The capture of Mason and Slidell.

R. M. Hunter.
On the 8th of November, 1861, the capture of John Slidell and J. M. Mason, the commissioners of the Southern Confederacy to England and France, was effected. It was the first considerable feat of the Federal navy, and, two weeks afterward, when the United States steamer “San Jacinto” landed her prisoners in Boston, the daring action of Captain Wilkes became the prevailing topic of the day, and superseded in interest the questions that grew out of Forts Henry and Donelson, and the battles and the strategic movements of our army on land. The writer was an eye-witness of the seizure and release of the British steamer Trent, and the capture of Slidell and Mason, and their secretaries, George Eustis and J. E. McFarland. I have never seen, even in the official reports of Captain Wilkes and his officers, an account that does justice to the facts in all their relations, although it is the generally admitted fact that, at the time, there was less exaggeration in the publications of the Northern papers than in the English prints. The foreign publications were the letters of the officers of the Trent, Captain Moir, commanding, his purser, and Commander Williams, of the Royal Navy Reserve, who chanced to be a fellow-passenger of the voyaging emissaries. In Captain Moir's report to Lord Palmerston, the Premier, he says that Captain Wilkes sent an order (which he did not) to him to bring his ship close under the guns of the American sloop-of-war. These matters of detail, however, are, perhaps, not essential, only inasmuch as the truth thereof may put in its proper light the conduct of the officers of the “San Jacinto.”

The “San Jacinto” had cruised during the fall months on the west coast of Africa, bearing a roving commission, and keeping a bright lookout for the privateer “Sumter.” The cruise had not resulted in anything of practical benefit, either in the way of prize-money to the crew or service to the government, and the 1st of October beheld her steering for the Spanish Main, with her crew and officers in fine spirits and eager for adventure. Touching at Cienfuegos, news was received that Mason and Slidell had passed out of Charleston in the blockade-runner Theodora, and had reached [795] Havana. This was on the 23d of October, and orders were at once given to coal ship. The order was executed with dispatch, and on the 23th of the same month the “San Jacinto” was again in blue water shaping a course for Havana. I am afraid that the honor of suggesting the capture of Mason and Slidell must be awarded to our boatswain, J. P. Grace. On the evening of October 27th, this officer, while pacing the lee side of the quarter-deck with another warrant officer, said, in a tone which we distinctly heard in the wardroom, that the two chaps themselves ought to be overhauled wherever they might be, and the ship that did it would get honor that would compensate for the absence of prize-money won during the past four months. Two days afterward we passed under the frowning guns of Moro Castle and anchored in Havana harbor. No person except the officers were permitted ashore, and it was required that they should not appear in uniform. It was street talk at the time that Mason and Slidell had made the hardest part of their journey when they passed through the blockading squadron off Charleston, and the opinion prevailed that they were safe from interference from the United States. All but Captain Wilkes accepted this view of the case, and he retained his views within himself. Having frequent occasion to visit his cabin I saw that he was deeply engaged in the perusal of international law books, from which he was taking copious notes. On November 1st, Lieutenant J. A, Greer, navigating officer, brought word to the ship that Mason and Slidell, with their secretaries and families, were booked for England by the steamer Trent to St. Thomas, and thence by the regular West India packet to Southampton. The next day we went to sea, touching at Key West on the 3d. On the 4th we returned to the Cuban coast, and cruising along the northern shore awaited further information as to the movements of the Confederate representatives from Consul General Schufeldt. It was not received, and orders were given to bear away to the narrow channel of old Bahama, through which the Trent must necessarily pass on her way to St. Thomas. The point selected could not have been chosen to better advantage. Between the coral keys the distance across the channel was but fifteen miles, and no ship could pass without being seen by our topsail-yard lookout. Early on the morning of the 8th the ship was cleared for action.

If the Trent had left Havana on the 17th, she was due at the point where we were waiting on the 8th. The distance was but two hundred and forty miles, and the wind, blowing a full sail breeze from the southwest, should place the Trent under our guns by noon. The calculations were made with exactness, for at twenty [796] minutes to twelve o'clock the lookout aloft sang out “Sail ho!” Lieutenant K. Randolph Breese, who had the deck, hailed the lookout, and asked for her direction. “Off the port bow, sir,” came back the reply. The “San Jacinto” was then heading north, and presently the black smoke of a steamer was descried from our decks. When the crew was piped to dinner, the mess-cloths were deserted, and nearly everybody remained on deck, watching the smoke, until out of the base of the ascending blackness came the spars, presently the hull and full shape, of the steamship Trent. Until that moment, probably, no one on board of the ship knew what the object of our waiting was; but as soon as the Trent hove in sight, and her identity was decided, there was no doubt of our mission. Then Captain Wilkes called Lieutenant Fairfax into the cabin, and gave him his instructions, of which the following is a copy:

United States steamer
San Jacinto, at sea, November 8th, 1861.
Sir :--You will have the second and third cutters of this ship fully manned and armed, and be in all respects prepared to board the steamer Trent, now hove-to under our guns.

On boarding her, you will demand the papers of the steamer, her clearance from Havana, with the list of passengers and crew.

