Diplomacy of the American Civil War
The diplomacy of the American Civil War involved the relations of the United States of America and the Confederate States of America with the major world powers during the American Civil War of 1861–1865. The United States successfully prevented other powers from recognizing the Confederacy, which counted heavily on Britain and France to enter the war on its side to maintain their supply of cotton and to weaken a growing opponent. Every nation was officially neutral throughout the war, and none formally recognized the Confederacy.
The major nations all recognized that the Confederacy had certain rights as an organized belligerent. A few nations did take advantage of the war. Spain recaptured its lost colony of the Dominican Republic. It lost it again in 1865. More serious was the war by France, under Emperor Napoleon III, to install Maximilian I of Mexico as a puppet ruler, hoping to negate American influence. France, therefore, encouraged Britain to join in a policy of mediation, suggesting that both recognize the Confederacy. Lincoln repeatedly warned that any recognition of the Confederacy was tantamount to a declaration of war. The British textile industry depended on cotton from the South, but it had stocks to keep the mills operating for a year and in any case, the industrialists and workers carried little weight in British politics. Knowing a war would cut off vital shipments of American food, wreak havoc on the British merchant fleet, and cause the immediate loss of Canada, Britain and its powerful Royal Navy, refused to join France.
Historians emphasize that Union diplomacy proved generally effective, with expert diplomats handling numerous crises. British leaders had some sympathy for the Confederacy, but were never willing to risk war with the Union. France was even more sympathetic to the Confederacy, but it was threatened by Prussia and would not make a move without full British cooperation. Confederate diplomats were inept, or as one historian put it, "Poorly chosen diplomats produce poor diplomacy." Other countries played a minor role. Russia made a show of support of the Union, but its importance has often been exaggerated.
- 1 United States
- 2 Confederate failures
- 3 United Kingdom
- 4 France
- 5 Other countries
- 6 World perspective
- 7 See also
- 8 Notes
- 9 Further reading
Lincoln's foreign policy was deficient in 1861, and he failed to garner public support in Europe. Diplomats had to explain that the United States was not committed to ending slavery, instead appealing to the unconstitutionality of secession. Confederate spokesmen, on the other hand, were much more successful: ignoring slavery and instead focusing on their struggle for liberty, their commitment to free trade, and the essential role of cotton in the European economy. Most European leaders were unimpressed with the Union's legal and constitutional arguments and thought it hypocritical that the U.S. should seek to deny to one of its regions the same sort of independence it won from Great Britain some eight decades earlier. Furthermore, since the Union was not committed to ending slavery, it struggled to persuade Europeans (especially Britons) that there was no moral equivalency between the rebels who established the United States in 1776 and the rebels who established the Confederate States in 1861. Even more importantly, the European aristocracy (the dominant factor in every major country) was "absolutely gleeful in pronouncing the American debacle as proof that the entire experiment in popular government had failed. European government leaders welcomed the fragmentation of the ascendant American Republic."
For decades historians have debated who played the most important roles in shaping Union diplomacy. During the early 20th century, Secretary of State William Seward was seen as an Anglophobe who dominated a weak president. Lincoln's reputation was restored by Jay Monaghan who, in 1945, emphasized Lincoln's quiet effectiveness behind the scenes. A new study by Norman Ferris in 1976 was a realistic study of Seward's actual programming, emphasizing his leadership role. Lincoln continues to get high marks for his moral leadership in defining the meaning of the conflict in terms of democracy and freedom. Numerous monographs have highlighted the leadership role of Charles Sumner as head of the Senate Foreign Relations committee, and Charles Francis Adams as minister to the Court of St. James (Britain),. Historians have studied Washington's team of hard-working diplomats, financiers and spies across Europe.
Even the most avid promoters of secession had paid little attention to European affairs prior to 1860. The Confederates had for years uncritically assumed that "cotton is king"—that is, Britain had to support the Confederacy to obtain cotton. They never sent agents to see if the theory was true, and they soon learned that it was not. Peter Parish has argued that southern intellectual and cultural insularity proved fatal:
- For years before the war the South had been building a wall around its perimeter, to protect itself from dangerous agitators and subversive ideas, and now those inside the wall could no longer see over the top, out to what lay beyond.
