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Chapter 7: the Trent affair.

  • Detention of the British steamer Trent, and capture of Mason and Slidell.

One of the first orders issued to naval officers in command afloat, should have been one instructing them particularly with regard to neutral obligations.

But this was not done; the Navy Department taking it for granted that every cormmander would be well posted in International Law, and would not fail to ask instructions on such matters when doubts were involved.

This want of a proper precaution came very near precipitating the United States into a war with Great Britain, at a time when it was most desirable to have no complications of any kind with foreign powers. We were likely to have enough trouble in the adjudication of liable blockade runners; but those cases would come before legally authorized Admiralty courts, and it was not likely that any injustice would be done to innocent parties, except detention, for which the parties detained could have recourse to law for damages.

In cases of non-condemnation, compensation was always allowed by the courts, and sometimes to a large amount.

There is no nation so particular in the care of its commerce as Great Britain. She keeps large fleets in all parts of the world solely for its protection, and wherever the British flag flies on a merchant vessel you will find a ship of war not far off, ready to protect it with her guns; and to this protection from their Navy do the British people owe that prosperity of their commerce which it enjoys in every part of the world.

It could readily be imagined that in a war which would so seriously affect so many branches of British trade, that the English government would observe with a jealous eye every step taken by our government for the purpose of preventing the Confederates from receiving supplies, contraband of war, from all foreign countries; but it is only fair to say, that although there were at times English ships-of-war sent along the coast to see that the blockade was closely kept, yet there were but few instances where British officers made any protest against our method of arresting the vessels engaged in the contraband trade.

The English government itself seemed disposed to take no action in regard to the seizure of English vessels, beyond having agents in this country to be present at the proceedings of the Admiralty courts, and to report the results to their Government.

Our Admiralty courts and the British being founded pretty much on the same principles, there was not much misunderstanding between the two Governments, considering the large number of vessels that came before the prize courts. On the whole, matters went on quite pleasantly between the two countries, notwithstanding that many Americans indulged in the idea that the whole English nation was hostile to the North, and only held this feeling in check until a favorable opportunity should occur, when, with some show of reason, it could assume an offensive attitude.

With such opinions existing it would have been wiser for our Government in its then weak condition to have avoided anything that could in any way be considered unjustifiable, and to have endeavored as much as possible to prevent collisions of any kind with foreign powers, unless it was positively clear that we were in the right.

On the 8th of November, 1861, an event occurred which created the wildest excitement [64] throughout all parts of the United States and Great Britain; in fact, all Europe looked on with anxiety, anticipating a war between England and the Northern States of the Union.

This excitement grew out of the arrest of the British mail steamer Trent on the high seas, by Captain Charles Wilkes, of the

Captain Charles Wilkes.

United States frigate San Jacinto, and taking from her four male passengers who claimed the protection of the British flag.

Two of these gentlemen were Messrs. Mason and Slidell, formerly members of the U. S. Senate, who were now bound to Europe as commissioners from the Confederate Government to the Courts of England and France; the other two were Messrs. Eustis and McFarland, attaches to the commissioners.

The Trent was one of a line of British steamers which ran regularly between Vera Cruz and Havana, thence to St. Thomas, and from there to England.

The company had a contract with the British Government to carry the mails, and its steamers had ample accommodations for the passenger travel between England and the West Indies.

The Trent left the port of Havana on the morning of the 7th of November, under the command of Captain Moir.

Nothing of interest occurred until about noon of the 8th, when, in the narrow passage of the Old Bahama Channel, opposite [65] the Panador Grande light, from the Trent was seen a steamer ahead, apparently waiting and showing no colors.

The Trent at this time was on her legitimate voyage; she had touched at no port in the Southern Confederacy, and had held no communication with vessels coming from or going to the insurrectionary States; neither was she bound herself to any Southern port, but was pursuing the route usually traveled by the company's mail steamers.

Her captain had taken on board as passengers the four gentlemen above named, as he had a right to do, for the British company had no authority to question the right of these persons to travel on their steamers, as long as they paid their passage money and conformed to the rules and regulations of the vessel.

The story of this affair is best told by an officer belonging to the San Jacinto, who states as follows:

At about 10.40 A. M. the look-out at the masthead reported a smoke from a steamer from the westward, and at 11 A. M. she was visible from the deck. We were all ready for her; beat to quarters, and as soon as she was in reach of our battery, every gun was trained on her from the starboard side. A shot from the pivot gun was fired across her bow; she hoisted English colors, but showed no disposition to slacken her speed or heave-to; we hoisted the star-spangled banner, and as soon as she was close upon us, fired a shell across her bow, which brought her to. Our captain hailed her and said he would send a boat on board, and gave an order to Lieut. Fairfax to board her. Fairfax went in the second cutter. At the same time Lieut. Greer was all ready in the third cutter to shove off from the port side, in case his services should be needed.