Should Mr. Mason, Mr. Slidell, Mr. Eustis, and Mr. McFarland be on board, you will make them prisoners, and send them on board this ship immediately, and take possession of the Trent as a prize.

I do not deem it will be necessary to use force; that the prisoners will have the good sense to avoid any necessity for using it; but if they should, they must be made to understand that it is their own fault. They must be brought on board. All trunks, cases, packages, and bags belonging to them you will take possession of; and send on board the ship. Any dispatches found on the persons of the prisoners, or in possession of those on board the steamer, will be taken possession of also, examined, and retained if necessary.

I have understood that the families of these gentlemen may be with them. If not I beg you will offer them, in my name, a passage in this ship to the United States, and that all the attention and comforts we can command are tendered them, and will be placed at their service.

In the event of their acceptance, should there be anything which the captain of the steamer can spare to increase the comforts, in the way of necessaries or stores, of which a war vessel is deficient, you will please to procure them. The amount will be paid by the paymaster.

Lieutenant James A. Greer will take charge of the third cutter, which accompanies you, and assist you in these duties. I trust that all those under your command, in executing this important and delicate duty, will conduct themselves with all the delicacy and kindness which become the character of our naval service.

I am, very respectfully, your obedient servant,

Charles Wilkes, Captain. Lieutenant D. M. Fairfax, U. S. N., Executive Officer San Jacinto.


The officers detailed to go in the boats with Lieutenant Fairfax received their instructions, and Captain Wilkes walked forward to the mainmast, and gave the order “Beat to quarters.” It was fifteen minutes after one o'clock when the boats were called away, Mr. Fairfax in the second cutter, and Lieutenant Greer commanding the third cutter. Before the boats were shoved off, the Trent had steamed well up toward the “San Jacinto,” and was in mid-channel, when the gun on the topgallant forecastle, loaded with a round-shot, was fired in a line across the bows. Immediately the red cross of St. George went fluttering to her peak, but she kept on her course. “Put a shell in that gun,” called out Captain Wilkes, “and let it go across her bows, so she may not mistake our intention this time.” The shell exploded about one hundred fathoms ahead of the steamer, and immediately her engines stopped, and she rounded — to within two hundred feet of the man-of-war, and under the muzzles of our broadside, that would have sunk her at the word “Fire!” There was much confusion on the mail steamer, and the passengers could be seen running about the decks in the greatest state of excitement. As our men were going into their boats, Captain Moir, of the Trent, hailed us. “What do you mean,” shouted he, “by stopping my ship? and why do you do it with shotted guns, contrary to usage?” Lieutenant Breese sang out, in reply: “We are going to send a boat on board of you. Lay-to.”

At this instant the order to shove off was given to our boats, and the second and third cutters went dancing over the blue waves toward the Trent. Lieutenant Greer pulled up to the port gangway, and Mr. Fairfax went to the starboard side, and boarded the ship alone. The first officer met him as he came up the side, and asked what he wanted. “Are you the master of this ship, sir?”

“No, sir; first officer.”

“I would like to see the captain;” and Captain Moir, at this instant, walked out of his cabin, and coming forward said, in angry tones: “How dare you come on board of my ship? What right have you here? This is an outrage the flag there (pointing to the red cross aloft) will make you pay for.”

Lieutenant Fairfax bowed, and said: “I have instructions to effect the arrest of Messrs. Mason and Slidell, and their secretaries, Messrs. Eustis and McFarland. I have information that they are on board, and I would like to see your passenger list.”

“For a damned impertinent, outrageous puppy, give me, or don't give me, a Yankee. You go back to your ship, young man, and tell her skipper that you couldn't accomplish your mission, [798] because we wouldn't let ye. I deny your right of search. D'ye understand that?”

“ I am sorry,” quietly returned the officer, “to say I shall use force to carry out my orders, and, thanking you, sir, for your advice, I decline to return to the ship in any such a way as you propose.”

The passengers, some forty or fifty in number, had gathered aft around the officer, and the crew also stood about. As Captain Moir made his assertion regarding the right of search the passengers applauded, and a young lady, whom I afterward learned was Miss Slidell, sprang on to a companion-way skylight, and said: “Quite right, captain; very right!”