Once the war began, the Confederacy pinned its hopes on military intervention by Great Britain and France. As for King Cotton, Confederate leaders were unaware that the British were not dependent on Southern cotton and that Great Britain had stocks on hand to last over a year, having developed alternative sources of cotton, most notably in India and Egypt. Great Britain was unwilling to risk war with the U.S. to acquire more cotton at the risk of losing the large quantities of food imported from the North. Meanwhile, the Confederate national government had lost control of its own foreign policy when cotton planters, factors, and financiers spontaneously decided to embargo shipments of cotton to Europe in early 1861. It was a hugely expensive mistake, depriving the Confederacy of millions of dollars in cash it would desperately need.
The Confederate government sent delegations to Europe, but historians give them low marks for their diplomacy. James Murray Mason went to London and John Slidell traveled to Paris. They were unofficially interviewed, but neither secured official recognition for the Confederacy. However, Confederate purchasing agents in Europe, often working with blockade runners funded by British financiers, get high marks for their success. James Bulloch, for example, was the mastermind behind the procurement of warships for the Confederate Navy. Confederate propagandists, especially Henry Hotze and James Williams, were partly effective in mobilizing European public opinion. Hotze acted as a Confederate agent in Great Britain. His success was based on using liberal arguments of self-determination in favor of national independence, echoing the failed European revolutions of 1848. He also promised that the Confederacy would be a low-tariff nation in contrast to the high-tariff United States. He consistently emphasized that the tragic consequences of cotton shortages for the industrial workers in Britain were caused by the Union blockade of Southern ports.
In March 1862 James Murray Mason made it to England and collaborated with several British politicians to push the government to ignore the Union blockade. Mason and his friends argued that it was only a "paper blockade," not actually enforceable, which by international law would make it illegal. In that case, the British were free to openly support the Confederacy. However, most British politicians opposed this interpretation because it was counter to traditional British views on blockades, which Britain saw as one of its most effective naval weapons.
Confederate agent Father John B. Bannon was a Catholic priest who traveled to Rome in 1863 in a failed attempt to convince Pope Pius IX to grant diplomatic recognition to the Confederacy. Bannon then moved on to Ireland, where he attempted to mobilize support for the Confederate cause and to neutralize the attempts of Union recruiters to enlist Irish men in the Union armies. Nevertheless, thousands of Irishmen did volunteer for the Union.
The British cabinet made the major decisions for war and peace and played a cautious hand, realizing the risk it would have on trade. Elite opinion in Britain tended to favor the Confederacy, while public opinion tended to favor the United States. Throughout the war, large scale trade with the United States continued in both directions. The Americans shipped grain to Britain while Britain sent manufactured items and munitions. Immigration continued into the United States as well. British trade with the Confederacy fell off 95 percent, with only a trickle of cotton going to Britain and some munitions slipping in by small blockade runners, most of them owned and operated by British interests.
Prime Minister Lord Palmerston was sympathetic to the Confederacy. Although a professed opponent of the slave trade and slavery, he held a lifelong hostility towards the United States and believed a dissolution of the Union would weaken the United States – and therefore enhance British power – and that the Southern Confederacy "would afford a valuable and extensive market for British manufactures".
Britain issued a proclamation of neutrality on 13 May 1861. The Confederacy was recognized as a belligerent, but it was too premature to recognize the South as a sovereign state since Washington threatened to treat recognition as a hostile action. Britain depended more on American food imports than Confederate cotton, and a war with the U.S. would not be in Britain's economic interest. Palmerston ordered reinforcements sent to the Province of Canada because he was convinced the Union would make peace with the South and then invade Canada. He was very pleased with the Confederate victory at Bull Run in July 1861, but 15 months later he wrote that:
The American War... has manifestly ceased to have any attainable object as far as the Northerns are concerned, except to get rid of some more thousand troublesome Irish and Germans. It must be owned, however, that the Anglo-Saxon race on both sides have shown courage and endurance highly honourable to their stock".
Trent affair: 1861
A serious diplomatic dispute with the United States erupted over the "Trent Affair" in late 1861. The United States Navy illegally seized two Confederate diplomats from a British ship and refused to release them. Public opinion in the United States celebrated the humiliation of the British, but London demanded redress. Lincoln gave in and returned the diplomats: James Murray Mason and John Slidell.
The Trent Affair in November 1861 produced public outrage in Britain and a diplomatic crisis. A U.S. Navy warship stopped the British steamer Trent and seized two Confederate envoys en route to Europe. Palmerston called the action "a declared and gross insult," demanded the release of the two diplomats, and ordered 3,000 troops to Canada. In a letter to Queen Victoria on 5 December 1861, he said that if his demands were not met, "Great Britain is in a better state than at any former time to inflict a severe blow upon and to read a lesson to the United States which will not soon be forgotten." In another letter to his Foreign Secretary, he predicted war between Britain and the Union:
It is difficult not to come to the conclusion that the rabid hatred of England which animates the exiled Irishmen who direct almost all the Northern newspapers, will so excite the masses as to make it impossible for Lincoln and Seward to grant our demands; and we must therefore look forward to war as the probable result.
