United Kingdom and the American Civil War
Great Britain was officially neutral throughout the American Civil War, 1861–65. Elite opinion tended to favour the Confederacy, while public opinion tended to favour the United States. Large scale trade continued in both directions with the United States, with the Americans shipping grain to Britain while Britain sent manufactured items and munitions. Immigration continued into the United States. British trade with the Confederacy was limited, with a little cotton going to Britain and some munitions slipped in by numerous small blockade runners. The Confederate strategy for securing independence was largely based on the hope of military intervention by Britain and France, which didn't happen; intervention would have meant war with the United States. A serious diplomatic dispute with the United States erupted over the "Trent Affair" in 1861; it was resolved peacefully in a few months.
A long-term issue was the British shipyard (John Laird and Sons) building two warships for the Confederacy, including the CSS Alabama, over vehement protests from the United States. The controversy was resolved after the Civil War in the form of the Alabama Claims, in which the United States finally was given $15.5 million in arbitration by an international tribunal for damages caused by British-built warships. The British built and operated most of the blockade runners, spending hundreds of millions of pounds on them; but that was legal and not the cause of serious tension. In the end, these instances of British involvement neither shifted the outcome of the war nor provoked the United States into declaring war against Britain. The U.S. diplomatic mission headed by Minister Charles Francis Adams, Sr. proved much more successful than the Confederate missions, which were never officially recognized.
The Confederacy, and its president Jefferson Davis, believed from the beginning in "King Cotton" -- the notion that British dependence on cotton for its large textile industry would lead to diplomatic recognition and mediation or military intervention. The Confederates had not sent out agents ahead of time to ascertain if the King Cotton policy would be effective. Instead by popular demand (not government action) shipments of cotton to Europe were ended in spring 1861. When the Confederate diplomats did arrive they tried to convince British leaders that the American naval blockade was an illegal paper blockade. Historian Charles Hubbard writes:
- "Davis left foreign policy to others in government and, rather than developing an aggressive diplomatic effort, tended to expect events to accomplish diplomatic objectives. The new president was committed to the notion that cotton would secure recognition and legitimacy from the powers of Europe. The men Davis selected as secretary of state and emissaries to Europe were chosen for political and personal reasons – not for their diplomatic potential. This was due, in part, to the belief that cotton could accomplish the Confederate objectives with little help from Confederate diplomats."
Hubbard adds that Davis’ policy was “a rigid and inflexible policy based on economic coercion and force. The stubborn reliance of the Confederates on a King Cotton strategy resulted in a natural resistance to coercion from the Europeans. Davis’s policy was to hold back cotton until the Europeans “came to get it.” The opinions of Secretary of War Judah Benjamin and Secretary of the Treasury Christopher Memminger that cotton should be immediately exported in order to build up foreign credits was overridden by Davis.
The Union’s main goal in foreign affairs was to maintain friendly relations and large scale trade with the world, and prevent any official recognition of the Confederacy by Britain or anyone else. Other concerns included preventing the Confederacy from buying foreign-made warships, plus the Free States gaining European support for policies against slavery, and attracting immigrant laborers, farmers and soldiers. There had been continuous improvement in Anglo-American relations throughout the 1850s. The issues of Oregon, Texas, and the Canadian border had all been resolved and trade was brisk. 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.”
Even before the war, British Prime Minister Viscount Palmerston urged a policy of neutrality. His international concerns were centred 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. 
Diplomatic observers 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 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.”
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 toward officially recognizing the Confederacy would be considered an unfriendly act toward 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.”
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. Lyons, like many British leaders, had reservations about Seward, reservations he shared freely in his correspondence which was widely circulated within the British government. 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:
I cannot help fearing that he will be a dangerous foreign minister. His view of the relations between the United States and Britain had always been that they are a good material to make political capital of. ... I do not think Mr. Seward would contemplate actually going to war with us, but he would be well disposed to play the old game of seeking popularity here by displaying violence toward us.
Despite his distrust of Seward, throughout 1861 Lyons maintained a “calm and measured” diplomacy that contributed to a peaceful resolution to the Trent crisis.
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 weakening of its political power. Republicans typically denounced the Slave Power. However slavery was the cornerstone of the South's plantation economy; 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; in fact, some Union states (Kentucky, Maryland, Missouri, and Delaware) still allowed slavery. In 1861, the state of Missouri had sought to extradite an escaped slave from Canada to face trial for a murder committed in his flight, for which the British believed the punishment was to be burned alive. 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 and John Slidell 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.
