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In November 1861, Union Naval Captain Charles Wilkes seized the Trent, a British mailing ship, because it was transporting two Confederate diplomats, John Slidell and James Mason. Wilkes captured the two Confederate representatives due to what he considered were treasonous actions against the Union, but he did so without any orders from the Union government. Under a proclamation issued by the Queen of Britain at the start of the Civil War, Britain recognized the Confederacy as a belligerent and was not supposed to transport the dispatches of Slidell and Mason because international law considered them contraband. Yet, by acknowledging the Confederacy as belligerent, Britain stated that the Union and the Confederacy would be given equal treatment in British ports. Confederate ships could obtain necessary supplies from British ports to aid them in fighting Union ships. Northerners expected British support and were dismayed by the British acknowledgement of the Confederacy. The Trent Affair escalated the already unpopular opinion towards Britain held by the Union public due to the Queen’s Proclamation. The Union publicly celebrated the actions of Wilkes as the first naval success against the Confederacy. Newspapers depicted the British as trying to take away the victory and, as a result, helping facilitate negotiations with the Confederates. Union citizens did not want to concede to British demands to give up the rebels. Northerners felt that if Britain wanted to go to war over the Trent Affair, then they would mobilize for such a conflict. The Lincoln administration did not want to give any indication to the Confederacy that the British could have their way with the Union, for that would just inspire the Confederacy to strive for British support. President Lincoln dealt with the public pressure, while also receiving correspondence from government officials. However, the advice Lincoln received urged him to concede to Britain’s demands, which went against the public’s wish to fight Britain. By adhering to British demands concerning the Trent Affair, Lincoln sacrificed public opinion for his decision to maintain peaceful relations with Britain. Lincoln had the greater goal of reunifying the United States and he did not want to hinder reunification by expanding the war internationally.


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