Copyright 1989, 2001 by Mark Grimsley.  All Rights Reserved


Mark Grimsley
History 702
9 June 1989

When the U.S.S. San Jacinto halted the British packet steamer Trent in the Bahama Channel on 8 November, it precipitated a crisis that brought the United States and Great Britain as close to war as the two powers would come during the last half of the nineteenth century. Captain Charles D. Wilkes, commander of the American warship, put two shots across the bow of the British vessel and dispatched a boarding party to seize a pair of Confederate commissioners, James Mason and John Slidell. The party was led by Wilkes's executive officer, a hapless lieutenant who had tried to warn Wilkes that such an action could well mean war. The lieutenant nevertheless followed his instructions and boarded the Trent; as he departed with his prisoners the British mail agent aboard the steamer crowed angrily that within a few weeks the Royal Navy would retaliate by destroying the Federal blockade of the Confederacy.

It never came to that, of course. Although the North reacted with enthusiasm to word of the capture and Congress voted thanks to Captain Wilkes, the Lincoln Administration eventually released Mason and Slidell rather than complicate civil war with international war. The "Trent Affair" went into the history books as a diplomatic, not a military crisis, and most of the literature on the subject quite rightly concentrates on its diplomatic features. Yet it seems reasonable to suppose that the diplomacy itself turned, explicitly or implicitly, upon assessments of what the military result would be if war did occur. This makes examination of those assessments a matter of some historical significance. More importantly, a net assessment of what would have occurred had war broken out between the United States and Great Britain would go far toward answering two questions that have occupied the attention of American and Canadian historians, respectively. First, would European intervention have made a Confederate victory inevitable? Second, was Canada, during the nineteenth century, "a hostage in American hands for British good behaviour"?

Before addressing the question of net assessment as applied to the Trent Affair, however, one needs to define net assessment itself. In its broadest meaning the term is rather uncomplicated; it is, as Williamson Murray and Barry Watts have pointed out, "a systematic approach to answering the question: How do the military capabilities of the two contending powers stack up relative to one another?" While it may take, as a point of departure, such traditional measures of military power as numbers of men, ships, cannon, etc., true net assessment goes far beyond such "bean counting" and deals with more subtle and (usually) less quantifiable factors -- levels of training and readiness; geographical position; political will -- in short, anything that could influence relative military capabilities. Net assessment amounts to an attempt to determine ahead of time who would prevail in an armed encounter at a given place and time and over a given set of issues.

This is not to say that such assessments are always made at a high level of sophistication, nor even that relatively crude assessments may not serve as effective guides to statesmen engaged in a crisis. Indeed, one of the most striking aspects of the Trent Affair is that only the British government made anything approaching a systematic calculation of the military balance and the probable course of an armed conflict with the United States. The Union government, by contrast, confined itself almost exclusively to assessments of British political will. And although the British effort at net assessment makes the Union effort appear quite sickly and inadequate by comparison, both efforts served their respective governments quite well.

The seizure of Mason and Slidell occurred during the eighth month of armed hostilities between the Union and the Confederacy. The Southern states had as yet suffered little loss of territory; their forces had so far successfully repelled most Union attempts to invade. The First Battle of Bull Run, fought in July 1861, offered only the most spectacular example of the Confederacy's ability to defend itself. Yet the military picture in November 1861 was not entirely favorable to the South. For one thing, it had proven unable to bring the Northern tier of slave states -- Missouri, Kentucky and Maryland -- under its control; and it had lost most of western Virginia to Federal arms. For another, the Federals were in the process of building up several large armies, particularly around Washington, DC, where the vaunted Army of the Potomac outnumbered the forces opposing it by a ratio of over two to one. When these armies advanced, as they surely would do upon the arrival of mild weather in the spring, the Confederacy would face its first really serious onslaught.
The South also had to worry about Federal sea power. The Union possessed a navy capable of blockading its opponent's coastline and projecting military power against the enemy's ports and inlets. The Confederacy, by contrast, possessed only the most rudimentary maritime force. By November 1861 Union land and naval forces had already conducted two major amphibious landings, one at Hatteras Inlet, North Carolina, the other at Port Royal, South Carolina. The resulting enclaves provided coaling stations for Federal blockade cruisers, removed havens for Confederate blockade runners, opened possibilities for further advances inland, and pointed toward additional Union sorties against the Confederate coastline in months to come. Federal planning was already underway to seize the port of New Orleans by combined attack, while General-in-Chief George B. McClellan had begun to consider the use of Federal sea power to carry his entire Army of the Potomac down the Chesapeake Bay, thereby outflanking the Confederate forces stationed in front of him at Manassas.

