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The Trent Affair


The Trent Affair was a diplomatic crisis between Britain and America during the American Civil War. A British mail packet ship, the Trent, was intercepted and boarded in international waters on the 8th November 1861 by a Union warship, the USS San Jacinto, and found to contain Confederate ambassadors bound for Britain with the aim of negotiating with the British and French governments. The Confederate ambassadors and their families were removed as ‘contraband’ and taken to a Union port, where they were detained.

The issue of how to respond to this incident divided both the British government and the British public. Matthew was on the side of the hawks, seeing this as an unacceptable breach of British maritime sovereignty that required retribution. Others, such as the editors of the Dundee Courier, were more cautious. The editors’ argument turned on points of international maritime law. If the American conflict was indeed a civil war, and the ambassadors were merely ‘rebels’, then the Union ship had no right to seize them from a neutral ship in international waters, but if the conflict was between two separate countries then the Trent should not have taken them on board in the first place, because in that case they were ‘belligerents’ and taking them on board would have breached Britain’s neutrality. While the Union did not want the Confederacy to be recognised as an independent country, the wording of a prior proclamation of neutrality from the British government could perhaps be interpreted to infer that the Confederates were indeed ‘belligerents’ rather than ‘rebels’.

What followed was a protracted and increasingly heated exchange of opinion between Matthew and the editors of the Dundee Courier.

Matthew (1861-12-13): “The Attack on the Trent”. Dundee Courier, 13 December 1861
Matthew objects to the legal argument over the Union action on the Trent, as put forward in an Editorial in the Dundee Courier. There is an editorial reply immediately following Matthew’s letter.

Matthew (1861-12-18): “The Trent Outrage—Peace or War”. Dundee Courier, 18 December 1861
In his second letter, Matthew lays out in more detail his reasons for why the Union action on the Trent was an “outrage”. He also argues that it is impossible for the USA to stay as one country, due do the differences in social order in the different regions. He predicts that four different confederacies will emerge.

Editorial (1861-12-18): “The Search of the Trent”. Dundee Courier, 18 December 1861
This editorial responds in detail to the arguments in Matthew’s second letter.

Matthew (1861-12-27): “Letters to the Editor”. Dundee Courier, 27 December 1861
In his third letter, Matthew argues that recent statements by the French Foreign Minister vindicate his views. There is also an editorial on the same page, which does not respond to Matthew’s letter but does argue that a British war with America is inevitable.

Matthew (1862-01-02): “The Outrageous Northern States”. Dundee Advertiser, 2 January 1862
In his fourth letter, this time in the Dundee Advertiser, Matthew argues that the actions of the Northern States against the Southern are those one would expect against ‘belligerents’ (i.e. another country) not ‘rebels’. The fact that treating the Southern States as ‘belligerents’ would weaken the legal case against the Union’s action on the Trent is not considered by Matthew – his case is made on moral force rather than on legal niceties (see his “fifth letter”, Matthew (1862-01-03)).

Matthew (1862-01-03): “The Trent Outrage”. Dundee Courier, 3 January 1862
In his fifth letter, back in the Dundee Courier, Matthew restates the arguments for his case. In a conciliatory section at the end, he raises the liberality of the British Press as a mediator of beneficial social change, such as encouraging everyone to read.

Editorial (1862-01-03): “Controversy”. Dundee Courier, 3 January 1862
In this editorial reply to Matthew’s fifth letter on the Trent Affair, the editors repeat their previous arguments regarding the legality or not of the Union action on the Trent. They criticise Matthew for his views regarding the peacetime “right of search”, which he has claimed exclusively for Britain.

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