On 8 November 1861, the USS San Jacinto approached the British steamer Trent in the Bahama Channel, between the Bahamas and Cuba. Though Trent was clearly flying the Union Jack, Captain Charles Wilkes, of the United States Navy, ordered a shot fired across her bow. Trent’s captain ordered his ship to come to.
An American party went aboard and found the men Wilkes was looking for: Confederate ambassadors John Slidell and James Murray Mason.
Wilkes took Slidell and Mason prisoner and brought them back to the San Jacinto. Thus began the Trent Affair, an international diplomatic crisis that threatened to bring the United States and Britain to war for the third time in 80 years.
When word of the San Jacinto’s interception of Trent reached London in late November, war fever gripped Britain. Much of the British press and public was outraged and demanded retribution.
The belligerence was matched in the US. Ambassador Lyons reported from Washington that the American press was positively gloating at the violation of British sovereignty.
The Palmerston government, however, was not at first so bellicose. In fact, given past British insistence on the rights of belligerents to intercept neutrals (an American casus belli in 1812, when it declared war on Great Britain over British violations of US maritime rights), Palmerston might have had no choice but to accept the action.
The Crown’s legal offices eventually decided that, while the interception of Trent was probably legal, boarding her certainly was not. On 29 November, therefore, Palmerston sent an ultimatum to Washington demanding the release of Ambassador Slidell and Mason, disavowal of Captain Wilkes’ actions, and an apology.
While London awaited a response, the British geared up for war. Palmerston was reluctant to ask Parliament for the funds to send an entire army to North America. Doing so would have been enormously expensive and hazardous – as historical experience had shown.
In 1775, the Royal Navy had evacuated the British Army from besieged Boston. In 1776, it had landed a force of 25,000 men in New York, and the next year landed another army at the head of Chesapeake Bay, from where it marched on and took Philadelphia.
In 1780, the Royal Navy had landed an army at Charleston, South Carolina, beginning the long Southern Campaign of the American Revolution.
Only the arrival of the French Fleet in 1781 prevented the Royal Navy from evacuating General Charles Cornwallis and his army from Yorktown, the decisive battle of the war.
In 1814, the Royal Navy had sailed up the Potomac River and landed a force at Washington DC which sacked the city. Later in the war, it had landed a force at New Orleans, which General Andrew Jackson defeated, allowing the United States to save some face in an otherwise disastrous war.
Two thousand miles of coastline had been impossible for the small US Army and Navy to defend in both the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812. This, however, was not the end of the matter.
The military challenge
Britain had faced several handicaps in both her American wars. During the American Revolution, the Royal Navy had suffered a manpower shortage as about a quarter of her ships’ crews came from the great American seaports. Also, British shipbuilders often used American lumber, and especially liked tall American trees for masts.
The Americans were every bit as much a seafaring people as their British cousins, and in 1812 had outfitted privateers to accost Britain’s merchant marine. Privateers like Hornet, Wasp, and Enterprise were so successful that their names were commemorated and passed down through generations of United States Navy ships. American aircraft-carriers were given the names Hornet, Wasp, and Enterprise during the Second World War, and Enterprise also became the name of a Space Shuttle prototype and, of course, the most famous starship in fiction.
In the aftermath of the War of 1812, the United States government invested heavily in harbour defences. Portland, Maine – the closest major port to Canada – was defended by two fortresses, one at the harbour point and another on an island at the harbour entrance.
Boston boasted a shallow bay with several islands and three forts covering the approaches to the city proper. New York City was defended by Fort Columbus on Governors Island at the entrance to the East River, Fort Gibson on Ellis Island before the Hudson River, and the Battery at the tip of Manhattan Island.
During the Civil War, Washington DC was ringed by forts and defended by its own army, separate from the Army of the Potomac campaigning in Virginia.
The North American Station
The Royal Navy was dependent on bases in Canada and the Caribbean. Its North American Station had two main ports: Halifax in Canada and Bermuda.
Halifax had strong defences, with a small redoubt in the harbour, a fort guarding its entrance, and another standing high on the bluffs overlooking the harbour and city, from which plunging fire could be directed at enemy vessels.
Most importantly, Halifax was well provisioned by Canadian coalmines, making it an excellent base for the Royal Navy’s vast fleet of steamers. Halifax served as the North American Station’s summer headquarters.