These operations depended, of course, on the absence of any major threat from a European power, particularly Great Britain. Relations between the United States and Britain remained much as they had been for many years: correct but rather cool, with a fair admixture of mutual suspicion. Mindful of both the American Revolution and the War of 1812, most Americans still considered the British to be a traditional enemy; this feeling was so strong that in April 1861, Secretary of State William Seward had entertained seriously the possibility of provoking a war with Britain as a means of re-uniting the squabbling states. The British, for their part, not only harbored the same memories of previous wars, but found alarming the American claims of manifest destiny and fretted particularly about a renewed American attempt to conquer Canada. They also knew of Seward's alarming if hare-brained scheme to deliberately engineer a war.

Under such circumstances, the British viewed the outbreak of open warfare between North and South with a kind of smug satisfaction. This did not translate, however, into any immediate desire to actually support the fledgling Confederacy. True, like France and most other European nations, Britain accorded the Confederacy full belligerent rights. It also permitted Southern as well as Northern agents to purchase war supplies from British munitions firms. But it did not formally recognize the the Confederacy as an independent nation; the instructions given to the admiral commanding the Royal Navy's West Indies and North American station provide some suggestion of the British attitude toward the matter:

"We should I suppose, make a slight shade of difference as far as honours and such things are concerned, between the United States which we recognize as de jure and de facto as a friendly and legitimate Government and the Confederates whom we only regard as de facto belligerents."

To many Northerners, however, the extension of belligerent rights to traitorous rebels seemed provocative enough, and Lord Lyons, the British ambassador in Washington who penned the above instructions, understood this resentment well enough to add, "I do not regard a sudden declaration of War against us by the United States as an event altogether impossible at any moment." When Captain Wilkes halted the steamer Trent and seized Mason and Slidell, the North savored it not only as a triumph over the Confederacy but as a neat little victory over the British as well. Few gave much thought to Britain's probable response. Horace Greeley, the mercurial editor of the influential New York Tribune, succinctly expressed the prevailing view: "We do not know, and we do not greatly care."

Such, at any rate, was the status of the Civil War and of Anglo-Union relations at the outbreak of the Trent crisis. The British government first learned of the seizure early on 27 November. Foreign Undersecretary A.H. Layard quickly recognized that the capture had probably violated established international law; he lost little time in pointing this out to both Lord Russell, the Foreign Secretary, and Lord Palmerston, the Prime Minister. Palmerston refused to be stampeded by the news and urged that legal precedents be examined carefully prior to any action. After scheduling a Cabinet meeting to discuss the matter in two days' time, he gave instructions to suspend the planned reductions in Canada's military garrison and authorized the dispatch of some scheduled reinforcements that had been delayed for administrative reasons.
The first element in the British net assessment of the situation revolved around the Lincoln government's role in the capture and its probable intentions. Palmerston believed that a sort of irresponsible adventurism characterized Union foreign policy and that only the threat of superior force would hold the Americans in check. He had "no Doubt that Seward is actuated in his conduct towards us by the belief that Canada is insufficiently defended; while he treats the French with great Respect because they have no vulnerable Point, but have a Fleet which could do the Northerns mischief." Not unreasonably, Palmerston assumed that Captain Wilkes had acted with the full knowledge and assent of the Northern administration. (It is worth noting that many Americans felt the same way, even after subsequent assertions that the Federal government had not authorized the seizure.)