In fact Irishmen did not control any major newspapers in the North, and the U.S. decided to release the prisoners rather than risk war. Palmerston was convinced the presence of troops in Canada persuaded the U.S. to acquiesce.
Cotton and the British economy
The British Industrial Revolution was based on textiles, which in turn were based mostly on cotton imported from the American South. The war cut off supplies. By 1862, stocks had run out, and imports from Egypt and India could not make up the deficit. There was enormous hardship for the factory owners and especially the unemployed factory workers. The issues facing the British textile industry factored into the debate over intervening on behalf of the Confederacy in order to break the union blockade and regain access to Southern cotton.
Historians continue to be sharply divided on the question of British public opinion. One school argues that the aristocracy favored the Confederacy, while the anti-slavery Union was championed by British liberals and spokesmen for the radical working class. An opposing school argues that many British workingmen—perhaps a majority—were more sympathetic to the Confederate cause. Finally, a third school emphasizes the complexity of the issue and notes that most Britons did not express an opinion on the matter. Local studies have demonstrated that some towns and neighborhoods took one position, while nearby areas took the opposite. The most detailed study by Richard J.M. Blackett, noting that there was enormous variation across Britain, argues that the working class and religious nonconformists were inclined to support the Union, while support for the Confederacy came mostly from conservatives who were opposed to reform movements inside Britain and from high Church Anglicans.
Humanitarian intervention? 1862
The question of British and French intervention was on the agenda in 1862. Palmerston was especially concerned with the economic crisis in the Lancashire textile mills, as the supply of cotton had largely run out and unemployment was soaring. He seriously considered breaking the union blockade of Southern ports to obtain the cotton. But by this time the American Navy was large enough to threaten the British merchant fleet, and of course Canada could be captured easily. A new dimension came when Lincoln announced the Emancipation Proclamation in September 1862. Many British leaders expected an all-out race war in the south, with so many tens or hundreds of thousands of deaths that humanitarian intervention was called for to stop the threatened bloodshed. (In the event, there was no race war.) Chancellor of the Exchequer William Gladstone opened a cabinet debate over whether Britain should intervene. Gladstone had a favorable image of the Confederacy and, indeed, of slavery (his family wealth depended on slavery in the West Indies). He emphasized the humanitarian intervention to stop the staggering death toll, risk of the race war, and failure of the Union to achieve decisive military results.
In rebuttal, Secretary of War Sir George Cornewall Lewis opposed intervention as a high risk proposition that could result in massive losses. Furthermore, Palmerston had other concerns at the same time, including a crisis over King Otto of Greece in which Russia threatened to take advantage of the weaknesses of the Ottoman Empire. The Cabinet decided that the American situation was less urgent than the need to contain Russian expansion, so it rejected intervention. Palmerston rejected Napoleon III of France's proposal for the two powers to arbitrate the war and ignored all further efforts of the Confederacy to gain British recognition.
British financiers built and operated most of the blockade runners, spending hundreds of millions of pounds on them, but that was legal and not the cause of serious tension. They were staffed by sailors and officers on leave from the Royal Navy. When the U.S. Navy captured one of the fast blockade runners, it sold the ship and cargo as prize of war for the American sailors, then released the crew.
A long-term issue was the British shipyard (John Laird and Sons) building two warships for the Confederacy, especially the CSS Alabama, over vehement protests from the United States. The controversy was resolved after the war in the form of the Alabama Claims, in which Britain gave the United States $15.5 million in arbitration by an international tribunal for damages caused by British-built warships.
The Union successfully recruited soldiers in Canada, and local officials tolerated the presence of Confederate agents despite Union protests. These agents planned attacks on U.S. cities and encouraged antiwar sentiment. They actually did stage a small raid in late 1864 on a Vermont town, where they robbed three banks of $208,000 and killed an American. The raiders escaped back into Canada where the Canadian government arrested them, and then released them.
The British had long pressured the United States to join vigorously in fighting the illegal Atlantic slave trade. Pressure from southern states had neutralized this, but the Lincoln administration was now eager to sign up. In the Lyons–Seward Treaty of 1862, the United States gave Great Britain full authority to crack down on the trans-Atlantic slave trade when carried on by American ships.
