D. Macneill Fairfax, Rear-Admiral, U. S. N., Executive Officer of the San Jacinto.
In October, 1861, the United States
screw-sloop San Jacinto
, of which Captain Charles Wilkes
was commander and the writer was executive officer, on her return from the west coast of Africa
, touched at the island of St. Thomas
to coal ship.
Here for the first time we learned of the presence in those waters of the Confederate cruiser Sumter
(Captain Raphael Semmes
).1 Captain Wilkes
immediately determined to search for the enemy.
, on the south coast of Cuba
, he learned from the United States consul-general at Havana
that Messrs. Mason
, Confederate commissioners to Europe
, and their secretaries and families had recently reached that port from Charleston
en route to England
He immediately put to sea, October 26th, with the purpose of intercepting the blockade runner which had brought them out. The commissioners were to have left Charleston
by the cruiser Nashville
, but their plans had been changed, and the steamer Gordon,
otherwise known as the Theodora
), had been substituted.
They had run the Union
blockade successfully during a storm on the night of October 11th, and had arrived at Nassau
on the 13th, and at Havana
on the 17th.
There we ascertained that their plan was to leave on the 7th of November in the English steamer Trent
for St. Thomas
oil their way to England
, and readily calculated when and where in the Bahama Channel
we might intercept them.
Meanwhile, on the 2d of November, Captain Wilkes
continued his cruise after the Sumter
along the north coast of Cuba
, also running over to Key West
in the hope of finding the Powhatan
or some other steamer to accompany him to the Bahama Channel
to guard against the possibility of the escape of the commissioners.
But the Powhatan
had left the day before, and the San Jacinto
therefore returned alone to the channel to await the Trent
Here, 240 miles from Havana
, and 90 miles from Sagua la Grande
, where the channel contracts to the width of 15 miles, at noon on the 8th of November the Trent
On our way from St. Thomas
we had stopped at the Caymans, an English possession, to procure fresh provisions for the crew.
The natives had not many days before received a visit from the Sumter
, and were loud
in praise of the Confederate cruiser.
They had in times past shown great pleasure in selling turtle and fresh beef and vegetables to the United States
war vessels, but now their sympathy for the Southern
cause was uppermost, and they really showed indifference to selling us provisions.
This feeling had displayed itself wherever we had stopped either at St. Thomas
or on the southern coast of Cuba
, and when we reached Havana
it was still more apparent.
Tt was evident, even at that early day, that the South
had the sympathy of nearly all Europe
— particularly of England
When Captain Wilkes
first took me into his confidence, and told me what he purposed to do, I earnestly
reminded him of the great risk of a war with these two Governments supported as they were by powerful navies; and when we reached Key West
I suggested that he consult with Judge Marvin
, one of the ablest maritime lawyers.
I soon saw, however, that he had mad e up his mind to intercept and capture the Trent
as well as to take possession of the commissioners, and I therefore ceased to discuss the affair.
As the next in rank to Captain Wilkes
, I claimed the right to board the mail-packet.
fully expected that I would tender my services for this “delicate duty,” and rather left to me the plan of carrying out his instructions.2
I was impressed with the gravity of my position, and I made up my mind not to do anything unnecessary in the arrest of these gentlemen, or anything that would irritate the captain of the Trent
, or any of his passengers, particularly the commissioners — lest it might occur to them to throw the steamer on my hands, which would necessitate my taking her as a prize.
As the Trent
approached she hoisted English colors; whereupon our ensign was hoisted and a shot was fired across her bow. As she maintained her speed and showed no disposition to heave to, a shell was fired across her bow which brought her to. Captain Wilkes
hailed that he intended to send a boat on board, and I then left with the second cutter.
The manner of heaving the Trent
to evidently was galling to Captain Moir
When he did stop his steamer, he showed how provoked he was by impatiently singing out through his trumpet, “What do you mean by heaving my vessel to in this manner?”
I felt that I must in every way conciliate him when I should get on board.
Two boats had been equipped ready to lower and the officers and crews detailed to jump into them.
These were not employed until later.