On coming alongside of the packet, Lieut. Fairfax ordered the other officers to remain in the boat with the crew until it should become necessary to use force, and he went on board the Trent alone. The captain of the mail steamer refused to show his papers and passenger list, knowing very well the object of our visit and the character and mission of the Commissioners; but Mr. Mason being recognized, a part of the armed crew was ordered from the boat and went on board. Messrs. Mason and Slidell were then requested to go on board the San Jacinto, but declined, and said that they would only yield to force, Mr. Slidell remarking that it would require considerable force to take him on board the San Jacinto. Lieut. Fairfax then ordered Mr. Houston to return to the San Jacinto and report that the Confederate Commissioners were on board the Trent, (mail steamer) and refused to go on board the San Jacinto by other means than force.

Lieut. Greer then shoved off and went alongside of the Trent, sent his armed crew and marines on board and stationed them at both gangways. After a gentle application of force the four gentlemen were taken in the second cutter and conveyed on board the American frigate, where they were received by Captain Wilkes at the gangway, and shown into the cabin which they afterwards occupied.

Two other boats were sent on board the Trent to remove the luggage; and the ladies belonging to the Commissioners' party having declined the hospitalities offered them by Captain Wilkes on board the San Jacinto, at 3.30 the Trent and San Jacinto parted company.

This is a condensed account of this affair, but it fully explains the manner in which the Commissioners were taken out of the Trent.

The whole matter on board the Trent was conducted by Lieut. Fairfax with the utmost courtesy. He had a very unpleasant duty to perform, especially as he was much embarrassed by the presence of the ladies belonging to the party, who expressed themselves without restraint regarding the outrage which they asserted had been committed; but the lieutenant bore their reproaches with great equanimity, and performed his duty as gently as possible.

The Commissioners themselves appeared to be very much outraged by the proceedings of Captain Wilkes in taking them out of the Trent, though he did all he could while they were on board his ship to make them forget their troubles in the comforts of a fine cabin; but nothing could have pleased these Commissioners more than the fact that they were arrested on the high seas on board of a British ship, with the British flag flying at the peak, and forcibly taken from her to an American frigate.

This was just what would suit the Confederacy and the Commissioners at the same time, for it would bring about a collision, or at least a dispute, between England and the Federal Government, and very much increase the importance of the Commissioners on their landing in England, where they expected to be received (when released) with the wildest enthusiasm.

They both were too well posted not to know the tenacity with which the British people hold on to an idea, particularly the idea that when a man or a number of men seek the protection of the English flag, he or they cannot be taken from under its folds by force of arms on the high seas without a swift demand from the British Government for ample reparation. It is an idea that does honor to the British nation, and is one that her descendants in America have cherished since 1812, when the United States went to war with England, determined to resist the right of search which the English ships-of-war claimed the right to exercise over American vessels upon the high seas.

Thoughtful people saw in the act of Captain Wilkes nothing to approve of. On the contrary, they could only see trouble ahead, unless the Federal Government should at once disavow the act of that officer, and restore Messrs. Mason and Slidell and the attaches to their liberty.

The Commissioners themselves made a protest almost immediately after getting on board the San Jacinto, against the seizure [66] of their persons, and laid it before Captain Wilkes, not with the expectation that it would have any effect on their detainer, but it would add to the effect of what they considered their false imprisonment, and create an extra amount of sympathy for them throughout Europe.

The following is a pretty fair statement of the Commissioners, and as it is a part of the history of the times at a very important point, it is herewith inserted:

U. S. Ship San Jacinto, At Sea, Nov. 9, 1861.
Sir:--We desire to communicate to you by this memorandum the facts attending our arrest yesterday on board the British mail steamer Trent, by your order. and our transfer to this ship.

We, the undersigned, embarked at Havana on the 7th inst. as passengers on board the Trent, Captain Moir, bound to the Island of St. Thomas, in one of the regular passenger lines of the British Royal Mail Steamship Company, running from Vera Cruz, via Havana, to St. Thomas, and thence to Southampton, England. We paid our passage money for the whole route from Havana to Southampton to the British consul at Havana, who acts as the agent or representative of the said company; Mr. Slidell being accompanied by his family, consisting of his wife, four children and a servant, and Mr. Eustis by his wife and servants.

The Trent left Havana about 8 o'clock, a. m., on the morning of the 7th inst., and pursued her voyage uninterruptedly until intercepted by the United States steamer San Jacinto, under your command, on the following day (the 8th) in the manner now to be related:

When the San Jacinto was first observed, several miles distant, the Trent was pursuing the usual course of her journey along the Old Bahama or Nicholas channel, was about 240 miles from Havana, and in sight of the light-house Panador Grande; the San Jacinto being stationary, or nearly so, about the middle of the channel, and where it was some fifteen miles wide, as since shown on the chart.

The nationality of the ship being then unknown, when the Trent had approached near enough for her flag to be distinguished, it was hoisted at the peak and at the main, and so remained for a time. No flag was shown by the San Jacinto. When the Trent had approached within a mile of the San Jacinto, (still pursuing the due course of her voyage) a shotted gun was fired from the latter ship across the course of the Trent, and the flag of the United States displayed at the same time at her peak.

The British flag was again hoisted as before, and so remained.

When the Trent had approached, still on her course, within from two to three hundred yards of the San Jacinto, a second shotted gun was fired from your ship again across the course of the Trent.