On the other hand, the Canadians faced the same problem as the French had during the Seven Years War (known in North America as the French and Indian War): the border was long and indefensible, and on the other side lay a much more populous, hostile power.
Bermuda was the North American Station’s winter headquarters. The island had a garrison of nearly 1,500 men and an impressive 206 guns. A fort stood watch over the dockyard. The northern approach to the island was choked with reefs and any ships attempting to enter the port needed an experienced harbour pilot.
But the southern tier of the island was reef-free and virtually defenceless. The British authorities there were deeply suspicious of the local population, which included a penal colony filled with Irish rebels. The Crown could hardly count on them to defend the island.
Additionally, many of Bermuda’s inhabitants had close relatives in the nearby United States, on which the island depended for trade. Bermuda was an important British base but also quite vulnerable.
The Admiralty perspective
In 1860, the British Admiralty appointed Admiral Sir Alexander Milne to command the North American Station.
Milne represented the very best of the Royal Navy at the time. He was born in 1806 of a prestigious naval family. His father, Sir David Milne, was a well-respected admiral.
Milne the younger served aboard several ships on the North American Station and skippered ships in the anti-slavery patrols in the West Indies. He was also something of a reformer, insisting on regular uniforms for seamen and inventing the good conduct badge for merit.
His most recent assignment of note had been commanding the Transport Service during the Crimean War. When he took command of the North American Station, Milne toured all ports from Halifax down to the Caribbean.
When the Civil War began in 1861, Palmerston and the Admiralty were wary of American intentions and reinforced the North American Station with several battleships and frigates. While the Palmerston Ministry gave Milne the resources needed to defend the North American Station, its policy was one of strict neutrality toward the Union and the Confederacy. Milne was to zealously guard British interests and show the flag at sea, but he was to do nothing to antagonise the Americans.
There was much potential for trouble. The United States Navy maintained a blockade from the Chesapeake, down to Florida, and across the Gulf of Mexico, with concentrations of ships off ports still held by the Confederates. By late 1861, Confederate ships were already running the blockade and preying on Union shipping.
Concerning the conduct of a potential war, Admiral Milne corresponded regularly with the Canadian premier John Macdonald and with Field Marshal John Burgoyne, Inspector of Fortifications in the Canadas.
On land, Britain would fight a defensive war. As the Trent Affair unfolded, the Palmerston Ministry rushed 10,000 men across the Atlantic. (The Ministry did not send any Irish units, as Palmerston doubted they would be willing to fight their American brethren.)
These troops joined the few thousand British troops already there and the nascent Canadian militia, which in theory numbered 100,000 men but was desperately short of rifles and ammunition. These might launch a spoiling attack against Portland, Maine, and perhaps mount raids on American ports on the Great Lakes.
But these efforts would only buy time for Britain and Canada – mere delaying actions as the United States gathered its awesome strength and sent an army north. Other than an effort against Maine, the British authorities had no intention whatsoever of landing on the American coast or marching a large army into the United States. They simply had not the manpower nor resources to directly confront on its own territory an industrial powerhouse of 21 million people.
The very heart of America’s industry lay just across the border in New England, New York, Pennsylvania, and the Middle West. These were the backbone of the Union, a belt of Upper North states that raised hundreds of regiments and sent hundreds of thousands of men to fight in the Union armies.
In a conflict with Great Britain, the United States could have raised new armies and gathered them in the Champlain River Valley opposite Quebec, and at Sault Ste Marie opposite Ontario. The United States could invade and occupy Canada if it chose to. Britain could delay but never stop an American invasion.
The maritime balance
On the other hand, Britain might win a war at sea. Here the Royal Navy had a tremendous advantage over the United States Navy. When the Trent Affair began, Admiral Milne had 42 ships on the North American Station including eight battleships and 13 frigates, boasting 1,319 guns and more than 15,551 sailors in all. Another force of eight vessels waited at Gibraltar, to be called on if needed. Across the world, the Royal Navy had 339 ships in all. These were almost all proper naval warships, some of them the most advanced in the world.
The most recent addition to the Royal Navy was HMS Warrior. She was a state-of- the-art steam ironclad equipped with 73 guns and capable of 14.5 knots. Warrior was the pride of the Royal Navy and easily the equivalent of a Great War-era Dreadnought or a Second World War aircraft-carrier.
