The War That Almost Happened

English: Charles Wilkes (1798–1877) was an Ame...
Charles Wilkes (1798–1877) was an American naval officer and explorer. He led the United States Exploring Expedition, 1838-1842 and commanded the American ship in the Trent Affair during the American Civil War. Several incidents caused him to be convicted of various offenses in two courts-martial. “Portrait of Rear Admiral Charles Wilkes, officer of the Federal Navy”. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


On December 3, 1861, Fourteen thousand British troops were sent to Canada on account of the Trent Affair. This is the middle of the story, though, so let me tell you what the Trent Affair was, and the result of it all.


All this happened at the beginning of the American Civil War.


Captain Charles Wilkes commanded the Union frigate San Jacinto. When he heard news of the (neutral) RMS Trent, British mail ship, was in American waters on November 8, 1861, he felt the need to react. Instead of ordering the ship to port to undergo legal proceedings to decide if England had violated the rules of neutrality, he took it upon himself to board the ship and remove two diplomats without orders from his government. He took them to Fort Warren, in Boston.


The two diplomats were James M. Mason, Commissioner to England and France, and John Slidell, commissioner to France. They were on a mission seeking support for the cause of Confederation. Wilkes knew of the gentlemen and their mission.


News of the illegal boarding did not reach England until three weeks later, when the Trent landed at Southhampton on November 27.


While Wilkes’ antics were so well received at home that he received a medal, the English felt the act was a flagrant violation of maritime law and that it was a matter of honour. The unauthorized seizure aroused such a storm of indignant protest that the English thought they had good reason to go to war with the Americans over this.


Lord Russell, British Foreign Secretary, penned a letter that quite strongly “demanded a disavowal on the part of the United States Government of Captain Wilkes’ action. An apology. Demanding the liberation of the Confederates envoys and restoration to British protection.” On November 30, the Cabinet approved his draft and sent it to Queen Victoria at Windsor Castle.


At this point in time, Queen Victoria’s husband, Prince Albert, was in very poor health. So much that he died a few weeks later, on December 14. Queen Victoria had no interest in politics, and she was quite distraught over her husband’s ill-health. Prince Albert, however, was deeply concerned with the Trent Affair. After lengthy discussions, Prince Albert re-worded the letter to the Americans with a softer tone. Lord Lyons delivered the British demands to the Americans.


Just a side note here: to this day, many British historians believe this was Prince Albert’s more important acts, and that he most probably is responsible for avoiding a war between the United States and Britain.


When the letter was received in the United States, Francis Adams, U.S. diplomat to England, was ordered to explain to the English that Wilkes had acted of his own accord. Meantime, Secretary of State William H. Seward studied the matter carefully — he knew that Wilkes’ conduct had been wrong. In a communiqué to England, Seward finally admitted the mistakes of Wilkes, reported the release of Mason and Slidell (which President Abraham Lincoln had ordered) and upheld the sanctity of of freedom of the seas. Once released they proceeded to Europe.


War with England was averted and navigation rights were maintained.


As long as I made this story, there are of course many things left out. I highly recommend reading more on this. Here are a few places to start you off:

“What might have been” by Paul Cuilliton at


“Trent Affair Crisis during the U.S. Civil War at


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