Trent Affair of 1861
Major W.E. Campbell
In his book, Canada's
Soldiers, Lieutenant-Colonel George F.G. Stanley
used the sub-title "The Military History of an Unmilitary
People" to describe the general lack of interest in
military affairs that is characteristic of most Canadians. However, as he ably described in his book, military operations
and considerations have shaped the very fabric of Canadian
many of these facts have been virtually forgotten as
the role of the military in the development of our country
has been downplayed.
One of these "almost forgotten" episodes is the
Trent Affair, which occurred during the first year of
the American Civil War, and almost embroiled Canada
in the American Civil War.
The military response to the Trent Affair was
the mounting and deployment of a force of over 11,500
troops across the winter storm tossed North Atlantic.
A group of 6,818 of them was then moved 309 miles
by sleigh, in sub-zero temperatures, across New Brunswick
to the Saint Lawrence and then on by rail to Quebec
and Montreal. This feat deserves to be remembered and this article will attempt
to do this.
When the American Civil War broke out in 1861,
the troop strength in British North America was at a
low ebb. While
it had been increased somewhat from the record low that
occurred when forces were stripped away for duty in
the Crimea, it was still below the traditional level
which was parity with the regular U.S. Army.
Using a "good fences = good neighbours"
philosophy, Canada (present-day Ontario and Quebec)
was reinforced by three battalions of infantry and a
battery of field artillery during the summer of 1861.
A long-standing goal of some Northern U.S. politicians
was to add Canada to the Union.
Thus there was a real concern that the Union
Forces would move north after their anticipated quick
victory over the Confederate States.
This led to the rapid expansion of the Volunteer
movement within British North America. In September
1861, Canada asked the British Government to provide
100,000 stands of arms for these Volunteers.
It was not until late October that they agreed
to send 25,000 stands but decided not to ship them until
the Spring. Winter
was approaching and they could not be made ready in
time to load as the last ship of the season was scheduled
to sail on 5 November. Prophetic words indeed!
This period of cautious tension was abruptly
broken on 8 November 1861 when the USS SAN JACINTO boarded
the British mail steamer TRENT in the Bermuda passage
and forcibly removed two Confederate Commissioners who
were enroute to Britain and France.
This precipitated the "Trent Affair".
The British Government and people were enraged
by this violation of the laws of the sea and British
situation was further inflamed by the obvious American
glee in having twisted the lion's tail!
War was almost a certainty.
While demands for the release of the Commissioners
were made and the dying Prince Consort, Albert, tried
to achieve a peaceful solution to the crisis, the British
War Office made plans for the immediate dispatch of
reinforcements to British North America.
The plan was quickly implemented.
News of the "Trent Affair" did not
reach London until 28 November, the decision to reinforce
Canada was made on 6 December and the first troops had
sailed by 7 December.
The campaign plan was highly flexible.
If required, an invasion of the U.S. would be
conducted using the two traditional routes, which were
south from the Niagara Peninsula and from Montreal via
These forces, operating in conjunction with the
Royal Navy which would blockade the Atlantic ports,
would split the Northern States in half.
These efforts, combined with those of the Confederate
States, would have likely resulted in a speedy victory.
Otherwise, the plan was to defend the border
against possible Northern aggression.
The local militia forces would have been used
to augment the British regulars as needed.
The first group of forces to deploy was designed
to bolster the defences of British North America pending
the arrival of a larger force in the Spring, prior to
the start of the campaigning season, and to guard against
an early Spring offensive by the North.
The troops destined for Nova Scotia Command (present
day New Brunswick, Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island)
could come directly by sea.
However, the majority of the force was to go
to Canada and this presented the greatest problem.
The shipping season in the Saint Lawrence had
closed in late November as had the lighthouses and other
aides to navigation.
It was hoped that ships could get as far up the
Saint Lawrence River as Rivière du Loup, which
was the Eastern Terminus of the Grand Trunk Railway,
or Bic which is about 54 miles below Rivière
du Loup. If
this was not possible, the ships were to divert to Halifax.
