Lammot Du Pont, member of the Du Pont powder business family and company agent (Captain Samuel Francis Du Pont was commandant of the Philadelphia Navy Yard), hurried to England in late 1861 with instructions from the United States government to purchase a year’s supply of saltpeter, or approximately three million pounds.
It was during his third day at sea that the British mail packet “Trent” was stopped and searched by the USS San Jacinto as it sailed through the Bahama Channel. Southern envoys James M. Mason and John Slidell, on their way to England, were forcibly removed over the protests of the British officers, and imprisoned at Fort Warren in Boston Harbor.
Bernhard Thuersam, www.Circa1865.org
Lincoln’s Diplomatic Dilemma
“The magnitude of Du Pont’s purchases had not escaped official attention. On November 27 a certain J. MacKenzie wrote Lord John Russell, Foreign Secretary . . . “It is more than a year’s supply for that Government even in time of War . . . and [looks] as if the Federal Government, having decided on a rupture with this country, was desirous of first laying in a supply of saltpeter.”
In a memorandum to the members of the cabinet on November 30, Prime Minister Lord Palmerston proposed that at that day’s session they consider the proposal of Lord Russell to ban the exportation of arms, gunpowder and saltpeter. This was his comment on Anglo-American relations:
“. . . Every day brings us fresh evidence of settled determination of the Washington government to heap indignities and affronts upon us, to drive us to the wall taking their chance as to such a course leading to a war . . . This being the state of things, it being at least possible, if not probable, that we may in a short period of time find ourselves in hostilities with the Northern States, [and] would it not be weakness & folly in the extreme to allow them in the interval to draw from our storehouses and manufacturers those means and implements of war which they are now scantily supplied with, and which when obtained by them, would probably be turned against ourselves.
If our men are shot down by rifles made by us, and with gunpowder supplied by us, should we not as a Government be laughed to scorn as unfit to conduct the affairs of the country.”
Even if no rupture took place, Palmerston pointed out, it was to the British interest to shorten the war by withholding vital supplies in order that shipments of Southern cotton and normal trade relations could be resumed as soon as possible.
A furor of anti-American sentiment swept the British press when news of the Trent episode reached England. Believing that the embargo would not soon be lifted, Du Pont prepared to return home for further instructions. English arsenals and shipyards, he noted, were working night and day; troops were being readied for Canada; and Lord Lyons, British Minister in Washington, had been instructed to close the embassy and return home if England’s demands . . . were not satisfied.
And if war came, France would be England’s ally, for Napoleon III was very hostile to the North. Russia was the only major power friendly to the United States, Du Pont believed.
If Mason and Slidell were not released and proper apologies not made to England, the Union would stand alone against two great powers of Europe, and the Confederacy would gain them as outright allies or as friendly neutrals. Such a powerful alignment of strength against the North could not be allowed to materialize.”
(“The Devil to Pay!”: Saltpeter and the Trent Affair, Harold Hancock & Norman Wilkinson, Civil War History, Volume X, No. 1, March 1964, University of Iowa, excerpts, pp. 22-27)