THE U.S. NAVY STEAMER San Jacinto was a good ship, and her officers and crew had done outstanding service off the African coast. They had run down the Bonita and the Storm King. They had seen hundreds upon hundreds of naked men, women, and children shackled belowdecks. They had seen them dying. They had witnessed with their own eyes the holocaust of the Middle Passage.
When sixty-three-year-old U.S. Navy captain Charles Wilkes got his assignment to the San Jacinto in the early summer of 1861, she was still stationed on the African slave coast, and officials in the Navy Department did not trust her captain, the Virginian Thomas Aloysius Dornin, to sail her back to American waters. They didn’t want to run the risk that he’d hand her over to the Confederates. Apparently they did not share the same concern about Wilkes, but they made him travel, reluctantly and resentfully, all the way to Fernando Po, an island in the pestilential Bight of Benin, at the height of fever season to assume his new command.
Wilkes suspected that his superiors were trying to get rid of him—literally, to have him die. The motives of Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles were “diabolical,” he thought. West Africa truly was a fatal climate for white men. The famous British explorer Richard Francis Burton, who took over as British consul in Fernando Po that same year, reported that in a single epidemic 162 out of 278 Europeans on the island died. In the end, Wilkes did not get sick, but neither did he forget, and part of his search for glory in the months that followed was tied to his hope he could shame the men who’d sent him to Fernando Po.
Wilkes had once been very famous, but his days of reknown were decades behind him. As a young officer he had led the intrepid United States Exploring Expedition of surveyors and scientists who charted the waters around Antarctica and determined that it was, in fact, a huge continent. His chronicle of the adventure eventually became one of the most important scientific books of the time. (Bunch, whose mother’s family was distantly connected to Wilkes, had made a special point to try to buy a copy of his magnum opus in the 1850s, until he discovered how expensive it was.)
In 1861, under Wilkes’s command, the San Jacinto’s mission was to head back across the Atlantic to join the hunt for a Confederate commerce raider called Sumter that was capturing Union-flagged ships one after another in the waters around Cuba. But the Sumter’s captain, the increasingly famous Raphael Semmes, was a veteran of many commands in the U.S. Navy prior to secession, and he was far too smart for his pursuers.
By early November Wilkes had nothing to show for his months on patrol. But then he heard of another possible target—in some ways a very easy target—which he could not pass up.
The Confederate government had decided to upgrade its representation in Europe by sending two more of the South’s most well-known politicians. James Mason, the former U.S. senator from Virginia who had co-chaired the U.S. Senate investigation into the John Brown affair with Jefferson Davis, would go to London. Former Louisiana senator John Slidell, the Democratic Party operative and former éminence grise of the Buchanan administration, was destined for Paris. In Washington, Seward had learned that his old Senate colleagues were on the notorious Confederate blockade runner and privateer the Nashville and had ordered it intercepted, but the ships that were sent missed their chance, and the envoys made it safely to Havana, the first stage of their trip to Europe.
Wilkes, just then, was on the other side of Cuba at the port of Cienfuegos, where he saw a newspaper report that Slidell and Mason had arrived on the island. From the U.S. consul in Havana, a former naval officer named Robert Wilson Shufedlt, Wilkes learned that the commissioners would be traveling on the next leg of their trip to England aboard the British packet steamer Trent.
Wilkes liked to say that he had at least a passing personal acquaintance with Mason and Slidell and their wives. He had spent so much time in Washington, moving in the outer orbits of its tight social circles, that he might have encountered them on many occasions. He claimed he found Mrs. Slidell, née Deslonde, a very impressive woman. “She was a refined and well educated lady from New Orleans,” he recalled, and he liked to reminisce about passing “many pleasant evenings” at her home. But he was about to make their lives hell.
“It was a beautiful day and the sea quite smooth,” Wilkes wrote afterward. He had positioned his ship in the Old Bahama Channel just east of Havana. Maybe he’d caused some comment when he loaded extra stores of whiskey for the men he planned to capture and fine “eatables” for the ladies he expected to accompany them. Wilkes, after all, fancied himself quite the gentleman as well as an officer. But he told not one man on board the San Jacinto what he planned to do. Only when the smoke from the Trent appeared in the distance did he call his officers together and suddenly order several of them arrested on suspicion of Confederate sympathies, including the head of the contingent of U.S. Marines that was aboard. Wilkes said he knew that “at heart” they were rebels. The rest, he believed, would obey his orders.
