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On November 8, 1861, Charles Wilkes, a U.S. Navy Officer, captured two Confederate envoys aboard the British mail ship, the Trent. Great Britain accused the United States of violating British neutrality, and the incident created a diplomatic crisis between the United States and Great Britain during the Civil War.
====Confederate Envoys by US aboard British Ship====
Jefferson Davis, President of the Confederate States of America, had dispatched these envoys—James Mason, former Chairman of the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee and John Slidell, a prominent New Orleans lawyer—to secure British and French recognition of the Confederate States as a sovereign nation. Great Britain and France had maintained their diplomatic relations with the United States following
the outbreak of the Civil War and had recognized the Confederacy as a belligerent power, but not a sovereign government, in early 1861. Davis sought to change this by negotiating with these nations for full diplomatic recognition. Official diplomatic recognition by Britain and France would not only lend credibility to the Confederacy’s bid for independence but would also pave the way for lucrative trade deals between the Confederate States and the European powers. Davis hoped that recent Confederate victories against Union troops would favorably dispose British and French officials to receive his envoys.
In October 1861, Mason and Slidell slipped through the U.S. naval blockade and left Charleston, South Carolina for Cuba, where they took passage for England on the Trent. U.S. Captain Wilkes intercepted the Trent on November 8, 1861 and, without permission from Washington, ordered his lieutenant to board and search the ship. The U.S. boarding party took Mason, Slidell, and their secretaries as prisoners
, but allowed the Trent to depart for England.
====Britain Orders Troops to Canada in Response====
[[File:John_Slidell_LA_1859.jpg|left|thumbnail|300px|John Slidell, 1859]]
Thanks to a communication malfunction, the cable containing the severe early reaction and demands of British officials took almost a month to arrive in Washington. By then, emotions had cooled on both sides and a more balanced view of the situation prevailed. Nevertheless, the British still expected a response from President Abraham Lincoln and
continued to emphasize that Captain Wilkes had acted without official authorization.
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====Lincoln compromises with Britain and eases Tension====
The Lincoln administration understood that it would be unwise to risk a possible armed conflict and perpetuate bad relations with a foreign power while
it was prosecuting a war against the Confederacy and moved to smooth things over through diplomatic negotiations. Charles Francis Adams, the U.S. Minister to Great Britain assured the British that the United States did not want a war and advised President Lincoln and Secretary of State William Seward that they should conform to some of the British demands.
On December 26, 1861, Seward presented an official note summarizing the Lincoln administration’s position to Lord Lyons, the British Minister to the United States. Seward defended Wilkes’ action, although he conceded that Wilkes had erred by not seizing the Trent and letting a court
affirm the legality of taking contraband prisoners. Nevertheless, Seward agreed to release the prisoners. Lyons, under orders from London, accepted this explanation thereby diffusing the diplomatic crisis.
Ultimately, President Lincoln and Secretary Seward were satisfied with this outcome. However, the Trent affair confirmed that the British were willing to defend their position
of neutrality in the American Civil War, a position that both the Union and the Confederacy had hoped to change.