One of the greatest “what ifs” in human history involves the “Trent Affair” of the American Civil War. As you might know, the Confederate states were eager to get official recognition from European countries. This would not only give the Confederate states a huge prestige boost, it would also have given them access to loans of money, war materiel and possibly even troops to fight the Northern states. To help secure this recognition, the CSA dispatched James M. Mason of Virginia and John Slidell of Louisiana to Havana, Cuba, where they boarded the British ship R.M.S. Trent en route to meetings with British and French authorities respectively. However, on November 8, 1861 the Trent was boarded by sailors from the USS San Jacinto. The two Confederate diplomats were arrested and taken to Boston while the Trent was allowed to continue to Britain.
Not surprisingly, this action set off a firestorm of controversy in the United Kingdom. British Prime Minister Lord Palmerston is alleged to have begun an emergency cabinet meeting about the affair by throwing his hat on the table and declaring, “I don’t know whether you are going to stand this, but I’ll be damned if I do”. Public opinion in the UK tended to favor the South over the North in the conflict, and support for the Confederacy was even greater amongst the people that had the means of making their opinion count: the gentry and aristocracy. As you probably know, one of Britain’s key industries at this time was the export of cotton and wool fabric, and the overwhelming majority of the raw cotton sent through British looms came from the American South. Not surprisingly then, support for the Confederate states was nearly unanimous within this key British constituency. A letter was therefore quickly dispatched to the American Secretary of State demanding the release of the Confederate diplomats as well as an apology to Britain for this blatant disregard for maritime law. The British also began ramping up on war materiel such as boats, guns and ammunition, and they also began moving troops to areas where they could be quickly dispatched… to go to war against the United States.
As you might imagine, Palmerston’s letter put the Lincoln administration between a rock and a hard place. On the one hand, the war effort had been pretty dismal for the Union side thus far, and the capture of Mason and Slidell was one of the few positive things that happened for them in 1861. Letting the diplomats go would have been political suicide for Lincoln, especially in the early stages of the war when the Confederates were winning battles left and right. But on the other hand, Lincoln had to deal with the spectre of Britain’s military might being brought to bear against the United States. The Union was barely treading water in its war against the Confederate states… what would happen if the entire Royal Navy showed up off the east coast? What if the 50,000 British troops Lord Palmerston was hastily organizing landed in Virginia or North Carolina? Or what if those troops were landed in Canada instead and launched a southerly offensive towards New York? As it was, the Minister of Militia and Defence in Canada, John A. Macdonald (who, interestingly enough, would go on to become Canada’s first Prime Minister) was sufficiently alarmed by the whole affair that he ordered the doubling of Canadian militia from 50,000 to 100,000 troops, with Nova Scotia alone raising 45,000 troops ready and willing to invade the United States. And although the Trent Affair mainly involved the United States and the United Kingdom, France expressed a strong interest in joining Britain in going to war against the United States should Britain take that step. One wonders if President Lincoln was able to get any sleep at night knowing that the United States was not only at war with itself, but was on the threshold of going to war with the two of the mightiest empires in history.
As it turned out, he needn’t have worried. On December 27th, Secretary of State William H. Seward announced that the Confederates would be released… but also noted that Britain had apparently adopted America’s “neutral rights” policy – which was the primary cause of the War of 1812. Thus, the British got most of what they wanted (the Confederates freed), yet the Americans weren’t forced to apologize for the action. But still… the whole Trent Affair is sweet, sweet candy for historians. Had the Americans responded differently, or had the British not waited so long for an American response… the North American map might look quite different today.