When the Trent got within hailing distance, her captain enquired what was wanted; the reply was understood that you would send a boat. Both ships being then stationary, with steam shut off, a boat very soon put off from your ship, followed immediately by two other boats with full crews armed with muskets and side-arms.

A lieutenant in the naval uniform of the United States Navy, and with side-arms, boarded the Trent, and in presence of most of the passengers assembled on the upper deck, said to Captain Moir that he came to demand his passenger list.

The captain refused to produce it, and formally protested against any right to visit his ship for the purpose indicated.

After some conversation importing renewed protests on the part of the captain against the alleged object of the visit, and on the part of the officer from the San Jacinto that he had only to execute his orders, the latter said that two gentlemen, Mr. Slidell and Mr. Mason, were known to be on board, as also two other gentlemen (naming Mr. Eustis and Mr. McFarland), and that the orders were to take and carry them on board the U. S. Frigate San Jacinto.

It should have been noted that on first addressing the captain the officer announced himself as a lieutenant of the United States Steamer San Jacinto.

The four gentlemen thus mentioned being present, the lieutenant addressing Mr. Slidell, and afterward Mr. Mason, repeated that his orders were to take them, together with Mr. Eustis and McFarland, and carry them on board his ship, which orders he must execute.

Mr. Slidell and Mr. Mason, in reply, protested, in the presence of the captain of the Trent, his officers and passengers, against such threatened violation of their persons and their rights, and informed the lieutenant that they would not leave the ship they were in, unless compelled by the employment of actual force greater than they could resist; and Mr. Eustis and Mr. McFarland united with them in expressing a like purpose.

The officer stated he hoped he would not be compelled to resort to the use of force, but if it should become necessary to employ it in order to execute his orders he was prepared to do so. He was answered by the undersigned that they would submit to such force alone.

The lieutenant then went to the gangway, where his boats were, the undersigned going at the same time to their staterooms on the deck next below, followed by Captain Moir and the other passengers. The lieutenant returned with a party of his men, a portion of which were armed with sidearms, and others appeared to be a squad of marines, having muskets and bayonets.

Mr Slidell was at this time in his stateroom, immediately by, and in full view.

The lieutenant then said to Mr. Mason that, having his force now present, he hoped to be relieved of the necessity of calling it into actual use. That gentleman again answered that he would only submit to actual force greater than he could overcome. when the lieutenant and several of his men, by his order, took hold of him in a manner and in numbers sufficient to make resistance fruitless, and Mr. Slidell joining the group, two or more of the armed party took hold of him, and these gentlemen at once went into the boat.

During this scene many of the passengers became highly excited, and gave vent to the strongest expressions of indignation, seeming to indicate a. purpose of resistance on their part, when the squad, armed with bayonets fixed, made a sensible advance of one or two paces with their arms at the charge.

It must be added here (omitted in the course of the narrative) that before the party left the upper deck, an officer of the Trent, named Williams, in the naval uniform of Great Britain, and known to the passengers as having charge of the mails and accompanying them to England, said to the lieutenant that, as the only person present directly representing his Government, he felt called upon in language as strong and emphatic as he could express to denounce the whole proceeding as a piratical act.

Mr. Slidell and Mr. Mason, together with Mr. McFarland, against whom force in like manner wag used, were taken to the San Jacinto as soon as they entered the boat. When they reached your [67] ship you received them near the gangway, announcing yourself as Captain Wilkes, the commander of the ship, and conducted them to your cabin, which you placed at their disposal.

When the undersigned came on board they found the men at quarters, and the guns bearing on the Trent.

After some time occupied bringing on board our luggage and effects, the San Jacinto proceeded to the northward through the Santilla channel, the Trent having been detained from three to four hours.

The foregoing is believed to be a correct narrative, in substance, of the facts and circumstances attending our arrest and transfer from the British mail steamer to the ship under your command, and which we doubt not will be corroborated by the lieutenant present, as well as by all who witnessed it.

The incidents here given may not have been witnessed by each one of the undersigned individually, but they were by one or more of them.

As for the most part they did not pass under your notice, we have deemed it proper to present them in the form before you, expressing the wish that if considered incorrect in any part the inaccuracies may be pointed out.

With a respectful request that you will transmit a copy of this paper to the Government of the United States, together with your report of the transaction, to facilitate which a copy is herewith enclosed,

We have the honor to be,

Very respectfully,

Your obedient servants,

This is no doubt a strict version of the affair, and is corroborated by Captain Wilkes' report.

Captain Wilkes, when he parted company with the Trent, made the best of his way to Boston. Why he did not go into New York or Hampton Roads, where he could have communicated at once with the Government, is unexplained, but the information of the capture was kept from the Department four days longer than it should have been.

When it was announced in the Boston papers that Captain Wilkes had seized upon the persons of two Confederate Commissioners, the excitement and joy were unbounded; though why it should have been so no one could tell.

What use two Commissioners from the Confederate States could be to the Federal Government, when their places could easily be filled by the first outgoing blockade runner, was a question no one stopped to inquire about. It was sufficient that the San Jacinto had important State prisoners on board, and that they had been taken from under the protecting folds of the British flag.

