Britain in the American Civil War

Britain in the American Civil War

The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland was officially neutral in the American Civil War. Confederate strategy depended on British and French intervention and that never happened; intervention would have meant war with the U.S. Although Britain at all times remained officially neutral, a serious conflict erupted over the "Trent Affair" in 1861, and a British shipyard (John Laird and Sons) built two warships for the Confederacy over vehement U.S. protests. British also built and operated most of the blockade runners, but that was legal. In the end, these instances of minor British involvement neither affected the outcome of the war nor provoked the U.S. into declaring war against Britain. The United States' mission headed by Charles Francis Adams, Sr. proved much more successful than the Confederate missions, which were never officially recognized.

Confederate policies

The Confederacy, and its president Jefferson Davis, believed from the beginning that European dependence on cotton for its textile industry would lead to diplomatic recognition and intervention, in the form of mediation. Historian Charles Hubbard writes:

U.S. policies

The Union’s main focus in foreign affairs was just the opposite -- to prevent any British recognition of the South that might encourage France and other nations to follow suit. There had been continuous improvement in Anglo-American relations throughout the 1850s. The issues of the “Oregon territory, British involvement in Texas, and the Canadian border dispute” had all been resolved. Secretary of State William H. Seward, the primary architect of American foreign policy during the war, intended to maintain the policy principles that had served the country well since the American Revolution – non-intervention by the United States in the affairs of other countries and resistance to foreign intervention in the affairs of the United States and other countries in this hemisphere.” [Jones pg. 2-3. Hubbard pg. 17. Mahin pg. 12]

British policies

Even before the war, British Prime Minister Henry Palmerston urged a policy of neutrality. His international concerns were centered in Europe where he had to watch both Napoleon III’s ambitions in Europe and Bismarck’s rise in Germany. During the Civil War, British reactions to American events were shaped by past British policies and their own national interests, both strategically and economically. In the Western Hemisphere, as relations with the United States improved, Britain had become cautious about confronting the United States over issues in Central America. As a naval power, Britain had a long record of insisting that neutral nations abide by its blockades, a perspective that led from the earliest days of the war to de facto support for the Union blockade and frustration in the South. [Berwanger pg. 874. Hubbard pg. 18. Baxter, "The British Government and Neutral Rights", pg. 9. Baxter wrote, “…the British government, while defending the rights of British merchants and shipowners, kept one eye on the precedents and the other on the future interests of the mistress of the sea.”]

Diplomatic obervers were suspicious of British motives. The Russian Minister in Washington Eduard de Stoeckl noted, “The Cabinet of London is watching attentively the internal dissensions of the Union and awaits the result with an impatience which it has difficulty in disguising.” De Stoeckl advised his government that Great Britain would recognize the Confederate States at its earliest opportunity. Cassius Clay, the United States Minister in Russia, stated, “I saw at a glance where the feeling of England was. They hoped for our ruin! They are jealous of our power. They care neither for the South nor the North. They hate both.” [Graebner p.60-61]

Lincoln appointed Charles Francis Adams as minister to Britain. An important part of his mission was to make clear to the British that the war was strictly an internal insurrection affording the Confederacy no rights under international law. Any movement by Britain towards officially recognizing the Confederacy would be considered an unfriendly act towards the United States. Seward’s instructions to Adams included the suggestion that it be made clear to Britain that a nation with widely scattered possessions, as well as a homeland that included Scotland and Ireland, should be very wary of “set [ting] a dangerous precedent.” [Mahin pg. 47. Taylor pg. 177]

Lord Lyons was appointed as the British minister to the United States in April 1859. An Oxford graduate, he had two decades of diplomatic experience before being given the American post. [Dubrulle pg. 1234.] Lyons, like many British leaders, had reservations about Seward, reservations he shared freely in his correspondence which was widely circulated within the British government. [Warren pg. 82.] As early as January 7, 1861, well before the Lincoln administration had even assumed office, Lyons wrote to British Foreign Secretary Lord Russell about Seward:

Despite his distrust of Seward, throughout 1861 Lyons maintained a “calm and measured” diplomacy that contributed to a peaceful resolution to the Trent crisis. [ Dubrulle pg. 1234.]


