In November 1861, the United States went to the brink of war with England.
It happened when Capt. Charles Wilkes of the Union warship USS San Jacinto learned that two southern diplomats, James Mason and John Slidell were aboard the British mail ship Trent out of Havana and headed for England, where they were to seek recognition for the Confederacy. Wilkes intercepted the Trent on Nov. 8, boarded her, and removed Mason and Slidell and their aides.
The British were irate, saying the diplomats were under British protection and the seizure was a violation of the freedom of the seas. (One must admit the irony of the situation in which Britain was almost ready to declare war on the United States for essentially one of the same reasons the U.S. had declared war on Britain in 1812.)
The crisis simmered for seven weeks. The transatlantic telegraph cable had failed in 1858 and was not yet restored, so it took a week for messages to go each way across the ocean. Britain sent troops to Canada, anticipating a clash. Northerners hailed Wilkes as a hero. Southerners hoped British anger over the incident would result in the same thing they were sent to achieve — British aid for the Confederacy.
Finally, the crisis was avoided when Lincoln had the diplomats released. However, no apology was issued, simply a statement that Wilkes had acted on his own, without orders.
The British let the lack of an apology slide and the tensions subsided.
Lecky Harper, editor of the Mount Vernon Democratic Banner, did not immediately praise or criticize the Lincoln administration, but in the Nov. 26 issue took a surprisingly balanced view of the event:
“This was certainly a daring proceeding on the part of Capt. Wilkes, and has made him quite a hero. If it should have the effect of defeating the schemes of the rebels, every friend of the Union will greatly rejoice. But we are apprehensive that instead of weakening the cause of Secession, it will only give it strength, and complicate and increase our present difficulties.