Sold - Lincoln Buys Time to Decide the Fate of Charles Wilkes, Hero of the Trent Affair

Note shows Lincoln torn between the demands of a cabinet member and the emotions of the people for a great war hero who mocked the Confederates

Key Facts

  • Directly relates to the celebrated Trent affair

At the outbreak of the Civil War, Captain Charles Wilkes was assigned to the command of the USS San Jacinto to search for and destroy Confederate privateers. As Wilkes himself wrote, "During all this time the rebel cruisers have been roving unrestrained upon the sea, terrifying our merchant ships, and committing fearful havoc upon our commerce."

This coincided with a period where Jefferson Davis and the Confederate Congress were holding out hope that their strategy of diplomatic maneuverings and cotton price manipulation would bring England into the war against the Union.  Charles Francis Adams would eventually head to England to ensure England's non-intervention.  And the Trent Affair did much to frame the debate.

Wilkes saw it as his duty to help remedy the problem of Confederate blockade running. James Murray Mason and John Slidell had been chosen by Davis to represent Confederate interests and finally secure diplomatic recognition.  On November 8, 1861, Wilkes stopped the British mail packet Trent, and took off the Confederate commissioners on their way to England. He then brought them to Fort Warren in Boston Harbor. He was officially thanked by Congress, but his action caused a firestorm in England, which quickly sent an ultimatum to the United States: surrender Mason and Slidell, and apologize for the kidnapping, or go to war. President Lincoln and Price Albert became the protagonists, avoiding war; with Albert’s last action before his death defusing the situation there and Lincoln cautioning Secretary of State William H. Seward, "One war at a time".

The US bowed to British claims and in the process helped secure their absence from conflict. But this was not easy. Wilkes became a hero, who defied the Confederates and secured an early semblance of success.  His name was spoken in many households and newspapers fought to praise his name the loudest.

Today his action is routinely listed among the great incidents of the war.  And this same character that led to his actions against the Trent followed him through the war.  Wilkes' next service was in the James River flotilla, but after reaching the rank of commodore, on July 16, 1862, he was assigned to duty against blockade runners in the West Indies. As part of these duties, he visited the British colony of Bermuda. Acting on his orders, however violating the British rule that allowed American naval vessels to remain in port for a single day, Wilkes remained in port for nearly a week aboard his flagship, while his gunboats Tioga and Sonoma blockaded St. George harbour, a key Confederate blockade-runner base. The gunboats prevented a number of ships from leaving the harbor, and opened fire on a Royal Mail steamer. This was the last straw for Navy Secretary Gideon Welles, who now considered Wilkes a dangerous loose cannon. He said Wilkes had been too old to receive the rank of commodore and rescinded it. Then, on December 7, 1863, Welles laid before Congress a report that Wilkes saw as accusing him of the grave offense of “having wholly defeated the plans of the Department for the capture of the Alabama, Florida, and Georgia."     

Wilkes responded by writing a scathing letter to Welles, essentially saying that he (Wilkes) was being made the scapegoat for Welles’ own failures to achieve naval victories.   

This controversy ended in Wilkes being court-martialled, and on April 26, 1864, he was found guilty of disobedience of orders and insubordination and was sentenced to public reprimand and suspension for three years. This was no small trial and Wilkes, famous and loved by the people, received experienced and well connected counsel.  Wilkes’ attorney at the court martial was Lincoln friend and former U.S. Senator from Illinois, Orville Browning. Browning’s law partner, former Senator and Treasury Secretary Thomas Ewing, was also involved in the case. In the wake of the conviction, Browning and Ewing felt that an injustice had been done to Wilkes and promptly took their case right to President Lincoln. Browning's diary under dates of April 30 and May 5, 1864, records interviews with the President, in company with Ewing, and Welles' diary would in December record Ewing's continued efforts in the case.   

So now the President was caught in a bind: many people in the country considered Wilkes a hero, and influential friends of Wilkes were pushing for his release; while Secretary Welles would be offended by any such action. Lincoln needed some space to decide what to do and did not want to be further bombarded by petitioners in the matter. On May 16, eleven days after meeting Browning and Ewing in the White House, and faced with further demands on his time, he wrote Ewing “Respects to Mr. Ewing; but I am not ready to decide his cases, & I do not wish him to come in [and] scold about it.”     

Then he penned this Autograph Note Signed, Washington, May 16, 1864, to Browning. “Will Mr. Browning please look at the card just sent Mr. Ewing?” This piece sold at the American Art Association/Anderson Galleries in its sale of February 25-26, 1930, and has the backstamp of legendary autograph dealer Thomas Madigan.     

On December 26, 1864, Lincoln decided the case in a Solomonic way - satisfying each side in part. He ordered “The unexecuted part of the sentence of the General Court-Martial in the case of Com. Charles Wilkes, U.S.N. is hereby remitted, this remission to take effect at the end of one year from the day on which the sentence took effect.” Thus, he reduced the term of suspension to one year, most of which Wilkes had already completed. In 1866, shortly after reinstatement, Wilkes retired from the Navy.