- The Washington Times - Friday, February 16, 2007

Though it is commonplace to read of the exploits of Confederate naval officers in England during the war and to hear them called heroes, it is rare for that accolade to be accorded to a civilian. Alan Stuart Hanckel surely deserves it, if only for his part in the so-called Trent Affair.

Hanckel was born in Charleston, S.C., in 1837. He married Charlotte Heyward, but she died in 1860.

He then moved to Liverpool, England, taking a position in the offices of the Fraser Trenholm Co., where he worked under Charles K. Prioleau, a fellow Charleston native.

After the outbreak of the Civil War, George Alfred Trenholm decided to test the effectiveness of the federal blockade of the Confederacy’s ports. He selected Hanckel as a “named” owner of one of three ships to be used to test the blockade. The use of different vessel owners was intended to fool the American consul in Liverpool, who was trying to foil the operations of Confederates in England, especially Liverpool.

As an agent for Trenholm, Hanckel traveled between Liverpool and Confederate ports. It was on a return trip to England that the Trent Affair occurred.

The Confederacy had chosen James Mason of Virginia and John Slidell of Louisiana as ministers to Great Britain and France, respectively, in late summer 1861. They boarded a British mail steamer, the Trent, in Cuba for passage across the Atlantic Ocean to England. Hanckel also was a passenger, returning to Liverpool after visiting the South. Through their extensive intelligence organization, the U.S. authorities were aware that the two commissioners were aboard the Trent with their secretaries.

On Nov. 8, 1861, the USS San Jacinto intercepted and halted the Trent 300 miles east of Havana by firing two shots across her bow. Hanckel obviously was well aware of the identity of the Trent’s two high-ranking passengers, and when he saw a boarding party approaching the Trent, he quickly realized the gravity of the situation.

He went to the cabins of both the commissioners, and, after a short discussion, collected their official diplomatic papers and took the papers to his cabin for safekeeping.

The boarding party from the San Jacinto seized the two Confederate diplomats and their secretaries before allowing the Trent to resume its voyage. This decision to take the diplomats from a British ship became a source of great controversy, with the British claiming that the San Jacinto had violated international law by removing persons from a ship without taking the ship to a prize court for adjudication.

After much political wrangling, the United States acknowledged wrongdoing by releasing the prisoners on Jan. 1, 1862. Mason and Slidell traveled to Europe at last to take up their posts in London and Paris. No doubt they were grateful for Hanckel’s foresight in preventing the United States from seizing what obviously were secret papers.

Commander James Dunwoody Bulloch, Confederate States Navy, also had occasion to use Hanckel’s services, and he noted the following in a letter to Secretary of the Navy Stephen Mallory in July 1864:

“I avail myself of the departure of Mr. Alan S. Hanckel, of South Carolina, for the Confederate States to send you duplicates of my dispatches dated Paris, June 10, ultimo, and Liverpool, July 8 instant, with account sales of Georgia and original of July 12, with extract from my letter to you of February 20, 1864. … I beg to introduce Mr. Hanckel to you. He has promised to deliver my dispatches in person, and has on many occasions assisted me in matters wherein I could not have trusted anyone but a countryman.”

Alan Stuart Hanckel died at the Roselands in Formby, near Liverpool, on May 4, 1894.

He is buried in Holy Trinity churchyard. The grave is badly in need of repair and restoration.

Roy Rawlinson operates a Web site called When Liverpool Was Dixie (https://www.csa-dixie.com/liverpool_dixie/). He lives in Southport, England, 17 miles from Liverpool.

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