The conservative Bostonians completely lost their heads, and made Captain Wilkes lose his, for they gave him ovations in such quick succession that it was quite enough to make his brain whirl.

In the meantime the wires under the sea were flashing the news to England about the outrage to the British flag.

The exultation of the Confederates knew no bounds when they heard the news, and saw their cherished hope about to be realized in a difficulty — perhaps war — between England and the Northern States; in which event the success of the Confederate cause would in the estimation of the Confederacy be consummated.

In fact, everyone seemed for the moment to have lost their judgment in the joy of the capture of Mason and Slidell. Even the wisest men in the Cabinet, including Mr. Seward, did not at first realize the situation.

The President alone kept his mind clear, and did not commit himself in any way that could prejudice the case. Yet it was very plain to able jurists that the position we held on account of the capture of Mason and Slidell was not a defensible one, and the first act of the Government should have been to disavow the act of Captain Wilkes, and order him to proceed to the nearest British port and land the party he had arrested.

It no doubt would have been very humiliating to Captain Wilkes, but that was not to be considered.

A national vessel belonging to the Navy had, without any instructions whatever, stopped a British mail steamer upon the high seas, which was engaged in her usual business of carrying passengers from the West Indian ports to England, four of whom were taken from under the English flag — these persons charged with no offense.

If the Captain of the Trent had been guilty of any infraction of international law — had sailed from any Southern port, or had taken his passengers from any vessel at sea — then he was liable to arrest; but to prove him to be so Captain Wilkes should have taken the Trent into a Federal port (the nearest), and brought the case before a court of Admiralty, giving the owners of the vessel so detained an opportunity to sue for damages if she had committed no unlawful act.

But instead of that, Captain Wilkes instituted a court of Admiralty on the high seas, and undertook to condemn the persons arrested without trial, and let the vessel carrying them proceed on her voyage, on the ground that her detention by taking her into port for trial and adjudication would put the passengers to great inconvenience.

When we look back after the lapse of so many years, when the passions of men have cooled down, we can hardly realize that a nation which had gone to war with Great [68] Britain on the subject of this right of search, should for a moment have hesitated to do the proper thing, by at once redressing the wrong committed by its officers, instead of waiting until a demand was made for a return of the prisoners with a sufficient apology. But if there were no mistakes made in the world there would be no work done.

As soon as Captain Wilkes made his report to the Department, the Hon. Secretary of the Navy wrote him the following letter, which showed that Mr. Welles, if not sound in an international point of view, was sound in his dislike for the Confederates and all that savored of disloyalty. He no doubt touched the national heart, which at that moment did not beat with the most friendly feelings towards Great Britain. It was hard to make our people believe that England did not sympathize with the South, and that, while she was full of friendly professions towards the North, she was not ready at the first opportunity to throw her weight in the scale against us.

Navy Department, November 30, 1861
Sir:I congratulate you on your safe arrival, and especially do I congratulate you on the great public service you have rendered the Union in the capture of the rebel commissioners.

Messrs. Mason and Slidell have been conspicuous in the conspiracy to dissolve the Union, and it is well known that when seized by you they were on a mission hostile to the Government and the country.

Your conduct in seizing these public enemies was marked by intelligence, ability, decision and firmness, and has the emphatic approval of this department.

It is not necessary that I should in this communication (which is intended to be one of congratulation to yourself, officers and crew) express an opinion on the course pursued in omitting to capture the vessel which had these public enemies on board, further than to say that the forbearance exercised in this instance must not be permitted to constitute a precedent hereafter for infractions of neutral obligations.

I am respectfully yours,

Gideon Welles, Secretary of the Navy. Captain Charles Wilkes, Commanding U. S. S. San Jacinto, Boston, Mass.

The news of the arrest of Mason and Slidell was received by Congress with great enthusiasm, and that body passed the following resolution by a decided vote:

Resolved, That the President of the United States be requested to present to Captain Charles Wilkes a gold medal with suitable emblems and devices, in testimony of the high sense entertained by Congress of his good conduct in promptly arresting the rebel commissioners, J. M. Mason and John Slidell.

But this resolution was indefinitely postponed, and after Congress had time to examine coolly into the merits of the case, it was never resurrected. But there is no doubt it expressed the sentiments of the loyal people of the country, who never stopped to think what the consequences might be; nor did they reflect that we were not in a condition to go to war with Great Britain on a point of this kind, where we could find no exact precedents by which to justify ourselves; and when in like cases on the part of England we had placed her in the wrong in the war of 1812, and retaliated on her so severely that she was glad to invoke peace.

In the mean time Messrs. Mason and Slidell were confined in Fort Warren (in Boston harbor), as close prisoners.

The excitement in England was intense, and all those who entertained ill feelings against the United States and her institutions were not slow in manifesting them.

The British Government took the matter in hand at once, and preparations for war were commenced on a large scale. Troops were sent to Canada without the English Government making inquiries into the matter, or waiting to see if the United States had not some explanation to make in relation to the action of Captain Wilkes.

This was not generous conduct in a great nation towards another with which its government professed to be at amity, and which at that time (before the United States had fairly collected her armies), was struggling with many disadvantages to hold her own against the most powerful rebellion ever yet known.

