Printer Friendly

What might have been ... a wider international conflict is narrowly averted.

History is full of "what if" questions hinged upon the outcome of singular, isolated incidents. One of the most dramatic of these is the little-known Trent Affair, that almost changed the course of the entire U.S. Civil War

History is full of "what ifs" and "what might have beens"--moments in time when world history could have been radically changed off course, based on the outcome of a fateful decision, event or conflict.

Some "what ifs" are obvious, others are not. What if Hitler had invaded England in 1940 instead of turning toward Russia? Would the British Isles have fallen, denying the Allies a base from which to launch the invasion of Europe in 1944?

What if the Japanese never attacked Pearl Harbor, delaying the entry of the United States into WWII? Would it have bought Germany time to develop the atomic bomb first?

What if Archduke Franz Ferdinand was never assassinated in Sarajevo? Would WWI still have occurred?

What if England had entered the U.S. Civil War on the side of the South because of the Trent Affair? Would the combined strength of Britain and the Confederacy have been enough to force Lincoln and the North to their knees, creating southern independence and two separate American nations?

The Trent Affair may well be one of the least thought of, yet greatest, "what ifs" of history. Reason being there are several "what ifs" layered within the timeline of crisis.

For over a month, from November to late December 1861, England and the United States stood at the precipice of war. Several key moments at the crossroads came and went. If events had turned left instead of right, England would have entered the Civil War on the side of the South. Not because England approved of slavery or southern independence but because she had been provoked by an act against her sovereignty.

It was the Cuban Missile Crisis of its time. Incredibly, it was close to a slugging match between two heavyweights. Neither side was willing to back down. Except instead of the United States and Russia, it was the United States and England. And, by default, Canada.


On November 8,1861, Confederate commissioners to London and Paris, James Mason (France) and John Sliddell (Britain) were taken at gun point off the British mail packet the RMS Trent by the crew of Captain Charles Wilkes of the U.S. Navy ship San Jacinto. The result was an international incident, one which brought England within a hair's breadth of declaring war on the United States.

Mason and Sliddell had been sent by Confederate President Jefferson Davis and the Confederate Congress to lobby France and England into recognizing the Confederate States as a legitimate country.

On the day before, November 7, the Confederate commissioners had boarded the Trent at Havana, Cuba. Unknown to them, the U.S. consul-general in Havana, Robert Shufeldt, himself a former naval officer, had tipped Wilkes of the San Jacinto that the Trent was leaving harbour. The San Jacinto was a sloop of 15 mounted guns patrolling the Caribbean for Confederate cruiser Sumter.

Captain Wilkes was what one might call a bit of a "loose cannon," so to speak. His own officers had expressed concerns about the legitimacy of taking on a British ship in international waters. Not to mention the obvious fact that it may lead to war with England. Wilkes's response to concerns of his own men was to arrest them and place them under guard. Hell or high water, Wilkes was going to take the Trent as a prize of war because of the presence of the Confederates Mason and Sliddell.

Lying in wait in the Bahamas Channel, Wilkes brought his guns to bear firing two shots across the bow of the Trent. With no chance of defending itself or out running the San Jacinto, Captain James Moir of the Trent slowed allowing a boarding party led by Executive Officer Lt. D. M. Fairfax to board. Fairfax himself had serious concerns about the legality of taking the Trent, its passengers and cargo as a prize of war.

Here comes the first "what if' of the Trent Affair. The taking of the Trent by the San Jacinto was no polite affair. The San Jacinto drew up alongside two hundred yards apart from the Trent. The crew of the San Jacinto was at quarters, ports open, exposing her guns with tampions removed. The nervous Fairfax came aboard against vehement protest from Captain Moir and Royal Mail agent, Commander Williams.

