This month’s spotlight is on John Slidell, who purchased the property from John Hall in late 1843. Slidell, a New Yorker who graduated from Columbia College (Columbia University) in 1810, came to New Orleans in 1819, about the same time as Samuel Oakey did. The lawyer-businessman bloomed into a formidable politician with political positions ranging from Unites States District Attorney (1829-1833) to Congressman for Louisiana (1843-1845) to Minister to Mexico, an appointment made by President James Polk.
John Slidell’s last posting, as Minister to France representing the Confederate States of America, proved to be arguably his most famous, as John Slidell (with James Mason) became the center of international diplomacy during the Trent Affair.
During the early stages of the Civil War, the North and the South courted Britain, hoping to draw that international power to their respective side. The North hoped prevent the official recognition of the Confederate states by Britain, while the South hoped to claim England’s official recognition by emphasizing the importance of southern cotton to English cotton mills. France was also being courted in a similar matter by the warring American states.
On April 29, 1861, United States President Abraham Lincoln published his Proclamation of Blockade Against Southern Ports. This attempted to limit the commercial activities of the Confederacy and established the right of the United States to legally search neutral vessels suspected of blockade running in international waters. The South attempted, through diplomacy, to have Britain declare the blockade illegal.
In early 1861, after the secession of Louisiana from the United States, Slidell, now a United States Senator, resigned from the Senate and returned to Louisiana. Confederate President Jefferson Davis soon appointed Slidell as Minister to France. Slidell’s mission included attempting to secure from France full diplomatic recognition of the Confederate States of America, which would acknowledge the Confederacy as a sovereign nation.
Slidell, accompanied by James Mason, Minister to England, departed the divided country in late October from Charleston, SC for Spanish-held Cuba. In Cuba, the two ambassadors, with their families, took ship to Europe on the British mail boat, the Trent.
On November 8, 1861, the Trent was boarded and searched by United States Lieutenant D. M. Fairfax on the orders of United States Captain Charles Wilkes, but without permission or knowledge of the federal government. Recognizing the two Confederate ministers, Fairfax removed Slidell, Monroe, and their respective secretaries from the Trent, but permitted the mens’ families to continue to Europe. While Captain Wilkes wished he could have seized the Trent and send it as a prize to Key West, he was prevented from doing so due to “the reduced number of my officers and crew, and the
large number of passengers on board (the Trent—Author) bound to Europe” (Captain Charles Wilkes Reports on the Trent Affiar, 8 November 1861).
This caused an international incident. Britain initially responded very aggressively toward the United States after the boarding of the Trent and the seizure of the Confederate government officials. Britain objected that the action violated their neutrality and demanded that the United States release the men and formally apologize. To give further weight to their demands, England ordered troops to be sent to Canada and ships to the western Atlantic. Britain was not doing this to help the Confederacy but rather wanted to send a clear message that Britain would defend its neutrality.
After nearly two months of negotiations and front page coverage, the United States partially complied with Britain’s demands in order to preserve good relations with Britain. United States Secretary of State William Seward told the British Ambassador, Lord Lyons that Captain Wilkes acted on his own initiative, but avoided an outright apology to the ambassador. Further, the United States agreed to restore the men to British protection and released the men in early January 1862.
Slidell resumed his journey to France and first met with French Ministers in February 1862. Slidell did not succeed in securing diplomatic recognition of the Confederacy or secure any trade agreements between the Confederacy and France. While Slidell did not accomplish his primary objectives, he did raise $15,000,000 from French capitalists and the use of the ship, Stonewall.
After the war’s end, he and his family settled in England. Though able to return home by asking for pardon, Slidell refused this course of action, dying in England in 1871.