The Trent Affair Comes to Boston

The Trent Affair.

For many Americans, the name probably rings a bell from high school history classes of yore. But do you really remember anything about this dusty relic of history? It was something to do with a politician’s extramarital relationship, right?

Well, no. The Trent Affair was an international incident that occurred during the Civil War when the United States seized two Confederate diplomats, dispatched by Jefferson Davis on a mission to generate support in Europe, aboard a British mail packet RMS Trent. (These days, we’d give the “Trent Affair” a much more memorable and descriptive name that wouldn’t confuse generations of high school students. Right? Eh, never mind, we all know in this day and age it would be lazily and breathlessly branded as “Trent-gate.”)

Political Cartoon of the Trent Affair, likely published in 1861/62

There is a strong Boston connection to the Trent Affair. After being captured by the Union on November 8, 1861, the two Confederate diplomats, James Mason and John Slidell, arrived at Fort Warren in the heart of Boston Harbor on November 24 to be incarcerated. Mason and Slidell arrived just weeks after the first Confederate prisoners set foot in the woefully unprepared granite garrison.

From Harper's Weekly, January 1862

The British, outraged that one of their ships had been boarded by Union troops, put their fleet on notice, and demanded that the two Confederate commissioners be released from Fort Warren. The British rattled sabers, and the crisis began to boil. Fearing a rift with the British, President Lincoln eventually acquiesced, releasing Mason and Slidell on New Year’s Day in 1862. The pair left Fort Warren on a tug bound for Provincetown to be transferred to a British man-of-war. Not exactly the Cuban Missile Crisis, but it was a tense period in American history to be sure.

This Friday, you can commemorate the 150th anniversary of the Trent Affair (OK, OK, let’s say “enjoy a day in the great outdoors”) on board a special Veterans Day cruise that will include a stop at historic Fort Warren. The special event will focus on the rich military history of the harbor islands, which defended the city from the Revolution through World War II. Veterans are free, and other participants will be charged a nominal $5, which is a great deal. All proceeds from this event will go directly to support the preparation of care packages to send to active duty soldiers serving overseas, particularly those in Troop #1173. Click here for more information.

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