The Confederate ministers were not prepared to come peacefully or willingly. They refused. Lt. Fairfax sent back to the San Jacinto for an armed party of U.S. Marines to escort Mason, Sliddell and secretaries George Eustis and James McFarland under guard. Not only had the Americans had the audacity to board the Trent, they had the balls to come back to demand the Confederates at the point of a gun. This was a critical moment in history. There were small arms on the Trent. It was an English vessel, an insult and technically an act of war. A shot could have very easily come from an outraged member of the Trent's crew.

The Marines brushed past the British crew to take the Confederate commissioners prisoner. Mason came without a struggle. Sliddell barricaded himself in his cabin, surrendering only after the Marines forced their way through the door. Even then Sliddell had to be physically restrained by the Marines, pushed into a boat and rowed back across to the San Jacinto.

Now comes the second "what if of the boarding of the Trent. What if the Trent was taken as a prize of war? Captain Wilkes had instructed Lt. Fairfax to seize the Trent as a prize of war. Fairfax went against his orders taking only the Confederates and releasing the Trent, cargo and crew to go on their way. Fairfax knew seizing the Trent was going over the line. He later told Wilkes he felt taking the Trent crew and ship would impede the operational abilities of the San Jacinto. Wilkes bought it. The British government barely tolerated the boarding of one of their vessels to take the Confederates. Had it been the taking of a British vessel and its crew at gun point as a "prize of war," it would have gone too far.

Did Captain Wilkes order the boarding of the Trent because he knew it was only an unarmed mail packet? Would Wilkes have brought guns to bear against a Royal Navy vessel manned with British Marines? It is hard to say if Wilkes would have taken the same heavy handed action. Unlikely. Absolutely, shots would have been fired if the Trent had been Royal Navy.

There is always an X factor in confrontations. Some element of the equation that defies the rules. Captain Wilkes was the U.S. X factor in the Trent Affair. His behavior had been against all rational reasoning and advice of his officers. He wanted the Trent. He wanted the Confederates. He didn't care who was in his way. That's what made him dangerous. (Note: Later in the Civil War Wilkes was court-martialed for disobedience, disrespect and insubordination for comments against Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles).

On November 24th the Confederate prisoners were handed over to Colonel Justin Dimmick at Fort Warren, Boston, Massachusetts. News of the "Trent Affair" was met by jubilation in the North and South. In Richmond the Confederate capital, it seemed their wildest hopes were about to be granted. An ally in England and recognition as a sovereign country. Confederate Secretary of War James Seddon said, "it was, perhaps the best thing that could have happened."

Seizure of the Confederate diplomats was received in the North with "demonstrations of mad exultation." Northern papers praised Captain Wilkes's conduct. The House of Representatives passed a resolution honouring him. Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles publicly commended Wilkes, soon after promoting him to the rank of commodore. The North, in spite of the gravity of being in their own civil war, seemed bent on twisting the tail of the British lion. No one seemed to care Wilkes's actions might be seen as an act of war by Great Britain.

Northern newspapers such as the New York Herald supported the questionable legality of Captain Wilkes's action and whether or not he was acting on his own initiative or that of Washington: "The government is determined not be moved from its conviction or right by all the menaces they can possibly utter. It has decided that the proceeding of Captain Wilkes shall be sustained, although he acted without special instructions, and that the right shall be maintained at all cost, even if it should involve the government in war with Great Britain."

The war hawks in Washington tended to see England's attempts to remain neutral as a pro-Southern stance. Akin to the saying, 'If you are not for me, you are against me." Gaining Britain's support and that of France was seen by Southern leaders as a key to Confederate succession.

Next month: The storm that wasn't and what might have been.
COPYRIGHT 2010 S.R. Taylor Publishing
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2010 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Title Annotation:FEATURE
Author:Culliton, Paul
Publication:Esprit de Corps
Date:Sep 1, 2010
Previous Article:A march down memory lane.
Next Article:Family Roll Call 2: plans for the army's family of land combat vehicles changes again.

Terms of use | Copyright © 2017 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters