“If any European Power provokes a war, we shall not shrink from it. A contest between Great Britain and the United States would wrap the world in fire.” These bold words were uttered in the hot summer of 1861, when the United States was ripping apart at the seams, standing on the precipice of a great Civil War that would consume over 620,000 lives before its culmination four years later. At a time when the Union seemed to be crumbling, these fiery threats of war with Great Britain came from none other than the United States Secretary of State, William H. Seward. Why would Seward seem to be promising war with the world’s greatest power when his own nation was just entering the terrible throes of civil war?
The answer lies in the high-stakes game of diplomacy that was being played not only by the Union, but also by the Confederacy, with Great Britain during the American Civil War. For the Union, foreign intervention in the conflict was a constant threat, one that would ensure the separation of the South. Conversely, the Confederacy constantly sought and expected foreign recognition and intervention, seeing it as an assurance of independence. This series of posts will explore both Union and Confederate foreign relations with Great Britain during the American Civil War. In today’s brief post, I take a look at the possible reasons for British involvement in the conflict. Later this week, I will examine both Union and Confederate foreign policy strategies, and finally compare Union and Confederate foreign policy, and its effectiveness, vis-à-vis Britain.
To understand the importance of American (both North and South) and British foreign relations during the Civil War, what were the possible reasons for British involvement in the conflict. Were Union fears and Confederate hopes regarding British intervention justified? Obviously, Britain did not significantly intervene in the American Civil War, but this does not mean that the possibility didn’t exist. There were several motivating reasons for British intervention in the conflict.
First, intervention may have arisen out of Great Britain’s own self-interest, primarily involving the economic ramifications of the war. While the sheer damage of the Civil War was massive, it often goes overlooked that the conflict caused considerable economic woes overseas. While the details of this economic depression will be accounted for later, suffice it to say that Great Britain was suffering significantly due to the unavailability of cotton for its textile and merchant markets. Under international law at the time, a neutral state could intervene in a foreign civil war when its own welfare was endangered. As The Economist’s editor of the day pointed out, “We participate in the ruin that is going on [regarding the Civil War]…We have, therefore, a right to speak and to be heard.” With Britain’s economy suffering directly from the war in America, Britain may have had a legal pretext to intervene in the conflict.
Second, there was a strong belief among British leadership that Great Britain had a humanitarian duty to help end the conflict. Again, international law claimed that nations had an obligation to help the combatants avoid “disaster and ruin, so far as it can do without running too great a risk.” Arguably as the world’s greatest power, Britain had a moral duty to try to find an end to the ever-increasingly bloody struggle. As the London Morning Herald pleaded in September of 1862, “Let us do something, as we are Christian men…Let us do something to stop this carnage.” Further, most British considered the Union cause futile—there was no way the entire American South could be subjugated and brought back to the fold; this disbelief that the Union could be welded back together led to the conclusion that mediation between the parties (mediation based on separation) was a logical, humane policy.
Third and last, involvement in the American struggle could always be caused by international incidents. Perhaps the best example of such a perilous breakdown is the infamous Trent Affair. In late 1861, a U.S. warship boarded the British steamer Trent and arrested two Confederate envoys on board who were headed for Europe, an action viewed by many as a violation of international law. The affair immediately caused tensions to rise between the U.S. and Great Britain. Indeed, an American in London at the time wrote to Secretary of State Seward, “The people are frantic with rage, and were the country polled, I fear 999 men out of a thousand would declare for immediate war.” The insult to British honor caused by the U.S. Navy seemed likely to spark a war. Britain responded to the incident by issuing a seven-day ultimatum demanding an explanation and the release of the Confederate prisoners. Despite the popularity of the Navy’s actions at home, President Abraham Lincoln conceded to British demands and defused the situation, releasing the prisoners and having Secretary Seward issue a note of explanation. In a personal letter to friends, British Prime Minister Lord Palmerston reveals both the satisfaction the apology provided and just how perilously close war had come: “If we had not shewn [sic] that we were ready to fight, that low-minded fellow Seward would not have eat the leek as he has done.”
Thus, the possibility of British intervention in the American Civil War was very real. Whether due to economic interests, humanitarian pleas, or international incidents, both the Union and Confederacy had to grapple with the prospect of British intervention in their conflict. As the international power of the day, Great Britain had tremendous power to enforce her will, especially considering the likelihood that France (and perhaps other European nations) would follow her lead. It is hard to imagine a scenario in which the Union could have survived if Great Britain forced mediation and separation upon the two warring factions. For the Union, then, it was critical to keep Great Britain out of the war by any means possible. My next post will explore the stratagems employed by the U.S. to keep the British neutral.
Zac Cowsert received his Bachelor of Arts Degree in History and Political Science from Centenary College of Louisiana, a small liberal-arts college in Shreveport. He is currently a graduate student at West Virginia University focusing in U.S. History and the American Civil War. His studies and research often explore the Trans-Mississippi Theater. ©
Further Reading and Sources
“America’s Bloodiest Day.” America’s Civil War 20.4 (Sept., 2007):26-29.
Anderson, Stuart. “1861: Blockade vs. Closing the Confederate Ports.” Military Affairs 41.4 (Dec., 1977): 190-194.
Blumenthal, Henry. “Confederate Diplomacy: Popular Notions and International Realities.” The Journal of Southern History 32.2 (May, 1966): 151-171.
Brauer, Kinley J. “British Mediation and the American Civil War: A Reconsideration.” The Journal of Southern History 38.1 (Feb., 1972): 49-64.
James, Lawrence. The Rise and Fall of the British Empire. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1994.
Jenkins, Philip. A History of the United States. 3rd ed. Ed. Jeremy Black. Willshire, U.K.: Palmgrave Macmillan, 2007.
Jones, Howard. Blue and Gray Diplomacy: A History of Union and Confederate Foreign Relations. Eds. Gary W. Gallagher and T. Michael Parrish. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2010.
Lincoln, Abraham. Abraham Lincoln: A Documentary Portrait Through His Speeches and Writings. Ed. Don E. Fehrenbacher. New York: Signet, 1964.
Owsley, Frank Lawrence. King Cotton Diplomacy. 2nd ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1959.
Reid, Brian Holden. “Power, Sovereignty, and the Great Republic: Anglo-American Diplomatic Relations in the Era of the Civil War.” Diplomacy and Statecraft 14.2 (June, 2003): 45-76.
Temple, Henry John (Third Viscount Palmerston). The Letters of the Third Viscount Palmerston to Laurence and Elizabeth Sullivan 1804-1863. Ed. Kenneth Bourne. London: Royal Historical Society. 1979.
“Trent Affair.” Colombia Electronic Encyclopedia. 6th ed. 1 July 2010.
*This series of posts emerged from a research paper I wrote at Aarhus University in Aarhus, Denmark in the spring of 2011.