Trent Affair "The Lion Roars" November 8, 1861
During a storm on the night of October 11, 1861, the Confederate blockade runner Theodora successfully slipped past the Union blockade at the port of Charleston, SC. On board were James Mason and John Slidell, newly appointed Confederate commissioners to England and France. The men were just beginning their mission to Europe to plead for recognition of the Confederacy by the governments in London and Paris.
Arriving safely in Havana, Cuba, they transferred to the British mail steamer Trent and, on November 7, set sail for England. The next day the Trent encountered the Union warship San Jacinto, under the command of Capt. Charles Wilkes, who fired two shots across the Trent's bow, forcing her to stop. In a flagrant violation of international law, and without the approval or knowledge of the U.S. government, Captain Wilkes sent a boarding party to the Trent and demanded the surrender of Mason and Slidell. The British captain of the neutral Trent was outraged but had no choice but to turn over his passengers to Captain Wilkes. The San Jacinto then sailed to Boston, where Mason and Slidell were jailed at Fort Warren in Boston Harbor. The Trent continued to England.
Captain Wilkes's capture of the Confederate diplomats from an unarmed British mail ship was greeted as a heroic deed by most Northerners. The U.S. Congress thanked Wilkes for his "brave, adroit, and patriotic conduct in the arrest of the traitors", and had a gold medal created in his honor.
The British, however, had an entirely different reaction. The shriek of outrage was instant and unrestrained. An army of 8,000 British soldiers set sail for Canada, where fortifications on the U.S. border were ordered erected at strategic points. The ultimatum was issued: release the Confederate diplomats, or face the fury of the lion.
Fascinating Fact: In a role reversal, the outrage felt by England over the Trent affair arose from the same issue- freedom of the seas- that led the United States to declare war on England in 1812.
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