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Europe and the American Civil War

        The war had a direct bearing on the United States' foreign relations and the relations that were most important were those with the two dominant powers of Europe, England and France. Each country was a monarchy, and a monarchy does not ordinarily like to see a rebellion succeed in any land. (The example may prove contagious.) Yet the war had not progressed very far before it was clear that the ruling classes in each of these two countries sympathized strongly with the Confederacy-so strongly that with just a little prodding they might be moved to intervene and bring about Southern independence by force of arms. The South was, after all, an aristocracy, and the fact that it had a broad democratic base was easily overlooked at a distance of three thousand miles. Europe's aristocracies had never been happy about the prodigious success of the Yankee democracy. If the nation now broke into halves, proving that democracy did not contain the stuff of survival, the rulers of Europe would be well pleased.
        To be sure, the Southern nation was based on the institution of chattel slavery-a completely repugnant anachronism by the middle of the nineteenth century. Neither the British nor the French people would go along with any policy that involved fighting to preserve slavery. But up to the fall of 1862 slavery was not an issue in the war. The Federal government had explicitly declared that it was fighting solely to save the Union. If a Southern emissary wanted to convince Europeans that they could aid the South without thereby aiding slavery, he could prove his case by citing the words of the Federal President and Congress. As far as Europe was concerned, no moral issue was involved; the game of power politics could be played with a clear conscience.
        So it was played, and the threat of European intervention was real and immediate. Outright war with England nearly took place in the fall of 1861, when a hot-headed US. naval officer, Captain Charles Wilkes, undertook to twist the lion's tail and got more of a reaction than anyone was prepared for.
        Jefferson Davis had named two distinguished Southerners, James M. Mason of Virginia and John Slidell of Louisiana, as commissioners to represent Confederate interests abroad, Mason in England and Slidell in France. They got out of Charleston, South Carolina, on a blockade-runner at the beginning of October and went via Nassau to Havana, where they took passage for England on the British mail steamer Trent.
      Precisely at this time U.S.S. San Jacinto was returning to the United States from a long tour of duty along the African coast.. She put in at a Cuban port, looking for news of Confederate commerce raiders which were reported to be active in that vicinity, and there her commander, Captain Wilkes, heard about Mason and Slidell. He now worked out a novel interpretation of international law. A nation at war (it was generally agreed) had a 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 a right to remove them. So on November 8, 1861, he steamed out into the Bahama Channel, fired twice across Trent's bows, sent a boat's crew aboard, collared the Confederate commissioners, and bore them off in triumph to the United States, where they were lodged in Fort Warren, in Boston Harbor. Wilkes was hailed as a national hero. Congress voted him its thanks, and Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles, ordinarily a most cautious mortal, warmly commended him.
        But in England there was an uproar which almost brought on a war. The mere notion that Americans could halt a British ship on the high seas and remove lawful passengers was intolerable. Eleven thousand regular troops were sent to Canada, the British fleet was put on a war footing, and a sharp note was dispatched to the United States, demanding surrender of the prisoners and a prompt apology.
        If the general tempo of things had not been so feverish just then, experts on international law might have amused themselves by pointing out that the American and British governments had precisely reversed their traditional policies. In the Napoleonic wars British warships had exercised the right of search and seizure without restraint, stopping American merchant ships on the high seas to remove persons whom they suspected of being British subjects-doing, in fact, exactly what Wilkes had done with a slightly different object. The United States government had protested that this was improper and illegal, and the whole business had helped bring on the War of 1812. Now an American naval officer had done what British naval officers had done half a century earlier, and the British government was protesting in the same way the earlier American government had done. If anyone cared to make anything of it, the situation was somewhat ironic.
        It was touch and go for a while, because a good many brash Yankees were quite willing to fight the British, and the seizure of the Confederate commissioners had somehow seemed like a great victory. But Lincoln stuck to the policy of one war at a time, and after due deliberation the apology was made and the prisoners were released. The Trent incident was forgotten, and the final note was strangely anticlimactic. The transports bearing the British troops to Canada arrived off the American coast just after the release and apology. Secretary of State Seward offered, a little too graciously, to let the soldiers disembark on American soil for rapid transportation across Maine, but the British coldly rejected this unnecessary courtesy.
        The Trent affair had been symptomatic. The war had put a heavy strain on relations between the United States and Great Britain, and there would always be danger that some unexpected occurrence would bring on a war. Yet the two countries were fortunate in the character of their diplomats. The American Minister in London was Charles Francis Adams, and the British Minister in Washington was Lord Lyons, and these two had done all they could, in the absence of instructions from their governments, to keep the Trent business from getting out of hand. Even Secretary of State Seward, who earlier had shown a politician's weakness for making votes in America by defying the British, proved supple enough to retreat with good grace from an untenable position; and Earl Russell, the British Foreign Secretary, who had sent a very stiff note, nevertheless phrased it carefully so that Seward could make his retreat without too great difficulty.
