In my last post, I examined the possible reasons for British involvement in the American Civil War. With that framework, we can now begin to analyze Union and Confederate foreign policies sculpted to prevent or provoke those reasons into either peace or war. In this post, I take at a look at Union foreign policy; later in the week, I’ll dive into its Confederate counterpart.
The Union early on saw the immense threat that possible British intervention posed. Intervention effectively meant successful Confederate independence. No matter what form, be it mediation, recognition, or literal intervention, any attempt by the British to interfere was based upon separation of North and South. The causes of the Union and Confederacy were mutually exclusive; either the Union remained whole or the Confederacy earned independence. British intervention effectively destroyed the cause of preserving the Union.
Thus, Union foreign policy was clear and strong from the very beginning of the conflict: oppose and prevent foreign intervention in any form. This meant everything: mediation, recognition of the Confederacy, loans, trade, military aid, and the worst case scenario, actual military intervention by a foreign power. As far as President Lincoln’s administration was concerned, the United States government was still sovereign in the American South; the insurrection occurring was unlawful and treasonous.
This position taken by the Lincoln administration, that the Southern states were unlawfully and illegitimately rebelling, caused the first major diplomatic issue to arise between the U.S. and Great Britain during the Civil War. In 1861, as Southern states left the Union and formed the Confederate States of America, President Lincoln struggled to find ways to quickly put down the rebellion. Seeing the necessity of preventing foreign trade with the rebellious states, on April 19, 1861 President Lincoln announced a blockade of the Southern coast. The decision to announce a blockade, as opposed to an executive order closing Southern municipal ports, was a contentious one within Lincoln’s cabinet. Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles felt the move was a mistake: “The very fact of a blockade would raise the insurgents to the level of belligerents-a concession to the Confederate organi-zation [sic] virtually admitting it to be a quasi government.” Welles’ fears proved well-founded.
Within days of learning of Lincoln’s announcement of a blockade, the British government announced its position of neutrality. While on the surface, neutrality may seem beneficial to the Union cause, in reality, the British stance gave the Confederacy belligerent status in the conflict. Belligerent status provided the Confederacy with a bevy of legal rights, including: the ability to obtain loans, acquire military supplies and raise troops (providing no neutrality laws were broken). In spirit, the act granted legitimacy to the Confederate cause, implying the Civil War was a conflict between two nation-states.
The Union saw the granting of belligerent status to the Confederacy as product of pro-Confederate British sentiments. In reality, the British had been keen to avoid conflict and saw Lincoln’s blockade announcement as the necessary prerequisite to announce legal neutrality. The decision to blockade Southern ports opened the door for Confederate belligerent status with Britain. Lincoln’s blockade may have undermined his arguments concerning the Confederacy’s legal (or rather illegal) status, but he too desired to avoid conflict between the U.S. and Britain. His decision to blockade was partly based in the belief that it was the best policy to avoid conflict. As he advised his Cabinet, “We could not afford to have two wars on our hands at once.”
This episode is quite emblematic of the high-wire act the Union was forced to play; on one hand, the U.S. must constantly oppose outside interference in the conflict, especially actions which granted legitimacy or support to the Confederacy. On the other hand, the U.S. needed to avoid situations where confrontations with Britain could lead to a second, wider war. It was a dangerous game of diplomacy that must be played.
Nobody played this game as daringly as Secretary of State William Seward, whose approach was straightforward and bold. Any foreign attempts to interfere in the conflict would widen the war. It was this strategy that led Seward to such striking statements as, “If any European Power provokes a war, we shall not shrink from it.” Seward constantly threatened conflict should Britain interfere. Great Britain generally viewed Seward’s threats as mostly bluff. As Lord Lyons, the British minister to the United States, wrote home, Seward was “disposed to play the old game of seeking popularity here by displaying violence towards us.” Especially after the Trent Affair, which caused the Lincoln administration to back down on possibility of war with Britain, the British viewed Seward’s threats as “all buncom[be].” Yet Britain did not ignore Seward’s threats entirely, and they certainly were concerned at the prospect of war with the United States. Lord Lyons also wrote that “one might laugh at his [Seward's] blustering words if one were not afraid that if they be in the least yielded to they will be followed by violent deeds.” The British were careful to adopt a policy of deterrence, wishing to avoid being drawn into the conflict while not making concessions to the United States.
While the issues of the blockade and neutrality framed the early stages of Anglo-American diplomacy, the Trent Affair came next, bringing the possibility of a U.S.-British war perilously close. Only the decision by the Lincoln administration to back down eased tensions. Yet these early diplomatic issues all took place in the summer and winter of 1861. It was 1862 that perhaps brought the greatest possibility of intervention. By the early fall of 1862, the Union cause was looking grim. The effort to capture the Confederate capital in the spring had come to a dismal end, with Confederate General Robert E. Lee stopping Union forces cold at the gates of Richmond. Building upon their initial success, Confederate forces had soundly defeated the Union at the Second Battle of Bull Run that summer. The United States seemed at risk of losing what precious little it had gained in the past year.
