When it Wasn’t ‘Cool’ to be English in America: The Trent Affair, 1861-62

By David Gleeson

One hundred and fifty years ago this week, on 14 January 1862, a British mail ship left the Caribbean island of St. Thomas for Southampton. On board were the emissaries of the recently formed Confederate States of America to Britain, James Mason and John Slidell. Their journey from America had actually begun in October 1861, but their seizure on board the HMS Trent in the Bahama Channel near Cuba on 7 November by the USS San Jacinto interrupted their diplomatic mission to attain recognition of their new state from Her Majesty’s government. Their seizure on the high seas and transfer to prison in Boston created a major diplomatic incident between the UK and the US, and almost led to war between the two nations—potentially a catastrophe for British immigrants living in America. The incident was even more problematic for those from England who, unlike the Irish and the Scots, could not separate themselves from the position of their government.  Indeed, among American politicians and the American press Britain, the UK, and England were terms used interchangeably to designate the “old enemy” of the American republic.  The forcible halting of Her Majesty’s ship the Trent by the San Jacinto and the taking of Mason and Slidell was explicitly celebrated as ‘a shot across the bows of the ship that bore the English lion’s head’, as well as ‘the arrest and detention of traitors.’[i]

Tension had been building in the United States since May 1861, when, in the aftermath of the beginning of the American Civil War, Queen Victoria, on behalf of her government, had declared her country’s neutrality in the conflict and granted ‘belligerent status’ to the Confederate States, the first step, perhaps, on the road to official recognition of the seceded states of the South. Indeed, in the summer, one British Consul based in New York had remarked that hostility was so high toward the policy that it was better to describe oneself as ‘Scots, Irish or Welsh but not British or English.’[ii] When word of British opposition to the ‘insult’ of the interference with the Trent and the capture of Mason and Slidell to the point of preparations for conflict with the US, the American press bayed for military conflict and Secretary of State, William Henry Seward, cried that ‘we will wrap the whole world in flames’ rather than apologize to Britain and release the Confederate prisoners.[iii] As Christmas 1861 approached war seemed inevitable as the British demanded an apology and release of the prisoners by 30 December.

Cooler heads prevailed, however, when President Abraham Lincoln sought a face-saving way of moving beyond the episode and avoiding conflict. Deciding that the seizure of Slidell and Mason had been incorrect on technical grounds (the commander of the San Jacinto had not followed the exact international protocol in the search of neutral ships), the prisoners were released and returned to British custody. News reached England on 8 January 1862, and the resumption of Slidell’s and Mason’s journey on the 14th marked an official end to the dispute. Nonetheless, both countries had come very close to war. For the English living in America they would have to prove their loyalty to the United States. To do so they, proclaimed the compatibility of English and American political traditions, particularly through their societies.  Drawing on the heritage of Magna Carta and English Common Law, these English Americans, while not denying their support of monarchy in their old home, considered the US a kindred spirit in the expansion of freedom. Abraham Lincoln could receive as many toasts on St. George’s Day as Queen Victoria did. The English seized on the president’s Emancipation Proclamation later that year as an example of America again following English traditions of liberty (the UK having abolished slavery in the 1830s). The Trent Affair, as it became known, highlights the ethnicity of the English in America and the fact that they had to work at integrating into American life. The English American experience of the Civil War challenges the popular image of the easy assimilation of the English into the US.  While it may be ‘cool’ to be English in America today, it was not always the case. The Trent Affair was definitely a setback in English assimilation but through the rest of the Civil War English ethnic associations would continue to display loyalty to the Republic in its hour of greatest peril, and thus help counter the negative image of England in America.

What do you think about this episode in Anglo-American relations? Let us know your thoughts.

[i] Governor John Andrew of Massachusetts, quoted in Howard Jones, Blue and Gray Diplomacy:  A History of Union and Confederate Foreign Relations (Chapel Hill:  University of North Carolina Press, 2010).

[ii] Edward Archibald, quoted in, Amanda Foreman, A World on Fire:  An Epic History of Two Nations Divided (London:  Allen Lane, 2010), p. 116.

[iii] Quoted in Jones, Blue and Gray Diplomacy, p. 83.

2 thoughts on “When it Wasn’t ‘Cool’ to be English in America: The Trent Affair, 1861-62

  1. When I was working for the National Archives of Scotland in 2007, we were distributing (not publishing) a pamphlet celebrating 200 years of the end of slavery in the UK. According to this “official” govt. document (!) slavery in the British Commonwealth officially ended in 1807. I was led to believe this contributed to the War of 1812 – the interception of US slave ships. Please correct me if I’m wrong!


    1. In 1807 Britain abolished the transatlantic slave trade (followed by the U.S. in 1808 well before War of 1812) not slavery itself. A somewhat effective enforcement of the ban did not happen until 1820. Slavery in the colonies (except some controlled by the East India Company) was abolished in 1833/34. Thus, the U.S. was behind the U.K. in this matter. Works by Kenneth Morgan and Seymour Drescher are the best on the subject. If you’re interested in the end of the trade and the ambiguities surrounding it, later this year myself and Simon Lewis are editing a collection of essays (including one by me on attempts to repeal the ban in thh U.S. in the 1850s) entitled Ambiguous Anniversary: A Bicentennial Inquiry into the Transatlantic Slave Trade Bans to be published in the Carolina Lowcountry Atlantic World Series at the University of South Carolina Press. Should appear here soon! http://www.sc.edu/uscpress/claw.html




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