if the Trent Affair led to war?
One of life’s little ironies is that the worst
Alternate History book I ever read was the one that started my interest in
Alternate History and led, indirectly, to starting the magazine.
Stars and Stripes Forever, a novel of Britain joining the American Civil
war, somehow accidentally attacking the south as well, launching a land
invasion, Americans reunite to fight the new invaders, etc.
Oh come on, Harry [Harrison], you can do better than this!
That said, the Trent affair is a valid POD for the American Civil war. Given that Britain is the premiere navel power at the time, and perceived as the most powerful nation in the world, how would a war develop? What would happen? Who would win?
The American Civil war had been raging, and Britain had
declared neutrality. However, the
South was desperate for diplomatic recognition and assistance, including war
supplies and direct armed assistance.
On Nov. 8, 1861, the British mail packet Trent,
carrying James M. Mason and John Slidell, Confederate commissioners to London
and Paris, was halted in the Bahamas Channel by the U.S. warship San Jacinto,
commanded by Capt. Charles Wilkes. After some argument, the commissioners and
their secretaries were forcibly removed from the Trent and taken to
Boston, where they were interned in Fort Warren.
Their documents, however, were left aboard the Trent and conveyed
to London. This act was strictly
opposed to the laws of the sea as they had been previously upheld by the United
States, since Wilkes did not seize the vessel and bring it in for admiralty
adjudication but merely exercised search and seizure of the men.
Given that the British and Americans had already fought one war over this
right, the War of 1812, the British had every right to fell a little annoyed.
1. Britain is the main navel power in the world. The incident is seen as a direct insult to that.
2. British merchants have been clamoring to supply the confederacy, seeing quick profits.
3. They have also been complaining about the Northern blockade, saying that it is illegal and is interfering with British trade
4. Britain may benefit from a southern victory, as it will weaken the USA.
5. Britain’s main North American procession, Canada, does not trust the USA, but is very weak and practically defenseless
6. Britain’s Navy is stronger than the USA’s, except perhaps the new ironclads. However, those cannot travel on the open sea.
7. France wants to get reparations from Mexico and hopes for British assistance. The USA is concerned about this, and has sent a sharp note to the French, but the Civil War is absorbing its attention.
8. The CSA is not always well liked in Britain, it’s a slave nation and its cotton, while important, is threatening Indian cotton.
9. It’s practically impossible for Britain to win much in a conflict. The best they can hope for is CSA independence (and hopefully gratitude) and some additional territories for Canada.
Points of Divergence:
The early death of Prince Albert notwithstanding, the only POD I can think of is the Trent affair itself. If it were nastier, Britain would be even unhappier and might not stop to think the whole conflict though. Ok, the Trent affair happens on schedule, but the US boarding party causes a fight on board and kills some of the ships passengers and crew. The US captain decides to retreat with his captives as fast a possible and the Trent limps back home to Blighty (naval slang for Britain). When it arrives is causes an uproar.
The British government is furious and issues a sharp note
to the US demanding:
1. The immediate return of the CSA representives
2. The handing over of Captain Wilkes and his crew to face British justice
3. A vast sum of money in compensation
A groveling apology
While those demands are en route, the British send orders
for the fleet in the Americas’ to gather together and prepare for action, send
reinforcements to Canada, with instructions to start an immediate defense
building program, and start thinking about an invasion.
However, that concept is swiftly discarded and the newly formed war
cabinet decides to:
1. Launch a navel attack and destroy the American blockade of the CSA
2. Destroy the American merchant navy
3. Defend Canada
4. Give limited help to the CSA
Some British warhawks want to launch an invasion of the
USA, or at least replay the burning of Washington, but they are shouted down.
Britain may well be unable to defend Canada; they certainly can’t
consider a full invasion!
Meanwhile in America, Captain Wilkes is being feted as a
hero. He has committed an act
similar to the ones the British did that, in popular mind, sparked off the War
of 1812, and given the British a taste of their own medicine. President Lincoln, however, turned pale when he heard the
news. The idiot captain, he
informed his senate and congress, had single-handedly provoked a war with the
most powerful nation on earth. Lincoln
was worried; the south had been fighting hard under a new and brilliant leader,
General Lee, and a new threat from the north and east is the last thing he
needs. The naval blockade is weak
and if the British challenge it, the south will be able to buy supplies from
Britain and France. Other American
parties, however, have different ideas. They
think that they can use the crises to reunite their nation and increase it by
Lincoln receives the British note, with its demands, with
shock. “This is not
diplomacy”, he observed bitterly to Lord Lyons, the British ambassador, “this
is international bullying. This
small affair has become what? The
cause of the destruction of two great nations?” No friend to the south, Lord Lyons could only agree and
attempt to work out a compromise. However,
certain American parties leak the British demands to the American public,
causing an uproar. Lincoln is
forced, against his will, to take a hard stance, and the two nations inched
closer to war.
