Lessons in Diplomacy: Reassessing the Trent Affair

Lessons in Diplomacy: Reassessing the Trent Affair

As the saber rattling and awkward gestures toward friends and foes alike continue to come from Washington, and the loose finger of the president drifts between Twitter and nuclear war with potentially Iran and North Korea, escaping to the diplomacy of the American Civil War provides a reminder that brinkmanship has its limitations. In the course of the Civil War, the United States and Great Britain engaged on a number of occasions in a violent war of words, but avoided escalation. Starting on November 8, 1861, the Lincoln administration faced its most dangerous foreign policy dilemma with the Trent affair.

Having forcibly removed two Confederate envoys from the British mail packet Trent in violation of international law, and having failed to take the vessel to a prize court for adjudication, the Union appeared on the verge of war with Great Britain in late 1861. The British government demanded the release of the envoys and a suitable apology. During Christmas cabinet meetings, Lincoln eventually agreed with his Secretary of State William Seward that the United States could not afford a war with Great Britain and must surrender the envoys.[1] The President’s and Secretary of State’s leadership are a reminder that offending ally and enemy alike are not the means to avoid conflict. However, interpretations of the Trent affair are in dire need of revision, especially the role of two of the leading figures: Secretary of State William H. Seward and British Prime Minister Lord John Palmerston.

When Lincoln made Seward his right-hand man in late 1860, Seward had quite a reputation in British political circles. In late 1840, as Governor of New York, Seward clashed for the first time with Lord Palmerston, who then was Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, over an incident that took place in November. On November 12, 1840, authorities in New York arrested Alexander McLeod for murder, arson, and his participation in the Canadian raid on the U.S. ship Caroline. Canadian rebels of the 1837 uprising had used the Caroline to escape to a Niagara River island. In a raid, British forces captured the ship, killed a crewman, and sent the burning vessel down Niagara Falls. Issues quickly escalated when the court set bond for McLeod, but a local mob threatened to lynch him. The U.S. government had to explain to their British counterparts that the U.S. Secretary of State could not intervene in the legal affairs of New York. Nevertheless, Palmerston threatened that if New York executed McLeod, Britain would avenge his death. Despite Seward’s unbending attitude, the case eventually resolved with McLeod’s acquittal. However, the British remembered the impulsive and Anglophobic New Yorker.[2]

A German satirical political caricature on the Trent affair. From “Der Fischer im Trüben [Fishing in Murky Waters].” Kladderadatsch (Berlin), December 29, 1861, 8.

When the newly minted secretary talked freely at Washington parties in early 1861, threatening war with Great Britain, France, or Spain to reunite the country, the British listened. Even his recent foray into Europe did little to change attitudes; many considered Seward a loose cannon.[3] When news of Charles Wilkes’ coup arrived in the United States, the country went into a fever pitch of euphoria. Wilkes’s capture of the envoys on the Trent was a much-needed success for the Union at the end of the first year of war. Some were glad, after the perceived premature British declaration of neutrality in May, that the Union had twisted the lion’s tail and given the British some of their own medicine. Early news from Great Britain indicated that the government contemplated a military reaction for the gross violation of British neutrality, international law, and maritime practices. In the end, Seward’s calm and realist demeanor in the cabinet meeting, where he argued that not to bent to British demands was suicidal, won the day.[4] This critical assessment of Seward illustrates the secretary’s realistic understanding of the interplay between domestic politics and foreign relations, avoiding war with Britain even though his background would have made him liable to use the opportunity offered to finally fight the former mother country.

However, Civil War diplomatic history continues to present the British side as willing to engage in war. A similar reassessment of Prime Minister Palmerston is therefore in order. He is often quoted for having said, “I don’t know whether you are going to stand this, but I’ll be damned if I do!”[5] This statement indicates to many historians that Palmerston was ready for war. Similarly, the British government’s dispatch of troops to defend Canada is often seen as war preparation. However, the troops were purely defensive in nature, based on the assumption that the United States might attack vulnerable Canada.[6] Therefore, a reinterpretation of the British policies requires a better and more nuanced understanding of Palmerston. He was pragmatic and realized that the size of the country’s military often prohibited intervention. Even more, he had changed after the Crimean War, an issue largely overlooked in the historiography.

