"Wrap the World in Fire," Part II: Union Foreign Policy with Great Britain

Part II in a series; read part I and part III here.

In my previous post, I examined the possible reasons for British involvement in the American Civil War.  With that framework, we can now begin to analyze how Union and Confederate foreign policies sought to prevent or provoke British intervention in the Civil War.  In this post, I take at a look at Union foreign policy toward Great Britain; next week, I’ll dive into its Confederate counterpart.

Abraham Lincoln and Union leaders realized from the war's outset the grave threat British intervention posed.  Intervention likely 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 could doom the Union cause.

In this 1861 British cartoon From the popular Magazine Punch, a petulant Union child is angry with her British mother. “You shan’t interfere, Mother-and you ought to be on my side-and it’s a great shame-and I don’t care-and you shall interfere-and I won’t have it.”

In this 1861 British cartoon From the popular Magazine Punch, a petulant Union child is angry with her British mother. “You shan’t interfere, Mother-and you ought to be on my side-and it’s a great shame-and I don’t care-and you shall interfere-and I won’t have it.”

Thus, from the conflict's earliest days, Union leaders shaped a clear, strong foreign policy with Great Britain: 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.

Abraham Lincoln's position that Southern states were unlawfully rebelling, and therefore not a sovereign state, 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 perhaps seemed 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 were keen to avoid conflict and happy to declare themselves neutral.  While Lincoln may have angry over the British declaration, he to wanted to avoid any conflict with European powers.  Indeed, his decision to blockade the South was partly based in the belief that it was the best policy to prevent conflict with foreign nations.  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 in the war's first years; on one hand, the U.S. constantly opposed outside interference in the conflict, especially actions which granted legitimacy or support to the Confederacy.  On the other hand, the U.S. tried to avoid confrontations with Great Britain that could lead to invention or even a second, wider war.  A dangerous game of diplomacy was shaping up.

This British cartoon depicts a patient Britannia scolding the scrappy Union sailor for the Trent Affair, wherein U.S. personnel boarded a british ship to seize confederate emissaries to Europe: “John Bull: You’ll do what’s right, my son, or I’ll blow you out of the water.” The U.S. eventually backed down to British demands to release the Confederate commissioners.

This British cartoon depicts a patient Britannia scolding the scrappy Union sailor for the Trent Affair, wherein U.S. personnel boarded a british ship to seize confederate emissaries to Europe: “John Bull: You’ll do what’s right, my son, or I’ll blow you out of the water.” The U.S. eventually backed down to British demands to release the Confederate commissioners.

Nobody played this game quite so daringly as Secretary of State William Seward, whose approach was straightforward and bold.  Seward denounced the possibility of European intervention, promising a global war if any nation meddled in American affairs. “If any European Power provokes a war, we shall not shrink from it," Seward warned.  "A contest between Great Britain and the United States would wrap the world in fire.”  Despite Seward's bravado, British leaders 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.”  Yet Prime Minister Lord Palmerston and others could not discount 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.”  Seward's threats prompted the British to adopt a policy of deterrence, avoiding being drawn into the conflict while not making concessions to the United States

While the Union blockade, the duel issue of British neutrality and Confederate belligerency, and the Trent Affair (discussed in part one) framed Union-British relations in the war's opening months, 1862 brought new threats to Union-British relations.

By the spring of 1862, Union leaders increasingly grew concerned that the British were violating their claims to neutrality and in fact aiding the seditious Confederacy.  This aid to the South originated in the grim shipyards of Liverpool, where a game of espionage played throughout much of 1862.  Union leaders were convinced, and rightly so, that British shipbuilding firms were building warships for the fledgling Confederate Navy.  Ostensibly built for the navies of Spain or Italy, several blockade runners and commerce raiders built in British docks were indeed serving under Confederate flags.  Perhaps the most notorious of these British-built ships was the CSS Alabama. Built by the British Laird Brothers firm at Birkenhead shipyard, the Alabama launched in July, 1862, destined to become the most successful and feared commerce raider in the Confederate Navy.  The Alabama captured or sank over sixty-six vessels during the war, including the Union warship USS Hatteras in early 1863.  The Alabama eventually met her match in the USS Kearsarge, who sank the Alabama in a fierce ship-to-ship battle off the coast of Cherbourg, France in the summer of 1864.  Also noteworthy was the British-built CSS Florida, launched in January of 1862 and responsible for the capture or destruction of 34 Union merchant ships.

Xanthus Smith's Sinking of the CSS Alabama (1922) depicts the rebel ship battling the Uss Kearsarge of the coast of Cherbourg, france.  British-Built Commerce Raiders like the Alabama caused tensions between the United States and Great Britain.

