The American Question Abroad in the Civil War (Part 4)

        In July, 1862, there steamed down the Mersey a powerful warship known as the Enrica or the "290." Not yet supplied with war equipment, the ship had left Liverpool supposedly on a "trial trip," but had headed for sea. Reaching an appointed rendezvous off the Azores this English-built vessel took on English-supplied arms, provisions, and coal, was boarded by Admiral Raphael Semmes, and, as the illustrious Alabama, launched upon her career as a Confederate cruiser specializing in commerce destruction.
        The full story of the proceedings concerning this vessel and others like her offers one of the most serious chapters in Anglo-American diplomacy. England's neutrality law (the foreign enlistment act of 1819, modeled on the American neutrality law of 1818) was designed to prevent or punish unneutral activities within English jurisdiction. The law forbade the fitting out, equipping, or arming of vessels for warlike operations in a war in which England was neutral; but it was interpreted by a type of legerdemain which in American parlance would be termed a "joker." According to this attenuated interpretation the law was not contravened if the equipping and arming of the vessel were accomplished as distinct operations separate from the building, even though the whole procedure were planned and accomplished as a connected program involving English aid throughout. The building of the Alabama, along with other warships, had been promoted by Captain Bulloch of the Confederate navy, who was in England for the purpose; and so transparent was the concealment that there had never been any real mystery about the ship, whose character as a Confederate cruiser had been unmistakable. Nor was the Alabama an isolated case. In March of 1862 the Oreto (Florida) had been allowed to depart from Liverpool, had disappeared for a time, and was later to turn up at Nassau and receive her equipment and arms from English sources. Adams at London and Dudley, United States consul at Liverpool, had laid the evidence before the British ministry; but, on advice from the Queen's law officers that "sufficient proof" had not been presented, the government had neglected to seize or detain the ships. To legal evasion were added delay and circumlocution. While work went on swiftly on a project that threatened a break between England and the United States, and while Captain Bulloch was kept sufficiently in touch with developments to predict the attitude of the British government and choose his time for the flight of the Alabama, Russell meanwhile advising Adams with perfect truth that the matter had been referred to the "proper authorities," the papers in the case at the most critical stage of the proceedings lay in the home of one of the Queen's advocates whose nerves had so far given way as to incapacitate him for serious work. Adams persisted, however; and at length the proof became so irresistible that the law officers recommended the seizure of the vessel "without loss of time." On the basis of this advice Russell ordered the Alabama detained (July 31 ); but this order arrived too late to prevent departure of the ship, and under all the circumstances it was but natural that at the time the American authorities, with such vital interests at stake, should characterize the attitude of the British government as one of negligence, and even connivance.
        Yet, viewing the question in the full light of historical evidence, it does not appear that the actual motives of the British ministry justified Northern resentment; indeed Confederate exultation was soon to give place to disappointment. By arrangements conducted by Bulloch two powerful ironclads had been contracted for with the Laird firm; and it was obvious that these ships would be ready for delivery in 1863. If these "Laird rams," intended to "raise the blockade... and thus secure for the Confederacy foreign recognition," had been allowed to depart, following upon the cases of the Florida and Alabama, then indeed a diplomatic break, not improbably followed by war, would have seemed inevitable. The seriousness of the matter appears in the advice of Assistant Secretary Fox of the Union navy to stop the rams "at all hazards," in the fear that the rams could "lay under contribution any of the loyal cities on the coast or could break the blockade at any point," and in Union anxiety concerning the destructiveness of the Alabama, then in full career. Fundamental in Seward's policy was the conviction that England dreaded a war with the United States; and in keeping with this divination of British motives he sent Adams the instruction (April 10, 1863) to inform Great Britain that the proceedings relative to the fitting out of ships for the Confederacy "complicate the relations between the two countries in such a manner as to render it difficult ... to preserve friendship between them...."
        Another serious factor in the situation was the privateering bill passed by the United States Congress which was designed to offset the rams by providing a "flood of privateers" which, operating widely on the seas, might aid the blockade by seizing blockade-runners.,' If in so doing they committed indignities upon British ships, here was an ominous menace of war. In this situation much depended upon the temper and conduct of two men -- Adams and Russell. The fact that both were reasonable men and that in the main they spoke the same language was a factor of the greatest significance. An important step was taken on April 5, 1863, when the British government ordered the seizure of the Alexandra (a raider intended for the Confederacy), an act which has been described by E. D. Adams as a "face-about on declared policy." This seizure indicated a serious attempt by the British government to make effective its neutrality. As to the Laird rams, however, it still seemed possible that they might escape on the pretext that they were intended for France or for the government of Egypt; and it was not until five months after the Alexandra seizure that the matter was disposed of. Within these months the Union victories of Gettysburg and Vicksburg occurred; the Roebuck parliamentary motion for a recognition of the South came to naught; and, through it all, Adams kept presenting affidavits of the true intent of the rams, at the same time emphasizing the serious nature of the controversy as it affected Anglo-American relations. The matter was finally settled to the complete satisfaction of the United States government when, on September 9, the rams were placed under surveillance, to be seized in October and purchased by the British government.