Now the Trent was drawing closer, coming into range. Without warning, Wilkes fired two shots across her bow. Immediately she stopped, and boats lowered from the San Jacinto rowed to meet her. There was no fight. But in later years Wilkes loved to tell the story that Slidell had slipped out a window onto the half deck and might have planned to make a stand but was caught before he could do so. Slidell’s wife and daughters were beside themselves with rage. Amid the tears and screams one of them, a girl of sixteen, slapped First Lt. Donald McNeill Fairfax across the face. “Fairfax was a very good-looking fellow,” Wilkes said, “and the girls being pretty, it was a fair reward for his trouble of making the search to have taken a kiss.”
For two hours the boats conveyed the prisoners and their baggage from the Trent to the San Jacinto. But Mrs. Slidell and her children refused to go. The notes she wrote to her husband vented every French expletive that she could think of. Wilkes, making a show of his amusement, read them all and handed them to Slidell. Then Mason and Slidell and their secretaries proceeded to get drunk, according to the captain of the San Jacinto.
In Wilkes’s long account of the incident, dictated many years later, he tried to settle scores after the fact. If he had known what “an ignorant John Bull” the captain of the Trent was, he would have “given him a lesson he would long have remembered.” If he had had someone on board capable of commanding the vessel, he’d have taken the Trent as a prize. But he didn’t. He took the two men, and he took them off a ship full of passengers flying the British flag. And for what?
This would have been a dangerous moment in any case, but coming on top of all the tension created by the Bunch affair, the Trent incident suddenly made war between the Union and the Crown seem not only possible but inevitable.
“IS IT TRUE that Mason and Slidell have been taken from a British packet ship?” a clerk asked Judah P. Benjamin at their offices in Richmond, where he was now Confederate secretary of war.
“Yes, it is,” said Benjamin.
“Then, I am glad of it,” said the clerk.
“Why is that?” Benjamin asked him, apparently surprised and perhaps thinking of the conditions under which his friend John Slidell would now be held.
“Because it will bring the Eagle cowering to the feet of the Lion.”
Benjamin smiled. “Perhaps,” he said. “Perhaps it is the best thing that could have happened.”
IN WASHINGTON, THIS was a confrontation much closer to the brink than Seward—or Lincoln, certainly—had ever wanted. Lord Palmerston now readied British troops in Canada for war in earnest.
Madame Slidell, who had gone on to London after her husband was taken away, told the press and officials there that she believed Captain Wilkes had acted entirely on his own. But Palmerston was sure that this affront to the British flag was a calculated insult by the despised William Seward. He had Lord John Russell draft a note demanding an apology and the release of the diplomats. If no such action was taken within a week of receiving it, Britain would break off relations. The Queen’s military commanders in Canada were told that the departure of the British minister from Washington would be the signal for war, beginning with the British seizure of Portland, Maine. War between the Union and the Crown appeared at that moment both inevitable and imminent.
Before the ultimatum could be sent, however, it had to be read and approved by the palace. On other occasions this might have been largely a formality, and, indeed, in this case Queen Victoria had other priorities. She was giving a dinner party and did not want it interrupted. But Prince Albert, her beloved consort, begged off from the dinner, saying he felt ill. Feverish with the first symptoms of the typhoid that would kill him a few days later, Albert sat down at his desk to look at the ultimatum, and he did not like what he saw. Palmerston and Russell were giving Lincoln and Seward no way out. They would have to bend to Britain’s will, release Slidell and Mason, and apologize abjectly or face the greatest military power on earth.
For twenty years Albert had made the fight against slavery, and especially the slave trade, one of his important causes. He did not want to see the Crown tarnished by a war that might guarantee the continuation of slavery for generations to come. He deeply mistrusted Palmerston’s bellicosity and thought of Russell as something of a lightweight. He wanted the harshness of the language in the official note to be softened: “Her Majesty’s Government are unwilling to believe that the United States Government intended wantonly to put an insult upon this country….” The new wording left a way open for Seward to explain the incident as an accident, if only he would take it.