Bill Bennett

On 8 November 1861, Captain Charles Wilkes intercepted a British mail steamer, the Trent. Instead of hauling the ship, passengers, and crew before a federal magistrate for adjudication, Wilkes took it upon himself to arrest two Confederate diplomats—former U.S. Senators James Mason and John Slidell—and their secretaries. Then he allowed the Trent to proceed. Wilkes clapped the men into prison in Boston and was hailed throughout the North as a hero. After the humiliation of Manassas, the Northern public yearned for a victory. Congress even struck a medal to commend Captain Wilkes for his timely snatch.

The British Parliament and public were outraged. Wilkes’s bold action was an insult to the British flag. All the jingoes of the British popular press (those “penny dreadfuls”) were beating the drums for war with the impudent Yankees. Henry John Temple, Lord Palmerston, the aggressive prime minister, was infuriated. He told his cabinet: “You may stand for this, but damned if I will.” Richard Cobden, a British friend of America, wrote that “three fourths of the House [of Commons] will be glad to find an excuse for voting for the dismemberment of the Great Republic.” The British upper classes hardly needed an excuse to vent their hostility to democracy. The Times of London spoke for the ruling aristocracy when it yearned openly for the downfall of the Union: “[It would be] good riddance of a nightmare. . . . Excepting a few gentlemen of Republican tendencies, we all expect, we nearly all wish, success to the Confederate cause.”

Fortunately for the United States, the newly laid transatlantic cable had gone dead. Thus, there were necessary delays in communication across the ocean. Even so, the British cabinet increased the size of their Canadian garrison, adding another 14,000 redcoats to their force of just 6,400. The British even beefed up their North American naval squadron. War with the United States loomed.

Secretary of State Seward had just a few months earlier recommended to Lincoln a war against all the major European powers as a way to unite the bitterly divided Americans against a common foe. Lincoln had politely dismissed Seward’s plan to “wrap the world in flames” then. And now, he cautioned Seward: “One war at a time.”

Bill Bennett

Bill Bennett is the author of Our Country's Founders .

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