        Much more serious was the situation that developed late in the summer of 1862. At that time, as far as any European could see, the Confederacy was beginning to look very much like a winner-a point which James Mason insistently pressed home with British officialdom. The Northern attempt to capture the Confederate capital had failed, Virginia's soil had been cleared of invaders, and in the East and West alike the Confederates were on the offensive. Minister Adams warned Seward 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 Great Britain the quarrel had gone on long enough and ought to be ended-by giving the South what it wanted. Adams knew what he was talking about. Earl Russell had given Mason no encouragement whatever, but after news of the Second Battle of Bull Pun reached London, he and Lord Palmerston, the Prime Minister, agreed that along in late September or thereabouts there should be a cabinet meeting at which Prime Minister and Foreign Secretary would ask approval of the mediation proposal. (Implicit in all of this was the idea that if the Northern government should refuse to accept mediation, Britain would go ahead and recognize the Confederacy.) With a saving note of caution, Russell and Palmerston concluded not to bring the plan before the cabinet until they got further word about Lee's invasion of the North. If the Federals 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.
        On October 7 the Chancellor of the Exchequer, William E. Gladstone, made a notable speech at Newcastle in which he remarked that no matter what one's opinion of slavery might be, facts had to be faced: "There is no doubt that Jefferson Davis and other leaders of the South have made an army; they are making, it appears, a navy; and they have made what is more than either-they have made a nation." He added, "We may anticipate with certainty the success of the Southern States so far as regards their separation from the North."
        Naturally enough, this raised a sensation. Gladstone explained that he had simply been expressing his own opinion rather than that of the government, and when Earl Russell saw the speech, he wrote Gladstone that he "went beyond the latitude which all speakers must be allowed." His lordship went on to say that he did not think the cabinet was prepared for recognition, but that it would meet very soon to discuss the project.
        In all of this there was less of actual hostility toward the North than is usually supposed. Palmerston and Russell were prepared to accept an accomplished fact, when and if such a fact became visible; if the Confederacy was definitely going to win, the fact ought to be admitted and the war ought to be ended. But they were not prepared to go further than that. Gladstone might commit his calculated indiscretion, the upper class might continue to hold the Confederates as sentimental favorites, and the London Times might thunder at intervals against the Northern government; but the British government itself tried to be scrupulously correct, and long before the war ended, ardent Southerners were complaining that the government's attitude had been consistently hostile to the Confederacy. Even the business of the British-built cruisers and ironclad rams did not alter this situation. Legally, vessels like the Alabama were simply fast merchant ships, given arms and a warlike character only after they had left English waters, and the government had no legal ground to prevent their construction and delivery. The famous rams themselves were technically built for French purchasers, and even though it was an open secret that they would ultimately go into the Confederate navy, there was never anything solid for the British authorities to put their teeth into. When the British government finally halted the deal and forced the builders to sell the rams to the British navy, it actually stretched the law very substantially. That it did this under a plain threat of war from the United States did not alter the fact that in the end the Confederacy could not get what it desperately wanted from Great Britain.
        Nor was the United States without active friends in England. Such reformers as John Bright and Richard Cobden spoke up vigorously in support of the Lincoln government, and even when the cotton shortage threw thousands of textile workers out of employment, the British working class remained consistently opposed to the Confederacy. But the decisive factor, in the fall of 1862 and increasingly thereafter, was the Battle of Antietam and what grew out of it.
        Antietam by itself showed that Lee's invasion was not going to bring that final, conclusive Confederate triumph which had been anticipated. The swift recession of the high Confederate tide was as visible in England as in America, and as the autumn wore away Palmerston and Russell concluded that it would not be advisable to bring the mediation-recognition program before the cabinet.
        Far more significant than Antietam, however, was the Emancipation Proclamation, which turned out to be one of the strangest and most important state papers ever issued by an American President.
        During the late spring and early summer of 1862 Lincoln had come to see that he must broaden the base of the war. 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 Northern government must officially declare itself against slavery. Lincoln was preparing such a declaration even before McClellan's army left the Virginia Peninsula, but he could not issue it until the North had won a victory. (Seward pointed out that to issue it on the heels of a string of Northern defeats would make it look as if the government were despairingly crying for help rather than making a statement of principle.) Antietam gave Lincoln the victory he had to have, and on September 22 he issued the famous proclamation, the gist of which was that on January 1, 1863, all slaves held in a state or a part of a state which was in rebellion should be "then, thence-forward and forever free."
        Technically, the proclamation was almost absurd. It proclaimed freedom for all slaves in precisely those areas where the United States could not make its authority effective, and allowed slavery to continue in slave states which remained under Federal control. It was a statement of intent rather than a valid statute, and it was of doubtful legality; Lincoln had issued it as a war measure, basing it on his belief that the President's undefined "war powers" permitted him to do just about anything he chose to do in order to win the war, but the courts might not agree with him. Abolitionists felt that it did not go nearly far enough, and border-state people and many Northern Democrats felt that it went altogether too far. But in the end it changed the whole character of the war and, more than any other single thing, doomed the Confederacy to defeat.