Common justice should have led the English Government to extend to us the courtesy that would have been extended to France or Russia under like circumstances.

It all looked very much as if the British people were (as report stated) sympathetic with the South, and were anxious to take advantage of the opportunity and seek a quarrel with the United States, and thus secure a separation of the two sections, which would weaken both, and give to England a powerful ally that would enable her to dictate such terms to the Federal Government as would best suit her purposes.

The first step taken by the British Ministry was a demand for the surrender of the Commissioners, with an apology by the United States government for the act committed by Captain Wilkes.

It would have been so much easier for the United States to have anticipated at once the action of the British government; but diplomatists have their methods, and they sometimes lead nations to the verge of war rather than admit a defect in their system.

On the 30th of November, 1861, Mr. Seward wrote to Mr. Adams, our minister to [69] England, informing him that Captain Wilkes had boarded a British colonial mail steamer and taken from her deck two insurgents, who were proceeding to England and France on an errand of treason against their own country. He says:

We have done nothing on the subject to anticipate the discussion, and we have not furnished you with any explanations. We adhere to that course now because we think it more prudent that the ground taken by the British government should be first made known to us here, and that the discussion (if there must be one) shall be made here.

It is proper, however, that you should know one fact in the case, without indicating that we attach much importance to it, namely, that in the case of the capture of Messrs. Mason and Slidell on board a British vessel, Captain Wilkes having acted without any instructions from the government, the subject is therefore free from the embarrassments which might have resulted if the act had been specially directed by us.

On the same day Lord Russell wrote to Lord Lyons, the British minister in Washington, relating the facts of the case as he had received them from the commander of the colonial steamer Trent, and thus states the demands of his government in relation to the matter:

Her Majesty's government, bearing in mind the friendly relations which have long subsisted between Great Britain and the United States, are willing to believe that the United States naval officer who committed the aggression was not acting in compliance with any authority from his government; or that, if he considered himself so authorized, he greatly misunderstood the instructions which he had received.

For the government of the United States must be fully aware that the British government would not allow such an affront to the national honor to pass without full reparation, and her Majesty's government are unwilling to believe that it could be the deliberate intention of the government of the United States unnecessarily to force into discussion between the two governments a question of so grave a character, and with regard to which the whole British nation would be sure to entertain such unanimity of feeling.

Her Majesty's government, therefore, trusts that when this matter is brought under the consideration of the government of the United States, that government will, of its own accord, offer such redress as could alone 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.

Should these terms not be offered by Mr. Seward, you will propose them to him.

This demand seemed reasonable enough. It is what the United States would have done under like circumstances.

The official document placed Lord John Russell in a more forbearing light than the people of the United States expected of him, for he had the reputation of being not only a sympathizer with the Confederates, but of being strongly hostile to the Federal government, which was somewhat remarkable, inasmuch as the United States of the North had proclaimed themselves as antislavery, both in theory and practice; it was, therefore, natural to suppose that the English, who stood before the world as the champion emancipators, should altogether sympathize with the Northern States.

If, however, there was any doubt regarding Lord Russell's sympathies, it was dissipated by a private letter which he wrote to Lord Lyons at the same time he wrote his official one.

He says in his private letter:

In my previous dispatch of this date I have instructed you, by command of her Majesty, to make certain demands of the Government of the United States.

Should Mr. Seward ask for delay in order that this grave and public matter should be deliberately considered, you will consent to a delay not exceeding seven days.

If at the end of that time no answer is given, or any answer is given except that of a compliance with the demands of her Majesty's Government, your lordship is instructed to leave Washington with all the members of the legation, and to repair immediately to London.

If, however, you should be of the opinion that the requirements of her Majesty's Government are substantially complied with, you may report the facts to her Majesty's Government and remain at your post till you receive further orders.

A copy of the first dispatch from Lord John Russell was handed to the Secretary of State, Mr. Seward, by Lord Lyons.

Our wily diplomatist and statesman was not in the least flurried or taken aback by the implied threat of the British Government. He believed in the oft-told story that the pen was mightier than the sword, and was satisfied that if the correspondence could be confined to this side of the water, he would make some points on the British Premier, if he did not get the best of the argument and prove that Captain Wilkes was altogether in the right.

Mr. Seward, in reply to Lord Russell's first dispatch, carefully states all the facts and then reviews them with a cleverness quite enough to upset the English equanimity, and if the latter were not convinced, they could not help but admire his dexterity in handling this very delicate matter.

He states to Lord Lyons as follows:

Your Lordship will now perceive that the case before us, instead of presenting a merely flagrant act of violence on the part of Captain Wilkes, as might well be inferred from the incomplete statements of it that went up to the British Government, was undertaken as a simple, legal and customary belligerent proceeding by Captain Wilkes, to arrest and capture a neutral vessel engaged in carrying contraband of war, for the use and benefit of the insurgents.

The question between us is, whether this proceeding [70] was authorized by, and conducted according to the law of nations.

It involves the following inquiries:

First--Were the persons named and their supposed dispatches contraband of war?

Second--Might Captain Wilkes lawfully stop and search the Trent for these contraband persons and dispatches?