Other British officials remained less certain of the Lincoln government's complicity. Palmerston's Secretary of State for War, Sir George Cornewall Lewis, doubted that the Northern administration had authorized the capture, simply because it seemed such a stupid thing to do. He opined that the Union government might have "been desirous of catching the Southern envoys, and may have caused their wish to be known; but it does not follow that they gave instructions to board the 'Trent.' It seems incredible that Seward can seriously desire to provoke a war with England."

That both Palmerston and Lewis should refer to Seward, not Lincoln, is significant. The use of that name reflects perhaps the most serious defect in the entire British net assessment of the Trent Affair: the belief, strongly held and never questioned, that Seward was the real Federal chief of state and that Lincoln himself was just a figurehead. In the autumn of 1861 this remained the general perception on both sides of the Atlantic, a perception which Seward cultivated and which Lincoln's unstatesmanlike appearance, raw mannerisms, and subtle leadership style helped reinforce. As a result, Palmerston's government tended to dwell heavily upon Seward's known enthusiasm for "twisting the lion's tail" and, as ever, on his fantastic scheme to re-unite North and South through a war with England. Ironically, not only did the British mistake Seward for the primary actor on the Union side, it compounded the error by mistaking his view of the crisis. The Seward of November 1861 harbored no illusions concerning the efficacy of a war with Great Britain. On the contrary, after the first blush of pleasure over the seizure of the two commissioners, Seward recognized that Wilkes had acted illegally and that the prisoners would have to be returned. Lincoln, not Seward, hoped somehow to justify the seizure, but even Lincoln understood that the Union could not afford a war with Britain.

At the first meeting of the British Cabinet the military balance went largely undiscussed. Palmerston and his ministers simply took it for granted that Great Britain enjoyed a substantial advantage should war occur. Even so, the military authorities had long recognized that a conflict with the United States would not be free of difficulties. Their concerns centered around three issues: the defense of Canada, the protection of British naval bases in the Atlantic/Caribbean, and the most appropriate strategy for defeating the United States.

Canada formed Britain's chief strategic liability should war occur. One the one hand, its proximity to the United States made it relatively easy for Northern forces to invade the province -- as American troops had done in both previous wars -- and to supply and reinforce any initial expeditionary thrust. On the other hand, 2,000 miles of storm-tossed ocean intervened between Canada and Great Britain, vastly complicating reinforcement and resupply and requiring a large sealift capability. This argued, in turn, either for writing off the province entirely -- which the British regarded as out of the question -- or else for creating a garrison sufficient to repel any American invasion.

Ideally a sufficient garrison should already have been in place, for the outbreak of the American Civil War, coupled with Seward's bizarre fantasies of an Anglo-American conflict, had already led the British government to increase the modest forces already in Canada. Three infantry battalions and an artillery battery sailed to the province during the spring of 1861, raising the number of regular British troops in Canada to about 5,000. Additional war equipment also went to bolster the Canadian militia. The defense plans, however, called for at least 10,000 regulars and in August 1861 Palmerston proposed to dispatch enough units to reach this strength. At this point, however, opposition arose in both Parliament and Palmerston's own Cabinet. The former considered further reinforcement a burdensome and needless expense; Secretary of War Lewis thought it likely only to antagonize the Union. To Lewis it seemed "incredible that any Government of ordinary prudence should at a moment of civil war gratuitously increase the number of its enemies, and, moreover, incur the hostility of so formidable a power as England."

This debate had reached no resolution by the time of the Trent crisis; as a result British regular strength in Canada remained at about half the planned minimum. Militia strength was even more abysmal. Although in theory all Canadian males between eighteen and sixty belonged to the militia, most had done little more than sign their enrollment forms -- they possessed neither arms, training, equipment, nor organization. A small force of "active militia" did exist -- with an authorized strength of 5,000 -- but as of June 1861 the actual figure totaled only 4,422. Moreover, the military stores available in Canada could equip only 35,000 militia, assuming that such a force could be collected, organized, and trained. Even if this could be accomplished, the defense plans required at least 100,000.