Meanwhile, in Canada, the British forces had started
digging in. The troops had prepared
defensive positions and started digging in to defend Canada. The defences were prepared, but the British commanders were
worried: both American ‘nations’, the north and south, out numbered the
Canadians and British tremendously. There
is a slight lack of offensive spirit among the British commanders.
At sea, however, the story was different.
Admiral Milne, commander of the British forces in the Caribbean and
Canada, has gathered his forces for an attack to raise the blockade.
Reinforced by Warrior and Black Prince, the Royal Navy’s
two ironclads, he was confident he could defeat the North, including their
ironclad: Monitor. He was,
however, worried about the South. His
orders, in the event of war, were ambiguous, he should not offer, confirm or
make any alliance with the CSA, but their help might be needed to re-supply his
vessels. But, he still had to keep
on the best of terms with them. Furthermore,
for whose benefit was the forthcoming war to be fought?
Milne was a cautious and experienced naval officer, and he could see
little benefit to the war.
Lincoln, his hand forced, replied to London ambiguously.
He was willing to make reparations, and return the CSA representatives,
but he could not return Captain Wilkes, a national hero by now, or offer the
apology of the type demanded. The
American public would not stand for it. Worried
also by the British Troop movements in Canada, he informed the British
Government that he had ordered an American regiment to take position on the
border. He had intended this to
satisfy the Hawks in his Congress, and, in a secret letter, made the British
government aware of this. However,
the Canadians, and the British public, were outraged.
Their hand forced, the British government demanded that the regiment to
be withdrawn at least one hundred miles from the border.
The American government indignantly refused. Tension became higher. However,
orders had been issued secretly by both sides (and both unaware that the other
had done so), to avoid a collision at all costs.
To understand the next part of our history, it is necessary
to digress a little on the Civil war in OTL, and the actions of the Confederate
leaders. It is all too common,
Harry Turtledove aside, to believe that the defeat of the CSA was inevitable.
If it is commonly believed now, why, people ask, was it not obvious to
the people running the CSA at the time. If
their defect was effectively preordained, why did the leaders of the CSA commit
what may well have been ‘national’ suicide?
The answer, or one possible answer is that they could not see the USA
trees for the world forest. The
industrial might of the USA was enormous; the city of New York alone had more
productive capability than the entire confederacy.
Therefore, the CSA leaders must have pinned their hopes on two things:
outside intervention and the north losing the will to fight.
Remembering that, we can then consider the state in April
1862. The battle of the ironclads,
one of the factors that the CSA leaders had pinned their hopes on, is over, with
the Monitor emerging the victor. The
blockade is still there and tighter than ever.
The south needs a miracle. And
with the Trent affair, they think they have one.
Learning of the orders from both sides, Davis decided to
try and provoke an incident between Britain and the US, in order to convince
Britain to raise the blockade. He
orders the CSA Sumter, under the command of Raphael Semmes, to run the
blockade towards the British ships, flying the British flag.
The patrolling US navel vessel was not fooled and gave chase.
The Sumter fled towards the British fleet, chased by the US ship, and the
British captain, being fooled by the British flag, fired the shot heard round
the world. He ordered the US ship
to heave to, and then, when refused, opened fire.
The short duel resulted in the US ship retreating and the British ship
did not pursue.
The British cabinet was outraged, even after discovering
that the ‘British’ ship had been a CSA one, (Milne clapped Semmes in irons
after discovering this) and decided to view it as an intolerable insult to the
British flag. A final demand was
issued and rejected, and Great Britain was formally at was with the USA.
The British fleet descended on the US blockade and brought
the US fleet to battle. The wooden
ships took fairly equal losses, although the British did marginally better, as
they were more experienced in ship-to-ship fleet actions. The ironclad Monitor, however, gave the British wooden
ships a very hard time. The British
ironclads closed to engage her, Milne having watched the battle of Hampton
Roads; he had a good idea how to defeat her.
He was proven right when the commanding officer of Monitor got
overconfident and was rammed sideward by Black Prince. The kneel of Black Prince rode on top on the Monitor
and literally pushed her under the water. She
took on too much water and sank with all hands.
With this, the US navy was broken for the moment.
Also, the US has no idea how the Monitor was sunk, and the British
aren’t going to tell them.
The American government, after taking care of the formality of returning
the declaration of war, ordered an immediate attack on Canada.
A mistake. Campaigning in
the winter was no fun in the War of 1812, and it was no fun here.
While the odds were two to one in favour of the USA, the Canadian
citizens harried the US forces behind the lines and, when general Grant launched
a mass attack on the defences, the US forces were bled white.
The Americans fell back in confusion.