The Second French Empire under Napoleon III remained officially neutral throughout the War and never recognized the Confederate States of America. It did recognize Confederate belligerency.  The textile industry needed cotton, and Napoleon III had imperial ambitions in Mexico which could be greatly aided by the Confederacy. The United States had warned that recognition meant war. France was reluctant to act alone without British collaboration, and the British rejected intervention. Emperor Napoleon III realized that a war with the U.S. without allies "would spell disaster" for France. Napoleon III and his Minister of Foreign Affairs Edouard Thouvenel adopted a cautious attitude and maintained diplomatically correct relations with Washington. Half the French press favored the Union, while the "imperial" press was more sympathetic to the Confederacy. Public opinion generally ignored the war, showing much interest in Mexico.
In 1861, Mexican conservatives looked to French leader Napoleon III to abolish the Republic led by liberal President Benito Juárez. France favored the Confederacy but did not accord it diplomatic recognition. The French expected that a Confederate victory would facilitate French economic dominance in Mexico. Napoleon helped the Confederacy by shipping urgently needed supplies through the ports of Matamoros, Mexico, and Brownsville (Texas). The Confederacy itself sought closer relationships with Mexico. Juarez turned them down, but the Confederates worked well with local warlords in northern Mexico, and with the French invaders.
Realizing that Washington could not intervene in Mexico as long as the Confederacy controlled Texas, France invaded Mexico in 1861 and installed an Austrian prince Maximilian I of Mexico as its puppet ruler in 1864. Owing to the shared convictions of the democratically elected government of Juárez and Lincoln, Matías Romero, Juárez's minister to Washington, mobilized support in the U.S. Congress, and raised money, soldiers and ammunition in the United States for the war against Maximilian. Washington repeatedly protested France's violation of the Monroe Doctrine.
Once the Union won the War in spring 1865, the U.S. allowed supporters of Juárez to openly purchase weapons and ammunition and issued stronger warnings to Paris. Washington sent general William Tecumseh Sherman with 50,000 combat veterans to the Mexican border to emphasize that time had run out on the French intervention. Napoleon III had no choice but to withdrew his outnumbered army in disgrace. Emperor Maximilian refused exile and was executed by the Mexican government in 1867.
Russian-American relations were very generally cooperative. Alone among European powers, Russia offered oratorical support for the Union, largely due to the view that the U.S. served as a counterbalance to the British Empire.
During the winter of 1861–1862, the Imperial Russian Navy sent two fleets to American waters to avoid their getting trapped if a war broke out with Britain and France. Many Americans at the time viewed this as an intervention on behalf of the Union, though historians deny this. The Alexander Nevsky and the other vessels of the Atlantic squadron stayed in American waters for seven months (September 1863 to June 1864).
1865 saw a major project attempted: the building of a Russian-American telegraph line from Seattle, Washington through British Columbia, Russian America (Alaska) and Siberia – an early attempt to link East-West communications. It failed and never operated.
In 1863, Russia brutally suppressed a large scale insurrection in Poland during the January Uprising. Many Polish resistance leaders fled the country, and Confederate agents tried and failed to encourage them to come to America to join the Confederacy.
The Lincoln administration looked abroad for places to relocate freed slaves who wanted to leave the United States. It opened U.S. negotiations with the Dutch government regarding African American migration and colonization of the Dutch colony of Suriname in South America. Nothing came of the idea, and after 1864 the idea was dropped.
The Italian hero Giuseppe Garibaldi was one of the most famous people in Europe as a proponent of liberty; Washington sent a diplomat to invite him to become an American general. Garibaldi declined the offer because he would not be given supreme power over all the armies, and because the United States was not yet committed to abolishing slavery. Historians agree that it was just as well because he was too independent in thought and deed to have worked smoothly with the U.S. government.
Historian Don H. Doyle has argued that the Union victory had a major impact on the course of world history. The Union victory energized popular democratic forces. A Confederate victory, on the other hand, would have meant a new birth of slavery, not freedom. Historian Fergus Bordewich, following Doyle, argues that:
The North's victory decisively proved the durability of democratic government. Confederate independence, on the other hand, would have established An American model for reactionary politics and race-based repression that would likely have cast an international shadow into the twentieth century and perhaps beyond."