The surge in Confederate fortunes inspired Robert E. Lee to march his ragged but fierce army north in September, invading the Union in an effort to force Southern independence with a decisive victory on Northern soil. The fate of the war, and especially the possibility of British intervention, hung in the balance. The string of recent victories by the Confederacy was reinforcing the already strongly held British belief that reuniting the recalcitrant Southern states with the Union was a near-impossible, hopeless task. The Union could not hope to win the conflict, and the economic and humanitarian pressures were mounting to intervene and force peace on the basis of separation. “The Federals got a very complete smashing,” Prime Minister Lord Palmerston noted after Second Bull Run, “and it seems not altogether unlikely that still greater disasters await them…would it not be time for us to consider whether…England and France might not address the contending parties and recommend an arrangement upon the basis of separation?” The Foreign Secretary, Lord John Russell, agreed. They both decided to wait upon the outcome of the battle that was shaping up as General Lee invaded the North before proposing mediation.
Lee’s 1862 invasion of the North resulted in the knock-out, brutal brawl along the quiet banks of Antietam Creek in western Maryland. The Battle of Antietam produced the single bloodiest day in American history, a fury of carnage that led to the death or wounding of over 23,000 Americans, both North and South. Although the fighting on the day proved inconclusive, General Lee withdrew his badly bruised army into Virginia, leaving the field and the victory to Union forces. Word of the Union victory spread, and its reception in Great Britain stunted the prospect of immediate intervention. Yet talk of intervention did not completely stop despite the hazy Union victory. Indeed, the see-saw fortunes of both sides in the war solidified belief that the conflict was a stalemate, and the Union could not subdue the rebellious South.
In diplomatic terms, the greatest outcome of the Union victory at Antietam Creek was not its ability to dispel talk of intervention. Instead, the battle enabled President Lincoln to finally act on a long-simmering idea, one that ultimately recast the light upon which the British viewed the conflict. Fueled by the relative Union victory in September, Abraham Lincoln announced his Emancipation Proclamation, declaring “all persons held as slaves within the designated States [those states in rebellion]…are, and henceforward shall be free” The Proclamation, which took effect on January 1,1863, was designed as a war measure to undercut the Southern war effort and was a “military necessity.” It should be noted that the Proclamation did not free all slaves, but only those in areas of rebellion.
Initial British reaction to the Emancipation Proclamation was less than enthusiastic. The British did not see the Proclamation as a great moral document, but instead saw Lincoln’s move as “more like a Chinaman beating his two swords together to frighten his enemy than like an earnest man pressing on his cause.” Indeed, the British Spectator thought it was hypocritical: “The principle is not that a human being cannot justly own another, but that he cannot own him unless he is loyal to the United States.” The Times of London powerfully attacked Lincoln’s Proclamation as an incitement for slave rebellions: “He will appeal to the black blood of the African…and when blood begins to flow and shrieks come piercing through the darkness, Mr. LINCOLN [sic] will wait till the rising flames tell that all is consummated, and then he will rub his hands and think that revenge is sweet.” These were hardly ringing endorsements. Indeed, reading the reaction of these British publications contrasts starkly with the high moral regard we hold President Lincoln in today.
Yet Great Britain was no supporter of slavery. Britain had abolished the slave trade in 1807 and Empire-wide by 1833. British warships formed anti-slave squadrons that patrolled the coasts of Africa, and the British took pride in their history of combating the evil slave trade on a global scale. While the Emancipation Proclamation was not couched in language of morality (but instead cast as a dire war measure), the British ultimately came to the understanding that the victory of the Union meant the demise of slavery. Conversely, the Union’s defeat meant the continuation of slavery, and should the British intervene in the American Civil War, Britain would be complicit in protecting and aiding the institution of slavery…an institution they had been fighting globally for decades.
In the short term, the Emancipation Proclamation met with derision and apprehension in Great Britain. Yet it transformed the war, pushing slavery into the limelight and reshaping the conflict in moral terms. It ultimately shattered the possibility of British intervention in the Civil War, as intervention would inherently aid the Confederacy and thus slavery. Of course, the Union was not completely aware of all this. U.S. leaders remained cognizant of the threat British intervention posed. Continued battlefield victories as the war dragged on, the ever-growing size of the occupied South, and the moral righteousness (however genuine) granted by the Emancipation Proclamation ensured that the British would not interfere, and both North and South recognized it.
Union foreign policy with Great Britain remained constant and firm: no intervention in the American war. Lincoln rarely deviated from this theme, and he only backed down in the most dire of circumstances, such as the Trent Affair (which threatened a war with Britain the U.S. couldn’t avoid). Secretary of State Seward helped ward off intervention, especially early in the combat, by playing the aggressor, pounding his chest and threatening war at every opportunity. Although the British never quite believed Seward, they never quite dis-believed him, either. Perhaps that made all the difference.
Although Gettysburg is seen as the war’s high-water mark, that picture changes when one takes a wider view of the war. British intervention in the summer of 1863 was unlikely, despite a possible Gettysburg victory (consider that Vicksburg would still fall the following day). In the summer of ’62, however, Great Britain was one Southern victory away from recognition and mediation…and that Southern victory never emerged from Antietam Creek. When one takes a global view of the conflict, Antietam is the high-water mark.
Likewise, a slight revision to the traditional view of the Emancipation Proclamation would be appropriate. Although the Proclamation did eventually push Britain out of the war on moral/ethical grounds, it did not have this effect immediately. Britain’s first reaction to the Proclamation was not positive, and it did not endear many friends to the Union cause. Only with time and debate did British public opinion swing the other way.
While we have here examined Union tactics of prevention, my next post will highlight the very complicated, very self-assured schemes of the Confederacy to provoke the British into intervention on their side.
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.
All cartoons came from cartoonist John Tenniel who worked for the British magazine Punch during the Civil War. His fantastic cartoons can be viewed here!