        To those who prefer to think in terms of heroics this compliance by the British government has been attributed to a famous letter of Adams to Russell under date of September 5, 1863. The letter was written on the eve of the expected departure of the rams, at a time when Adams had just been informed by Russell (September 1) that the government could not detain the ships on existing information, but would be ready to stop them if trustworthy evidence should show any proceeding contrary to statute. The crisp phrase which made this letter of Adams memorable was the statement: "It would be superfluous in me to point out to your lordship that this is war." As a check upon the traditional heroics, however, it may be noted that if Earl Russell had been in London at the time the matter could have been easily settled by interview with Adams, that the affair was complicated by the writing of notes which crossed each other, and that in reality Russell and Adams were thinking alike. E. D. Adams has pointed out that Russell had moved in the direction of detaining the rams before receiving Adams's note of the 5th; that the foreign secretary had in fact arrived at his new policy in its essential aspects five months earlier in the Alexandra affair; and that Adams was under a misapprehension in supposing that this April policy had been abandoned. Stressing the friendliness of Seward (despite his official instructions), the same writer throws out a caution against the account traditionally given by American historians by the use of American sources, and states that the "correct understanding.... is the recognition that Great Britain had in April given a pledge and performed an act which satisfied Seward and Adams that the Rams would not be permitted to escape." Later apprehension arose from a fear that the pledge might not be carried out; but this was due to lack of full knowledge as to the steps taken by Russell for the detention of the ships."
        Though the international outlook of the North and South was mainly concerned with England and France, the attitude of Russia was of considerable significance. Baron de Stoeckl, Russian minister in Washington, had contempt for what he considered the demagogy of American politicians, but a long-standing friendship had existed between Russia and the United States; and Prince Gortchakov, Russian foreign minister, was outspoken in his expressions of good will. The sending of Russian warships to American waters, though motivated by European considerations, had the effect of emphasizing this friendship. Several ships under Rear Admiral Lisovskii arrived at New York in September, 1863; in the following month a squadron under Rear Admiral Popov put into San Francisco harbor. Both squadrons were ordered home in April, 1864.
        The European situation leading to these naval visits was bound up with the perennial Polish question, which (because of factors that cannot be detailed here) occasioned a joint remonstrance against Russia (April, 1863) by England, France, and Austria. Anticipating the possibility, of war, Russian statesmen considered it unwise to have their ships in home waters where they might be trapped by the British navy. A visit to some friendly neutral country was indicated; and American ports, in addition to other advantages, offered a point of departure for operations against enemy commerce in case war should break out, as well as for possible attacks upon enemy colonies. In addition it was hoped that such a placing of Russian ships would exercise a restraining influence upon war tendencies in England.
        To speak of the American Civil War as the occasion of the sending of the Russian ships would be incorrect, and even at the time there were some Americans who suspected that more selfish motives were behind the Russian move. Yet, as Thomas A. Bailey has proved, "a majority of interested citizens at the time-and certainly an overwhelming majority later-appear to have accepted the visit of the fleets as primarily a gesture of friendship, with the strong possibility of an alliance and open assistance against common enemies." Americans made much of the Russian visitors; Welles extended the courtesies of the Brooklyn navy yard to Lisovskii; and Popov's assistance in extinguishing a fire at San Francisco ingratiated him with the people of that city. Indeed, since Popov was ready if necessary to act against Confederate cruisers, "Russia came very near becoming our active ally." Thus midway in the war the stakes of diplomacy had been won by the United States. The full effect, however, of Southern international failure was not yet evident, and future events in the foreign sphere would depend upon a combination of factors. While diplomatic maneuvers and the personal conduct of diplomats were never unimportant, the outcome abroad continually reflected events at home. Step by step the influence of Lincoln's emancipation policy and of Northern military advances was manifest abroad.

This Page last updated 02/16/02

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