The troops would then proceed to Saint John and,
from there, go overland to Rivière du Loup where
they would take the train to Quebec City, Montreal and
points as far west as London, CW.
Although it was a quickly planned deployment,
it was not poorly planned!
The War Office had learned the lessons from the
Crimean War and the disastrous winter of 1854/55.
Officers with experience in Canada were extensively
consulted, as was Florence Nightingale who gave valuable
advice on the health and sanitation of the troops during
a winter march.
A retired Commissariat officer, who had made
the arrangements for the march of the 43rd, 85th and
34th Regiments during the winter of 1837/38, made many
suggestions that were incorporated into the final plan.
Hectic preparations took place in the United
Kingdom as troops were warned for duty, ships were chartered
and supplies of warlike stores such as weapons, ammunition,
camp stores and uniforms for both the British troops
and the militia of British North America were readied
The winter voyage across the storm tossed North
Atlantic was fraught with danger.
Troop ships and their escorts were separated
by the bad weather.
Most of the ships chartered were side-paddle
steamers which limited their ability to navigate the
ice which they would encounter in the approaches to
the Saint Lawrence River and their engines were prone
to storm damage.
The newspapers of the day reported the PARANA,
with a thousand troops on board, overdue and feared
lost but fortunately this was not true.
Besides having a slow passage, she had run aground
on a sandbank during a snow squall, subsequently floated
free on the next tide and eventually reached Halifax.
Only one ship, the PERSIA, actually made it up the Saint Lawrence
as far as Bic.
As the men of the 1st Battalion of the 16th Regiment
were being disembarking, a rush of ice came down river
and she quickly had to put to sea.
A company of infantry was left on board and a
portion of the crew was left on shore!
The soldiers helped to man the ship until she
could reach Halifax.
The ship carrying the bulk of the 96th
Regiment had to put back to England after two attempts
due to damage. The Regiment was commended by the Admiralty for its efforts
in helping to save the ship!
A total of sixteen ships were chartered, some
of which made more than one voyage.
By the end of December 1861, the harbour of Halifax
was filling up with troop ships.
The next problem was the onwards movement of
those troops which were destined for Canada.
At Halifax, the military staff under the Commander,
Major General Sir Hastings Doyle, had been working on
normal winter route to Canada was by the railway from
Maine to Montreal.
Given the pending war, this was not an acceptable
the basic plan was that the troops would be conveyed
to Saint John, there were two options for their onward
first choice was the tried and true one up the Saint
John River to present day Edmundston and then overland
to Rivière du Loup.
An alternate route, which used the rail link
from Saint John to Shediac and then went by road to
Campbellton and overland to Métis on the Saint
Lawrence, was investigated but discarded. So,
while the troops were crossing the Atlantic, the military
staff was busy arranging for transportation, lodgings
and food along the Saint John River route.
The desire to use modern methods of transportation
was quite evident.
A portion of the Saint Andrews and Quebec Railway
had been built from Saint Andrews to Canterbury and
it was initially thought that this would be the best
way to move the troops as far as Woodstock.
However, this did not work out as the railway
proved to be unequal to the task due to the cold weather
and the quantity of snow on the tracks.
The route, as finally used, ran overland from
Saint John to Fredericton, then along the West Bank
to Grand Falls where it crossed over the suspension
bridge to the East Bank, and onwards to Little Falls
(Edmundston) before going North to Fort Ingall and then
over the "Grand Portage" to Rivière
du Loup. Baring
weather delays, it took ten days to complete the journey
by sleigh. Nine
overnight stops were arranged and these were manned
by detachments of the Military Train, Army Hospital
Corps and the Commissariat Staff Corps. Food was purchased locally although the Commissary set up bakeries
at Grand Falls and Fort Ingall.
An advanced headquarters was established at Saint
John to control the movement of the troops.
The 1st Bn Military Train was charged with the
management of the transportation.