Xanthus Smith's Sinking of the CSS Alabama (1922) depicts the rebel ship battling the Uss Kearsarge of the coast of Cherbourg, france.  British-Built Commerce Raiders like the Alabama caused tensions between the United States and Great Britain.

The Union’s spy network in Great Britain was well aware of the construction of these ships in British ports, and the United States hounded British authorities to seize the ships as a violation of neutrality laws.  British law, however, stated that no violation of neutrality occurred as long the ships were not equipped for war in British territory (installed with guns, powder, etc.).  Since the ships were built in Britain but outfitted for war in neutral waters, the Union struggled to provide proof that these ships were headed for the Confederacy and should be seized. The United States was furious with Britain and saw the construction of these ships (which did considerable damage to the U.S. merchant navy) as further proof of pro-Confederate British sentiments. As the U.S. consul to Liverpool complained, “They are all against us and would rejoice at our downfall."  Determined not to let another Alabama or Florida take to the sea to wreck havoc, the U.S. minister to Great Britain, Charles Francis Adams, finally forced the British to deal with the matter.  Two more Laird Brothers-built ships destined for the Confederacy and ready to launch in early 1864 were purchased by the Royal Navy, in order to placate the angry Lincoln administration and prevent the ships from heading to Southern ports.  The issue of Confederate warships built in British ports remained a raw spot in British-U.S. relations for years, however, culminating in $15.5 million dollars in damage claims to the United States in the 1870's. 

While the Union grew wary of British-built commerce raiders on the high-seas, a string of Union defeats on land brought the Union into an existential crisis in the fall of 1862.  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 Second Manassas that summer.  The United States seemed at risk of losing what precious little it had gained militarily in the past year, and to European observers the Union cause seemed increasingly hopeless.

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.  Perhaps the fate of the war, and certainly the possibility of British intervention, hung in the balance.  The string of recent victories by the Confederacy was reinforcing  British belief that reuniting the recalcitrant Southern states into the Union was an impossible 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  “Let us do something, as we are Christian men," the London Morning Herald pleaded in September," Let us do something to stop this carnage.”  Prime Minster Lord Palmerston also agreed the time seemed ripe for intervention.  “The Federals got a very complete smashing,” Palmerston noted after Second Manassas, “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.

this Punch cartoon illustrates Britain’s (and Europe’s) growing concern over the American conflict. While the North and South beat each other senseless in the foreground, in the background The French Eagle asks the British Lion, “Don’t you think we should fetch the police?”

this Punch cartoon illustrates Britain’s (and Europe’s) growing concern over the American conflict. While the North and South beat each other senseless in the foreground, in the background The French Eagle asks the British Lion, “Don’t you think we should fetch the police?”

General Robert E. Lee’s 1862 invasion resulted in a 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 stop.  Indeed, the see-saw fortunes of both sides in the war solidified belief that the conflict was a stalemate, and that 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 British 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 [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.”  With one stroke, Abraham Lincoln had recast the Union war effort, seeking not only to reunify the nation but to do so via the death of the South's "peculiar" institution--the root of the Civil War in the first place.

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.”  Hardly ringing endorsements.

Yet by the 1860's Great Britain harbored little love for slavery. Britain abolished the slave trade in 1807 and slavery itself, Empire-wide, by 1833.  British warships formed anti-slave trade squadrons that patrolled the coasts of Africa, and the British took pride in their moralistic role of combating the slave on a global stage.  While the Emancipation Proclamation was not couched in language of morality (cast instead as a dire war measure), the British ultimately came to understand that Union victory meant the demise of American slavery; Confederate victory meant a continuation of slavery.  Should Great British intervene in the American Civil War, the nation 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 was 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 aiding the Confederacy inherently meant aiding slavery.  By the end of 1863, the likelihood of Great Britain intervening on the Confederacy's behalf proved very unlikely. 

Throughout the war, the Union's foreign policy goals remained firm:  prevent outside intervention in the war, and prevent conflict with foreign nations.  Their high-wire diplomacy proved successful, and the Emancipation Proclamation ensured that Great Britain would remain neutral.  The Union's diplomatic success, however, came in despite of the Confederacy's best attempts to induce foreign aid and intervention.  In next week's final post, I take a look at the Confederacy's hopeful but ill-advised foreign policy.

Further Reading and Sources

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.

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.

All cartoons came from cartoonist John Tenniel who worked for the British magazine Punch during the Civil War.  Many of Punch's fantastic cartoons can be viewed here!