The Confederate States of America came into existence when seven of the 15 slave states protested the election of Republican president Lincoln, because his party had made clear its commitment to the containment of slavery geographically and the weaking of its political power. Republicans typically denounced the Slave Power. However slavery was the cornerstone of the South's plantation economy and its system of white supremacy; yet it was repugnant to the moral sensibilities of most people in Britain, which had abolished slavery in its Empire in the 1830s. But up to the fall of 1862, the immediate end of slavery was not an issue in the war and in fact, some Union states (Kentucky, West Virginia, Maryland, Missouri and Delaware) still allowed slavery. Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation, by making ending slavery an objective of the war, had caused European intervention on the side of the South to be politically unappetizing. Pro-Southern leaders in Britain therefore spoke of mediation looking forward to peace, though they understood that meant the independence of the Confederacy and continuation of slavery.

The "Trent" Affair

Outright war between the U.S. and Britain was a possibility in the fall of 1861, when a U.S. naval officer, Captain Charles Wilkes, took control of a British mail ship and seized two Confederate diplomats. Confederate President Jefferson Davis had named James M. Mason of Virginia and John Slidell of Louisiana, as commissioners to represent Confederate interests abroad, Mason was en route to England and Slidell to France. They slipped out of Charleston, South Carolina, on a blockade runner at the beginning of October and went via the British Bahamas to Spanish Havana, where they took passage for England on the British mail steamer "Trent".

The USS "San Jacinto" had put in at a Cuban port, looking for news of Confederate agents who were reported to be active in that vicinity. Wilkes, received word of Mason and Slidell's presence. It was generally agreed at this time that a nation at war had the right to stop and search a neutral merchant ship if it suspected that ship of carrying the enemy's dispatches. Mason and Slidell, Wilkes reasoned, were in effect Confederate dispatches, and he had the right to remove them. So on November 8, 1861, he steamed out into the Bahama Channel, fired twice across the "Trent"’s bow, sent a boat's crew aboard, seized the Confederate commissioners, and bore them off in triumph to the United States, where they were held prisoner in Boston. Wilkes was hailed as a national hero. Congress voted him its thanks, and Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles, commended him.

This triggered an uproar in Britain. Eleven thousand British troops were sent to Canada, the British fleet was put on a war footing, with plans to capture New York City, and a sharp note was dispatched to Washington demanding return of the prisoners and an apology. Lincoln, concerned about Britain entering the war, issued an apology and ordered the prisoners released.

War was unlikely in any event, for the U.S. was providing Britain with over 40% of its wheat ("corn") imports during the war years, and suspension would have caused massive famine because Britain imported about 35-45% of its grain, and poor crops in France made it even more dependent on shiploads from New York. Britain's loss of cotton was made up by imports from other countries by 1863. Furthermore, Britain was making large profits selling munitions to the Union. [ Ginzberg, (1936)]

The The Lyons-Seward Treaty of 1862 was an agreement to clamp down hard on the Atlantic slave trade, using the U.S. Navy and the Royal Navy.

Potentially recognizing the Confederacy

Much more serious was the situation that developed late in the summer of 1862. At that time, as far as any European could see, the Confederacy was beginning to look very much like the winner.The Northern attempt to capture the Confederate capital had failed, and in the East and West alike the Confederates were on the offensive. Charles Francis Adams, Sr. warned United States Secretary of State that the British government might very soon offer to mediate the difficulty between North and South, which would be a polite but effective way of intimating that in the opinion of Britain the fight had gone on long enough and ought to be ended by giving the South what it wanted.

