On this day in 1861, Confederate diplomatic envoys James Mason and John Slidell are freed by President Abraham Lincoln's administration, heading off a possible war between the United States and Great Britain.
The two men were aboard the Trent, a British mail steamer, on November 8, 1861, when they were pulled over by the U.S.S. San Jacinto. They were headed to London to lobby for recognition of the Confederacy. The Union ship intercepted the English ship near the Bahamas, arrested the Southerners, and took them back to Boston. The British were outraged when word of the interception reached London in late November. They had not taken sides in the American Civil War and their policy was to accept any paying customer who wished to travel aboard their ships. The British government dispatched a message to the American government demanding the release of Mason and Slidell, along with an apology for the transgression of British rights on the high seas.
The British cabinet sent a message on December 1 insisting that the U.S. respond within a week. The British also began preparing for war, banning exports of war materials to the U.S. and sending 11,000 troops to Canada. Plans were made to attack the American fleet that was blockading the South. The British also planned a blockade of Northern ports.
Lincoln decided not to push the issue. On December 26, he ordered the envoys released and averted a war with England in the process. The incident gave the Confederates hope that there was support for their cause in Britain, but it also demonstrated how hard the Union would work to avoid conflict with Britain.