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Trent Affair

The Trent Affair of 1861

by 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 society.  Unfortunately, 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 neutrality.  The 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 Lake Champlain.  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 for shipment.  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 this.  The normal winter route to Canada was by the railway from Maine to Montreal.  Given the pending war, this was not an acceptable option.  While the basic plan was that the troops would be conveyed to Saint John, there were two options for their onward movement.  The 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.  The Guards, being larger men, could only put six in each one.  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 was refurbished.  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 this possibility.  All told, the force had a much easier trip than the 104th had in 1813 when they had to march on foot pulling toboggans!

       The following table shows the details of the route and the overnight stopping places that were set up:







   0 (  0)

Saint John

Controlling Headquarters. Major General Rumley commanding.


  30 ( 30)




  30 ( 60)




  29 ( 89)




  32 (121)




  23 (144)




  26 (170)

Tobique (Andover)



  24 (194)

Grand Falls



  36 (230)

Little Falls




Mid-day stop

Degele (Degèlis)



  37 (267)

Fort Ingall (Cabano)

Rations for 200 men for 30 days stocked here.


Mid-day stop

St. Francis

Rations for 200 men for 5 days stocked here


  42 (309)

Rivière du Loup

Transfer to Grand Trunk Railway.

Troops 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.

By 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 simple.  Although 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 sleighs.  By 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) Regiment

      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 Artillery

      Numbers 1, 4, 5 and 6 Batteries 10th Brigade Garrison Artillery


       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

      Detachments of Commissariat Officers and men of the Commissariat Staff Corps

        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 was non-eventful.  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 Montreal.  The 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 Canada.

        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 River District.

        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 - 1862.  


 The Predecessors of the Royal Army Service Corps by Lt Col C.H. Massè MC

 A Victorian Soldier and his Times by Lt Col A.E. Clark-Kennedy

 Report on Army Health for 1862 (Canada portion) as kindly provided by Capt (Retd) P.H. Starling, R.A.M.C. Historical Museum

 The Story of a Soldiers Life by Field Marshall Viscount Wolseley

 Our Garrisons in the West by Lt Francis Duncan RA

 Illustrated London News. Various editions 1861 and 1862

 Facey-Crowther, David. The New Brunswick Militia, 1787 - 1867. Fredericton: New Ireland Press, 1990.

 Senior, Elinor Kyte. Roots of the Canadian Army: Montreal District 1846 - 1870. Montreal: Society of the Montreal Military & Maritime Museum, 1981.

 Stanley, George F.G. Canada's Soldiers - The Military History of an Unmilitary People. Toronto: MacMillan Company,



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