        The Northern Government now was committed to a broader cause, with deep, mystic overtones; it was fighting for union and for human freedom as well, and the very nature of the Union for which it was fighting would be permanently deepened and enriched. A new meaning was given to Daniel Webster's famous "Liberty and Union, now and forever, one and inseparable"; the great Battle Hymn now rang out as an American Marseillaise, and Northerners who had wondered whether the war was quite worth its terrible cost heard, at last, the notes of the bugle that would never call retreat. A war goal with emotional power as direct and enduring as the Confederacy's own had at last been erected for all men to see.
        And in Europe the American Civil War had become something in which no western government dared to intervene. The government of Britain, France, or any other nation could play power politics as it chose, as long as the war meant nothing more than a government's attempt to put down a rebellion; but no government that had to pay the least attention to the sentiment of its own people could take sides against a government which was trying to destroy slavery. The British cabinet was never asked to consider the proposition which Palmerston and Russell had been talking about, and after 1862 the chance that Great Britain would decide in favor of the Confederacy became smaller and smaller and presently vanished entirely. The Emancipation Proclamation had locked the Confederates in an anachronism which could not survive in the modern world.
        Along with this there went a much more prosaic material factor. Europe had had several years of short grain crops, and during the Civil War the North exported thousands of tons of grain-grain which could be produced in increasing quantities, despite the wartime manpower shortage, because the new reapers and binders were boosting farm productivity so sharply. Much as Great Britain needed American cotton, just now she needed American wheat even more. In a showdown she was not likely to do anything that would cut off that source of food.
        All of this did not mean that Secretary Seward had no more problems in his dealings with the world abroad. The recurring headache growing out of the British habit of building ships for the Confederate navy has already been noted. There was also Napoleon III, Emperor of the French, who was a problem all by himself.
        Napoleon's government in many ways was quite cordial to the Confederates, and in the fall of 1862 Napoleon talked with Slidell and then proposed that France, England, and Russia Join in trying to bring about a six-month armistice. To Slidell the Emperor remarked that if the Northern government rejected this proposal, that might give good reason for recognition and perhaps even for active intervention. Neither Britain nor Russia would go along with him, but early in 1863 Napoleon had the French Minister at Washington suggest to Seward that there ought to be a meeting of Northern and Southern representatives to see whether the war might not be brought to a close. Seward politely but firmly rejected this suggestion, and the Congress, much less politely, formally resolved that any foreign government which made such proposals was thereby committing an unfriendly act. Whether Napoleon really expected anything to come of his suggestion is a question; probably he strongly wanted a Southern victory but was afraid to do anything definite without British support. His real interest was in Mexico, where he took advantage of the war to create a French puppet state, installing the Hapsburg Maximilian as Emperor of Mexico in direct violation of the Monroe Doctrine. Propped up by French troops, Maximilian managed to hang on to his shaky throne for several years, and if his control over the country had been firmer, Napoleon would probably have given the Confederacy, from that base, more active support. Shortly after Appomattox the Federal government sent Phil Sheridan and 50,000 veterans to the Mexican border in blunt warning, Seward filed a formal protest against the occupation, and Napoleon withdrew his soldiers. When the French troops left, the Mexicans regained control, and Maximilian was deposed and executed.
        Singularly enough, the one European country which showed a definite friendship for the Northern government was Czarist Russia. In the fall of 1863 two Russian fleets entered American waters, one in the Atlantic and one in the Pacific. They put into New York and San Francisco harbors and spent the winter there, and the average Northerner expressed both surprise and delight over the visit, assuming that the Russian Czar was taking this means of warning England and France that if they made war in support of the South, he would help the North. Since pure altruism is seldom or never visible in any country's foreign relations, the business was not quite that simple. Russia at the time was in some danger of getting into a war with England and France, for reasons totally unconnected with the Civil War in America; to avoid the risk of having his fleets icebound in Russian ports, the Czar simply had them winter in American harbors. If war should come, they would be admirably placed to raid British and French commerce. For many years most Americans believed that for some inexplicable reason of his own the Czar had sent the fleets simply to show his friendship for America.
        Considering the course of the war as a whole, it must be said that Northern diplomacy was highly successful and that Southern diplomacy was a flat failure. At the time, most Northerners bitterly resented what they considered the unfriendly attitude of Britain and France, but neither country did much that would give the South any real nourishment. The British commerce raiders were indeed expensive nuisances to the North, and the famous "Alabama claims" after the war were prosecuted with vigor; but cruisers like the Alabama might have ranged the seas for a generation without ever compelling the North to give up the struggle. The open recognition, the active aid, the material and financial support which the South needed so greatly were never forthcoming. Europe refused to take a hand in America's quarrel. North and South were left to fight it out between themselves.

Source: The American Heritage New History of the Civil War, (Part of Chapter 6)

This Page last updated 02/16/02

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