoran, the head of a leading banking-house in Washington, but at that moment a prisoner in Fort Lafayette; Colonel Le Mat, of Louisiana, and two or three others of less political importance, who were profiting by the opportunity to find a refuge in foreign lands.

In a few minutes after leaving the wharf, the party were on board the small steamer "Theodora," lying in wait for them inside the bar. By 1 o’clock her cables were slipped, and she was gliding as noiselessly and as invisibly as possible down the bay. As she passed Fort Sumter the lights on board were darkened, the engine slowed, and other precautions were taken to escape notice, and with entire success. She was soon beyond the reach of the glasses or the guns from the fort, and on the open sea.

On the 16th she arrived at Cardenas, on the island of Cuba, where the commissioners disembarked. On the 7th of November, with their families and secretaries, they sailed from Havana for Southampton in the British royal mail-steamer "Trent." About noon of the following day, while running the narrow passage of the old Bahama Channel, a steamer was sighted from the "Trent," directly in her course, and apparently waiting for her, but showing no colors. On approaching her, Captain Moir of the "Trent" hoisted the British ensign, which, however, received no attention. When the two ships were within about a quarter of a mile or something less, the strange vessel fired a shot across the "Trent’s" bow, and ran up the American flag. The "Trent," declining to receive orders from the stranger with or without the American flag, held on her course, and paid no attention to the summons.

As soon as time enough had elapsed to leave no doubt of her purpose, a shell from the American’s forward deck burst about one hundred yards in front of the "Trent." This was a summons Captain Moir could not disregard, and the "Trent" was slowed. Presently a boat put out from the American vessel and boarded the "Trent." The officer in command, Lieutenant Fairfax, asked for a list of her passengers. The captain refused to give it or to recognize the right of the officer to ask for it. Lieutenant Fairfax then called out the names of the rebel commissioners and their secretaries, and said those were the persons he was in quest of: that he knew they were on board, and his orders were to bring them away with him at all hazards. Captain Moir declined to recognize the authority of the intruder to meddle with his ship or passengers, and refused to give up the commissioners.

Lieutenant Fairfax then said he would be obliged to take possession of the ship, and thereupon made the appropriate signal to his commander. Without delay three boats, containing thirty marines, and about sixty sailors heavily armed, put out from the American ship and rowed alongside. Seeing that further resistance would be worse than fruitless, Messrs. Slidell, Mason, Eustis and McFarland, who meantime had come on deck, proceeded to get their personal baggage and descended with it into the boats, the ladies of the party deciding to remain on board the "Trent" and go on to Liverpool. The commissioners were taken to the frigate, which proved to be the "San Jacinto" under the command of Captain Wilkes, which had just arrived from the coast of Africa and was on her way to New York. The commissioners were brought to New York, and, by orders from Washington, placed in confinement in Fort Lafayette….

The effect of this "outrage upon the British flag," as it was the fashion to term it, was startling. It absorbed the conversation of the drawing-room and the council-chamber, and was a subject of fierce debate in every college club and palace of several continents. Immediately upon the receipt of the news at the admiralty, a cabinet council was summoned by Lord Palmerston to determine whether Mr. Adams’s passport should not be sent to him. To the rebels and their sympathizing partisans in Europe the news gave infinite delight, for they assumed that Captain Wilkes had not acted without the sanction of his Government. They hoped and believed England had received an insult to which she could not submit; that the United States would never make the only reparation possible that would be satisfactory—the surrender of the commissioners; and, finally, that a war between the two countries must ensue, that England would be obliged to help fight the battle and thus help establish the independence of the Confederate States.

The loyal Americans in Europe were filled with concern, for this event seemed to have deprived them of the few friends in the press and in public life that had not already abandoned the Union cause. The Tory press of London were, of course, anxious to make the most of their grievance. The "Morning Herald" [London] trusted there would be no delay in avenging an outrage unprecedented, even in American lawlessness." The "Post," which was reputed to reflect the policies of Lord Palmerston said: "The insult was most gratuitous; was unwarranted by the code of nations; was not only to be duly felt, but deeply resented." The London "Daily News," which had been neutral at least, if not friendly to the Unionists, for a few days lost its balance and scolded us very sharply.

The only journals in England that refused to join in this cry were two papers established by the political friends of Mr. Bright, one in London and one in Manchester, and which the "Morning Herald" signalized for public execration in an editorial article commencing as follows: "With two exceptions, which together constitute but one, all the morning journals of London and of the country are unanimous in their expression of disgust and indignation at the American outrage. Mr. Bright, by his London and Manchester organs, stands forth in opposition to the honor and the universal feeling of his country; now, as ever, hateful in the eyes of all educated and thoughtful men; now, as ever before, the object of the scorn and reprobation of all Englishmen."

The French press naturally took a somewhat more dispassionate view of the seizure, not being directly interested. Besides, the French people are wont to contemplate with Christian composure any event which promises to embroil their insular neighbors with foreign powers, and at this time especially with America. Besides, in Paris, as in London, those who for any one of manifold reasons desired the success of the Confederates rejoiced over the seizure of the commissioners, and sought to give the grievance great international importance.