In theory the militia would guard the frontier while the regulars would garrison Quebec and Montreal and provide a mobile force to confront the main invasion thrust when it occurred. Since this was clearly out of the question, an emergency plan prepared during the Trent Affair called for a defense of Quebec and Montreal and coupled it with hopes that the Americans would be unable to mount a major invasion before spring. By that time additional reinforcements would have arrived, or possibly the navy would be able to strike a strong blow elsewhere and distract attention from Canada. British planners also considered the possibility of gaining naval command of the Great Lakes, which would have the double advantage of protecting Canada's exposed line of communication through the Great Lakes/Saint Lawrence River and simultaneously complicating an American invasion. However, the military did almost nothing to create a riverine squadron. Similarly, although the British regarded the frontier fortifications as dangerously decayed, they had neither the time, labor, nor resources to bring them up to standard.

In short, the prospects for a successful defense of Canada appeared rather bleak. Even so the British took comfort in the recognition that they had based their plans upon an invasion by a united foe with no other military concerns to dilute its strength, not a nation already sundered in twain and fighting a fratricidal war. It seemed possible, therefore, that a strong force of regulars could fend off a reduced invasion force without militia support, at least through the winter of 1861-62. By 17 December the British Cabinet's war committee had decided to reinforce existing strength to about 18,000. Even so, this was more a matter of "sending signals with force" than of dispatching an army sufficient for a sustained defense.
British port defenses in the Atlantic/Caribbean also seemed less than adequate. None of the three principal naval bases -- Halifax, Bermuda, and Jamaica -- had sufficient fortifications, which made each of them vulnerable to sudden, destructive raids. The commander of the North American and West Indian Squadron, Vice Admiral Sir Alexander Milne, regarded Bermuda as particularly critical, thanks in part to its central location. "If Bermuda were in the hands of any other nation," Milne wrote, "the base of our operations would be removed to the two extremes, Halifax and Jamaica, and the loss of this island as a Naval Establishment would be a National misfortune." That meant, in turn, that the British would have to gain and maintain command of the seas in order to protect both Bermuda and their other possessions in the region.

Of course, they expected to do that anyway. Indeed, the British placed entire reliance for a successful war upon their vastly superior navy. In December 1861 the Royal Navy boasted 339 ships (324,063 tons), 61,342 men, and 5,304 guns, augmented by a naval reserve that could have been readied for maritime duties. The United States Navy, by contrast, possessed only 264 vessels (218,016 tons), 22,000 men, and 2,557 guns. More importantly, the Union Navy had only a few ships capable of joining a line of battle; most of those 264 vessels were simply hastily-converted merchantmen pressed into blockade duty and mounting only a few guns each.

Milne's North American and West Indian Squadron alone had 42 ships (70,456 tons), 14,551 men, and 1,319 guns. His force included eight battleships and thirteen frigates and corvettes; moreover, all his vessels were steam-driven. The American navy had comparatively few steam-driven ships and according to one (erroneous) British estimate mounted fewer total guns than Milne. Augmented by additional vessels -- including, if necesary, the enormous Channel Fleet -- Milne would be able to take the offensive. The First Lord of the Admiralty, the Duke of Somerset, wrote him on 15 December:

"In the event of war... the first object would probably be to open the blockade of the Southern ports and without directly co-operating with the Confederates, enable them to act and to receive supplies."

Milne's own war plan involved a threefold strategy: first, to crush any American fleet that opposed him; second, to impose a blockade from Cape Henry, Virginia, to Maine; and third, to conduct at least a few strong raids against the Northern coastline. In particular he planned to enter the Chesapeake Bay, isolate Washington, and "if possible to get at the capital." As an advanced base for coaling operations he also planned to seize a few harbors in the vicinity of Martha's Vineyard, Massachusetts.
The British Admiralty quickly put together a "List of the Chief Ports of the Federal Coast of the United States...with an approximate Estimate of the Number of Vessels required to blockade the several Ports and Rivers." The report threw a certain amount of cold water upon any expectations that even major naval raids could force their way into Northern ports. "From the intricacy of the channels and the strength of the forts," one typical passage read, "it is probable that Boston could not be attacked with any hope of success."

