Great Britain Questions Federal Policy On The High Seas


     An over zealous Captain Wilkes commanding the United States sloop of war "San Jacinto" apparently without orders launched his government into a touchy affair with the British Crown. On November 8th, 1861, having secured the two Confederate agents Mason and Slidell along with their aides, he enjoyed for a moment the praise and accolades from Congress, and placed on a pedestal for his act of gallantry.

     The four individuals were first taken to Fortress Monroe and later locked up in Fort Warren in Boston Harbor. It was an outrage, and a stain upon the name of good diplomacy. International law on the high seas had been violated and Great Britain demanded their release.
     The Secretary of State, William H. Seward worked diligently to bind the wound now bestowed upon the two governments. Speaking through Charles Francis Adams, the U.S. Minister to Great Britain, the problem was trying to be rectified as quickly as possible. Why was the President having trouble sleeping at night since his naval officer acted on the initiative? News may have reached Lord Palmerston of the incident long before Minister Adams became privy to its details. The minister penned off a letter to the Secretary of State one-week after the Trent episode regarding a private meeting that Lord Palmerston had called upon him.

     On November 12th, Adams met with the Prime Minister and quickly learned of his urgent intent. The curious actions of the war ship John Adger having taken on provisions at South Hampton had since dropped down to the mouth of the river believed in expectation of a steamer from the West Indies carrying Confederate Agents Mason and Slidell aboard.

     It had been reported to his lordship that Captain John B. Marchand had gotten himself quite tight on the English Brandy and may have taken upon himself to commit such an act, which Palmerston found rather comical and yet rather embarrassing to his own flag. No doubt, in the British Prime Minister's humor was he asking for the Adam's promise that such occurrences not take place.
     Adams talked about his meeting with Captain Marchand in London previously. His orders as shown to him were that the Federal Government upon learning of these two Confederate agents, having sailed past the blockade, dispatched vessels to various corners of the globe to intercept and capture where ever she may be found on the open ocean. He could not ascertain where Lord Palmerston had obtained his information, however, knew that it was far more than just an assumption. At the time Captain Marchand was given the information that a steamer named "The Nashville" possessed the two men and he wished to make her a command prize.

     While the State Department was making apology to her Majesty Queen Victoria for the apprehension of both Mason and Slidell onboard the Trent, it appears that more than just the San Jacinto was in search of locking them in irons. In one hand, the Federal Government could not believe their own breach of International Law, while on the other it appears that the arrest aboard the Trent four days earlier was most certainly intentional.

Daniel Moran
© 2001

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