Henry John Temple, 3rd Viscount Palmerston, by Francis Cruikshank. Courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery, London, UK.

Born in 1784, Palmerston assumed his first cabinet role in 1830 and served as Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs (1830-1834, 1835-1841, 1846-1851), Home Secretary (1852-1855), and Prime Minister (1855-1858, 1859-1865). During his stints in the Foreign Office, Britain intervened unofficially in the Portuguese dynastic quarrel of the 1830s, opened China in the First Opium War, liberally used the Royal Navy in the Don Pacifico Affair against Greece, and, the coup de grace, fought the Crimean War against Russia and the Arrow War against China.[7] Considering the volatile state of affairs in Europe during the late 1850s and early 1860s, Palmerston was uncommonly calm. Great Britain did not become directly involved in the Civil War, the wars of German or Italian unification, the religious conflict in Lebanon-Syria, or the Polish Insurrection. Tellingly, Confederates, Poles, and Danes assumed Britain would come to their aid during their respective crisis in the 1860s. Offered many opportunities to display that Britain remained the balancing power and mediator of European difficulties, Palmerston was extremely cautious, in dramatic contrast to his pre-Crimean War persona. Historians continue to see the Crimean War Palmerston when dealing with Civil War diplomacy, but he had changed. That war, its military failures, and lack of tangible results were a wakeup call for Palmerston. His alliance in Parliament was diverse and based on compromise, and there was a growing desire to avoid the expenses of war and not repeat the unsuccessful Crimean War. These issues, deeply ingrained in the political psychology of Great Britain, cautioned British policy makers during the 1860s away from risky foreign policy adventures with unforeseeable consequences.

The Trent affair in late 1861 is often seen as a moment where the United States and Great Britain teetered on the verge of war. However, the movement of troops to British Canada was defensive in nature, since Canadians were worrying the United States might finally follow through on its threats to expand northward. Where historians have debated Seward’s agenda and character to better understand his use of foreign policy bluster for domestic gain, Palmerston still lacks such a reevaluation. The British Prime Minister, who had guided Britain through the Crimean War, was more cautious and reluctant to use violence in the 1860s. A rethinking of Palmerston carries with it the need to reconsider aspects of Civil War foreign policy. Their calm and cautious leadership prevented global war in the 1860s, and one can only hope politicians take note of the past more frequently.


[1] Civil War diplomatic histories have covered the Trent affair from diplomatic history’s inception as a field in the 1920s. The most important works advancing the story are Norman B. Ferris, The Trent Affair: A Diplomatic Crisis (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1997) and Gordon H. Warren, Fountain of Discontent: The Trent Affair and Freedom of the Seas (Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1981). The most recent scholarly account comes in Howard Jones, Blue and Gray Diplomacy: A History of Union and Confederate Foreign Relations (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2010).

[2] Walter Stahr, Seward: Lincoln’s Indispensable Man (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2014), 76-80; Glyndon G. Van Deusen, William Henry Seward (New York: Oxford University Press, 1967), 77-79.

[3] Jones, 26-28.

[4] Warren, 26-43, 120-127, 177-184.

[5] Warren, 109.

[6] Sir George Cornewall Lewis to Lord John Palmerston, September 3, 1861, GC/LE/143/1-2 and Henry Pelham, Duke of Newcastle to Lord John Palmerston, May 25, 1861, GC/NE/86, Palmerston Papers, Broadlands Papers, University of Southampton, Southampton.

[7] David Brown, Palmerston: A Biography (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2012); David Brown, Palmerston and the Politics of Foreign Policy, 1846-55 (Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press, 2002); Kenneth Bourne, Palmerston, the Early Years, 1784-1841 (New York: Macmillan, 1982).

Niels Eichhorn

holds a Ph.D. in History from the University of Arkansas and has taught history courses at Middle Georgia State University and Central Georgia Technical College. He has published Liberty and Slavery: European Separatists, Southern Secession, and the American Civil War (LSU Press, 2019) and Atlantic History in the Nineteenth Century: Migration, Trade, Conflict, and Ideas (Palgrave, 2019). He is currently working with Duncan Campbell on The Civil War in the Age of Nationalism. He has published articles on Civil War diplomacy in Civil War History and American Nineteenth Century History. You can find more information on his personal website, and he can be contacted at eichhorn.niels@gmail.com.

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