Milne himself, despite his hopes for a raid against Washington, seems not to have favored major operations against strongly-defended ports, despite Admiralty estimates that control of New York harbor would quite likely put an end to the war. The Vice Admiral wrote:

"The object of the war can only be considered to cripple the enemy. That is his trade and of his trade it can only be his shipping. No object would be gained if the Forts alone are to be attacked, as modern views deprecate any damage to a town. If ships are fired upon in a Port the town must suffer; therefore the shipping cannot be fired on. This actually reserves operations to against vessels at sea. If a town is undefended or the defences subdued an embargo might be put on it and a subsidy demanded."

Like Milne, the First Lord of the Admiralty also declared himself opposed to attacks upon heavily defended places, which calls into question even the Washington operation, the one major coastal raid that Milne apparently favored. It therefore becomes a bit difficult to see how, if breaking the blockade and attacking American shipping did not bring the North to heel, the British expected to end the war. To be sure, the British Army favored at least one major landing: an expedition against Maine, aimed at capturing Portland and occupying the state. Such an operation would protect Canada by cutting the most likely line of attack via Lake Champlain; cover the province's exposed line of communications along the Saint Lawrence River; contribute a new line of communications, the Great Trunk Railway; and tie down large numbers of American forces that might otherwise enter Canada.

Originally conceived as a straightforward military expedition, the Maine scheme soon became complicated by a political assessment that Maine might well leave the Union if the British applied a deft touch:

"The interests of Maine and Canada are identical [read one Army appraisal]. A strong party is believed to exist in Maine in favor of annexation to Canada; and no sympathy is there felt for the war which now desolates the U. States. It is more than probable that a conciliatory policy adopted towards Maine would, if it failed to secure its absolute co-operation, indispose it to use any vigorous efforts against us. The patriotism of Americans dwells peculiarly in their pockets; & the pockets of the good citizens of Maine would benefit largely by the expenditure and trade we should create in making Portland our base & their territory our line of communications with Canada."

The cautious Navy, however, stood this argument neatly on its head:

"Possibly a very strict blockade, without an attack, might induce the people of Maine to consider whether it would not be for their interest to declare themselves independent of the United States, and so profit by all the advantages that would be derived from railway communications with Canada and the Lakes."

These visionary proposals to woo Maine from the Union ultimately served only to muddy the strategic virtues of an attack on the state, and the British military assessment again becomes unclear as to exactly how they proposed to win a war with the North if the Union did not simply roll over at the outset. One might have thought that, since Canada offered a poor base for offensive operations and a coastal attack seemed overly dangerous, the British might have given serious consideration to cooperation with their de facto ally, the Confederacy. Yet they did not, for reasons that are worth examination.

First, despite talk of a Maine expedition and of sweeping American commerce from the seas, the British had neither the ability nor the desire to destroy the North. The real motivation for going to war was basically defensive: as the world's foremost empire Britain could not afford to seem weak; and as a power utterly dependent upon the sea she certainly could not yield to encroachments upon her maritime rights. The basic British war aim really amounted to a determination to prove that no country could "twist the lion's tail" and get away with it. This argued, in turn, for a punitive expedition, a limited war conducted largely against Northern shipping, the sort of conflict Britain could get into and out of fairly quickly. To embroil oneself in a major land war seemed unnecessary.

Secondly, a coalition war was inherently unattractive. As Field Marshal Sir John Fox Burgoyne commented:

"The war between the North and South States, so long as it shall continue, will greatly relieve our conflict with the former: our proceedings will be in some degree in concert and mutual support with the efforts of the South; but generally it will be well to avoid as much as possible any combined operations on a great scale, (except as far as the fleet may be concerned), under any specious project, such as for an attack on Washington or Baltimore;--experience proves almost invariably the great evils of combined operations by armies of different countries; and in this case, the advantage to the enemy of the defensive station will far more than compensate for the union of forces against it."