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.
The violation of British neutral rights 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 if war broke out, and a sharp note was dispatched to Washington demanding return of the prisoners and an apology. Lincoln, concerned about Britain entering the war, ignored anti-British sentiment and issued what the British interpreted as an apology (without apologizing) 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 25-30% of its grain, and poor crops during 1861 and 1862 in France made Britain even more dependent on shiploads from New York. Britain's shortage of cotton was partially made up by imports from India and Egypt by 1863.
The Trent Affair led to the Lyons-Seward Treaty of 1862, an agreement to clamp down hard on the Atlantic slave trade, using the U.S. Navy and the Royal Navy.
Potentially recognizing the Confederacy
The possibility of recognition of the Confederacy came to the fore late in the summer of 1862. At that time, as far as any European could see, the war seemed to be a stalemate. The U.S. 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 Washington 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. Recognition, as Adams warned, risked all-out war with the United States. War would involve an invasion of Canada, a full scale American attack on British shipping interests worldwide, an end to American grain shipments that were providing a large part of the British food supply, and an end to British sales of machinery and supplies to the U.S. The British leadership, however, thought that if the Union armies were decisively defeated the United States might soften its position and accept mediation.
Earl Russell had given Mason no encouragement whatever, but after news of the Second Battle of Bull Run reached London in early September, Palmerston agreed that in late September there could be a cabinet meeting at which Palmerston and Russell would ask approval of the mediation proposal. 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 suffering the Lancashire Cotton Famine, remained consistently opposed to the Confederacy. A resolution of support was passed by the inhabitants of Manchester, and sent to Lincoln. His letter of reply has become famous:
I know and deeply deplore the sufferings which the working people of Manchester and in all Europe are called to endure in this crisis. It has been often and studiously represented that the attempt to overthrow this Government which was built on the foundation of human rights, and to substitute for it one which should rest exclusively on the basis of slavery, was likely to obtain the favour of Europe.
Through the action of disloyal citizens, the working people of Europe have been subjected to a severe trial for the purpose of forcing their sanction to that attempt. Under the circumstances I cannot but regard your decisive utterances on the question as an instance of sublime Christian heroism which has not been surpassed in any age or in any country. It is indeed an energetic and re-inspiring assurance of the inherent truth and of the ultimate and universal triumph of justice, humanity and freedom.
I hail this interchange of sentiments, therefore, as an augury that, whatever else may happen, whatever misfortune may befall your country or my own, the peace and friendship which now exists between the two nations will be, as it shall be my desire to make them, perpetual.
—Abraham Lincoln, 19 January, 1863
There is now a statue of Lincoln in Manchester, with an extract from his letter carved on the plinth.
Lincoln became a hero amongst British working men with progressive views. His portrait, often alongside that of Garibaldi, adorned many parlour walls. One can still be seen in the boyhood home of David Lloyd George, now part of the Lloyd George Museum.
But the decisive factor, in the fall of 1862 and increasingly thereafter, was the Battle of Antietam and what grew out of it. Lee's invasion was a failure at Antietam and he barely escaped back to Virginia. It was now obvious that no final, conclusive Confederate triumph could be anticipated. The swift recession of the high Confederate tide was as visible in Britain as in America, and in the end Palmerston and Russell dropped any notion of bringing a mediation-recognition program before the cabinet.
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 United States chose to officially declare itself against slavery. The Lincoln Administration believed that slavery was the basis of the Confederate economy and leadership class and victory required its destruction. Lincoln had drafted a plan and waited for a battlefield victory to announce it. The Battle of Antietam gave Lincoln victory enough, and on September 22 he gave the Confederacy 90 days notice to return to the Union or else on January 1, 1863, all slaves held in areas in rebellion would be free. Emancipation alarmed British leaders, who expected an extremely bloody race war would result. The question then would be British intervention on humanitarian grounds. However there was no race war.
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 this as well 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 investments in American securities, potential loss of Canada and other North American colonies, higher taxes and a threat to the British merchant marine with little to gain in return. 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 all the 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. Canada allowed both Confederate and Union agents to work openly within its borders.
Postwar adjustments and Alabama claims
Northerners were outraged at British tolerance of non-neutral acts, especially the building of warships. The U.S. demanded vast reparations for the damages caused by British built commerce raiders (especially CSS Alabama ), which Lord Palmerston bluntly refused to pay.
