February 1862: "And thus hath it ever been in the foreign dealings of our canny parent!"

By Zachary Reisch, Intern

Letter from Charles Francis Adams to Richard Henry Dana, Jr., 6 February 1862

Letter from Charles Francis Adams to Richard Henry Dana, Jr., 6 February 1862

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    When Charles Francis Adams penned this letter to Richard Henry Dana, Jr. on 6 February 1862, the diplomatic maelstrom caused by the so-called Trent Affair had already passed, temporarily securing Great Britain’s continued neutrality in the American Civil War. In this letter, Adams, the American minister in Great Britain, writes to Dana, considered by many to be America’s foremost expert on maritime law at that time, expressing his view that the British government’s reaction to the Trent Affair was typical of that nation’s traditionally profit-oriented foreign policy. Stating that he believes this policy could, as in the past, have unfortunate consequences for Great Britain, Adams outlines for Dana the “desperate quibbles” Britain presented in defense of her position on the Trent Affair, and offers counterarguments for each point.

    The Trent Affair was a test of the United States’ diplomatic mettle early in the Civil War. It began on 8 November 1861, when the United States war steamer San Jacinto, commanded by Captain Charles Wilkes, stopped the British mail packet Trent while travelling between the islands of Cuba and St. Thomas. Acting without orders from the federal government, Captain Wilkes removed Confederate commissioners James Mason and John Slidell from the Trent. Mason and Slidell planned to continue on to England and France, respectively, with the aim of securing support for the Confederacy in those countries. Wilkes detained the men as prisoners, allowing the Trent to continue on its journey. As Adams points out in this letter, Wilkes’s failure to take custody of the Trent, a vessel traveling between two neutral ports, and bring it to an admiralty court proved to be the central issue in deciding the outcome of the incident.

    While the American public generally rejoiced at the “victory” of Wilkes’s capture of the traitors, the American government braced itself for Britain’s reaction. Lincoln and his cabinet chose not to comment publicly on the actions taken by Captain Wilkes or the seizure of Mason and Slidell until the British government made its position known. On 23 December, Lord Lyons, the British minister to the United States, delivered Britain’s demands to Secretary of State William H. Seward. Stating that the imprisonment of Mason and Slidell was a violation of the freedom of the seas, Britain gave the United States seven days to release the prisoners, offer a formal apology, and pay reparations. If these demands were not met Britain would cut diplomatic ties with the United States and war would be the likely result.

    A conflict with Britain was successfully avoided. The prisoners, who were being held at Fort Warren in Boston Harbor, were released on 1 January 1862. In crafting his reply to the demands issued by Lord Palmerston, the British Prime Minister, Secretary Seward stressed that Wilkes had acted without orders and admitted that he had erred in not bringing the Trent into port for adjudication. Both governments were content with this outcome and diplomatic relations, with Minister Adams at the center, continued.

    Sources for Further Reading

    The Dana Family Papers are a large multi-generational family collection held by the MHS. The collection contains copious amounts of correspondence--from various family members and other notable Americans--related to different aspects of the Civil War.

    Adams, Charles Francis. “The Trent Affair.” Proceeding of the Massachusetts Historical Society, Vol. 45 (1912), 35-148.

    Ferris, Norman B. The Trent Affair: A Diplomatic Crisis. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1977.

    Foreman, Amanda. A World on Fire: Britain’s Crucial Role in the American Civil War. New York: Random House, 2010.

    Myers, Philip E. Caution and Cooperation: The American Civil War in British-American Relations. Kent, Ohio: Kent State University Press, 2008.

    Warren, Gordon H. Fountain of Discontent: The Trent Affair and Freedom of the Seas. Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1981.