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Britain Views the American Civil War

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Report by Eric Heslop

 

On 15 November, Dr Duncan Anderson, a Head of Department at the Royal Military Academy, Sandhurst, gave a stimulating address on some of the diplomatic cross currents that infused the early stages of the War between the States. His early introduction to the ACW stemmed from an errant reading of mid-nineteenth century periodicals as an alternative to more energetic action on the sports field during his student days. The cartoons from many of these provided an amusing and informative commentary on many of the features that took up, in a less entertaining manner, many pages in the scholarly tomes that later were written. Not only were these illustrations educational in a jocular manner, but also served to indicate the great interest that was taken in the ACW from the other side of the Atlantic, and perhaps, more pertinent from a historical perspective, provided an insight on how contemporary opinion, in Britain, viewed the conflict. He was fortunate that, in his early academic career, he devilled as research assistant to professor Paul Crooks during the time when the professor was writing his seminal work on the diplomacy of the ACW "The North the South and the Powers".

 

 


Dr Anderson began by saying that the ACW was perhaps a precursor of the concept of "total war" that marred the succeeding century, and with which we were now unfortunately too familiar. The ramifications of this struggle went far beyond the protagonists, and embraced many of the major powers, particularly England and France. On the periphery, some minor powers were also affected. That these ramifications did not metamorphose into repercussions owed more to good luck that to good management. In short the conflict could have spread.

 

The north Atlantic was regarded as, it is now, as a common pond between the two countries divided by a common language. There was economic linkage, as two thirds of British exports went to the United States and ninety percent of US cotton exports went to Britain. The pressure from the New England states for protection was viewed with disfavour in England, but far more important was the unsavoury outlook that Britain had on the institution of slavery in the US. The writings of Harriet Beecher Stowe had a profound effect in Britain, as did the self induced martyrdom of John Brown. The opinion of southern extremists that the Negro had to be kept in servitude for his own good was repugnant to most of Britain, despite the impetus to social Darwinism, that had been given by the horrors, imagined or otherwise, of the Indian Mutiny. Once he had witnessed first hand the demeaning effects of US slavery Lord John Russell, one time Prime Minister, and now Foreign Secretary, sloughed off his indifference, to become a convert to eventual emancipation. It was recognised that the election of Lincoln would precipitate a crisis.

 

In Dr Anderson's view, it was the existence of, and the issue of the extension of slavery that was the prime cause of the war. That there were other factors was undeniable, the increasing economic hegemony of the North, the diminishing political influence of the South, and far from least, the vexed issue of states rights. But these other attributed factors were given undue prominence after the end of Reconstruction when it was expedient to usher in an era of better relations between the former adversaries, and the repugnant fact that it was about slavery could be swept under the carpet.

 

Despite the anticipated adverse impact on GB exports by the Morrill tariff, British opinion, very broadly speaking favoured the North, notwithstanding the danger that the cessation of cotton imports from the South could pose to the Lancashire textile industry. The Confederacy would have dearly liked to secure a trade agreement with Britain, but the stigma of association with slavery inhibited any meaningful negotiations. Moreover, India, if necessary, would provide an alternative source of cotton. Any exports from the Confederacy would have to go through the Northern blockade. Lord Lyons, British Ambassador in Washington, floated the idea of British recognition of the Confederacy to avoid the blockade, which incensed Seward, the Union Secretary of State, as in the final analysis British sea power could break the blockade. The first battle of Bull Run underlined the fact the North was, by no means, a certain victor and cartoons in Punch characterised the North as a sort of wilful boy, who needed to be shown the error of his ways.

 

On 6 November the US ship San Jacinto intercepted the British merchantman Trent and removed, by force, two Confederate envoys to Europe, Mason and Slidell. This provoked the most serious, and ominous, rift between Britain and the US. Palmerston, the bellicose British Prime Minister, and the only one who could make Margaret Thatcher look like a wimp, was for teaching the US a salutary lesson. There was a naval build up, troops were embarked for Canada and troops already in Canada were put on a war footing. Fortunately cooler heads prevailed. The Prince Consort Albert, in what proved to be his valedictory service to the country, toned down the peremptory demarche, almost amounting to an ultimatum, and gave the US a way out, by inferring the US could assert that the arrest of the envoys had been unauthorised. Lincoln was at first inclined to back the action of Wilkes, the skipper of the San Jacinto, but Seward's artful sophistry, that the seizure of the envoys was contrary to American law, freedom of the seas, enabled Lincoln to repudiate the action of captain Wilkes, and thus climb down with dignity. However, to be pragmatic, India was the source of saltpetre, an essential ingredient of gunpowder, the stocks of which were fast dwindling in the US.