Under construction at the time was HMS Defence, a new class of ironclad steam-ram armed with 14 rifled guns and capable of 11 knots. Several sister-ships of the Defence were also under construction or planned. The Royal Navy also had older, though still powerful, wooden steamers like the flagship HMS Duke of Wellington (130 guns) and HMS Trafalgar (120 guns). In 1862, Britannia truly did rule the waves.
Contesting the seas was the United States Navy, in late 1861 numbering 264 vessels. Though the USN outnumbered Milne’s North America Squadron, it was composed almost entirely of converted merchantmen.
Milne and the Admiralty felt confident the North America Squadron could sweep the seas free of American ships in short order. In case of war, Milne planned to form his fleet into five or six squadrons. These would attack the United States Navy where found, and lift the blockade of the Confederacy. Milne would then establish his own blockade, concentrating on important points along the coast.
He would seize Martha’s Vineyard and make use of its small harbours to rest and replenish his ships. Other than that, Milne had no plans to attack American territory directly. In fact, he was steadfastly against the idea. From Portland in Maine down to Fortress Monroe in Virginia, American harbours were well defended and, in the case of Boston, perilous to navigate.
Interestingly, Milne felt that the State of Maine, with close economic and family ties to Canada (thousands of Quebecois lived in the state), might be persuaded to leave the Union. This notion is not as far-fetched as it seems today. As the War of 1812 dragged on, with disastrous effects on Yankee commerce, New England had openly threatened to secede.
Milne strongly considered a combined attack on the state, with British troops coming down from Quebec and New Brunswick in conjunction with an amphibious assault on Portland. Taking Portland would have given the Royal Navy a buffer between America and Canada’s maritime provinces, and would have greatly facilitated naval operations against the East Coast.
A British alliance with the confederacy?
Milne, the Admiralty, and the Palmerston Ministry had also to consider coordinating with the Confederacy. But this was far from straightforward in terms of British domestic politics.
The organised working class and the more liberal sections of the middle class were firmly abolitionist, and therefore pro-Union. It was the British upper classes, including Palmerston, and especially the industrial and mercantile bourgeoisie, who resented the Union blockade and favoured the Confederacy.
Britain had long waged an anti-slavery war at sea, and no one in the government wanted to be seen condoning, much less taking up arms in defence of, Confederate slavery. But with Spain’s Havana Squadron operating in the Gulf of Mexico it would be inevitable that Royal Navy ships would have to dock at Confederate ports and interact with and even operate alongside Confederate ships. In fact, the Duke of Somerset, First Lord of the Admiralty, openly advocated the use of Confederate ports.
That said, had Palmerston wanted to do serious long- term damage to the United States, an attack on New York would have been the best means to do so.
New York linked the New World with the Old. From Europe, goods and people came to New York and sailed up the Hudson River to Albany. Here merchant ships entered the Erie Canal and sailed west to the Great Lakes. From the Lakes, goods could float to a dozen major American cities (such as Chicago) or down the Mississippi River, which linked up with the Ohio river to the east and the Missouri River flowing from the Great Plains.
Had he wanted to, Milne could have battered New York’s considerable defences into submission and sailed up the Hudson River, which was wide and deep all the way to Albany, burning countless river towns as he went.
As the crisis simmered, on Christmas Day President Lincoln convened the cabinet to discuss Palmerston’s ultimatum. Ambassador Charles F Adams in London, as well as American envoys in other British cities, reported the bellicose mood of the more jingoistic section of the British public.
While some in the State Department hoped for diplomatic and military assistance from France, envoys on the Continent reported that governmental and public opinion was staunchly against the United States. During the meeting, while no decision had been made, Lincoln and his Cabinet, particularly Secretary of State William Seward, concluded that acquiescing to Palmerston’s not unreasonable demands was better than war.
The United States apologised to the British, disavowed Captain Wilkes’ actions, and sent the Confederate ambassadors on their way. Thus, the English-speaking peoples avoided a disastrous third war – with grand repercussions for the next century. •
William Stroock lives in New Jersey with his wife and three daughters. He is a former history professor and author of more than a dozen novels, including the ‘World War 1990’ alternative history series imagining war between the US and the USSR.
All images: Wikimedia Commons.