The Trent affair seemed to Great Britain like the climax of American arrogance[399]. The Confederate agents sent to Europe at the outbreak of the Civil War had accomplished little, and after seven months of waiting for a more favourable turn in foreign relations, President Davis determined to replace them by two "Special Commissioners of the Confederate States of America." These were James M. Mason of Virginia, for Great Britain, and John Slidell of Louisiana, for France. Their appointment indicated that the South had at last awakened to the need of a serious foreign policy. It was publicly and widely commented on by the Southern press, thereby arousing an excited apprehension in the North, almost as if the mere sending of two new men with instructions to secure recognition abroad were tantamount to the actual accomplishment of their object.

Mason and Slidell succeeded in running the blockade at Charleston on the night of October 12, 1861, on the Confederate steamer Theodora [400], and arrived at New Providence, Nassau, on the fourteenth, thence proceeded by the same vessel to Cardenas, Cuba, and from that point journeyed overland to Havana, arriving October 22. In the party there were, besides the two envoys, their secretaries, McFarland and Eustis, and the family of Slidell. On November 7 they sailed for the Danish island of St. Thomas, expecting thence to take a British steamer for Southampton. The vessel on which they left Havana was the British contract mail-packet Trent, whose captain had full knowledge of the diplomatic character of his passengers. About noon on November 8 the Trent was stopped in the Bahama Channel by the United States sloop of war, San Jacinto, Captain Wilkes commanding, by a shot across the bows, and a boarding party took from the Trent Mason and Slidell with their secretaries, transferred them to the San Jacinto, and proceeded to an American port. Protest was made both by the captain of the Trent and by Commander Williams, R.N., admiralty agent in charge of mails on board the ship[401]. The two envoys also declared that they would yield only to personal compulsion, whereupon hands were laid upon shoulders and coat collars, and, accepting this as the application of force, they were transferred to the San Jacinto's boats. The scene on the Trent, as described by all parties, both then and later, partakes of the nature of comic opera, yet was serious enough to the participants. In fact, the envoys, especially Slidell, were exultant in the conviction that the action of Wilkes would inevitably result in the early realization of the object of their journey - recognition of the South, at least by Great Britain[402]. Once on board the San Jacinto they were treated more like guests on a private yacht, having "seats at the captain's table," than as enemy prisoners on an American war-ship.

Captain Wilkes had acted without orders, and, indeed, even without any recent official information from Washington. He was returning from a cruise off the African coast, and had reached St. Thomas on October 10. A few days later, when off the south coat of Cuba, he had learned of the Confederate appointment of Mason and Slidell, and on the twenty-eighth, in Havana harbour, he heard that the Commissioners were to sail on the Trent. At once he conceived the idea of intercepting the Trent, exercising the right of search, and seizing the envoys, in spite of the alleged objections of his executive officer, Lieutenant Fairfax. The result was that quite without authority from the United States Navy Department, and solely upon his own responsibility, a challenge was addressed to Britain, the "mistress of the seas," certain to be accepted by that nation as an insult to national prestige and national pride not quietly to be suffered.