The Trent Affair was a diplomatic incident that occurred during the war. The USS San Jacinto commanded by Captain Charles Wilkes captured two Confederate diplomats who were sailing to England onboard the British mail ship Trent on November 8, 1861.
Captain Wilkes ordered his men to search the Trent and arrest James Mason and John Slidell the two Confederate agents. He then allowed the British ship to continue its journey to England.
At first the United States was in favor of the arrest. But then many of America’s leaders began to wonder how legal these arrests really were.
After all, Wilkes never had permission to arrest the two men. The Confederate states were hopeful that this event would damage the relationship between the Union and Great Britain.
They hoped it would make their relationship with Great Britain stronger. They hoped this incident would lead to recognition of the Confederacy as an independent country. If this were to happen it would dramatically increase their trade with foreign nations, allow foreign intervention and it would legitimize their cause.
Meanwhile, Great Britain was insulted over the fact that as a neutral nation one of her ships was stopped, searched and passengers were removed.
They wanted the two men released and an apology. During this time, the relationship between the United States and Great Britain became very strained, coming close to war themselves, even though both nations insisted they did not want war. In the end, Lincoln released Mason and Slidell.
He knew it wouldn’t be smart to have a powerful country such as Great Britain against the U.S.
England accepted the release of the prisoners and the incident quietly faded from public view.