On this day in 1861, Lord Lyons, the British minister to the United States, meets with Secretary of State William Seward concerning the fate of James Mason and John Slidell, Confederate envoys arrested by the U.S. Navy aboard the Trent, a British mail steamer. During the meeting, Lyons took a hard line against Seward and forced President Abraham Lincoln’s administration to release the Confederates a few days later.
The arrest of Mason and Slidell on November 8, 1861,near the Bahamas triggered a major diplomatic crisis between Britain and the United States. The British had not taken sides in the American Civil War and they accepted any paying customers wishing to travel on their ships. When Mason and Slidell were arrested, the British were furious that their ship had been detained and their guests taken into custody. The British government demanded their release. The Lincoln administration refused, and the Americans waited for the British reaction. The British stood firm by their demand and prepared for war with the United States.
After Lyons met with Seward, he wrote to Lord Russell, the British foreign minister: “I am so concerned that unless we give our friends here a good lesson this time, we shall have the same trouble with them again very soon. Surrender or war will have a very good effect on them.” The Lincoln administration got the message, and Mason and Slidell were released within a week. “One war at a time,” Lincoln said. The Trent affair was the most serious diplomatic crisis between the two nations during the Civil War.