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The Trent Affair: How the Prince Consort Saved the United States

One of the Prince’s last and most notable services to his adopted country, writes Sir John Wheeler Bennett, was the redrafting of a provocative British despatch at a moment of high tension in Anglo-American relations.

The record of the southern confederacy in the field of foreign policy was one of almost unrelieved failure. It is indeed ironic that the closest approach to the realization of Confederate diplomatic ambition—namely, intervention and recognition on the part of Great Britain—was not achieved by the efforts of Confederate Commissioners but through the agency of a Federal naval officer and was frustrated by the intervention of Queen Victoria’s husband.

President Jefferson Davis had not waited for the outbreak of hostilities to make his first overtures to the Great Powers. Scarcely had Southern secession been consummated by the establishment of the Confederate Government in Montgomery, Alabama, in February 1861, than he despatched to Europe a three-man Commission headed by that “Founding Father of Secession,” William Lowndes Yancey of Alabama, accompanied by Pierre A. Rost of Louisiana and Judge Dudley Mann of Georgia, charged with the task of seeking recognition and treaties of commerce and amity from Britain, France, Spain, Belgium and Russia. It was understood that the most vital of their diplomatic targets was Britain.

Arriving in London in April, coincidentally with the fall of Fort Sumter, the Confederate Commissioners established an office in Suffolk Street, off Trafalgar Square hard by Garland’s Hotel, and conveniently adjacent to the Houses of Parliament and to Downing Street. Their record of success, however, was virtually negligible. Lord Russell, the British Foreign Secretary, though he received them with courtesy, remained unmoved by the arguments of Southern oratory and the blandishments of Southern charm.

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