The India Factor in the Civil War

I’ve often heard speculation on how the South could have won the Civil War.  Usually the proposition was that had one battle or another turned out differently, a tactical win could have led to a Confederate victory. 

The Union officer who put things at risk was Captain Charles Wilkes of the USS San Jacinto. The beginning of the story begins The Trent Affair: Diplomacy, Britain, and the American Civil War is copied here:

“In 1861, Charles Francis Adams served as the U.S. Minister (today’s version of an Ambassador) to the United Kingdom. On November 12th, Adams received a surprising request for a private meeting from the British Prime Minister, Lord Palmerston.

94 Piccadilly, 12 Nov., 1861

My Dear Sir,

I should be very glad to have a few minutes conversation with you; could you without inconvenience call upon me here today at any time between one and two.

Yrs faithfully


Adams usually met with his British counterpart, Foreign Secretary Earl Russell. A summons from the Prime Minister himself was out of the ordinary–and worrisome.

When Adams arrived at the meeting, the Prime Minister got straight to business.

Prime Minister Palmsteron told Adams that an American captain had gotten “gloriously drunk on brandy” in Southampton, England. He was bragging about his plans to capture some diplomats coming to represent the Confederate States of America.

The British government knew what the Confederates wanted–formal recognition of the Confederate states as free and independent from the United States.

Adams later noted in his diary that Palmerston had been “cordial” and did not say whether this interception was legal. But, he did warn Adams to let the U.S. government know that any interception would probably not “lead to any good.”

Unbeknownst to Palmerston and Adams, a different U.S. captain had already seized the two Confederate diplomats four days earlier.

On November 8th, Captain Charles Wilkes of the USS San Jacinto captured James Murray Mason and John Slidell, taking them from the British mail steamer Trent, off the coast of Cuba.  .   .

Even though the Trent was clearly a British ship, the USS San Jacinto had fired two shots across the bow. Under the command of U.S. Captain Charles Wilkes, the Americans boarded the Trent and captured Mason and Slidell before allowing the vessel to continue its journey.”

Drawing of the San Jacinto intercepting the Trent.

Captain Wilkes then took Mason and Slidell to Fort Warren in Boston Harbor, where he was given a hero’s welcome.  Wilkes was the guest of honor at many celebratory dinners, where he regaled guests with stories of the capture. The British envoy to Washington, D.C., Lord Richard Lyons, reported these celebrations back to Britain. He also repeated a rumor that Wilkes acted under orders from Secretary Seward to seize the diplomats without President Lincoln’s knowledge.

Tensions Rise in Britain; War Rumors Spread

The British were furious at the United States for blatantly disrespecting their sovereignty. Prime Minister Palmerston and Foreign Secretary Earl Russell erupted in a fury at a cabinet meeting. Palmerston shouted, “I don’t know whether you are going to stand this, but I’ll be damned if I do!”

All Charles Francis Adams could do was send letters to Secretary Seward, letting him know of the hot temperature in London. Unable to speak on behalf of the U.S. government without instructions from Seward, Adams could only wait, watch, and avoid meetings with Lord Russell.

In Britain, there was even talk of going to war with the United States. The news was so alarming that Prince Albert, Queen Victoria’s husband, who was deathly ill from typhoid, rose from his bed to help write diplomatic instructions to Lord Lyons.

Photo of Prince Albert. Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha, Queen Victoria’s husband, did not have the authority to craft or implement domestic and foreign policy. But, the British government often relied on his judicious advice. Palmerston and Russell’s original note to the United States contained fiery language; yet Albert persuaded them to soften the tone, giving Lincoln and Seward a chance to rectify the situation. Albert reminded them that Charles Francis Adams had assured the British that Wilkes had acted without official orders from the U.S. government. Albert died on December 14, 1861, without knowing the outcome of the crisis he had helped diffuse. Photo courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery.

Once the instructions arrived in mid-December, Lyons told Seward that the United States owed Great Britain a formal apology. They were to release Mason and Slidell at once into British custody. Lyons’ demands aligned with the tensions Adams had described in his letters, noting that the British had already sent thousands of troops to Halifax, Canada.

The threat of military action worried President Lincoln and Secretary Seward, but perhaps more worrisome was its economic impact. U.S. bond values were dropping, and British investment firms were halting their American operations. In response, Americans began to cash out their U.S. bonds, jeopardizing the government’s ability to fund the war effort.

The U.S. leaders needed to defuse this diplomatic crisis quickly. They needed to appease the British without admitting their capture of the Confederates on foreign ships was illegal.

Lyons had given Seward seven days to respond to their demands. As the days ticked by in December, Seward stalled Lyons as long as possible.

An Emergency Christmas Cabinet Meeting

On December 25, Christmas Day,  President Lincoln called an emergency Cabinet meeting. Secretary Seward presented his 26-page response to the British for the cabinet’s approval. In his response, Seward was careful not to apologize. Instead, he carefully laid out the United States’ position:

  1. Wilkes did not act under official orders from the U.S. government.
  2. Wilkes had the legal right to stop the Trent and search it.
  3. What Wilkes did wrong was fail to escort Mason and Slidell and the Trent to a neutral port for arbitration.

As for the Confederate agents, Seward cleverly downplayed their importance almost with a casual shrug. He called them “pretend” diplomats dispatched by a “pretend” President Jefferson Davis. The United States, he concluded, would “cheerfully” turn them over.

Lincoln’s 1861 Cabinet from left to right: President Abraham Lincoln, Secretary of the Treasury Salmon P. Chase, Secretary of State William H. Seward, Postmaster General Montgomery Blair, Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles, Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton; Secretary of the Interior Caleb Smith, Attorney General Edward Bates. Photo courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution.

Lyons accepted the diplomatic overture on behalf of the British government. On January 3, 1862, Mason and Slidell departed for England.

Diplomacy, pragmatic leadership, and lengthy communication periods helped avert the crisis. A week later, Adams learned about the outcome, but he was only slightly relieved. As the Minister, he would continue to advocate for the United States and discourage the British from recognizing the Confederacy.”

Historians tell me that this solution to the Trent Affair was significant because the US Navy was able to blockade Confederate ports with virtual impunity because Great Britain remained neutral and didn’t involve its own larger navy.  It’s possible that they are right . . . but blackpowder gets its energy from Potassium Nitrate – saltpeter.  We all know that the Union was the industrial powerhouse – but the Confederacy had the saltpeter mines.  Virtually all of the Union gunpowder was made with saltpeter imported from British India.  Prince Albert may have done more to contribute to the Union victory than is recognized.

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