Today in History

Today in History: November 8

The Trent Affair

tall ships with sails
The San Jacinto, Having Overhauled the British Mail Packet Trent, Forces her to Heave to…,
Photomechanical print,
1861.
Prints & Photographs Online Catalog

On November 8, 1861, U.S. Navy Captain Charles Wilkes commanded the crew of the U.S.S. San Jacinto to intercept the British mail steamer Trent and arrest Confederate commissioners James M. Mason and John Slidell. En route to Europe to rally support for the Confederate cause, the two men and their secretaries were brought ashore and imprisoned at Fort Warren in Boston Harbor.

The seizure of Mason and Slidell sparked an international controversy that brought the United States to the brink of war with Great Britain. Claiming violation of international law, Britain demanded release of the commissioners and ordered troops to Canada to prepare for a potential Anglo-American conflict. To avoid a clash, Secretary of State William H. Seward apologized for the incident. The diplomats were released in early January 1862, bringing the Trent Affair to a peaceful close.

Portrait of Rear Admiral Charles Wilkes, officer of the Federal Navy
Rear Admiral Charles Wilkes,
between 1860 and 1865.
Selected Civil War Photographs

Captain Wilkes' naval career continued, but only briefly. In 1864, the officer was court-martialed for disobedience, disrespect, insubordination, and conduct unbecoming an officer. Found guilty, Wilkes was publicly reprimanded and suspended for three years. Later, President Lincoln reduced the sentence to one year, and in 1866 the captain was commissioned a rear admiral on the retired list.

The Trent Affair and his court-martial often overshadow Wilkes' early accomplishments as an explorer, navigator, and surveyor. From 1838 to 1842, Wilkes commanded the U.S. Surveying and Exploration Expedition departing from Norfolk, Virginia, to the Pacific Ocean and "South Seas." The expedition's stops included Madeira, the Cape Verde Islands, Tahiti, Sydney, Fiji, Hawaii, the Oregon coast, San Francisco, Manila, Borneo, Cape Town, and St. Helena. His voyage ended in 1842 in New York. Wilkes reported previously undocumented land and is credited as the first person to cite Antarctica as a separate continent.

Learn more about the Civil War and Charles Wilkes from American Memory:

The Skyscrapers of New York

Two frames from the movie Life of a City
The Skyscrapers of New York, 1906.
The Life of a City: Early Films of New York, 1898-1906

On November 8, 1906, cameraman Fred A. Dobson began filming The Skyscrapers of New York atop an uncompleted skyscraper at Broadway and 12th Street. The American Mutoscope and Biograph Company melodrama tells the story of a construction foreman who fires a crew member for fighting—leading the disgruntled employee to steal. The storyline weaves in and around the actual construction of a New York skyscraper. A fascinating depiction of early twentieth-century building techniques, Skyscrapers captures brickmasons in action, workers maneuvering a steel girder into place, and a group of men descending a crane line.

Woolworth Tower at night
Woolworth Building at Night,
New York, New York, between 1910-1920.
Touring Turn-of-the-Century America: Photographs from the Detroit Publishing Company, 1880-1920

A combination of engineering and architectural innovations in the mid-to-late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries transformed the skylines of American cities. Advances in steel manufacturing, engineering, and the advent of the elevator, enabled buildings to grow taller and taller. Chicago architects such as Daniel Burnham (1846-1912) and Louis Sullivan (1856-1924) were charged with reconstructing their city after the great Chicago Fire of 1871 and were early innovators of skyscraper design. At the beginning of the twentieth century, the pace of construction picked up in New York City, where one year’s “tallest” building was superceded by an even taller building the next year.

New York’s iconic Flatiron Building, completed in 1903 and designed by Daniel Burnham’s firm,  was at twenty stories, the tallest building north of the financial district. The793-foot Woolworth Building, designed by architect Cass Gilbert, was the world's tallest building when it opened in New York City in 1913 and was considered a leading example of tall building design.

New York’s Chrysler Building, designed by William Van Alen and built between 1926 and 1930, was for a short time the tallest building in the world at 1,046 feet. It was topped one year later (1931) by the opening of William Lamb’s Empire State Building, originally 1,250 feet tall. The Empire State Building remained the tallest building in the world until 1954.