On November 8, 1861, U.S. Navy Captain Charles Wilkes commanded the crew of the U.S.S. San Jacinto to intercept the British mail steamer Trent and arrest Confederate commissioners James M. Mason and John Slidell. En route to Europe to rally support for the Confederate cause, the two men and their secretaries were brought ashore and imprisoned at Fort Warren in Boston Harbor.
The seizure of Mason and Slidell sparked an international controversy that brought the United States to the brink of war with Great Britain. Claiming violation of international law, Britain demanded release of the commissioners and ordered troops to Canada to prepare for a potential Anglo-American conflict. To avoid a clash, Secretary of State William H. Seward apologized for the incident. The diplomats were released in early January 1862, bringing the Trent Affair to a peaceful close.
Captain Wilkes’ naval career continued, but only briefly. In 1864, the officer was court-martialed for disobedience, disrespect, insubordination, and conduct unbecoming an officer. Found guilty, Wilkes was publicly reprimanded and suspended for three years. Later, President Lincoln reduced the sentence to one year, and in 1866 the captain was commissioned a rear admiral on the retired list.
The Trent Affair and his court-martial often overshadow Wilkes’ early accomplishments as an explorer, navigator, and surveyor. From 1838 to 1842, Wilkes commanded the U.S. Surveying and Exploration Expedition departing from Norfolk, Virginia, to the Pacific Ocean and “South Seas.” The expedition’s stops included Madeira, the Cape Verde Islands, Tahiti, Sydney, Fiji, Hawaii, the Oregon coast, San Francisco, Manila, Borneo, Cape Town, and St. Helena. His voyage ended in 1842 in New York. Wilkes reported previously undocumented land and is credited as the first person to cite Antarctica as a separate continent.
- The Nineteenth Century in Print External contains a narrative of Wilkes’ expedition External.
- View images from Wilkes’ expedition External in American Indians of the Pacific Northwest External.
- Search on Charles Wilkes in the Abraham Lincoln Papers at the Library of Congress to read correspondence relating to Wilkes and the Trent Affair.
- Over 1,000 photographs related to the war, including images of military personnel, battle preparations, and battle after-effects, are available in Civil War Glass Negatives and Related Prints . Browse the subject index to locate photographs of interest to you.
- View Primary Documents in American History: Civil War and Reconstruction, 1860-1877 for links to materials for this era.