The Trent Affair, also known as the Mason and Slidell Affair, was an international diplomatic incident that occurred during the American Civil War. On November 8, 1861, the USS San Jacinto, commanded by Union Captain Charles Wilkes, intercepted the British mail packet RMS Trent and removed, as contraband of war, two Confederate diplomats, James Mason and John Slidell. The envoys were bound for Great Britain and France to press the Confederacy’s case for diplomatic recognition by Europe.
The initial reaction in the United States was to rally against Britain, threatening war; but President Abraham Lincoln and his top advisors did not want to risk war. In the Confederate States, the hope was that the incident would lead to a permanent rupture in Anglo-American relations and even diplomatic recognition by Britain of the Confederacy. Confederates realized their independence potentially depended on a war between Britain and the U.S. In Britain, the public expressed outrage at this violation of neutral rights and insult to their national honor. The British government demanded an apology and the release of the prisoners while it took steps to strengthen its military forces in Canada and the Atlantic.
After several weeks of tension and loose talk of war, the crisis was resolved when the Lincoln administration released the envoys and disavowed Captain Wilkes's actions. No formal apology was issued. Mason and Slidell resumed their voyage to Britain but failed in their goal of achieving diplomatic recognition.
The Union’s main focus in foreign affairs was just the opposite: to prevent any British recognition of the South. There had been continuous improvement in Anglo-American relations throughout the 1850s. The issues of the Oregon territory, British involvement in Texas, and the Canadian border dispute had all been resolved in the 1840s. Secretary of State William H. Seward, the primary architect of American foreign policy during the war, intended to maintain the...