The boat I took was a third one, and as the sea was smooth, but a few minutes elapsed before we reached the Trent
I instructed the boat's crew to remain alongside for orders, and, boarding the vessel, I was escorted by one of her officers to the upper or promenade deck and was introduced to Captain Moir
, who, though very gentlemanly in his way of receiving me, was also very dignified and manifested no little indignation as he spoke of the unusual treatment received at our hands.
immediately asked if I might see his passenger-list, saying that I had information that Messrs. Mason
were on board.
The mention of Mr. Slidell
's name caused that gentleman to come up and say, “I am Mr. Slidell
; do you want to see me?”
, whom I knew very well, also came up at the same time, thus relieving me from Captain Moir
's refusal, which was very polite but very
positive, that I could not under such circumstances be shown any list of passengers.
I asked where their secretaries, Mr. McFarland
and Mr. Eustis
, were, for I wanted to see them also, and Mr. Mason
pointed them out to me standing near.
In the briefest time I had the four gentlemen before me, and then I informed Captain Moir
that I had been sent by my commander to arrest Mr. Mason
and Mr. Slidell
and their secretaries, and send them prisoners on board the United States
war vessel near by.
As may readily be understood, when it was known why I had boarded the Trent
, there was an outburst of rage and indignation from the passengers, who numbered nearly one hundred, many of them Southerners.
The captain and the four gentlemen bore themselves with great composure, but the irresponsible lookers — on sang out, “Throw the d----fellow overboard!”
I called on Captain Moir
to preserve order, but, for the benefit of the excited passengers, I reminded them that our every move was closely observed from the San Jacinto
by spy-glasses (she was within hailing distance), that a heavy battery was bearing upon them, and that any indignity to any of her officers or crew then on board might lead to dreadful consequences.
This, together with Captain Moir
's excellent commanding manner, had a quieting effect.
During this uproar among the passengers, the officer in charge of the San Jacinto
's boat, not knowing what it meant, and fearing some ill-treatment of me, hurried up with six or eight of the crew.
was the first to see this body of armed men, and remonstrated with me at their appearance on the promenade-deck among his passengers, there being many ladies and children among them.
I immediately directed the officer to return to his boat and await my orders.
I assured him, amidst the noise of his passengers, that the men had come contrary to my instructions.
I was really pleased to find the captain so tenacious of his command, for my mind was possessed with the idea that Mr. Mason
or Mr. Slidell
, or both, would urge Captain Moir
to relinquish his command, making it necessary for me to assume it, as in such event my instructions left no opening for me to decline it. After order had been restored, we discussed the affair more generally, Captain Moir
, however, scarcely joining in the conversation-always dignified and punctilious.
The mail-agent, Commander Williams
, an officer of the Royal
Navy, on the retired list, was more officious, for he scarcely.left me, and more than once reminded me that he represented Her Majesty's Service, and that I must refer things to him. Of course, I knew what was due to him, but I also knew that Captain Moir
was the only person with whom I could have any official relations.
I carefully avoided giving offense, and confined myself strictly to the duty which had taken me on board.
I was anxious that Mr. Slidell
and Mr. Mason
should not leave any of their luggage behind.
having asked me who commanded the San Jacinto
, I replied, “Your old acquaintance, Captain Wilkes
” ; whereupon she expressed surprise that he should do the very thing the Confederates
were hoping for-something to arouse England
; and she also spoke of our having run down a French brig, a short time before, saying that two French men-of-war were at Havana
when the brig came in with jury-masts, almost a wreck, as the captain of the brig reported to
them, and adding that their commanders had expressed great indignation, and would make the most of our treatment of one of their merchantmen.
“Really,” she added, “Captain Wilkes
is playing into our hands!”
here suggested that it would be just as well not to discuss these matters at such a time.
's offer of his cabin was conveyed by me to Mrs. Slidell
and Mrs. Eustis
, and declined by both ladies.
After the first uproar had subsided, I sent the boat to Captain Wilkes
to say that these gentlemen were all on board, and had objected to being sent to the San Jacinto
, and that I must use force to accomplish my orders; I asked for a boat to carry them comfortably on board, another for their baggage, and a third to carry stores, which the paymaster's clerk, at Captain Wilkes
's order, had already purchased from the steward of the Trent
to add to the comfort of the new guests.
