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Captain Wilkes's seizure of Mason and Slidell.

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. At Cienfuegos, on the south coast of Cuba, he learned from the United States consul-general at Havana that Messrs. Mason and Slidell, 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 (Captain Lockwood), 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 was sighted.

On our way from St. Thomas to Havana 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 [136] 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 and France. When Captain Wilkes first took me into his confidence, and told me what he purposed to do, I earnestly

James M. Mason, Confederate commissioner to great Britain. From a photograph.

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. Captain Wilkes 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. [137]

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. I

John Slidell, Confederate commissioner to France. From a photograph.

immediately asked if I might see his passenger-list, saying that I had information that Messrs. Mason and Slidell 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?” Mr. Mason, 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 [138] 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. Captain Moir 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. Mrs. Slidell 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 [139] 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!” Mr. Mason here suggested that it would be just as well not to discuss these matters at such a time. Captain Wilkes'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

Rear-Admiral Charles Wilkes. From a photograph.

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. Commander Williams 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. This [140] was based on the fact that she accidentally touched my shoulder while I was talking to Mrs. Slidell at the door of Mr. Slidell's state-room. 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. Mrs. Slidell, 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 in England, 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 that Captain [141]

William H. Seward, Secretary of State. From a Daguerreotype taken about 1851.

Wilkes 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. Mr. Eustis 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 would [142] 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. Captain Moir was there in command of a large steamer running between Liverpool and Aspinwall, 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 said:

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.

1 The Sumter, one of the first, if not the very first, of the regularly commissioned vessels of the Confederate navy, left New Orleans on the 18th of June, 1861 (see cut, p. 14), and, running the blockade, almost immediately began privateering operations. She was a screw steamer of 500 tons, and was armed with 5 guns — an 8-inch pivot, and 24-pound howitzers. She cruised for two months in the Caribbean Sea and along the coast of South America, receiving friendly treatment and coaling without hindrance in the neutral ports. During the succeeding two months she cruised in the Atlantic. On the night of the 23d of November, she ran out of the port of St. Pierre, Island of Martinique, eluding the Iroquois (Captain Palmer), which had been sent to search for her. At Gibraltar, having been effectually blockaded by the Tuscarora, she was sold, afterward becoming a blockade runner. Among the vessels sent in search of her were the Niagara, Powhatan, Keystone State, Richmond, and San Jacinto.

In his volume, “The blockade and the Cruisers” (Charles Scribner's Sons), Professor J. R. Soley sums up her career thus:

During her cruise she had made 17 prizes, of which 2 were ransomed, 7 were released in Cuban ports by order of the Captain-General, and 2 were recaptured. Apart from the delays caused by interrupted voyages, the total injury inflicted by the Sumter upon American commerce consisted in the burning of six vessels with their cargoes.


2 Following is the text of Captain Wilkes's instructions, which, as will be seen from the narrative, were not literally observed by Lieutenant Fairfax:

U. S. Steamer San Jacinto. At sea, Nov. 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 t hem on board this ship immediately, and take possession of her 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 this ship; any dispatches found on the persons of the prisoners, or in possession of those on board the steamer, will be taken possession of, examined, and retained if necessary.

I have understood that the families of these gentlemen may be with them; if so, I beg you will offer some of them in my name a passage in this ship to the United States, and that all the attention and comforts we can comnmand are tendered them and will be placed in 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 for 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. To Lieutenant D. M. Fairfax, U. S. N., Executive Officer, San Jacinto.

3 I gave my real reasons some weeks afterward to Secretary Chase, whom I met by chance at the Treasury Department, he having asked me to explain why I had not literally obeyed Captain Wilkes's instructions. I told him that it was because I was impressed with England's sympathy for the South, and felt that she would be glad to have so good a ground to declare war against the United States. Mr. Chase seemed surprised, and exclaimed, “You have certainly relieved the Government from great embarrassment, to say the least.”--D. M. F.

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