The Enid News and Eagle, Enid, OK

Opinion

April 4, 2014

The Trent Affair

As we progress through the American Civil War’s sesquicentennial, it’s very much worth noting a glaring paradox of that bloody, armed conflict that easily escapes the eye of average Americans.

Oh, we learned of great battles of that war, of great leaders, of brave men at arms that fought for what they believed to be right. These were our kin, remember. These are our forebears, not just some few odd Americans who didn’t get along with one another.

In 1776, when the 13 Colonies declared their independence from England in that historic document we so revere today, the United States of America was born — at least on parchment, signed by a cast of Founding Fathers like John Hancock, Benjamin Franklin, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson.

The United States in 1776 desperately wanted to be recognized by England — by the rest of the world.

Instead, England treated its former colonies as if they were nothing more than a spoiled child, that needed to be spanked and placed in a corner until they were good once more.

England, up until the final shots were fired at Yorktown, didn’t recognize us as a sovereign nation.

Fast-forward to 1861, months after the firing of the first shots on Fort Sumter, opening the American Civil War and a bloody four-year nightmare that nearly tore this nation asunder.

Tempers were short on both sides, as the newly minted Confederate States of America had seceded from the United States, and the Union and President Abraham Lincoln were bent on restoring same.

Blood had been spilled. There was to be no compromise until more than 600,000 Americans had lost their lives.

On Nov. 8, 1861, Union Navy officer Charles Wilkes captured two envoys of the Confederacy aboard a British mail ship, RMS Trent.

Because they were envoys of a sovereign government, they were entitled to diplomatic immunity and to be allowed the same courtesy envoys of the federal government were extended at the time.

Confederate President Jefferson Davis had dispatched the envoys — former U.S. Sen. James Mason of Virginia and New Orleans lawyer John Slidell — to gain recognition for the Confederate States in both England and France, and establish diplomatic relations.

It was thought relations with these two world powers would lend credibility to the Confederacy, and possibly rekindle a once burning desire on the part of England to kick the American government in the seat of the pants for having broken away in 1776.

But, in a bit of 1776 irony, the U.S. government didn’t recognize the Confederacy as a sovereign nation.

In the so-called Trent Affair, a major diplomatic faux pas took place, and came dangerously close to tipping the early balance toward the Confederacy in its fight for independence.

Capt. Wilkes and his ship, the USS San Jacinto — without permission from Lincoln — intercepted the RMS Trent, a British paddle-wheel steamer that transported mail and passengers across the Atlantic.

Sending a boarding party aboard the Trent, they took Mason and Slidell prisoners, and sent the British vessel on its way to England.

Immediately upon arriving in England, there was a very strong reaction to the seizing of diplomats on the high seas.

The Union, after having suffered a stinging defeat at Bull Run in the war’s first large-scale battle, saw the capture of the diplomats as a victory and a blow to Confederate diplomacy.

Yet, it sparked a strong protest from neutral England, which demanded return of the envoys and a formal apology.

While it might seem a small thing in a war in which battles and leaders both great and small captured all the headlines of the day, there were tremendous ramifications for both the Union and Confederacy.

The Trent Affair sparked animosity between the U.S. and England, at a ticklish time in history when there was a real possibility it could trigger an armed conflict between the two.

The severe reaction by the British government took nearly a month to arrive in Washington because of a communication malfunction, when the cable was delayed.

Emotions had cooled on both sides by then, but the British still expected a response from Lincoln, who steadfastly emphasized Capt. Wilkes had no official authorization to capture the two diplomats.

Leading the way in defusing the crisis was Secretary of State William Seward and Charles Francis Adams, U.S. minister to England. The two assured the British the United States did not want a war with their former mother country, and pressed Lincoln to accede to British demands over the affair.

Although defending Wilkes’ action, Seward agreed to release Mason and Slidell, and diffused a major international crisis.

The incident kept Washington on edge the remainder of the war, realizing England at any time could turn her neutral allegiance to the South — and tip the war’s balance.

Christy is news editor at the Enid News & Eagle. Go to his column blog at enid news.com/historicallyspeaking.

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