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Tensions Strained British/American Relations during the Civil War

Original Punch cartoon from January 4, 1862 entitled "Boxing Day" (Credit: Bill Howard Collection)

International relations between the United States and Great Britain were extremely tense during the American Civil War. Great Britain maintained extensive trade and economic relationships with the United States and relied on industrial and manufactured imports from the North. At the same time, the American South exported raw cotton and tobacco to Great Britain. Great Britain was caught in the middle of a divided America. In America, both the Federal and Confederate governments deployed diplomats to handle relations with Great Britain. At various times, the military strategy of the Southern Confederacy was calculated to influence the international relations. General Robert E. Lee’s first Confederate invasion of the North in the fall of 1862, had as much to do with taking the war out of embattled Virginia, as it did with trying to secure a victory that might tip the scales in favor of British recognition and formal support of the Confederacy. So too, the 1863 Gettysburg Campaign considered at least the possibility of British involvement in the conflict if the South could prevail either on the battlefield or because of Northern frustration with the war’s progress. Throughout the war, both Northern and Southern purchasing agents bought arms and ammunition manufactured in Great Britain for export to America. The British Enfield rifled musket, was used extensively by both sides in the Civil War. The Confederacy imported uniforms, buttons and swords to supplement local suppliers.

Despite this economic interdependence, perhaps no event so strained relations between the United States and Great Britain as did the so called “Trent Affair” in the final months of 1861.

The Trent Affair was a diplomatic crisis that took place between the United States and Great Britain from November to December 1861. The crisis erupted after the captain of the USS San Jacinto ordered the arrest of two Confederate diplomats traveling to Europe as passengers aboard a British ship, the Trent. Both diplomats were going to England in order to seek British support for the South. Great Britain, which had tried to remain neutral during the conflict, was outraged and claimed the seizure of a neutral ship by the U.S. Navy was a violation of international law.

Original Carte-de-Visite images of John Slidell (left) and James Mason (right) published by Silsbee & Case of Boston (Credit: Bill Howard Collection)

On November 8, 1861, Confederate diplomatic envoys James Mason and John Slidell were aboard the Trent, a British mail steamer, sailing through the Bahama Channel , when the vessel was intercepted by a U.S. Navy ship, the San Jacinto, under the command of Captain Charles Wilkes. Mason and Slidell were arrested as “contraband of war,” and transported to Boston. They were imprisoned at Fort Warren, a holding facility in Boston Harbor that was used primarily for political prisoners. The Trent was allowed to continue its journey after the men’s arrest.

Engraved portrait of Charles Wilkes by Johnson, Fry and Co., of New York dated 1864 (Credit: Bill Howard Collection)

In America, Captain Wilkes was celebrated as a hero. The British, however, were outraged when news of the incident reached London. The British government dispatched a strongly worded message to the American government demanding the release of Mason and Slidell, along with a request for an apology on account of the transgression of British sailing rights on the high seas.

In a loud display of force, the British began making preparations for military action, banning exports of war materials to America and sending troops to Canada. Plans were made to attack the American fleet that was blockading the South. The British also planned a blockade of Northern ports. At the same time, France announced it would back Britain in a conflict with America.

In December 1861, Lord Lyons, the British foreign minister to the United States, met with Secretary of State William H. Seward concerning the fate of Mason and Slidell. Lyons took a hard line during the meeting, and afterward wrote to Lord Russell, the British foreign minister: “I am so concerned that unless we give our friends here a good lesson this time, we shall have the same trouble with them again very soon. Surrender or war will have a very good effect on them.”

President Lincoln initially embraced the capture of the two emissaries but as the crisis deepened, understood that the issue was not worth a rift with Great Britain. He wrote: “I fear the traitors will prove to be white elephants. We must stick to American principles concerning the rights of neutrals. We fought Great Britain for insisting … on the right to do precisely what Captain Wilkes has done. If Great Britain shall now protest against the act, and demand their release, we must give them up, apologize for the act as a violation of our doctrines, and thus forever bind her over to keep the peace in relation to neutrals, and so acknowledge that she has been wrong for sixty years.”

Ultimately, President Abraham Lincoln helped defuse the tension, warning his cabinet - ”One war at a time.” On December 27, Secretary of State Seward sent a message to Britain officials disavowing authorization for the independent actions of Captain Wilkes and announced that the envoys would be released; thus averting armed conflict with the British.

After Mason and Slidell were released in early January 1862, they traveled to Europe. However, their mission ultimately was a failure, as they were unable to convince European leaders to support the Confederates in the Civil War.

The Mason and Slidell incident, proved an interesting chapter in the history of the Civil War and was the subject of great public interest. A number of prints and engravings depicting both the principals in the event, as well as the capture of the two agents were published contemporaneously.

Original Carte-de-Visite entitled "The Great Surrender" published by E. Anthony of New York in 1862 (Credit: Bill Howard Collection)

Pictured here is a rare carte-de-visite image published by the Edward Anthony Company of 501 Broadway in New York. The image is a photograph of a collage design that was made using portrait images from other negatives superimposed over cartoon artist renderings. Featured in the illustration is the British Prime Minister Lord John Russell ripping apart a document titled “Right of Secession” with his foot upon the British Lion while U.S. Secretary of State William H. Seward gestures toward the Trent and its two passengers, James Mason and John Slidell. To the right, the Confederate President Jefferson Davis sulks away in frustration. The image is titled on the reverse, “The Great Surrender” and is subtitled: “America surrenders the great Commissioners – England surrenders her great pretensions – Jeff. Davis surrenders his great expectations.” The carte bears a copyright date of 1862.

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