When all was ready and the boats were in waiting, I notified both Mr. Mason
and Mr. Slidell
that the time had come to send them to the San Jacinto
They came quietly down to the main-deck, and there repeated that they would not go unless force was used — whereupon two officers, previously instructed, escorted each commissioner to the
side, and assisted them into the comfortable cutter sent especially for them.
The two secretaries followed them into the boat without making opposition.
At this stage of the proceedings another outcry was raised by the passengers — noise enough to cause Lieutenant Greer
, who was waiting for these gentlemen to accompany them on board, to send a corporal's guard inside of the main-deck cabin.
This produced considerable consternation among the ladies near by, but it was soon allayed by Captain Moir
, and the marines were sent back outside.
They had been sent in one of the boats by Captain Wilkes
's order, under the impression that they might be required.
Some machinists also came, in the event of the Trent
being taken as a prize; they were not needed, and were sent back to their ship a little while before I returned to make my report.
was reported as saying when he went to England
that I had caused marines to charge upon defenseless women and children with fixed bayonets.
The men, of course, had their muskets at “carry” or “shoulder,” and moved into the cabin with quick step — but there was no other foundation for the statement.
Again he represented, and it was pictured in one of the London
illustrated papers, that Miss Slidell
, for some cause or other, had struck me in the face.
was based on the fact that she accidentally touched my shoulder while I was talking to Mrs. Slidell
at the door of Mr. Slidell
While I was standing there, Miss Slidell
, then a girl of 15 or 17 years, was protesting against my taking her father from her, when a little roll of the steamer caused her to lose her balance, and thus she touched me slightly.
, writing afterward from Paris
to her near relative, and a friend of mine, expressed her mortification that such a story should have been circulated.
But Commander Williams
bade me good-bye pleasantly when I left the Trent
, saying that he was very much pleased at my moderate and gentlemanly manner throughout this very embarrassing and perplexing duty, and that he would report the same to his Government, for which I thanked him, mentioning his language afterward to Captain Wilkes
The truth is that much was made of Williams
, and he evidently lost his head.
Once while the transfer of luggage and stores delayed us, Captain Moir
, seeing his vessel drifting out of channel and in sight of shoal water, said to me, “If you do not hurry and get out of my vessel, I will not be responsible for her safety.”
I immediately hailed the San Jacinto
and requested that she be kept more to windward and in mid-channel, and then said to Captain Moir
, “Now you can move up nearer to the San Jacinto
,” which he did. I speak of this to show how watchful I was to keep him in an amiable frame of mind, and so to lessen the chance of his throwing the Trent
on my hands.
When all was finished I went on board the San Jacinto
and reported to Captain Wilkes
that I had not taken the Trent
as a prize, as he had instructed me to do, giving certain reasons, which satisfied him; for he replied, “inasmuch as you have not taken her, you will let her go” or “proceed on her voyage.”
To make clear one of these reasons, I should before have mentioned that Captain Wilkes
, while at Havana
, had learned more definitely of the character of Du Pont
's fleet, from which he inferred its destination, for of the Southern
ports the larger vessels could enter only Port Royal
He directed me “to refit our battery and get the San Jacinto
ready in all respects for battle,” adding that he would “join Du Pont
in time to cooperate with him.”
(As it was, Port Royal
fell the day before we boarded the Trent
, as we learned on our arrival off Charleston
.) The reasons I assigned to Captain Wilkes
for my action were: First, that the capture of the Trent
would make it necessary to put a large prize crew (officers and men) on board, and thus materially weaken our battery for use at Port Royal
; secondly, that as there were a large number of women and children and mails and specie bound to various ports, the capture would seriously inconvenience innocent persons and merchants; so that I had determined, before taking her, to lay the se matters before him for more serious consideration.3
I returned immediately to the Trent
and informed Captain Moir
would not longer detain him, and he might proceed on his voyage.
