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The Cuban Background of the Trent Affair F. C. Drake The Trent affatr is usually studied for its diplomatic impact as the first serious Anglo-American confrontation of the American Civil War. This impact was of obvious importance. The crisis between the United States and Great Britain, which resulted when Captain Charles Wilkes of the U.S.S. San Jacinto removed the Confederate Commissioners James Murray Mason and John Slidell, with their secretaries McFarland and Eustis, from the British mail packet Trent on November 8, 1861, threatened the survival of the United States. For this reason it has been amply covered by historians.1 But in moving quickly to the diplomatic interchanges of Seward, Lyons, Russell and Adams, one loses the essence of the key events that developed in Havana preceding the capture. These events reveal that the claims that Captain Wilkes alone conceived the capture of Mason and Slidell are erroneous.2 They 1 See "State Papers, The Case of the Trent" Annual Register, 1861 (London, 1862), public documents section, 288-319 and History section, 253-255; Thomas L. Harris , The Trent Affair (Indianapolis, 1896), out of date and inaccurate in some instances ; Frederick W. Seward, Reminiscences of a War Time Statesman and Diplomat 1830-1915 (New York, 1916), pp. 186-193; Charles Francis Adams, Jr., "The Trent Affair," American Historical Review, XVII (1912), 540-562; Charles Sumner, The Works of Charles Sumner (Boston, 1870-1883), VI (1872), 153-244; Victor H. Cohen, "Charles Sumner and the Trent Affair," Journal of Southern History, XXII (1956), 205-219; Ephraim D. Adams, Great Britain and the American Civil War (Gloucester, Mass., 1957), Ch. VII "The Trent," 203-243 is still a very good account ; Clvndon G. Van Deusen, "The Trent Affair" in William Henry Seward (New York, 1967), ch. 21; Frederic Bancroft, "The Trent Affair" in The Life of William H. Seward (Gloucester, Mass., 1967), II, ch. 38, 223-253; and most general works on United States diplomatic history which carry a few pages on the crisis. The latest study by Gordon Harris Warren, "The Trent Affair, 1861-1862," (Ph.D. dissertation, Indiana University, 1969), is a solidly researched investigation of the post-capture diplomatic crisis that uses many British and American archival materials but does not cover the background in Havana nor utilize two key British Foreign Office files, FO. 72/1013 and 72/1041 which are the Consular reports of the British Consul General in Havana in 1861-1862 respectively, Public Record Office, Foreign Office Papers [hereafter footnoted as F. O.]. 2 For example see Harris, The Trent Affair, which spends two chapters on "The Departure of the Commissioners for Europe" and "The Seizure of Mason and Slidell by Capt. Wilkes" without mentioning the role of the United States Consul General ; makes several errors in timing Wilkes' movements at sea and ignores his movements on land; Beckles Willson, John Slidell and the Confederates in Paris: 1862-65 (New York, 1932), p. 28 who asserted "It soon appeared that the sole initiative and responsibility for the seizure rested with Captain Charles Wilkes commander of the San Jacinto." There is little in Evan John, Atlantic Impact: 1861 (London, 1952) which is a slight work not concerned at all with events in Cuba. Most authorities appear to follow the lead taken by Charles Francis Adams, Jr. who claimed "No question as to his [Wilkes'] right to stop, board and search the Trent seems to have entered the mind of Captain Wilkes" in "The Trent Affair," 543. For a different 29 30CIVIL WAR HISTORY also illustrate that the Trent affair was only one episode, though the most important, which grew out of the increasing friction that developed very early in the wartime period between the British and American consular representatives in Havana. In one sense it is hardly surprising that Wilkes should be accorded sole responsibility for conceiving of the capture. In his report of November 15, 1861, to Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles, Wilkes mentioned that the San Jacinto had been cruising off Cienfuegos, Cuba, after returning from the African Squadron, when he learned that the Confederate Commissioners, their families and secretaries had set off from Charleston en route to Havana...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1533-6271
Print ISSN
0009-8078
Pages
pp. 29-49
Launched on MUSE
2013-01-02
Open Access
No
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