Foreign Influences

    Trent Affair  "One War At A Time"  November 8, 1861

"You may stand for this but damned if I will!" exploded Lord Palmerston, prime minister of Britain, in outrage over the seizing of two Confederate envoys from the British steamer Trent by a U.S. Navy warship commanded by Capt. Charles Wilkes. England quickly sent an ultimatum to the United States: surrender James Murray Mason and John Slidell, the two Confederate emissaries, and apologize for the kidnapping, or go to war.

"One war at a time", President Abraham Lincoln cautioned Secretary of State William H. Seward. Seward was known to favor a war with England in order to reunite the divided United States, feeling that the South would forget the quarrel with the North and come to its aid to defeat a common foe. Seward was not the only person to favor that unlikely theory, but Lincoln didn't buy it. Lincoln knew that the United States had violated English rights. He said, "We must stick to American principles concerning the rights of neutrals. We fought Great Britain [in 1812] for insisting, by theory and practice, on the right to do precisely what Wilkes has done."

But Wilkes had been treated as such a hero in the North that to give in to British demands would be politically disastrous at home. Closed away in his office for two days, Seward wrote an answer to the ultimatum and a way out of the dilemma. The United States would not apologize, but it would admit that Wilkes acted without orders and it would release the captives. Then, in a web of legal reasoning, Seward explained that Wilkes's error was in not seizing the entire ship and cargo and delivering it to the United States. Next, he congratulated the British on being outraged by the seizing of the passengers and at last coming around to the U.S. view on the freedom of the seas. Said Seward, "She could in no other way so effectually disavow any such injury, as we think she does, by assuming now as her own the ground upon which we then stood."

Fascinating Fact:  Mason and Slidell never served the Confederacy so well as when they sat in the federal prison. At no other time did they come so close to succeeding in their mission of gaining European recognition of the Confederacy.


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