Third--Did he exercise that right in a lawful and proper manner?

Fourth--Having found the contraband persons on board, and in presumed possession of the contraband dispatches, had he a right to capture the persons?

Fifth--Did he exercise that right of capture in the manner allowed and recognized by the law of nations?

If all these inquiries shall be resolved in the affirmative, the British Government will have no claim for reparation.

The first four questions are briefly answered by himself in the affirmative, and only the fifth remains for consideration.

But admitting that Mr. Seward's inquiries are correct, he does not refer to the fact that Captain Wilkes constituted himself a Court of Admiralty upon the high seas, and undertook to make a seizure of the persons contraband of war, and omitted to seize the vessel.

If the persons seized were contraband, the vessel knowingly carrying them as passengers was contraband also, and should have been taken into a United States port and the case tried before an Admiralty Court; which would most likely have decided in favor of the Trent and awarded damages.

This course would have saved the United States the humiliation of making a forced apology.

England was not the only nation that took exceptions to the seizure of the persons of Mason and Slidell, for, on the 10th December, the Minister of Foreign Affairs in France wrote to the representative of that court at Washington:

The arrest had produced in France, if not the same emotion as in England, at least extreme astonishmient and sensation. Public sentiment was at once engrossed with the unlawfulness and consequence of such an act.

The desire to contribute to prevent a conflict perhaps imminent between two powers for which the French Government is associated by sentiments equally friendly, and the duty to uphold (for the purpose of placing the right of its own flag under shelter from any attack) certain principles essential to the security of neutrals, have, after mature reflection, convinced the French Government that it could not, under the circumstances, remain entirely silent.

* * * * * * * * * *

There remains therefore to invoke in explanation of the capture of Mason and Slidell only the protest that they were the bearers of official dispatches from the enemy; but this is a moment to recall a circumstance which governs all this affair and which renders the conduct of the American cruiser unjustifiable.

The Trent was not destined to a point belonging to one of the belligerents; she was carrying to a neutral country her.cargo and passengers, and, moreover, it was in a neutral port that the passengers were taken on board.

The cabinet at Washington could not, without striking a blow at the principles which all neutral nations are alike interested in holding in respect, nor without taking the attitude of contradiction of its own course up to this time, give its approbation to the proceedings of the commander of the San Jacinto.

In this state of things it evidently should not (according to our view of the case) hesitate about the determination to be taken.

In view of the pressure brought to bear upon the government and the attitude taken by France, wise counsels finally prevailed; and it was determined by the Federal Government to give up Messrs. Mason and Slidell to the representatives of the British Government authorized to receive them, and instructions were sent to the commanding officer at Fort Warren to place them on a small steamer and have them delivered on board a British war steamer then lying at Provincetown.

The Commissioners and their suite were conveyed in this steamer to the island of St. Thomas, and thence by the colonial steam line which took passengers to Southampton, England, where they arrived safely. But notwithstanding the excitement in England. they were received with no official distinction.

The exultation of the Confederates at what they chose to call the humiliation of the United States was excessive, though it would have pleased them better if the Federal government had adhered to the first impulse, and refused to give up the Commissioners. This, of course, would have brought about a war between England and the United States, which would most likely have insured the temporary independence of the insurgent States; for with England's navy to back the South we could not have maintained the blockade, and all our available force would have been required to defend the Northern coast, and to commence a raid upon the English commerce in every sea.

The English may not have calculated all the damages the United States cruisers could have inflicted upon English commerce in every part of the world; a proof of which may be seen in the performances of the Alabama, and one or two other Confederate cruisers, which caused so much havoc to our commerce that it was almost driven from the ocean.

The United States government found itself placed in a very unpleasant dilemma, having to satisfy the demands of the British government and at the same time quiet the public feeling at home, which was intense; for the idea of surrendering Mason and Slidell was scouted by thousands of [71] people, who, having no responsibility in the matter, gave vent to their feelings in the most unmeasured terms, not only against the British government for what was considered its arrogant demands, but against the administration for tamely submitting to them.

Unreasonable people could not be made to believe that the three hundred improvised gunboats, and the long array of frigates which ornamented our navy list, were not sufficient to set the whole British Navy at defiance. But the government had to admit its weakness as an excuse to satisfy the people at large, who were clamoring so loudly to go to war with the English at a time when we could scarcely comply with the demands made on us to perform the proper blockade duty.

U. S. Frigate San Jacinto. Captain Charles Wilkes, overhauling the British steamer Trent, having on board the Confederate commissioners, Mason and Slidell.

The government had not only to allay the excitement existing throughout the country, but it had to defend itself against the opposition party; which was ever ready to seize upon any weak point in Mr. Lincoln's administration, bring it before the people, and endeavor to weaken the government by their cries of incapacity.

It was finally decided by the administration that the long settled policy of this country was to resist the right of search upon the high seas; and by way of being consistent we had but one course to pursue, and that was to repudiate the acts of Captain Wilkes, which would have been the better policy to pursue from the beginning.