Earl Russell had given Mason no encouragement whatever, but after news of the Second Battle of Bull Run reached London and the Prime Minister, agreed that along in late September or thereabouts there should be a cabinet meeting at which Prime Minister and Foreign Secretary would ask approval of the mediation proposal. (Implicit in all of this was the idea that if the United States government should refuse to accept mediation, Britain would go ahead and recognize the Confederacy.) Then, Russell and Palmerston concluded not to bring the plan before the cabinet until they got further word about Robert E. Lee's invasion of the North. If the Northerners were beaten, then the proposal would go through; if Lee failed, then it might be well to wait a little longer before taking any action.

The British working class population, most notably the British cotton workers during the Lancashire Cotton Famine, remained consistently opposed to the Confederacy. But the decisive factor, in the fall of 1862 and increasingly thereafter, was the Battle of Antietam and what grew out of it.

Antietam by itself showed that Lee's invasion was not going to bring that final, conclusive Confederate triumph which had been anticipated. The swift recession of the high Confederate tide was as visible in Britain as in America, and in the end Palmerston and Russell concluded that it would not be advisable to bring the mediation-recognition program before the cabinet.

Far more significant than Antietam, however, was the Emancipation Proclamation.

The Emancipation Proclamation

During the late spring and early summer of 1862, Lincoln had come to see that he must broaden the base of the war. The Union itself was not enough; the undying vitality and drive of Northern antislavery men must be brought into full, vigorous support of the war effort, and to bring this about the Northern government must officially declare itself against slavery. Abraham Lincoln was preparing such a speech and would not give it until a major victory took place. Antietam gave Lincoln the victory he had to have, and on September 22 he issued the famous proclamation, the gist of which was that on January 1, 1863, all slaves held in a state or a part of a state which was in rebellion should be free. The Northern Government now was committed to a broader cause, with deep, mystic overtones; it was fighting for union and for human freedom as well, and the very nature of the Union for which it was fighting would be permanently deepened and enriched. A war goal with emotional power as direct and enduring as the Confederacy's own had at last been erected for all men to see.

And in Europe the American Civil War had become something in which no western government dared to intervene. The governments of Britain, France, or any other nation could play power politics as it chose, as long as the war meant nothing more than a government's attempt to put down a rebellion; but no government that had to pay the least attention to the sentiment of its own people could take sides against a government which was trying to destroy slavery. The British cabinet was never asked to consider the proposition which Palmerston and Russell had been talking about, and after 1862 the chance that Great Britain would decide in favor of the Confederacy became smaller and smaller and presently vanished entirely. The Emancipation Proclamation had locked the Confederates in an anachronism that could not survive in the modern world.

Confederate diplomacy

International diplomacy

Once the war with the United States began, the best hope for the survival of the Confederacy was military intervention by Britain and France. The U.S. realized that too and made it clear that recognition of the Confederacy meant war with the United States — and the cutoff of food shipments into Britain. The Confederates who had believed in "King Cotton" — that is, Britain had to support the Confederacy to obtain cotton for its industries— were proven wrong. Britain, in fact, had ample stores of cotton in 1861 and depended much more on grain from the U.S.

During its existence, the Confederate government sent repeated delegations to Europe; historians do not give them high marks for diplomatic skills. James M. Mason was sent to London as Confederate minister to Queen Victoria, and John Slidell was sent to Paris as minister to Napoleon III. Both were able to obtain private meetings with high British and French officials, but they failed to secure official recognition for the Confederacy. Britain and the United States were at sword's point during the Trent Affair in late 1861. Mason and Slidell had been illegally seized from a British ship by an American warship. Queen Victoria's husband, Prince Albert, helped calm the situation, and Lincoln released Mason and Slidell, so the episode was no help to the Confederacy.