The contract for this had been arranged by Assistant
Commissary General Mahon at Fredericton and was awarded
to three contractors who divided the route into three
stages (Saint John to Fredericton, Fredericton to Little
Falls and Little Falls to Rivière du Loup).
These contractors provided roughly constructed
two-horsed sleighs, which were capable of holding eight
men facing each other.
Guards, being larger men, could only put six in each
sleigh was provided with a small repair kit consisting
of a saw, hammer, nails, clasp knife and cord for repairs
or emergencies on the road plus an allocation of snow
shovels and snowshoes.
Many of the drivers and horses were normally
employed in the lumber trade, or were local farmers,
and so were familiar with the winter conditions that
would be encountered. Similar sleighs were provided for the carriage of the eighteen
Armstrong guns of the three Field Batteries.
The troops were divided into packets of approximately
160 men for movement. A typical packet consisted of
a sleigh with half of the officers, baggage sleighs
with an escort, sleighs with the main body of troops
and the last sleigh with the remaining half of the officers.
Prior to departing England, each soldier was provided
with cold weather clothing consisting of: furcaps with
ear lappets, woollen comforters, chamois waistcoats,
a flannel shirt and drawers, warm gloves, a pair of
long boots and thick woollen stockings. The men of the
Military Train were also issued a pea jacket. In addition
to this, the men were issued moccasins at Saint John
and the contractors provided straw and buffalo robes
for use in the sleighs. For further warmth, the men
were provided with hot meals at breakfast, midday and
supper. They were also encouraged to run alongside the
sleighs in shifts to maintain circulation. Medical officers
travelled with most groups and others were located at
each of the halts.
The route had improved considerably since the
previous deployments over it.
It now followed an established road.
The part through New Brunswick was not good as
it was in poor repair whilst the portion in Canada was
well kept. Snow
ploughs and rollers were used to keep it open during
the bad weather. Where
possible the troops were billeted in existing buildings
such as houses, hotels, warehouses or barns. They were
fortunate to be able to use the barracks in Saint John
and Fredericton and the abandoned post at Fort Ingall
It was only at Petersville and St. Francis that
temporary long, low log buildings called "cabanos"
had to be build for shelter. The officers stayed in nearby hotels or private homes.
During the march of the 104th Regiment in the
winter of 1813, a company had been storm delayed in
the area between Fort Ingall and Rivière du Loup,
and so reserve stores of food were made to guard against
All told, the force had a much easier trip than
the 104th had in 1813 when they had to march on foot
The following table shows the details of the
route and the overnight stopping places that were set
OF THE OVERLAND MARCH|
Headquarters. Major General Rumley commanding.|
30 ( 30)|
30 ( 60)|
29 ( 89)|
for 200 men for 30 days stocked here. |
for 200 men for 5 days stocked here|
to Grand Trunk Railway.|
began leaving Halifax for Saint John on 1 January 1862.
The first of these was the 62nd Regiment, which
was headquartered in Halifax with detachments in Fredericton,
Saint John and Saint John's.
They, along with an ad hoc battery of field artillery
and a third of the 1st Battalion of the Military Train,
sailed from Saint John to Saint Andrews where they went
by train to Canterbury and then by sleigh to Woodstock
and onwards. Their
role was to secure the route from any possible American
interference, especially by units of the Northern Army
at Houlton, Maine and to garrison the stopping places
if required. Had
it been necessary, they would have been supported by
the 1st Battalion of the Rifle Brigade.
Fortunately this was not necessary as the crisis
had subsided by the end of December and the Confederate
Commissioners were released on 9 January 1862.
The troops who were already en route continued
but any new departures from Britain were halted.
mid-January, the Saint Andrews option had been abandoned
and the troops were leaving directly from Saint John.
The command and control of the move was quite
the route crossed the border between the Nova Scotia
and Canada Commands, it was decided that the overland
portion of the move from Saint John to Rivière
du Loup would be commanded by Nova Scotia Command from
a headquarters located in Saint John vice Halifax.