Lincoln, hearing of this, promptly fired Grant and replaced him with Ben
Butler. Another mistake.
Butler was good at playing the political game, but he was an incompetent
commander. British forces pushed
the US troops back out of Canada. Needing
Butler’s political support, he did not fire him, this caused rumblings among
both the senate and the army. The
news from the sea front was bad. The
British had been bled, but they has smashed the blockade and sunk the Monitor.
Assuming that to be incompetence on the part of John Erickson, the
designer, Lincoln ordered him fired too.
The CSA, meanwhile, has to do some hard thinking. Despite the state of open British/USA war, they have not been recognised as an independent state and the British are very cool towards them. Their insult to the flag being seen as the mark of someone untrustworthy. However, the British merchants sent supplies to the CSA and this convinced General Lee of the fate of the confederacy. It was self-evident that the CSA could not supply all it needed for its campaign, but they had pinned their hopes on foreign supplies. When these materialised and proved themselves to be insufficient for what was needed, Lee knew that the cause was lost.
Lincoln, meanwhile, has a few possible strategic choices to make.
Defend against the British in Canada and attack the
Defend against the Confederacy and conquer Canada,
Stand on the defensive on both fronts,
Attack on both at once,
5. Seek peace negotiations with one side, preferably the British.
He decides, in hindsight a stupid move, to attempt option four.
However, he is where his blunders formally come into play.
He needs men for the new forces and, perhaps unwisely, he resorts to
conscription. Parts of America,
notably New York, explode with riots. Draft-dodging
and desertation is rife. With
elections coming up, General Grant is selected by the democrats to run against
Lincoln, unsurprisingly, Grant is a bit unhappy with Lincoln and most of the
army supports him.
Meanwhile, the British cabinet is in just as much of a mess.
They have done the loose equivalent of poking at a wasp’s nest and now
nervously watching the wasps get ready to come sting them.
They can’t hope to conquer the USA, and the US can, in time, overwhelm
Canada, an act that would push the British Empire completely out of North
America. The navel news is not so
bad, but the reports of the success of ironclads against wooden ships are
worrying. Most of the Royal navy is
wood, after all. Worse, to the more perceptive British, it is now obvious that
the CSA cannot be used as an ally. The
UK is ready to talk peace, but pride stops it from talking.
The crunch comes with the battle of Florida. Admiral Farragut had planned and launched a surprise attack
on Jamaica, the British Naval Base, only to fall into a trap.
(it was acculy a lucky coincidence for the British, but no one told the
US electorate that.) The Senate passes a vote of no-confidence and Lincoln is
impeached, the first US president to be forcefully removed from office.
A tacit truce between the belligents is formed as the US has an emergency
election, and Grant becomes President of the USA.
After all the excitement, the peace negotiations are an anti-climax.
Lee forces the Confederate government to abide by the terms or he will
either resign or lead a mutiny. The
CSA is collapsing anyway as outside interference is proven not to be helpful. The peace terms are:
The Rebel confederacy to be reabsorbed to the union,
Slight changing in the voting system in the Senate so that
some of the CSA’s problems are solved. One
state, one vote,
The USA to apologise for the Trent affair,
Joint UK/USA council to be set up to ensure peace and close
co-operation between the two nations,
Canada to be granted voting representation in the senate,
not the house of Repersentives. (This
is a cunning plot to wean Canada away from the British Empire)
UK granted non-voting participation in the HOR,
Trade barriers between the two nations (and the British
The treaty of Cuba was signed in late 1862.
It brought the war to an end. Slavery
does not become a major problem here, as there is no emancipation proclamation
issued in the Timeline. In time,
the slavery problem dies out naturally.
Fredrick Douglas proposes that free blacks should travel to South Africa
on British ships and join the British Empire.
This plan is adopted.
Short Term Effects: Slavery
lasts longer in this TL. The Monroe
doctrine can be enforced properly with the help of the Royal Navy (upon which it
depended in OTL anyway). Closer
British/American co-operation leads to more American interests overseas, such as
India and China. The Boer war is
fought with Black troops, who can gain the loyalty of the Africans.
The Boers are completely crushed and South Africa becomes the most loyal
component of the British Empire. I
assume the Franco-Prussian war happens on schedule with similar results.
Middle Term Effects: Britain
now has a trusted ally (the USA) and no need to worry about American problems.
They can concentrate on building their empire and making it more secure.
American pressure might lead to more democraticy in the Empire and the
Black forces from South Africa might lead to the end of Racism.
If there is a first world war, Britain may be forced by America to stay
out of it. In which case, they may
end up facing a victorious Germany in a cold war.
Long Term Effects: Will
the British Empire still collapse on schedule?
Will Britain and the White Domains (and South Africa) join the USA?
Will there still be an alliance with Japan?
Or a war?