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1861 November 20: Capture of Mason and Slidell—The Trent Affair

November 23, 2011

From the November 20, 1861, issues of The Prescott Journal and The Hudson North Star we find these articles on what became known as the “Trent Affair.” The news of this affair seems to have taken somewhat longer than usual to arrive in Northwest Wisconsin.

On November 8, 1861, the U.S.S. San Jacinto, commanded by Charles Wilkes,1 intercepted the British mail packet R.M.S. Trent and removed two Confederate diplomats, James Mason2 and John Slidell.3 The envoys were bound for Great Britain and France, hoping to gain diplomatic recognition for the Confederate States. This incident precipitated a diplomatic crisis that brought Great Britain and the United States the closest to war they would come during the first year of the American Civil War.4

From The Prescott Journal of November 20, 1861:

Capture of Mason and Slidell.

Probably no single event of the war will be welcomed with greater satisfaction, by all union-loving citizens, than the capture of Mason and Slidell, the would-be C. S. A. Ambassadors to Queen Victoria and Louis Napoleon. The had succeeded in running the blockade, and at Havatna were transferred to the English mail steamer Trent, hoping that the red cross of St. George would ensure them a safe and speedy passage across the Atlantic. But they were doomed to disappointment, for off the Bahamas a shot across the bows from the frigate San Jacinto brought them to. The vessel was boarded by Lieut. Fairfax with forty men, and Messrs. Mason and Slidell, with all their papers and documents were taken off, notwithstanding the protest of the English captain. Their families were allowed to proceed, while they were delivered to the care of Gen. Wool,5 at Fortress Monroe.

The U.S.S. San Jacinto and the R.M.S. Trent, from the Naval History Blog

The securing of these dangerous men is no small achievement, and will have animportant bearing on the events of the coming winter. Slidell, by his well-known intriguing powers, his great wealth, his familiar acquaintance with French customs and language, his deadly hate of free institutions, and his personal connections, would do us great damage at the French court. Mason, though not possessing the ability of his colleague, as Chairman of the Committee of Foreign Affairs of the Senate for a number of years, is intimately acquainted with our relations to the various European powers.

Commander Wilkes acted upon his own responsibility in this affair, and it is to be hoped that he will receive a suitable acknowledgement from headquarters for his services.

From The Hudson North Star, November 20, 1861: 


With the exception of the seizure of Mason and Slidell, the rebel commissioners, we have no “late and important” telegraphic news to-day. But after the arrest of these rebel chiefs “on board of a British mail steamer” reaches England, we may look for something interesting. An inkling of what may be expected, is to be seen in the dispatch from Toronto. Let the Bull roar.

 A   G O O D   J O K E !




The frigate San Jacinto has arrived here with Messrs. Mason and Slidell as prisoners, taken from an English steamer in the channel off the Bahamas.

BOSTON, Nov. 16.

Captain Hunter, of the steamer Delta, from Bermuda at Halifax, reports that when he left Bermuda, the British steamer Fingal, and the rebel steamer Nashville, were in port. The Fingal had transferred her cargo of arms to the Nashville, and the latter had put Messrs. Mason and Slidell and suites on the Fingal, which would take them to England, while the Nashville would run the blockade with the arms.—The name of the British vessel they were taken from has not as yet transpired. All the documents and papers of Messrs. Slidell and Mason were seized. Their families were allowed to proceed. The Captain of the British vessel delivered up Slidell and Mason under protest. This is the substance of reports by passengers on the Old Point boat.


[Special to Tribune]—Messrs. Mason and Slidell were aboard a British mail steamer.—Commodore Wilkes sent aboard and demanded their surrender. The reply was, there is not force enough to take them. Wilkes sent additional force, and put the San Jacinto in convenient position. Slidell and Mason were then surrendered. The English steamer took them on board, not knowing who they were, their business, or destination. Capt. Wilkes, it is understood, acted on his own responsibility.

Gen. Wool granted Slidell and Mason permission to send a few letters to their friends this evening.

NEW YORK, Nov. 15.

A Fortress Monroe special despatch says Slidell and Mason were taken from an English mail steamer, on the 8th, off Bermuda. Lieut. Fairfax, and 35 armed men went abord [sic] the steamer, with 5 officers, and picked out the commissioners. They made feeble resistance, but were induced to leave. The Captain of the steamer, raved and swore calling the U.S. officers “piratical Yankees,” &c.  Eustis, one of the rebel secretaries, also resisted, but himself and collegue accompanied their employers in confinement. Slidell and his wife and four children were aboard, who were allowed to proceed to Europe.

Commodore Wilkes had an interview with Gen. Wool, and expressed opinion, that he did right, and said that right or wrong, these men had to be secured, and if he had done wrong, he could do no more than be cashiered for it.


The National Intelligencer of this morning containg [sic] an elaborate article fully justifying the capture of Mason and Slidell. It cites authorities to show that, under the acknowledged law of nations, Captain Wilkes was authorized to board the English steamer and demand the delivery of persons charged with rebellion against the government. It is believed here that this article foreshadows the ground which will be taken by the State Department on the question.

Various Items.

NEW YORK, Nov. 18.

The British brig Wm. R. Kebley has been seized for running the blockade, and the Captain committed to Ft. LaFayette.

TORONTO, Nov. 18.

The Globe and Leader newspapers have articles to-day on the seizure of Mason and Slidell. The Globe says it will add to the strength and dignity of the American Government if the captives are liberated without remonstrace [sic] from Britan [sic]. The Leader says it is an insult which the meanest government of earth would not submit to.

1.  Charles Wilkes (1798-1877) was a naval officer and explorer. He led the United States Exploring Expedition, which was commonly known as the “Wilkes Expedition 1842. Wilkes was promoted to the rank of commander in 1843 and that of captain in 1855.  At the outbreak of the Civil War, he was assigned to the command of the USS San Jacinto to search for the Confederate commerce destroyer Sumter.  “The Notorious Wilkes” —as Bermuda media called him—was officially thanked by Congress, but later the British government pressured President Lincoln to disavow his action.
2.  James Murray Mason (1798-1871) was a U.S. Representative from Virginia for 1837-1839, and a U.S. Senator from Virginia from 1847 to March 28, 1861, where he drafted the second Fugitive Slave Law (1850). He was a grandson of George Mason, one of the “fathers” of the U.S. Bill of Rights. James Mason was released from Federal custody in January 1862 and proceeded to London, where he represented the Confederacy until April 1865.
3.  John Slidell (1793-1871) was a U.S. Representative, 1843-1845, and a  U.S. Senator from Louisiana, 1853 to February 4, 1861. Slidell was released from Federal custody and set sail for England on January 1, 1862. From England he sailed to France, but failed to gain French recognition for the Confederate States. But he did succeed in negotiating a loan from private French interests, and in securing an ironclad ship, the Stonewall, for the Confederacy. Uncertain of his safety at home after the war, Slidell and his family stayed in Paris. He never sought pardon from the Federal government for his Confederate service, dying in London, England, in 1871.
4. For more details on the Trent Affair, see the Naval History Blog posting for November 8, 1861.
5.  John Ellis Wool (1784-1869) was a career Army officer. Wool was the oldest general on either side of the war (age 77 when the Civil War began). He commanded the Department of the East, and his quick and decisive moves secured Fort Monroe, Virginia, for the Union.

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