Our political friends among the French people were thoroughly demoralized. They took it for granted that Captain Wilkes had acted under orders; that we could not recede; and that England would become the active, instead of what she had till then seemed, to some of us at least, to have been, the passive ally of the Confederates. They did not see how it was possible for them to defend the act in the press or in the chambers. There was a time within the three days which immediately followed the news of the seizure when one could have counted on his fingers about all the people in Europe not Americans who still retained any hope or expectation of the perpetuity of our Union. They took it for granted that we would fight until we were satisfied that there was no use of fighting longer, and then we would agree to some terms of separation. All faith in our final success was practically extinguished.

It was all the more trying a moment for loyal Americans, and especially for Federal officials in Europe, that we had no transatlantic telegraph in those days, nor had we any official information as yet of the relations which the Washington Government sustained to Commander Wilkes’s adventure. And yet we were expected to encourage and strengthen our friends to the best of our ability until we could be reenforced from home.

A day or two after the news reached Paris, I called upon the venerable Garnier-Pages about 10 o’clock in the morning. M. Pages had been a member of the provisional government under Lamartine in 1848, and was now again one of the half-dozen Republican members of the Corps Legislatif under the Second Empire. I had known him since 1859, when I was presented to him by the late Robert Walsh, of Philadelphia, our consul in Paris. He was now, as then, an ardent Republican, and a stalwart friend of the Union cause, partly because of his aversion to slavery, partly because of his aversion to the Imperial Government, which was suspected of inclining to the rebels, and partly because he believed that the future of republicanism in Europe depended upon the success of republicanism in America.

I found him very much disturbed, and already looking upon disunion and its consequences as inevitable in the near future. I felt that it would never do for a person of his age, activity and zeal to be allowed to go up and down among the Republicans of Paris in the frame of mind in which I found him. I immediately proceeded to state as well as I could all the reasons that occurred to me for refusing to regard the seizure of the commissioners as an event likely to have a serious or permanent influence upon the war.

My talk occupied about twenty minutes. When I had done, he said: "Why won’t you sit down and write out just what you have said to me, and publish it over your own signature to-morrow morning? It would have a very reassuring effect and would afford as substantial comfort to others as" (he was pleased to say) "it has afforded to myself."

I replied to him that, by the rules of our service, I was not allowed to correspond with the public through the newspapers; but as he attached so much importance to an authoritative statement of the kind I had made to him, I promised to lose no time in finding some suitable person to make it. General Winfield Scott, who had just been relieved from the duties of Commander-in-Chief of the Union armies, had arrived in Paris only the day before. It occurred to me at once that Scott was the person to make the statement, and Mr. Thurlow Weed, who was also then in Paris, and an intimate friend of the General, was the most immediately available person to prepare the General’s mind for it. I immediately repaired to Mr. Weed’s hotel, a few blocks off, related to him briefly what had occurred, and asked him if he thought General Scott would be willing to publish such a statement as was called for. Mr. Weed said he did not doubt but he would not only be willing, but well pleased to do it.

It was then arranged between us that he should go to the General’s hotel and secure his consent, while I should repair to my office and prepare the statement he was to sign, in case he might shrink from the task of preparing such a statement himself. In the course of an hour or so Mr. Weed rejoined me at my office, and said the General thought well of my suggestion, and would receive me at his rooms at 2 P. M. At the hour appointed I repaired to General Scott’s apartment in the Hotel Westminster, and read to him the letter which in the meantime I had prepared. Knowing as I did that the General had no mean opinion of his skill in the use of the English language, I felt some hesitation in reading it to him, and was immensely relieved when he signed it without altering a word or suggesting a modification….

I had the letter of General Scott immediately translated and copies despatched to the principal morning and evening papers in Paris, and copies in English to the London papers in time for their respective editions of the day following its publication. The expediency of making this statement was more than justified by the result. It was copied in whole or in part pretty universally by the European press. Coming, as it did, from General Scott, who till within a fortnight, had been practically a member of the Federal Cabinet; the assurance it contained that Commander Wilkes could not have acted under orders from his Government, and that if Mr. Seward could not persuade Earl Russell that his Government had a right to stop the "Trent" and seize the rebel commissioners, Earl Russell would unquestionably be able to persuade Mr. Seward that it had not, and that in either case the friendly relations of the two governments were not imperiled—all together, these considerations had an immediate and reassuring effect.

Our friends in Europe took courage from General Scott’s letter, and began to wonder how they ever suspected that the Federal Government had authorized the seizure of the commissioners, or doubted that the proceeding would be peacefully arranged. A complimentary dinner was given by his fellow townspeople at Rochdale to Mr. Bright, whom the "Trent" affair had for a time placed between the upper and the nether millstones, to afford him an opportunity of giving impulse to the reaction, of which he most effectively availed himself. At this dinner he made one of his most memorable speeches on American affairs. Mr. Cobden also, who was invited to speak at this meeting, sent a letter which was a skillful amplification of the letter of General Scott.

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Chicago: John Bigelow, The Civil War, 1861-1865 in America, Vol.8, Pp.79-88 Original Sources, accessed December 8, 2022,

MLA: Bigelow, John. The Civil War, 1861-1865, in America, Vol.8, Pp.79-88, Original Sources. 8 Dec. 2022.

Harvard: Bigelow, J, The Civil War, 1861-1865. cited in , America, Vol.8, Pp.79-88. Original Sources, retrieved 8 December 2022, from