Throughout the early years of the war, British foreign secretary Lord Russell and Napoleon III, and, to a lesser extent, British Prime Minister Lord Palmerston, explored the risks and advantages of recognition of the Confederacy, or at least of offering a mediation. Recognition meant certain war with the United States, loss of American grain, loss of exports to the United States, loss of huge investments in American securities, loss of Canada and other North American colonies, much higher taxes, many lives lost and a severe threat to the entire British merchant marine, in exchange for the possibility of some cotton. Many party leaders and the general public wanted no war with such high costs and meager benefits. Recognition was considered following the Second Battle of Manassas when the British government was preparing to mediate in the conflict, but the Union victory at the Battle of Antietam and Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation, combined with internal opposition, caused the government to back away.

In 1863, the Confederacy expelled all foreign consuls (all of them British or French diplomats) for advising their subjects to refuse to serve in combat against the U.S.

Throughout the war most European powers adopted a policy of neutrality, meeting informally with Confederate diplomats but withholding diplomatic recognition. None ever sent an ambassador or official delegation to Richmond. However, they applied international law principles that recognized the Union and Confederate sides as belligerents. British Canada allowed both Confederate and Union agents to work openly within its borders.

Col. Fremantle predicts Confederate success

In 1863 Col. Arthur Fremantle, a member of Her Majesty's Coldstream Guards, visited North and South on an informal fact-finding trip.

Fremantle witnessed the Battle of Gettysburg as part of a cadre of foreign observers attached to the headquarters of Lt. General James Longstreet. After the battle he went north, arriving in New York City the day before the outbreak of the New York Draft Riots. On return to London he wrote a book on his experiences in America, "Three Months in the Southern States", which was published three months before the end of the war. Despite what he saw at Gettysburg, the book predicted a certain Southern victory.

urrender of the CSS Shenandoah

The Captain of HMS "Donegal" took the last surrender of the American Civil War on 6 November 1865 when the "CSS Shenandoah" under Captain Waddell surrendered after travelling 9,000 miles (14,500 km) to Liverpool to do so, who then turned her over to the United States. The "Shenandoah" had originally been in the Pacific Ocean when news reached her of the end of the Civil War, necessitating such a long voyage. [ [ The confederate surrender] ] The CSS Shenandoah was turned over to British authorities and sold at auction on authority of the US consulate

Treaty of Washington (1871)

Northerners were outraged at British tolerance of non-neutral acts, especially the building of warships. The U.S. turned a blind eye to the Fenian raids some Irish veterans attempted against Canada. The U.S. demanded vast reparations for the damages caused by British built commerce raiders, especially the "Alabama". The dispute raged for years and went to arbitration at Geneva. In 1872, the U.S. was awarded $15,500,000 pursuant to the terms of the Treaty of Washington (1871), and the British apologized for the destruction caused by the British-built Confederate ships, while admitting no guilt.