Lieutenant Fairfax then came to the side of the ship to summon the boat crews, but the tones of the discussion had been highly pitched, and his call had a response before he made it. The blue jackets, twenty in number, and the marines, of whom there were ten, the former with cutlasses and pistols, and the marines with muskets and bayonets, sprung aft at once. A detachment was ordered to the lower deck, and the rest of the men formed in a line across the main deck, cutting off communication from abaft the mainmast to the forecastle. During this movement there appeared on the deck an officer, with a parrot-like voice, wearing the uniform of the Royal navy. Strutting up to Lieutenant Fairfax, he said: “I am the Queen's representative, sir, and I protest against this unwarrantable action under Her Majesty's flag, and on the deck of a British ship.” The lieutenant paid no attention to this speech, delivered with great pomposity of manner, but turned to Captain Moir, and said: “You see I have force enough to carry out my orders;” and at this juncture Mr. Slidell and Mr. Mason came out of the cabin and stood in the crowd. Amid cries of “Piracy!” “Did you ever hear of such an outrage?” “They would not have dared to do it had there been an English man-of-war in sight!” Mr. Slidell stepped forward, and said: “Do you wish to see me?” and Mason, just beside him, echoed “to see me?” Mr. Fairfax vainly tried to induce them to accompany him to the “San Jacinto,” and as they positively refused to go, he said: “Gentlemen, you may as well prepare to go at once, peaceably if you want to, but by force if necessary, for in twenty minutes you shall be on board that ship.” The excitement was intense, and cries of “Shame!” from the passengers, in shrill crescendo, mingled with the stern tones of the boarding officers, as they ordered the men on guard at different points of the ship. In three minutes, Mason and Slidell, having the while stood hesitating before the cabin, turned and walked into their state-rooms. Mr. [799] Fairfax followed, and here he encountered an obstacle in the person of Miss Slidell who, filling the doorway, said: “Mr. Fairfax, I met you as a gentleman in Havana on Thursday. You outrage our hospitality by this proceeding, and I swear to heaven you shall not go into this cabin to my father.” At this there was more excitement, and the passengers clustered in little groups, and spoke in loud tones. From where I stood I saw Mrs. Slidell approach the door and beg Mr. Fairfax to go away. He replied: “Madam, my orders are imperative. I shall obey them;” and just then Mr. Slidell began a most ungraceful movement out of the window of his cabin, which opened into a small gangway.

It was evident that Mr. Slidell was scared, perhaps excited is a better word, for his fingers twitched nervously, and for a minute or two he was unable to speak. Then Mr. Mason came out of his cabin, and Lieutenant Fairfax asked him if he was ready to go on board the “San Jacinto.” Mason was cooler and more collected than his confrere, and replied with moderation in his tone: ] “No, sir; I decline to go with you.” Fairfax, turning to his own officers, said: “Gentlemen, lay your hands on Mr. Mason,” which we accordingly did. Mr. Mason then said: “I yield to force.” Whereupon Commander Williams shouted: “Under protest, Mr. Mason, under protest.” “Yes,” said Mr. Mason, in the. same tone as before, “precisely, under protest,” and then walked down the companion ladder to the boat. Meanwhile, Mr. Slidell had recovered his equanimity to an extent which enabled him to say: “I will never go on board that ship.” Mr. Fairfax took him by the collar, Engineer Houston and Boatswain Grace taking each one of his arms, marched him to the gangway; Miss Slidell in the meantime being in the enjoyment of an aggravated attack of hysterics. Other lady passengers were similarly occupied, while the gentlemen on board the ship had retreated in sullen silence to the taffrail, where they scowled defiance at the boarding party. There is no doubt in my mind that, had the Trent been an armed ship, she would have manifested a resistance of no small energy. The spirit prevailing on her decks may, without any stretch of truth, be called warlike. Captain Williams, Royal navy, who was in charge of the Central American and Mexican mails, now came out of his cabin, and passing to Mr. Charles B. Dahlgren, master's mate, handed him an unfolded paper, which Mr. Dahlgren declined to receive. Lieutenant Fairfax was on the lower deck, and Captain Williams, finding no officer who would accept the note, finally shoved it in his pocket; subsequently, it fluttered to the deck, and a marine stationed inside the cabin door secured it, and after [800] reading handed it to me. I presented it to Captain Wilkes, but after a consultation we agreed that as the letter had no signature, and the manner in which it reached us was unofficial, that we would consider it as never having been written. Among my papers I found this redoubtable letter recently, and the following is an exact copy thereof:

In this ship I am the representative of Her Majesty's Government, and I call upon the officers of the ship and passengers generally to mark my words, when, in the name of the British Government, and in distinct language, I denounce this an illegal act; an act in violation of international law; an act, indeed, of wanton piracy, which, had we the means of defense, you would not dare to attempt.

Mr. Eustis, one of the secretaries, was more violent than either of the principals, and made a demonstration in the direction of striking Lieutenant Greer with his fist. He passed into the boat sans ceremonie. McFarland had previously taken his seat alongside of Mr. Slidell in the stern-sheets of the boat. Our object having been accomplished, we bade the Trent good-bye, first bringing the personal effects of the prisoners to the “San Jacinto,” and we were soon headed north, our mission in Bahama channel being au fait accompli.

We arrived at Port Royal too late to take part in the attack. Having been ordered home, on the 18th of November we steamed into the Narrows, where we were met by a steam tug, on board of which was the United States Marshal, with orders to proceed to Boston and deliver our prisoners at Fort Warren. We did not anchor until the 21st, and the cruise of the “San Jacinto” ended when we deposited the Confederate diplomats in the casements of that prison.

On the 3d of December, on the motion of Congressman Odell, Slidell and Mason were ordered into close confinement, in return for the treatment that Colonels Wood and Corcoran had received in Southern prisons. It was some time before the diplomatic correspondence that ensued between England, France, and the Unitel States was made public. The United States agreed to release the prisoners, but declined to apologize to the English flag for an alleged offense where none was intended. Mason and Slidell joined their families in London in January, 1862, and their further actions passes out of the ken of the writer.

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