Wesaw a few months ago how Mason and Slidell were appointed as Confederate ambassadors to European nations. Their job was to convince France and England to recognize the Confederacy as a nation and assist them in securing their independence.
But getting over to Europe was not easy for Mason and Slidell, since most of the Confederacy's ports were blockaded by the large Union fleet. Early on the morning of October 12th, they were able to avoid the Union fleet off Charleston. They stopped in Cuba, and left on the British mail ship the Trent on November 7th.
Pursing Mason and Slidell was Captain Charles Wilkes. He knew that it was important to the war that the Confederates not convince England to ally with them, and he decided the best way to do that was to capture the ambassadors before they arrived. He had an reputation as a reckeless officer, and Seward in Washington had been warned, “He will give us trouble. He has a superabundance of self-esteem and a deficiency of judgment. When he commanded his great exploring mission he court-martialed nearly all his officers; he alone was right, everybody else was wrong.”
On November 8th, Wilkes caught the Trent as it was leaving Cuba. The Trent was neutral and would make no resistance even though they viewed the search by the Americans as illegal. Mason and Slidell were taken off the Trent, after formally refusing to come and being brought by an armed guard. This moment would seem very low for the Confederacy. But although their ambassadors were captured, it was a blessing in disguise. The Trent Affair would bring England to the very edge of war with the United States.