Quebec History Marianopolis College

Date Published:
January 2005

L’Encyclopédie de l’histoire du Québec / The Quebec History Encyclopedia


Trent Affair [1861]



Took place in November, 1861, when Captain C. Wilkes of the United States navy intercepted the British mail steamer Trent sailing from Havana, and arrested two commissioners from the Confederate States who were passengers, and who were accredited to France. They were conveyed to the United States and imprisoned in Boston. The affair caused great excitement; war between Great Britain and the United States seemed imminent, and was averted only by the release of the two commissioners, on the demand of Great Britain, in January, 1862. There seemed the possibility at one time that it might lead to another invasion of Canada by the United States, and it was, therefore, instrumental in bringing about the reorganization of the Canadian militia as a precautionary measure. In a footnote to his Memories of Confederation, Sir Richard Cartwright says: "There is no doubt that at the time of the Trent difficulty Mr. Lincoln was strongly urged to come to terms with the South and to seize Canada. Many years later, in Washington, the writer was assured by a very eminent American statesman that this proposition had been seriously debated. According to his informant the deciding factor in the case was the alarm felt at the threatened invasion of Mexico by an Anglo-French and Spanish force and the well-grounded apprehension felt by the United States authorities of the ulterior designs of the emperor of the French. This, coupled with the conviction that the recognition of the South meant the loss of all effective control over Central America and the possible Isthmian Canal, turned the scale decidedly in favour of peace. As for Canada, the six weeks' suspense during which no man knew from day to day whether we would find ourselves at war, produced a most profound impression. A witty friend of the author was wont to maintain that the true father of Confederation was neither Brown, Cartier nor Macdonald, but Captain Wilkes, U.S.N." Certainly, it did much to make the scattered British North American colonies realize their need of mutual support, and incidentally helped along the Intercolonial project. Bib .: Dent, Last Forty Years; Harris, The Trent Affair; King, Turning on the Light; Roberts, History of Canada.


Source : Lawrence J. BURPEE, The Oxford Encyclopaedia of Canadian History, Toronto, Oxford University Press, 1926, 699p., p. 643.

© 2005 Claude Bélanger, Marianopolis College