Relations with Britain (and Canada) were tense; Canada was seen at fault in the St. Albans Raid into Vermont in 1864. The Canadian government captured the Confederates who robbed a bank and killed an American, then released them, angering American opinion.. London forced the Canadian Confederation in 1867, in part as a way to meet the American challenge without risking on British armed forces.
The U.S. looked the other way when Irish activists known as Fenians tried and failed badly in an invasion of Canada in 1871. The arbitration of the Alabama Claims in 1872 provided a satisfactory reconciliation; The British paid the United States $15.5 million for the economic damage caused by Confederate warships purchased from it. Congress did pay Russia for the Alaska Purchase in 1867, but otherwise rejected proposals for any major expansions, such as the proposal by President Ulysses Grant to acquire Santo Domingo.
- American Civil War
- History of U.S. foreign policy
- International relations of the Great Powers (1814–1919)
- Timeline of United States diplomatic history
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- Mayers, Adam. Dixie and the Dominion: Canada, the Confederacy, and the War for the Union (2003) online review
- Saul, Norman E. Distant Friends: The United States and Russia, 1763–1867 (1991).
- * Winks, Robin. Canada and the United States: The Civil War Years (1960).
- Adams, Ephraim D. Great Britain and the American Civil War (2 vols. 1925).
- Bennett, John D. The London Confederates: The Officials, Clergy, Businessmen and Journalists Who Backed the American South During the Civil War. (McFarland, 2012. ISBN 978-0-7864-6901-7.
- Berwanger, Eugene. The British Foreign Service and the American Civil War (2015).
- Blackett, R. J. M. Divided Hearts: Britain and the American Civil War (2001).
- Blumenthal, Henry. A Reappraisal of Franco-American Relations, 1830–1871 (1959)
- Campbell, Duncan Andrew. English Public Opinion and the American Civil War (2003).
- Crook, D. P. The North, The South, and the Powers, 1861–1865 (1974), focus on Britain and Canada.
- Duberman, Martin B. Charles Francis Adams, 1807–1886 (1960), U.S. minister in Britain.
- Ellison, Mary. Support for Secession: Lancashire and the American Civil War (1972); role of cotton mill workers.
- Ferris, Norman B. The Trent Affair: A Diplomatic Crisis (1977).
- Foreman, Amanda. A World on Fire: Britain’s Crucial Role in the American Civil War (2011).
- Jones, Howard. Union in Peril: The Crisis Over British Intervention in the Civil War (1992).
- Long, Madeline. In The Shadow of the Alabama: The British Foreign Office and the American Civil War (Naval Institute Press, 2015).
- Merli, Frank J., and David M. Fahey. The Alabama, British Neutrality, and the American Civil War (2004).
- Meyers, Philip E. Caution & Cooperation: The American Civil War in British-American Relations. (2008). excerpt; A revisionist approach; denies there was much risk of war between the United States and Britain
- Poast, Paul. "Lincoln’s Gamble: Bargaining Failure, British Recognition, and the Start of the American Civil War." (2011) online
- Sebrell II, Thomas E. Persuading John Bull: Union and Confederate Propaganda in Britain, 1860–1865. Lexington Books, 2014.
- Sexton, Jay. "Transatlantic financiers and the Civil War." American Nineteenth Century History 2#3 (2001): 29–46.
- Vanauken, Sheldon. The Glittering Illusion: English Sympathy for the Southern Confederacy (Gateway Books, 1989)
France and Mexico
- Blackburn, George M. "Paris Newspapers and the American Civil War," Illinois Historical Journal (1991) 84#3 pp 177–193. online
- Clapp, Margaret. Forgotten First Citizen: John Bigelow (1947) He was the American consul in Paris.
- Carroll, Daniel B. Henri Mercier and the American Civil War (1971); The French minister to Washington, 1860–63.
- Case, Lynn M. and Warren F. Spencer. The United States and France: Civil War Diplomacy. 1970).
- Case, Lynn Marshall. French opinion on war and diplomacy during the Second Empire (1954).
- Hanna, Alfred J., and Kathryn Abbey Hanna. Napoleon III and Mexico: American Triumph over Monarchy (1971).
- Sainlaude, Stève. The French Government and the Civil War, 1861–1865. The diplomatic action (2011)
- Schoonover, Thomas. "Mexican Cotton and the American Civil War." The Americas 30.04 (1974): 429–447.
- Sears, Louis Martin. "A Confederate Diplomat at the Court of Napoleon III," American Historical Review (1921) 26#2 pp. 255–281 in JSTOR on Slidell