The American Question Abroad in the Civil War (Part 2)

        Turning from preliminary maneuvers to more settled diplomacy the Confederate government selected for the most important foreign capitals two distinguished men-James Murray Mason of Virginia for London, and John Slidell of Louisiana for Paris. Of these men it may be said that their diplomatic activities were of less significance than their initial voyage, which raised such serious questions as to bring England and the United States to the brink of war. At the Spanish port of Havana the commissioners had taken passage on a British merchant ship, a mail packet named the Trent. The day after leaving port (November 8, 1861) the vessel was stopped by the conventional signal, a shot across the bow, by a warship of the United States, the San Jacinto under Captain Charles Wilkes; and the two commissioners, with their secretaries, were arrested and removed to the San Jacinto, The searching party "met with some difficulty" as stated in Wilkes's report, and "a force became necessary to search" the ship. Though the envoys were "treated with every possible courtesy by Captain Wilkes and his officers" they were political prisoners and were placed in confinement in Fort Warren, Boston Harbor. The effect of this seizure was immediate and sensational. No international incident better illustrates the stupid thoughtlessness of popular clamor, which was fortunately in striking contrast to the caution and moderation of those who guided international policy. With unintelligent exultation and in ignorance of the merits of the controversy, the act of Captain Wilkes was vociferously applauded at home. He was banqueted at Boston and elsewhere; his exploit was approved by the secretary of the navy; American newspapers treated him as a hero; and the House of Representatives joined in the general acclaim by a ringing resolution.
        Amid the noise and jubilation, however, the more serious-minded began to develop doubts. What after all was to be gained by sustaining Wilkes's act? Since he bad acted without instructions, was it not fortunate that the government could save its face by disowning the act altogether? Did America not have an embassy in London and was there not a British ambassador at Washington? What was diplomacy for if not to deal with just such a situation? As for going to war with England while the tremendous conflict raged at home, would this not be an act of the utmost rashness, especially on an issue where the United States would appear to be renouncing its traditional defense of neutral rights at sea? If such a war should be the outcome, would not Mason and Slidell have accomplished, from the standpoint of Confederate intentions, infinitely more than they were likely to accomplish by proceeding on their mission?
        As to the merits of the legal question, the point at issue was not a mere matter of searching a neutral ship. The right of search, ancillary to the right of capture where contraband is found or violation of a blockade involved, was clearly recognized. Nor was the right to seize and condemn contraband on board a neutral vessel a matter of question. The offense to England consisted in the fact that certain individuals had been "forcibly taken from on board a British vessel . . . while such vessel was pursuing a lawful and innocent voyage-an act of violence which was an affront to the British flag and a violation of international law." The act of Wilkes was not properly an exercise of the right of search: it was rather an impressment of persons from the deck of a neutral ship. Even admitting the right of the United States to take Mason and Slidell (on the doubtful ground that persons could be deemed contraband), it was clear that Wilkes's method was faulty. If any part of the ship's "cargo" was to be condemned this could be done only by sailing the ship into a port of the United States, submitting the case to a prize court, and carrying out the forfeitures as the result of a regular judicial decree in compliance with the substance and procedure of international law. The nub of the matter was that "Wilkes had undertaken to pass upon the issue of a violation of neutrality on the spot, instead of sending the Trent as a prize into port for....adjudication.
        Yet the act of Wilkes was more than a breach of international usage. It was an affront and a challenge to England's sense of national honor. When he heard the news, Palmerston blazed out in cabinet meeting: "You may stand for this but damned if I will!" The mass of the English people appeared to share his rage. War preparations were carried to the point of sending 8000 troops and war material to Canada, putting a steam fleet in readiness, and prohibiting the exportation of munitions. Henry Adams wrote from England to his brother: "This nation means to make war." A "few weeks [he said] may see us . . . on our way home..." The American minister was "indescribably sad" as he witnessed "the exultation in America over an event which [bade] fair to be the final calamity in this contest"; while the son wrote of the "bloody set of fools" that were applauding Wilkes.
        Despite jingoistic manifestations, however, the affair was satisfactorily adjusted. The first letter of instructions from the British cabinet to Lord Lyons was softened by the royal tact of the Prince Consort, then on the eve of death. Lincoln's deficiencies in the refinements of international law were more than offset by a common sense which caused his thoughts to turn to arbitration if diplomacy should fail; yet he was determined that governmental reason and tact should not fail. In a timely exchange of letters Sumner in America and Bright and Cobden in England made known the wish of reasonable men on both sides that a friendly settlement be reached. As the weeks passed, suggestions continued to be made that the matter might be adjusted without war. Seward and Adams made it clear that Wilkes had acted without authorization. The cabinet in England, having avoided an ultimatum, first demanded an apology, but was led to reconsider even that demand and accept in lieu of an apology (which might have implied that the American government was originally in the wrong) an assurance that Wilkes had acted without authority. Finally the matter was threshed out in a meeting of Lincoln's cabinet (December 25, 1861), in which Sumner read his friendly letters from' Bright and Cobden. After long discussion "all yielded to the necessity [i.e., to the conviction that war with England must be avoided], and unanimously concurred in Mr. Sewards letter to Lord Lyons...."
        In this letter Seward closed the incident by a statement that the prisoners would be "cheerfully liberated," but not without irritating touches intended for home effect. After elaborately analyzing the pertinent questions of international law, be readily conceded the main point by declaring that Wilkes had erred in arresting the prisoners instead of sending the vessel into port for adjudication. This concession, however, was so phrased as to put England in the wrong as regarded her traditional contention for impressment and to call attention to America's high-minded role as a champion of freedom of the seas. Finally, in a saucy passage that his biographer has characterized as "sheer impudence," he needlessly stated that "if the safety of this Union required the detention of the captured persons it would be the right and duty of this government to detain them."
        So completely did the release of the envoys close the incident that by the end of January, when they arrived in England, there was "an almost complete disappearance" of public interest in them. The sense of relief felt in the American legation in London best appears in the Adams letters. Late in December Henry Adams had feared that "our stay here is at an end." Then came the settlement and the minister wrote on January 10: "Captain Wilkes has not positively shipwrecked us.... The first effect of the surrender of Messrs. Mason and Slidell has been extraordinary. The current which ran against us with such extreme violence six weeks ago now seems to be going with equal fury in our favor."

This Page last updated 02/16/02