The steamers soon separated, and thus ended one of the most critical events of our civil war. We went up the coast from St. Augustine
to the blockading fleet off Charleston
, and thence to Fort Monroe
, from which point we were ordered first to New York and afterward to Boston
, with the prisoners.
When we reached the outer roads of Boston
I escorted the four gentlemen to Fort Warren
, and parted from them with expressions of the most pleasant character; for everything had been done by Captain Wilkes
and his officers to make them feel at home while on board the vessel.
and myself had several conversations as to the probable reception of the news in England
and on the Continent.
He maintained from the first, that England
immediately demand their release, and that our Government would be obliged to accede to this demand.
When Mr. Slidell
was leaving the side of the Trent
, he said to his wife, “Good-bye, my dear, we shall meet in Paris
in 60 days.”
If I remember aright, he was but 20 days longer in rejoining her.
After the war I had a conversation with Captain Moir
, in the presence of an English chaplain, at St. Thomas
was there in command of a large steamer running between Liverpool
, and I was in command of the Susquehanna
. Captain Moir
invited the chaplain and myself to lunch, and after we were relieved from the presence of the waiters, only we three in the cabin, he then reverted to an interview he had with the British Admiralty
on his return to England
, whither he had been called from St. Thomas
They were very much disappointed and displeased with him for not having thrown the Trent
on our hands, to which he replied (so he said to me) that it never had occurred to him; that, in fact, the officer who boarded the Trent
was so civil, and had so closely occupied him in conversation about foreign matters, that he had failed to see what afterward was very plain.
He recounted the excitement on ‘Change over the affair, and expressed the conviction that all England
would have demanded speedy redress, had I taken the Trent
He had seen the reports in print in our newspapers, and had read my orders to take possession and wondered that I had not.
Although Captain Wilkes
and I viewed the seizure of the commissioners from different points of view, I cannot close this narrative without saying that Wilkes
was one of our very best officers, a man of strong will-power, brave and intelligent, and I always entertained the highest respect for his abilities and worth.
After parting from the Trent
, the San Jacinto
proceeded to the Florida coast
, and thence, by way of the blockading fleet off Charleston
, to Fort Monroe
Here report of the seizure was made, and the vessel was ordered to New York, and thence, by order of Secretary Seward
, to Fort Warren
, Boston harbor
, where the prisoners were confined during the diplomatic correspondence which followed.
The commissioners expressed their satisfaction at the considerate treatment which they received, both from Captain Wilkes
during the voyage and from Colonel Justin Dimmick
, the commander at Fort Warren
On the 30th of November, Earl Russell, the British
minister for foreign affairs, having received the news of the seizure through a letter from Commander Williams
(mentioned above), wrote to Lord Lyons, the British
minister at Washington
, reciting the circumstances and saying in part:
Her Majesty's Government, therefore, trust that when this matter shall have been brought under the consideration of the Government of the United States, that Government will, of its own accord, offer to the British Government such redress as alone could satisfy the British nation, namely, the liberation of the four gentlemen and their delivery to your lordship, in order that they may again be placed under British protection, and a suitable apology for the aggression which has been committed.
On the 3d of December, the French Government
also made an informal protest, through its minister at Washington
, M. Mercier
On the 26th of December, Mr. Seward
wrote at length to Lord Lyons, reviewing the case, and saying that the commissioners would be “cheerfully liberated.”
In the course of the letter Mr. Seward
If I decide this case in favor of my own Government, I must disavow its most cherished principles, and reverse and forever abandon its essential policy.
The country cannot afford the sacrifice.
If I maintain those principles, and adhere to that policy, I must surrender the case itself.
It will be seen, therefore, that this Government could not deny the justice of the claim presented to us in this respect upon its merits.
We are asked to do the British nation just what we have always insisted all nations ought to do to us.
Accordingly, on the 1st of January, 1862, the commissioners and their secretaries were placed on board the English vessel Rinaldo
, at Province-town, Mass., which had been designated by Lord Lyons to receive them.
After a voyage of unusual rigor, during which they were compelled by storms to alter the first plan of going by way of Halifax
and to run to Bermuda
, the commissioners arrived at Southampton, England
, on the 29th of January.--Editors.