On the whole, British assessments of their own military capabilities leave something to be desired. Although they reposed great confidence in the ability of their army and navy, they had little real notion concerning how they would bring these supposedly superior resources to bear. Their assessment of Union military capability had even less to recommend it. For one thing, the British possessed little firsthand information concerning the strength and effectiveness of Union forces. A British member of parliament who visited the North just prior to the crisis and whose comments were relayed to Lord Palmerston offered a typical impression:

"There can be no doubt that for its size [the Army of the Potomac] is one of the best equipped which any nation has set on foot. Its transport is superb, its artillery numerous, well-appointed and of the best description, the physique of its men unsurpassed... But as to the military character of the army my impression and belief is that it lacks as greatly all the qualities of worth and strength which distinguishes the army which England sent to the Crimea as it is rich in those equipments in which that army was deficient."

In short, British appraisals of Northern military prowess rested upon little more than ethnocentrism and smug superiority.
To summarize the British assessment of the Trent Affair: politically it misapprehended both who controlled the Northern executive branch and the ability of the Federal government to resist public pressure. Militarily it had little coherent notion concerning how it would bring its forces to bear should hostilities occur. If eliminating the Federal blockade of the Confederacy and imposing a counter-blockade could force the Union to terms, the British had an adequate strategy. If not, not. Finally, the British made almost no effort to investigate the North's ability to withstand and support a prolonged struggle.

After perusing the elaborate (if incomplete and somewhat muddled) British assessments of the military balance during the Trent Affair, it is a bit jarring to discover that the Federal government made no similar survey. Indeed, as previously noted, the decisions of the Lincoln Administration turned almost entirely on its appraisals of British political will; namely, whether the Palmerston government would actually go to war over the seizure of Mason and Slidell. Why did the Lincoln Administration choose to limit its assessment in this way?

First, it could afford to do so. Unlike Great Britain, which could only respond to an event that it had not precipitated and whose actual motivation it did not fully understand, the Federal government had a much more complete grasp of what had occurred. It knew, as the British could not, that the seizure of the two Confederate commissioners was unauthorized and not a deliberate provocation. It also recognized that Great Britain had no real desire to make war against the United States and that it could avoid such a war simply by releasing the prisoners. Indeed, given the fact that the British rested their objections to the seizure explicitly on grounds of international law, the United States could avoid war and keep the prisoners provided it could establish a good legal case for Wilkes's action.

Secondly, the Lincoln administration was not interested in estimating whether the Union could prevail in the event of a conflict with Great Britain. Already engaged in a massive civil war, it quickly recognized that it could not afford any outside conflict, "winnable" or not. Because of this, no systematic assessment of the Anglo-American balance seemed required and the administration did not ask its military leadership to prepare one.

If it had, however, the military surely would have responded with great pessimism. Major General George B. McClellan, General in Chief of the Federal armies during this period, objected to the seizure from the outset, urged the return of the prisoners and the defusion of the crisis as soon as possible. In a conversation with the Prince de Joinville, a French expatriate who served informally on his staff, McClellan complained that a war with Great Britain would render hopeless his plans for a seaborne attack against New Orleans and destroy his cherished strategy for a Peninsular Campaign against Richmond -- quite apart from siphoning off thousands of troops to guard the Northern coastline and perhaps invade Canada. (Despite British nightmares, however, the United States had no immediate plans to conduct such an invasion. Indeed, in his year-end report to Congress, Lincoln stressed the need to create better defensive works in the Great Lakes region.)

The naval leaders who would bear the brunt of a war with England were even less optimistic. Near the climax of the crisis, Flag Officer Samuel Francis Du Pont, commander of the squadron that had recently captured Port Royal, South Carolina, summarized his own views in a letter to his wife:

"I hope that now our politicians will begin to learn, that something more is necessary to be "a great universal Yankee nation, etc." than politics and party. We should have armies and navies and those appurtenances which enable a nation to defend itself and not be compelled to submit to humiliation... Thirty ships like the Wabash [Du Pont's modern, steam-driven, well-armed flagship] would have spared us this without firing a gun, with an ironclad frigate or two."