To Mr. Seward more than any one else were the people indebted for not having the country involved in a war of great magnitude, at a time when it would have been ruin to us for three years at least: for it would have taken us that length of time to prepare for a definite resistance against England, which we were quite capable of making at the close of the war, when we were launching our invulnerable iron-clads as fast as our machine shops and ship-yards could turn them out.

It is not improbable that neither France nor England would have taken so fierce a stand if the Trent affair had happened in the latter part of 1864.

Whatever may have been Mr. Seward's opinions on the subject of the Trent matter, and though he made a faint attempt at making an argument, yet, with that astuteness that characterized him in all his foreign intercourse during the war, he thought it better to conform principles which had always governed this nation, Wand avoid a foreign war in addition to what we already had on our hands.

An attempt was made to show that Mr Seward had pursued a timid policy in opposition to the broad principles laid down by the representatives of the people, that we could claim our insurgents wherever we might find them on the high seas — on which principle we might claim the right to take them out of the packet boat running between Calais and Dover.

Laws of nations are but conventional rules for the safe guidance of governments in time of war, but are only so far binding when they do not infringe upon a settled policy of some government, ernment, whose best interests would be jeopardized by adhering to the opinion of any international code, which the policy of a powerful government might change at any moment.

When ministers and ambassadors were of more importance than they have become since the introduction of steam and the telegraph, it might have been allowable to arrest them in transit from their own country to one where they were accredited, [72] for the purpose of preventing them from laying an important treaty of alliance before an enemy's government.

Vattel says that “the ambassador of an enemy may be stopped in transit.” An ambassador represents a person clothed with full powers to contract with some foreign government matters of high importance, and is carefully instructed by a well established government in all he has to do.

Messrs. Mason and Slidell were not ambassadors; they were simply commissioners from an unrecognized country of insurgents, and it was uncertain whether they would be received or not by France or by England

It was necessary that the administration should place itself in the right before the people, and for this purpose Senator Sumner was selected to defend the government on the floor of the Senate; which he did in the most able manner, and in a way satisfactory to the public mind.

The British government confined itself to a single point of complaint, in that it appeared “that the present objections were not founded on the assumption by the American vessel-of-war of the belligerent right of search, nor on the ground that this right was exercised on board a neutral vessel between two neutral ports, nor that it was exercised on board a mail steamer sustained by a subvention from the Crown and officered in part from the Royal Navy, nor that it was exercised in a case where the penalties of contraband could not attach,” but it was founded simply and precisely on the idea “that other than officers in the military or naval service cannot be taken out of a neutral vessel at the mere will of the officer who exercises the right of search, and without any form of trial.”

As far as the English Government was concerned, it was not illiberal in confining the question at issue to one single point, and it was thought that if time had been allowed our government, it could have triumphantly met the argument advanced by the British minister.

But the British people were impatient, and clamoring for immediate redress or else demanding war. The United States was too weak at that moment to enter into a war with Great Britain on a matter where it was not certain that we were in the right, and discretion being in this instance “the better part of valor,” our government, after a small show of argument, disavowed the act of their officer.

This was the wisest thing that could have been done under the circumstances, for it was better that an officer should suffer for his great mistake, than that we should have been involved in a war with so powerful a nation, on a question in which all the powers of Europe would be sure to agree with our antagonist.

The aggressive position taken by the British Government on the first important question that had arisen between it and the United States, and the evident desire of Lord John Russell to humble us “in our hour of need” before the whole world, did not leave a friendly feeling in the minds of the American people towards the English; and while there was no immediate redress for us in regard to the departure of England from principles which had governed her for over a century, and the adoption of new ones to meet the occasion, there was but one thing to be done, namely, to bide our time until we could repay in a measure the arrogance the British Government had displayed towards us.

It was not that England had claimed redress for an assumption of power on our part which we had no right to exercise, but it was the haste which Lord John Russell was in to push us to the wall, that made the English action so offensive.

On the whole this action of Captain Wilkes had a good effect in the end. It rendered our officers more circumspect in their dealings with neutral questions, and prevented them from going out of their legitimate course to pick up foreign mail steamers with Confederate emissaries on board.

It also opened the eyes of the Government and Congress to the fact that, although we might use the coasting steamers to make blockading ships-of-war, we had no vessels that could be used to contend with any arrogant nation that might feel disposed to try and humiliate us.

It was but a short time after the event of the arrest of the Trent, that the government gave its attention to building a class of vessels that could bid defiance to the heaviest ships in the British Navy; and it is safe to say here, that those vessels were not so much intended for the purpose of putting down the rebellion, as they were to put a check on the interference of the English and French in our affairs, which we considered that no foreign power had a right to meddle with.

Notwithstanding that the United States came near being mortified before the whole world because we were not prepared to encounter a great adversary like England, and were made partially to eat “humble pie,” yet the people have forgotten that we were ever forced into making a submissive explanation in a matter where at most a mistake had been made.

We might be placed in the same position to-morrow by some insignificant power, because the knowledge of those who call themselves statesmen does not extend far [73] enough to show them that if we want to hold any prestige amongst foreign powers, we must have a naval force adequate not only to protect our own coast but to carry war into the enemy's country.

We are more deficient to-day in naval ships, than we were in 1861. If called upon to-morrow to redress an insult, we would be no better prepared to do it than we were at the time when the English threatened us with her army and navy for “pursuing a course which is common enough in English practice.”