The dispute raged for years and went to arbitration at Geneva. After Palmerston's death, Prime Minister William Ewart Gladstone, wanting Britain and the USA to be at peace, yielded to the demand, but lowered strongly its amount.
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.
Long term impact
The Union victory emboldened the forces in Britain that demanded more democracy and public input into the political system. The resulting suffrage reform of 1867 which enfranchised the urban male working class in England and Wales and weakened the upper class landed gentry who identified more with the Southern planters and feared this might happen. Influential commentators included Walter Bagehot, Thomas Carlyle, John Stuart Mill, and Anthony Trollope.
- France in the American Civil War
- Canada in the American Civil War
- Bahamas in the American Civil War
- Blockade runners of the American Civil War
- Timeline of British diplomatic history
- International relations (1814–1919)
- 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).
- Duberman Martin B. Charles Francis Adams, 1807-1886 (1961)
- 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
- Foreman, Amanda. A World on Fire: Britain’s Crucial Role in the American Civil War (Random House, 2011), 958 pp.
- Geoffrey Wheatcroft, "How the British Nearly Supported the Confederacy," New York Times Sunday Book Review June 30, 2011 online
- 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)
- Jones, Wilbur Devereux. "The British Conservatives and the American Civil War," American Historical Review, Vol. 58, No. 3 (Apr., 1953), pp. 527-543 in JSTOR
- 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)
- Mahin, Dean B. One war at a time: The international dimensions of the American Civil War (Brassey's, 1999)
- 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
- Morton, W. L. The Critical Years: The Union of British North America, 1857-1873 (1964), on Canada
- 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
- Smith, Adam I.P. "The 'Cult' of Abraham Lincoln and the Strange Survival of Liberal England in the Era of the World Wars," Twentieth Century British History (2010) 21#4 pp 486-509, how Lincoln became a hero to the British
- Stahr, Walter. Seward: Lincoln's Indispensable Man (2012)
- 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).
- Martin B. Duberman, Charles Francis Adams, 1807-1886 (1961), p 333
- Charles M. Hubbard, "James Mason, the `Confederate Lobby,' and the blockade debate of March 1862," Civil War History (1999) 45#3 pp 223-37
- Hubbard, Burden Of Confederate Diplomacy (2000) pg. 7
- Hubbard, Burden Of Confederate Diplomacy pg. 21-25
- Jones (1992) pg. 2-3. Hubbard pg. 17. Mahin pg. 12
- 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.”
- Graebner p.60-61
- Mahin pg. 47. Taylor pg. 177
- Warren pg. 82.
- Hubert F. Dubrulle, "Lord Lyons" in David Heidler, ed. Encyclopedia of the American Civil War p. 1234-5
- Mahin pg. 7. Mahin notes that in the 1850s Seward had talked of annexing Canada (pg. 6) and in February 1861 had spoken frequently of reuniting the North and South by a foreign war (pg. 7).
- Hubert F. Dubrulle, "Lord Lyons" p 1234-5
- Duncan Andrew Campbell, English Public Opinion and the American Civil War, (2003)pp. 26-7
- , R.J.M Blackett, Divided Hearts: Britain and the American Civil War,(2001), pp.54-5
- ,Freedom Burning: Anti-Slavery and Empire in Victorian Britain,(2012) p.56
- Howard Jones, Abraham Lincoln and a New Birth of Freedom: the Union and Slavery in the Diplomacy of the Civil War, (1999)
- Norman B. Ferris, The Trent Affair: A Diplomatic Crisis (1977)
- Norman B. Ferris, The Trent Affair: A Diplomatic Crisis (1977)
- Ginzberg, (1936)
- Martin B. Duberman, Charles Francis Adams, 1807-1886 (1961); Van Deusen (1967)
- Ephraim Douglass Adams, Great Britain and the American Civil War (1925)
- Jones (1992) ch 8-10
- Will Kaufman; Heidi Slettedahl Macpherson (2005). Britain and the Americas: Culture, Politics, and History. ABC-CLIO. p. 789.
- Ginzberg (1936)
- Ferris (1977)
- Jones (1999)
- Berwanger (1994)
- Graebner (1960)
- Merli (2004)
- Brent E. Kinser, The American Civil War in the Shaping of British Democracy (Ashgate, 2011)