Canada Command would then be responsible for
the entraining and onward movement to Quebec, Montreal
and more Westerly locations. The movement
of the troops was regulated by the use of the telegraph.
This necessitated the speedy establishment of
telegraph offices at any of the nightly stops that did
not already have one.
The officers in charge of the groups of troops
would report in every evening. Based on this information, their travel could be controlled
and delayed if preceding groups were held up by storms
as did occasionally happen.
Further control was exercised by staff officers
who constantly moved up and down the route in express
13 March 1862, the last group of troops had cleared
Rivière du Loup.
In all, 274 Officers and 6544 NCOs, Rank and
File passed along the route.
This included the guns and equipment of the three
field batteries of artillery, which would obtain their
horses once in Canada.
The two battalions of the Military Train would
also acquire their horses and waggons in Canada. There
was also an unrecorded quantity of military stores.
Curiously, the rate at which the force was moved along
the route was not dictated by availability of sleighs
but by the ability of the GTR to provide railcars at
Rivière du Loup. The cost of transporting the
troops was found to be no more expensive than the cost
of an equivalent move using the British rail system.
It is recorded that the troops were received with great warmth and kindness
all along their route, which greatly eased their passage.
The following is a list of the regiments and
other units that made the overland march to Canada during
the winter of 1861/62:
1st Battalion Grenadier Guards
2nd Battalion Scots Fusilier Guards
one company 1st Battalion 16th (Bedfordshire)
62nd (Wiltshire) Regiment
63rd (West Suffolk) Regiment
1st Battalion The Rifle Brigade
E, F, and G Batteries 4th Brigade Field Artillery
Numbers 5 and 6 Batteries 7th Brigade Garrison
Numbers 1, 4, 5 and 6 Batteries 10th Brigade
Number 15 and 18 Companies Royal Engineers
Support Corps and Others
56 Cavalry Instructors for Cavalry and Volunteers
1st and 3rd Battalions Military Train
Detachments of Medical Officers and men of the
Army Hospital Corps
of Commissariat Officers and men of the Commissariat
When planning the move, there were three main
considerations: enemy, weather and desertion. Fortunately,
there was no enemy threat as the Trent Crisis had subsided
by the end of December and the North had decided to
release the Confederate Commissioners. However, it was
decided to continue with the deployment of the tasked
troops but additional forces that had been warned were
stood down. The North graciously offered to allow the
force to use the Portland, Maine to Montreal railway
link. The British Authorities prudently declined this
offer. However the Staff, who had sailed on a "lame
duck" ship which took 29 days to reach Halifax
vice the normal 12 or 13, did not reach Halifax until
5 January 1862. As they had to quickly reach Canada,
they prudently covered up their military baggage labels
and took the next Cunard Mail Steamer to Boston and
then the U.S. railway to Montreal.
Because of the excellent medical arrangements,
there were few casualties during the move. Not more
than 70 men were admitted to the hospitals en route.
Only two died as the result of disease and another two
died due to excess drinking. Of the eleven cases of
frostbite, only one was serious and that was because
it was combined with excessive drinking. Although temperatures
of as low as -25 degrees Fahrenheit were recorded, it
was considered to be a mild winter as there was little
wind. While there were some delays due to weather, the
only serious one was caused by a blizzard on 21/23 January.
Desertion was also minimal. The "crimps" were
very active along the Maine - New Brunswick border.
There was a great demand for trained soldiers in the
Union Army. British soldiers were offered tempting bounties
and promotion if they would desert and enlist in the
Union army. The town of Tobique (present day Andover)
was a particular hot bed for this. The Lieutenant Governor
of New Brunswick called out the militia to help guard
against the "crimps" as well to assist with
the movement of the troops. The officers travelling
in each of the packets were specially charged to be
on their guard. All told, there were only nine desertions,
three of these being at Tobique.
Once in Canada, the employment of the troops
Although the threat of invasion by the North
had dissipated, a defensive posture was maintained. There was a reduction in the force level in Canada during the
summer of 1862.
