New Brunswick History and Other Stuff

The Trent Affair

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The Trent Affair


Charles Wilkes, who seized the Trent in 1861

From the website ‘Civil War Talk’

The opening salvo of the American Civil War occurred on April 14, 1861, when Confederate forces captured Fort Sumter near Charlestown, South Carolina. Preparations for war then proceeded on both sides, and one of the first actions by the North was to declare a blockade of the Southern states to cut off their access to trade.

The North and the South both sought the support of European nations but this was not forthcoming for the Confederates. Prussia, Austria and Spain each absolutely refused to support the secessionists. Great Britain was in a difficult position, however, having important trading ties with both the North and the South. Cotton was a particularly important British import, and a decision as to what policy to take was required. Britain therefore decided to remain neutral in the Civil War and to continue their trade relations with both sides, particularly with the South.

Britain’s neutrality was an insult to the North, who saw it as a tacit alliance with the South. It also meant, of course, that Britain was routinely violating the blockade. The blockade-running business was very good because of shortages in the South, and Halifax thrived as southern traders and British blockade-runners bought everything that they could get their hands on for resale in the Confederate states.

William Seward, the American Secretary of State, was inclined to take actions against Britain as a way of diverting the national attention away from the developing conflict between North and South. Britain objected and gave notice that they would not be taken advantage of. Abraham Lincoln realized that nothing good could come from an international conflict at that time and that driving the British into the arms of the South would be counterproductive. Seward’s proposed actions were therefore dropped. Seward continued to believe that feelings of enmity against Britain would help to tie the nation together, however, and he instructed the states to fortify the eastern seaboard and the land borders from the Canadas to the Maritime Provinces.

Fort Sumter had been captured on April 14th, and all of these events had occurred when, on November 8, 1861, the U.S. ship San Jacinto, Charles Wilkes Captain, encountered the British ship Trent in the Bahamas and fired twice across her bow. The captain of the Trent, James, Moir, was then invited to board the San Jacinto for a conference, which he forcefully refused to do. The Americans then boarded the Trent and took away James Mason and John Slidell who were the Confederate ambassadors to Britain and France. News of this reached Halifax ten days later and opinion, which had been divided with regard to North versus South, swung decidedly against the North.

Reaction in the U.S. was very different. Some people regretted what had happened, but everyone was proud at having stood up against the British. Wilkes was banqueted, and praised in the press and by the Secretary of the Navy, and Congress passed a unanimous motion of thanks. Some Americans, including Abraham Lincoln, objected to what had been done and did not look forward to the prospect of war with Britain, but they were outnumbered by other voices.

By the end of November, Britain had passed a resolution demanding that Mason and Slidell be released within seven days and that an apology be made. Otherwise, they would withdraw their Ambassador from Washington. Warlike rhetoric escalated in Britain and Halifax and in the Canadas on the one side, and in American cities on the other.

By the end of December, 1861 Washington had agreed to the release of Mason and Slidell and, on the 27th, they were taken to a small port, away from the public eye, and loaded onto the British ship Rinaldo. Washington’s decision had come on day five of Britain’s seven day ultimatum.

Military preparations continued in Britain and in the northern colonies into 1862. Thousands of troops were dispatched to Quebec City, Halifax (5,000), Saint John and Saint Andrews. War ships were also dispatched to the Caribbean.

The 62nd Regiment landed at Saint Andrews on January 1st aboard the Delta and were transported to Canterbury, a small station near Woodstock at the end-of-line for the Saint Andrews and Quebec Railway. From there, they were to establish a route for themselves and for further troops out of Saint John to proceed to the Canadas. The movement from Saint John to Woodstock, and from Woodstock northward was by sleds through heavy snow. Houlton was to be taken in order to protect the route, if necessary.

The trip from Saint Andrews to Canterbury was more difficult than they had expected. One group left Saint Andrews by rail on January 1st, 1862 without food rations, expecting only a short trip, but soon came to a stop, mired in snow. After several hours the train was shortened, and tried again to force its way through the snow. That failed, so the engine abandoned the cars entirely and proceeded forward looking for assistance. It, however, also became stuck. By the next morning, still without food, the soldiers were scavenging along the track for fuel to keep their stoves burning, and it was not until that night that they were rescued by a snowplow and arrived at Canterbury.

Proceeding to Woodstock by sled, they found little food or lodging. Any available quarters were rented at huge expense, and the town of Woodstock thrived on all the money that the soldiers dropped.

Another group of troops landed in Saint John in mid-February, 1862. They left for Fredericton and Woodstock on the morning after their arrival, but only made it to Grand Bay before they were turned back by bitter cold, blizzard conditions, and heavy snow. They were prepared to try again on the next day but were warned off by a telegram from a scout, who reported the roads to be impassible. They finally made it to Fredericton after a two day trudge through the snow. Two days later they were in Woodstock, helping to support the local economy together with the Saint Andrews contingent. Onward they went, finally arriving in Riviere du Loup where they boarded the Intercolonial Railway.

It eventually became evident, however, that the Trent Affair was over. Mason and Slidell had been released and war had been avoided.

This blog posting is described as an ‘introduction,’ because there is very much more information available. The two references below are excellent, and you will be able to find other descriptions of the conflict online.


  1. George Johnson, The Trent Affair, in Report and Collections of the Nova Scotia Historical Society, volume 3, 1883, at
  2. Ken Homer, Winter Movement of British Troops Through the St. John River Valley, 1862, a paper presented at a meeting of the Carleton County Historical Society, January 25, 1985 at (David Bell and Ernest Clarke had been collecting information about troop movements through New Brunswick, and made some of this available to Ken Homer. Homer’s essay is an excellent resource and contains much more information than does this blog post.)

Written by johnwood1946

March 1, 2017 at 8:39 AM

Posted in Uncategorized

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