The Trent Crisis of 1861-2 and Author Phil Myers

by Brett Schulte on April 2, 2009 · 3 comments

I recently came across a very interesting Civil War forum topic on the Trent Affair and possible British military intervention  in the Civil War.  One of the main forum users, 67th Tigers, takes the position that British civilians overwhelmingly wanted war and goes on to present detailed British war plans both in the thread and at his own web site.  In fact, 67th Tigers just recently started his own blog, A Slightly Odd View of the American Civil War, partly in order to present some of his own research on the war.

The thread immediately made me ask what Phil Myers, author of Caution and Cooperation: The American Civil War in British-American Relations, might think of the conversation.  Phil was kind enough to prepare a detailed response, and he has agreed to its publication here in this blog entry:

Hi Brett,

Thanks for passing this thread on to me. I was fascinated by the erudition, and what I learned that I did not know about the movements of British troops. Many fine points were made that really informed me.

My take is as follows:

Anglo-American relations had enjoyed many decades of peace since 1815, and as in the Trent affair, these relations dissolved the potential for war to the great relief of British citizens and the American people.

The war scare tension was transitory and had burned away by the end of December 1861. Palmerston’s cabinet and its decision to deploy regulars to Canada was his posturing for the press in his public relations efforts to remain as prime minister. He postured often and to great effect. The deployment of troops was the forward arm of his decades old policy of deterrence toward North American affairs, which he preferred to keep quiet. Although Canadian historians would disagree with me, Seward actually consented to allow the regulars, that severe winter, to cross U.S. territory in northern Maine on the way to Quebec to establish their positions, which was consistent and an early example of his penchant for keeping the common frontier peaceful throughout the Civil War as the cooperation to quell the several Fenian invasions illustrated in 1866-1870 after the CW had ended.

Moreover, the British Liberal cabinet under Palmerston and Gladstone was, in large reluctant, to swerve away from balancing the budget since the Crimean War, which was symbolized by Military retrenchment. The British people were content with prosperity and opposed any swerve from the good times that Palmerston continually promised to them, were more interested in maintaining to keep the small Liberal majority (of less than twenty) in the House of Commons. In a similar way of not raising taxes, Pam postured against electoral reforms throughout his last government until his demise in October 1860.

Similarly, his cabinet was noninterventionist prior to and throughout, and after, the Civil War. Pam saw that there was no popular political consensus for a fighting conflict in North America or elsewhere. As one of the readers mentioned, the brutal Indian Mutiny of 1857, coming just before the CW, and Anglo-American tensions over RN interference with American slavers in 1858, which is generally recognized by historians as leading to possible war just before the CW, was gotten through as Pam backed down and ordered the RN to stop halting American ships. The degree to which this tension was evaporated by understanding diplomacy, which was templated in relations by now, was represented in the spring of 1862 by the Anglo-American anti-slave trade treaty, which was quickly embraced by the politicos of both governments.

Moreover, as a reader pointed out in the thread, the relations between Canada and Britain had been strained since the 1830s over Britain, led by John Russell and other Liberals in British govenments, Britain wanted the Canadians to create a popular self-ruling and self-defending government and act as an independent nation, an idea that the Canadian consistently resisted even in the first half of the Civil War. The purview of Palmerston’s ministers was to see Canada taking more responsibility for economics and national defense. Canada resisted both right up to and after the Dominion Act that centralized the government under a central rather than a conglomeration of provincial governments on 1 July 1871. Aa recently as April 1865, as Grant pressed Lee’s army to its doom, the Canadian Commissioners to London to discuss terms of dominion status was largely rebuffed by Gladstone, Edward Cardwell and other Liberals in terms of giving the Canadians funds to improve fortresses at Quebec and Montreal. So, let us not forget that the resolution to the Trent affair is as much a story of British-Canadian tensions, brewing over decades, as much as it is a story of Anglo-American tensions. In addition, the Civil War did little to cement definable British-Canadian relations to the extent that the Americans were ever worried during or after the CW that Britain was plotting with Canada to build a strong Canadian military force, backed by British arms, to invade the U.S. On the other hand, the U.S. did very little if anything during the war to counter any such policy. Britain’s and Canada’s (as in the example of the Trent affair) refusal to take advantage of the prolonged carnage continuing south of the common frontier is further illustration of the stability of British-American-Canadian relations during the nineteenth century.