When it suits arbitrary nations to alter established principles for others which are more in keeping with their own policy, they have no difficulty in changing.

It is said by a naval writer “this is the last haughty and unreasonable demand that Great Britain will ever make upon the United States. She has abdicated the dominion of the seas and she can never again ascend her ocean throne. Her insolent officers have for the last time lorded it with impunity over an American deck, and the threat which was made of sending the Warrior to Washington, will not in any form be repeated.” How little that man knew of the American people or of naval matters! He judged from the rapid manner we were putting afloat the clever creations of Ericssen's brains, that we were a progressive nation, and that having been taught one lesson of humiliation we would not let it happen again. That we would go on building up a navy (after the war) commensurate with the needs of our great country, and that the war, if it had no other good effect, would open the eyes of men in power to the fact that it is to the Navy alone we must look in all wars to protect our people, and to vindicate the honor of our flag.

But what assurance have we that we will benefit by past lessons? The exigencies of the war taught us nothing, and, like the Bourbons, we cannot learn. Our famous iron-clads, which once gave us considerable prestige, are lying about in rotten rows, and politicians are quareling over their bones. The Warrior with which we were once threatened, is without doubt somewhat impaired by age, but there is not to-day a single vessel or number of vessels in our entire Navy that could prevent her from being sent to Washington if the British Government thought proper to send her there.

If we have not the naval power, then, to assert any proper principle of International Law, let us not undertake to do so, until we have on hand a force that will in a measure arrest the first movement of any nation that may attempt to threaten us. The Trent affair was very humiliating. Let us see to it that something like it does not happen again.

At the time of the Trent affair it would not have been wise in anyone to put himself in opposition to the public feeling which was then paramount. Men refuse to be convinced, no matter how logical and persuasive the argument, when it runs counter to their opinion. There was not at that time one man in ten who believed in the doctrine that we had no right to arrest bearers of treasonable dispatches when under bearers of treasonable dispatches when under the protection of the British flag; but now that a quarter of a century has passed away, and the passions of men have cooled down, and they are governed by reason, we can discuss those matters with a chance of the being patiently listened to. It may be interesting also to read the arguments made on our side of the case, to ascertain how far right we were in demanding t hold Mason and Slidell; and though that will not help the case now, after such a lapse of years, it may be a satisfaction to the American reader to know that we made a good fight on paper, though we could not make it on the water.

In order to place ourselves right our statesmen made diligent search through the records of the past for the lengthy discussions which arose between the United a States and Great Britain, on the subject of “right of search,” when that owner was truly mistress of the seas, and when, in accordance with a long-settled; policy, she claimed the right to take British seamen out of any neutral vessel. Whenever the necessities of the British Navy called upon her to do so her heavy hand was laid upon American ships unsparingly; and having no navy at that time with which to assert our rights against so Powerful an adversary, we had to resort to argument, in an extreme defense of the rights of neutrals, which covered much ground.

These arguments were now brought up against us in the Trent case, and it was shown that our statesmen in their arguments, in 1812, had specified the only classes that could be lawfully stopped in transit, namely, persons apparently in the naval or military service of an enemy. We had no answer to make to our own arguments, and had almost to resort to the same special Pleading practiced by Great Britain in regard to the right of searching neutrals in 1812. Our statesmen in 1861 tried to prove that the two Commissioners, Messrs. Mason and Slidell, were far more dangerous to the United States, if let loose in Europe to work against us, than a dozen military men would be; and it was considered absurd to contend for the privilege of stopping at pleasure any man wearing an enemy's uniform, and prevent the most treasonable [74] characters to go unquestioned because they have not the insignia of a soldier or of a sailor. The English view was considered, on our own side, a very narrow interpretation of phrases, to say nothing of a departure from a principle which the English had always claimed to protect.

There was one thing which did not strike our statesmen — that Messrs. Mason and Slidell had committed no overt act. There was no proof that they had ever shown their dispatches, or that they had said to any one that they were bound on a mission to a foreign government — that was all mere surmise.

Some argued that it was not necessary to take the vessel into court for adjudication, as there was no question with regard to the identity of these men, or as to the official capacity in which they were acting; that it needed no military insignia to show that they were distinguished public agents, in the service of the Confederate government.

If the Captain of the Trent knew all these facts and was aiding and abetting Mason and Slidell in any treasonable acts against the United States, then his vessel became liable, and Captain Wilkes, in assuming the authority to let the ship and passengers pass free, was guilty of a violation of a grave principle of international law; he could as well open a neutral ship's hatches, and take from her hold what he might consider contraband of war, and transferring it to his own vessel to be taken before an Admiralty Court and condemned without evidence, let the ship go. Contraband of war makes the vessel liable, be it in carrying a regiment of soldiers or munitions of war. This is the view of the case taken by the President (Lincoln), and with that wisdom which never failed him he decided to give up the prisoners, and save the nation from a war in which it was not at that time in a condition to embark. The President did not want to go back on the principles for which the United States had so strongly contended in 1812; and he was right, as all unprejudiced minds must see.

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