At the beginning of the Civil War, the North was floundering. During 1861, the Confederacy captured several forts. More states joined the Southern forces. The Union was badly defeated during the Battle of Bull Run in Virginia and had to scramble back to Washington. Things went from bad to worse toward the end of the year with an international incident that nearly led England to support the South. The Trent Affair forced President Lincoln to walk a fine diplomatic line.

The Background

During the first year of the American Civil War, the South was looking for allies in their fight against the better-equipped Union Army. Although England and France were neutral, they didn't recognize the Confederacy as a legitimate government. Even so, Jefferson Davis, president of the South, hoped they would offer help. Unfortunately for the South, there was no technology to make phone calls across the Atlantic Ocean, and the North was blocking Confederate ships from leaving many of its ports. However, two Southern diplomats, James Mason and John Slidell, were able to sneak into Cuba. There they booked passage for Europe on a British ship, The Trent.

The Incident

The Trent was only a few hundred miles off Cuba’s shore when the American military ship, San Jacinto, fired two warning shots. Union soldiers boarded the ship, grabbed Mason, Slidell and their assistants and returned to the San Jacinto. The Trent was allowed to continue to England minus the Confederate passengers. About two weeks later, the San Jacinto sailed into Boston harbor. The capture was celebrated as a major victory for the North. The war was not going well for the Union, and they badly needed some good news.

An Angry Europe

While the Union celebrated, the British were furious that their ship had been boarded and passengers removed. Their government protested this treatment and insisted that Mason and Slidell be freed. French leaders sided with England. While the incident was very popular in the North, President Lincoln and his advisers worried that it could lead to war in Europe. Therefore, by the end of December 1861, William Seward, Lincoln’s Secretary of State, admitted to the British that the incident should have gone through the courts. Following this, the U.S. released the South's diplomats. In addition, the American government declared it was happy to see that England supported the idea of neutral seas. Disagreement over this had led to the War of 1812.

The Bottom Line

Because of the compromises made by Lincoln’s government, relations between England and the United States actually improved. The British had seen Seward as aggressive and hostile, and they were afraid he supported a war against them. Since Seward formally acknowledged and corrected the American errors, England no longer saw him as a threat. However, both the British and French governments remained officially neutral throughout the rest of the Civil War.