Charles Wilkes 150 years ago came perilously close to losing the Civil War for the Union. Wilkes had achieved fame in 1838-1842 in command of the US Navy’s Surveying and Exploration Expedition in the Pacific. He and his crew explored much unknown land in the Pacific and Wilkes is credited as the first man to establish that Antarctica was a separate continent. On November 8 he was in command of the USS San Jacinto when he stopped the British steam mail ship Trent and took off James Mason and John Sliddell, Confederate diplomats on their way to France. Wilkes was hailed as a hero in the North, receiving the thanks of Congress, while the British were outraged at what they regarded as piracy.
War seemed likely between the Union and Great Britain. The British government despatched troops to Canada, and prepared an ultimatum to the Lincoln administration, demanding the release of Mason and Sliddell. A dying Prince Albert, Queen Victoria’s husband, acted to prevent war by toning down the ultimatum. Lincoln decided that one war was quite enough and released Mason and Sliddell who promptly sailed for Europe aboard the sloop HMS Rinaldo.
Wilkes, always rash and impulsive, indeed it is thought by some historians that Captain Ahab in Moby Dick was patterned after him, was court martialed in 1864 for some non-related matter. He was publicly reprimanded and suspended from the service for three years. Lincoln reduced the suspension to one year. In 1866 Wilkes was promoted to Rear Admiral on the retired list.