By the Fall of 1862, the force had been divided
into three manoeuvre groups.
The group based in London, Ontario could counter
any intrusions along the Detroit/Windsor border and
reinforce operations along the Niagara border.
Similarly, the one based in Toronto could support
the Niagara frontier or move East to Kingston or even
third group, which made up the bulk of the force including
a Brigade of Guards, was in Montreal and could block
any moves up the historic Richeleau River invasion route
in addition to moving either West or East along the
Saint Lawrence River.
Each of these manoeuvre groups consisted of a
battalion or more of infantry, a battery or two of field
artillery, perhaps a company of engineers and, for mobility,
at least a troop of the Military Train.
For operations, they would have been reinforced
by militia infantry, artillery and cavalry as required.
There was another manoeuvre group based in New
Brunswick, which could counter any initial attacks across
the Maine border.
Had difficulties occurred here, this group could
have been swiftly reinforced from Halifax and have been
supported by the Royal Navy.
In addition to mounting guards and training themselves,
the regular army garrisons were also used to train the
units of the growing Canadian Volunteer Militia.
Regular officers instructed at the Military Schools
that had been established in 1864.
Beginning in 1865, the British Regulars ran Militia
Camps of Instruction were held in various locations
such as La Prairie and Fredericton.
When not on duty, a popular activity amongst
the officers was to visit the Union and Confederate
armies in the field.
One of the first to do this was Colonel Clark-Kennedy,
the Colonel-Commandant of the Military Train, when he
visited the Union Army of the Potomac in February 1862.
After his visit to the Army of Northern Virginia,
Lieutenant Colonel Wolseley thought that a division
of regular troops acting in consort with either side
would turn the tide of the war.
At that time, a British division consisted of
between ten and twelve regiments of infantry, which
was fairly close to the force that the British had in
The effort expended in training the Volunteer
Militia was greatly repaid in the following years when
they were called out to patrol the border when relations
with the North were again strained by Confederate Agents
using Canada as a base for raids against the North and
when the Fenians threatened Canada in 1866 and 1870.
Many of the British units that had deployed in
response to the "Trent Affair" were still
in Canada and provided valuable service during both
the Fenian Raids and the Red River Expedition of 1870.
Defence was one of the major unifying factors
that brought the British Colonies in North America into
Confederation in 1867.
The British Forces, by their presence and by
their training of the militia, made a significant contribution
to the defence of both Canada and the Maritime Provinces
as they responded to the threats posed by the American
Civil War, the Fenians and the rebellion in the Red
In retrospect, it is not surprising that the
Trent Affair is an almost forgotten event. No blood
was spilled during it and, once in British North America,
the troops had a fairly easy go of it. One of the greatest
hazards that the young officers faced was avoiding the
charms of the Belles of Montreal. However, their winter
deployment across the Atlantic and the sleigh ride through
New Brunswick is another matter. I am not aware of a
similar feat in British military history. Hopefully,
this article has shed a bit of light on the otherwise
bland remarks in regimental histories or soldier's papers
to the effect that they served in Canada or Nova Scotia
Predecessors of the Royal Army Service Corps
by Lt Col C.H. Massè MC
Victorian Soldier and his Times
by Lt Col A.E. Clark-Kennedy
on Army Health for 1862
(Canada portion) as kindly provided by Capt (Retd) P.H.
Starling, R.A.M.C. Historical Museum
Story of a Soldiers Life
by Field Marshall Viscount Wolseley
Garrisons in the West
by Lt Francis Duncan RA
Various editions 1861 and 1862
David. The New Brunswick Militia, 1787 - 1867.
Fredericton: New Ireland Press, 1990.
Elinor Kyte. Roots of the Canadian Army: Montreal
District 1846 - 1870. Montreal: Society of the Montreal
Military & Maritime Museum, 1981.
George F.G. Canada's Soldiers - The Military History
of an Unmilitary People. Toronto: MacMillan Company,