Seen through these facts, I have to stick to my conclusion that the Trent affair, unless postholed into a few weeks in early December 1861 had little chance of starting a fighting conflict between Britain and the United States.The Milne papers show that the RN in North American waters did not want escalation, expecially in the dead of winter. The negative list for war far out weighs the positive. Lincoln, Palmerston, Seward and Russell were neither equipped or mentally capable of piling one potential war one top of another one. On the American side, the question mark that hung over Lincoln’s new government was paralleled by British confusion over the Union’s course in the CW or where it would ever end. Thus, in my opinion, ironically, The Trent affair can be interpreted as nonhistory in terms of breaking up traditional relations, including those with Canada, and the course that British-American relations took during the CW and the remainder of the nineteenth century and beyond.

Thanks again.

Phil Myers

If you have your own opinion of the Trent Affair or if you’d like to ask questions of Phil, we would love to hear from you!

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{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Phillip E. Myers April 14, 2009 at 7:14 am

I have to comment on my own analysis about the Trent affair above. Palmerston passed on on 18 October 1865 and not in 1860 as I erroneously stated in the blurb on the Trent.

Reply

Bryn Monnery May 8, 2009 at 7:15 am

Hi,

I’m curious to know where you read the Milne Papers, as the period in question was unpublished last I checked. Certainly Milne’s own comments on the matter and correspondence showed a desire to make his strike (around mid-January) as decisive as possible, destroying the USN in the opening operations.

As Kenneth Bourne notes, there was only one dissenter in Cabinet arguing against war with the Union in December 1861; the dissenter being Earl de Grey, the Under-secretary of State for War. He was the man responsible for writing British strategy, and considered the expense of the deployment of a large army to North America too costly. Over the Trent Crisis there was an unusual degree of political unity, which there wasn’t in any of the other interventionalist crisises (except maybe the October 1862 crisis).

Yours,
Bryn

Reply

admin May 9, 2009 at 7:22 am

Bryn,

Phil asked me to pass along the following:

Hi Brett,

Thanks for passing Bryn’s comments on. They were worthwhile. I read the Milne papers courtesy of John Beeler at Alabama who is editing the Milne papers. Volume One is out.

In looking at Britain’s international strategy at the time of the Trent to have gone to war would have debunked the contingencies and the consistency of Anglo-American policy since 1793. The most recent example before the CW was the refusal of both sides to fight over the British stopping slavers off Cuba that flew the American flag. Both sides backed down. quickly as they had done in a number of similar cases before. The Trent was only one more episode in the cycle. Moreover, we must not forget the rapprochement in relations throughout the 1850s and the astounding evidence of the victory of diplomacy, especially private diplomacy in settling affairs like the Trent for a number of decades leading up to the CW.

Furthermore, Palmerston quickly backed down from his initial statements to the cabinet, which were mainly aimed at bravado for the British press, which he often used to maintain his scanty majority in Parliament. We cannot forget that Pam’s main preoccupation was maintaining himself as prime minister. Moreover, the rage that the affair caused on both sides of the Atlantic was but transitory and by the second week in December 1862 both sides sought a peaceful solution and agreed that Wilkes had acted more as a rogue, as he was wont to do, for fame and pecuniary gain.

I doubt if Milne ever seriously considered aiming his cannons at the U.S. He was circumspect and peace-minded throughout the next few years of the war; and he coordinated well with his American counterparts. No doubt he would have followed orders but under duress given his nature but he would have hesitated for deterrence, which was Pam’s policy. I think that the real question was that the British did not want a war over so trivial an incident as the Trent and that imminent events proved that as relations turned friendly to the South’s disfavor by early January as attested by the treatment of the Confederate envoys once they arrived in Britain, and Pam’s and Russell’s refusal to cooperate with them.

Best,

Phil

Reply

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