And after the Lincoln administration had concluded the crisis by releasing the Confederate commissioners:

"We have the Sidell and Mason affair. If we were to give in, and of this there could be no doubt, it was as well done as it could be... Now I hope we will profit and not depend on frothy Fourth of July orations for our national defenses... I hope our people have found out now we cannot bully and vainglorify like England unless, like her, we have some military strength."

In addition to pronouncements from its senior military leadership, the Lincoln administration might also have turned to a fairly extensive literature on coastal defenses compiled by U.S. engineers before the war. These sometimes treated matters of probable enemy strategy. For example, one such work emphasized the supreme importance of New York City as a linchpin of commerce:

"It may be said of New York... that if an enemy succeeded in obtaining command of it, even temporarily, or, what would be nearly the same in its consequences, if he succeeded with his fleet in forcing the entrance to the harbour, and in bringing his guns to bear on the city, such a disaster would result in our buying him off upon any terms he might think it expedient to exact. Attacks upon other great seaport towns, such as Boston or Philadelphia, might indeed be attended with results highly disastrous, but they would tell comparatively little upon the issues of the war. The difference is that between striking a limb and striking the heart, for New York is the true heart of our commerce,--the centre of our maritime resources; to strike her would be to paralyse all the limbs."

Interestingly, the British Admiralty was both aware of this passage and had incorporated it into a study made during the Trent Affair concerning possible courses of military action against the United States. As we have seen, however, the senior leadership of the Royal Navy had declared itself opposed to attacks against well-fortified points. Not until March 1862 would the Federal naval attack on Fort Pulaski, Georgia, demonstrate the vulnerability of casemate fortifications -- the same design that comprised the entire network of Northern coastal defenses -- to modern rifled artillery.

Having examined both British and American assessments made during the Trent Affair, one is at last in a position to offer some answers to the two questions posed at the beginning of this essay. First, would a war with Britain have made a Confederate victory inevitable? Probably not. The British government contemplated war only in defense of its own maritime rights, and even while doing so expected to render only incidental assistance to the Confederacy. Its main contribution would have been to eliminate the Federal blockade, a blockade that in 1861 had not yet become effective anyway. It is worth noting, however, that the absence of an effective blockade had not prevented the South from already facing substantial hardships brought on primarily by its lack of a suitable infrastructure for the efficient transfer of goods. This lack -- mainly a dearth of railroads -- the British could not have addressed. Further, given the nature of Britain's war aims, its reluctance to assist the Confederacy directly, and its apparent preference to conduct a maritime war conducted largely against Federal shipping, it seems unlikely that Britain could hurt the Union badly enough or quickly enough to cause it to disengage from its struggle with the Confederacy. Finally, once Britain had made its point that one could not "twist the lion's tale" with impunity, it would very likely have accepted a negotiated settlement that would have freed the Union to return full attention to regaining the South. An Anglo-Union conflict would surely have delayed the Federal victory by an indeterminate but serious margin -- perhaps a year -- and it might have enhanced the Confederacy's ability to win independence on its own, but it is hard to see how it would have made Confederate victory inevitable.

The second question, whether Canada served during the mid-nineteenth century as a hostage in American hands for British good behavior, may be answered more directly and succinctly: it did not. Nothing in Britain's conduct or decision-making during the Trent Affair suggests that the Palmerston government felt constrained by Canada's alleged vulnerability. Not only did the British not despair of a successful defense of the province, they felt that a temporary setback there could be recouped by a successful campaign elsewhere, perhaps directed against Washington, DC.

As a concluding note, evaluation of British and American net assessment during the Trent Affair suggests that such assessments need not be complete -- or even adequate -- in order to be effective and useful. The Lincoln administration in particular made only the most rudimentary appraisal of the military balance and concerned itself with a very simple political assessment: would the British fight? That was the only question that mattered. Perhaps the British should have concentrated more fully on their own political assessment. Their military evaluation, although fairly elaborate, was largely superfluous; and even if had not been, it is difficult to see how it added substantially to the nebulous, pedantic, screamingly obvious opinion that prevailed on both sides of the Atlantic: that the British military, especially its navy, enjoyed an edge over that of the Union.

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