ee also

Canada in the American Civil War
Bahamas in the American Civil War


* Adams, Ephraim Douglass. "Great Britain and the American Civil War" (2 vol. 1925) [ online edition of 1958 reprint]
* Baxter, James P. 3rd. "Papers Relating to Belligerent and Neutral Rights, 1861-1865". "American Historical Review" Vol 34 No 1 (Oct 1928) [ in JSTOR]
* Baxter, James P. 3rd. "The British Government and Neutral Rights, 1861-1865." "American Historical Review" Vol 34 No 1 (Oct 1928) [ in JSTOR]
* Berwanger, Eugene H. "The British Foreign Service and the American Civil War." (1994), the diplomats and consuls
* Blackett, R. J. M. "Divided Hearts: Britain and the American Civil War" (2001) 273pp
* Bourne Kenneth. "Britain and the Balance of Power in North America, 1815-1908." (1967)
* Bourne, Kenneth. "British Preparations for War with the North, 1861-1862". "The English Historical Review" Vol 76 No 301 (Oct 1961) pp 600-632 [ in JSTOR]
* Brauer, Kinley J. "The Slavery Problem in the Diplomacy of the American Civil War," "Pacific Historical Review," Vol. 46, No. 3 (Aug., 1977), pp. 439-469 [ in JSTOR]
* Brauer, Kinley J. "British Mediation and the American Civil War: A Reconsideration," "Journal of Southern History," Vol. 38, No. 1 (Feb., 1972), pp. 49-64 [ in JSTOR]
* Campbell, Duncan Andrew, "English Public Opinion and the American Civil War" (2003)
* Cook Adrian. "The Alabama Claims: American Politics and Anglo-American Relations, 1861-1872." (1975)
* Crook, David Paul. "The North, the South, and the Powers, 1861-1865" (1974.)
* Crook, D. P. "Diplomacy During the American Civil War". (1975).
* Ferris, Norman B. "Desperate Diplomacy: William H. Seward's Foreign Policy, 1861". (1976) 265pp, scholarly study of 1861.
* Ferris, Norman B. "The Trent Affair: A Diplomatic Crisis" (1977) standard history
* Gentry, Judith Fenner. "A Confederate Success in Europe: The Erlanger Loan," "Journal of Southern History," Vol. 36, No. 2 (May, 1970), pp. 157-188 [ in JSTOR]
* Ginzberg, Eli. "The Economics of British Neutrality during the American Civil War," "Agricultural History," Vol. 10, No. 4 (Oct., 1936), pp. 147-156 [ in JSTOR]
* Graebner, Norman A., "Northern Diplomacy and European Neutrality" in "Why the North Won the Civil War" edited by David Herbert Donald. (1960) ISBN 0-684-82506-6 (1996 Revision)
* Hubbard, Charles M. "The Burden of Confederate Diplomacy" (1998) 271pp
* Hyman, Harold Melvin. "Heard Round the World; the Impact Abroad of the Civil War". (1969).
* Jenkins, Brian. "Britain & the War for the Union". (2 vol 1974), by Canadian scholar
* Jones, Howard. "Union in Peril: The Crisis over British Intervention in the Civil War" (1992)
* Jones, Howard. "Abraham Lincoln and a New Birth of Freedom: the Union and Slavery in the Diplomacy of the Civil War," (1999)
* Lester, Richard I. "Confederate Finance and Purchasing in Great Britain." (1975).
* Lorimer, Douglas A. "The Role of Anti-Slavery Sentiment in English Reactions to the American Civil War," "Historical Journal," Vol. 19, No. 2 (Jun., 1976), pp. 405-420 [ in JSTOR]
* Macdonald, Helen Grace. "Canadian Public Opinion and the American Civil War" (1926)
* Merli, Frank J. "The Alabama, British Neutrality, and the American Civil War." (2004). 225 pp.
* Merli, Frank J. "Great Britain and the Confederate Navy, 1861-1865" (1971) 360pp
* Nevins, Allan. "Britain, France and the War Issues." In Allan Nevins, "The War for the Union: War Becomes Revolution, 1862-1863," (1960) pp. 242-274, excellent summary
* Owsley, Frank Lawrence. "King Cotton Diplomacy: Foreign Relations of the Confederate States of America" (1931)
* Milne, A. Taylor. "The Lyons-Seward Treaty of 1862," "American Historical Review," Vol. 38, No. 3 (Apr., 1933), pp. 511-525 [ in JSTOR]
* Taylor, John M. "William Henry Seward: Lincoln's Right Hand" (1991), 340pp; popular biography that praises Seward
* Van Deusen, Glyndon G. "William Henry Seward" (1967), standard biography.
* Warren, Gordon H. "Fountain of Discontent: The Trent Affair and Freedom of the Seas" (1981), 317pp, based on extensive archival work
* Winks Robin W. "Canada and the United States: The Civil War Years." (1971).


External links

* []
* []
*Civil War Potpourri Page []
*Arthur Fremantle

Book Sources

* Michael, Shaara, "The Killer Angels", The Random House Publishing Group, 1974, ISBN 1586635247.
* Adams, Ephraim D., "Great Britain and the American Civil War", Russell & Russell, ISBN 1406802808

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