Captain Wilkes had acted without orders, and, indeed, even without any recent official information from Washington. He was returning from a cruise off the African coast, and had reached St. Thomas on October 10. A few days later, when off the south coat of Cuba, he had learned of the Confederate appointment of Mason and Slidell, and on the twenty-eighth, in Havana harbour, he heard that the Commissioners were to sail on the Trent. At once he conceived the idea of intercepting the Trent, exercising the right of search, and seizing the envoys, in spite of the alleged objections of his executive officer, Lieutenant Fairfax. The result was that quite without authority from the United States Navy Department, and solely upon his own responsibility, a challenge was addressed to Britain, the “mistress of the seas,” certain to be accepted by that nation as an insult to national prestige and national pride not quietly to be suffered.
The San Jacinto reached Fortress Monroe on the evening of November 15. The next day the news was known, but since it was Saturday, few papers contained more than brief and inaccurate accounts and, there being then few Sunday papers, it was not until Monday, the eighteenth, that there broke out a widespread rejoicing and glorification in the Northern press. America, for a few days, passed through a spasm of exultation hard to understand, even by those who felt it, once the first emotion had subsided. This had various causes, but among them is evident a quite childish fear of the acuteness and abilities of Mason and Slidell. Both men were indeed persons of distinction in the politics of the previous decades. Mason had always been open in his expressed antipathy to the North, especially to New England, had long been a leader in Virginia, and at the time of the Southern secession, was a United States Senator from that State. Slidell, a Northerner by birth, but early removed to Louisiana, had acquired fortune in business there,