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The Trent Affair

What if the Trent Affair led to war?

Christopher G. Nuttall


Permission is granted to reproduce this provided that no charge is made to readers, that the author’s full credit is maintained, and that the author is informed of the distribution.

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. 

Interesting Points

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 Story

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

4.      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 invading Canada. 

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.

1.      Defend against the British in Canada and attack the Confederacy,

2.      Defend against the Confederacy and conquer Canada,

3.      Stand on the defensive on both fronts,

4.      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:

1.      The Rebel confederacy to be reabsorbed to the union,

2.      Slight changing in the voting system in the Senate so that some of the CSA’s problems are solved.  One state, one vote,

3.      The USA to apologise for the Trent affair,

4.      Joint UK/USA council to be set up to ensure peace and close co-operation between the two nations,

5.      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) 

6.      UK granted non-voting participation in the HOR,

7.      Trade barriers between the two nations (and the British Empire) removed,

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?