 

A shipment of this badly needed commodity, in transit from India, via London, was being held up. The sooner a settlement was reached, the sooner the cargo could be released! How gloomy the international outlook had become can be seen from despatch of Russian naval vessels to the seas lapping North America. In the civil war era, Alaska, and some of its environs were owned by Russia, as it was not until 1867 that the United States purchased Alaska from Russia.

 

That arch opportunist, Louis Napoleon of France, thought that he could take advantage of the preoccupation of the North and the South, by increasing European, i.e. French, influence in Mexico and initially sought to involve Britain in his plans by an expedition to Vera Cruz. However Britain withdrew from an ill judged venture. Louis Napoleon, sought to turn Mexico into a French client state by putting his puppet emperor, the Austrian archduke Maximilian on the throne of Mexico. The French troops were forced to evacuate Mexico, and Maximilian, deserted by his erstwhile patron, was captured by Mexican insurgents, and shot.

 

British public opinion had not yet swung decisively in favour of the North, particularly as there had been as yet no major Union victory in the eastern theatre of the war. British newspapers were more prone to place greater emphasis to activities in Virginia than they were to those elsewhere. Notwithstanding that, the less creditable aspects of the rule of Beast Butler in New Orleans reached the British press. His edict that Ladies of the South who did not treat the Union soldiery with respect were to be treated as ladies of the town plying their avocation did little to enhance British opinion of northern chivalry! British orientation toward the Southern cause had been in part conditioned by sympathy toward the emerging nations of Europe during the recent revolutions there. Gladstone, not yet at the acme of political power, but still a powerful spokesman for the enlightened wing , in a controversial speech in Newcastle in 1862 referred to the South as having made a nation. But the pendulum was beginning to swing. Gladstone thought that the cotton workers in Lancashire would demonstrate against the lack of imported cotton from the South. But working class solidarity in favour of King Cotton was not as solid as it seemed. In fact some of the textile workers, most notably in Staleybridge regarded their own economic interests as secondary to the plight of the slaves in the confederacy. The grain imports from the North were becoming recognised as just as important as the import of cotton from the South. Despite the natural inclination of the aristocracy and the middle classes to sympathise with the South, once the bugbear of slavery came into the reckoning, it was difficult to sustain a lasting promotion of the Southern cause.

 

That inveterate and ill judging meddler Louis Napoleon was in 1862 still trying to embroil Britain in measures in favour of the southern cause. Once the spectre of slavery began to materialise, Palmerston and Lord John Russell began to realise that the time was no longer opportune for British recognition of the Confederacy. Seward realised that the North badly needed a victory in order that the optimum effect could be gained by linking the fight of the North to emancipation, as otherwise it could be regarded as desperation measures. The standoff at Antietam, but a major strategic victory for the North gave Lincoln an opportunity to make his emancipation proclamation effective from 1 January 1863. Once slavery became inextricably intertwined with the politics of the war it was extremely difficult to recognise the Confederacy as a separate nation. In addition the European situation demanded attention. There was the Polish crisis involving the subjugation of Poland by Russia. The advent of Bismarck had brought the Schleswig-Holstein imbroglio to a head.

 

There were still areas of dispute between Britain and the US. The most important of these concerned the building of confederate raiders in British shipyards, although southern apologists were able to argue that a raider was not a raider until it had been fitted out as a man of war Claims for compensation from Britain because of loss sustained from the depredations of confederate raiders built in Britain continued long after the war had ended. More importantly, harking back to colonial days, perhaps an attitude became engrained in the American psyche, that somehow Britain was guilty of a patronising attitude towards its one time ward. It may well be that this attitude was not extinguished until the end of the second world war. By that time Britain was no longer a major world power and the former pivotal role which Britain was able to assume could have been the latent factor which engendered American disapproval!

 

Question time was lively! It was disputed from the floor that slavery was the prime cause of the war and that consequently states rights was the more important. The premise that the Southern States legally had the right to secede was vigorously advanced and that to contend otherwise was not correct drew an audible murmur of dissent from the audience. There was an amusing interlude when it was pointed out that Liverpool shipyards were in fact in Birkenhead, with some mention of the facilities provided by Bristol! Be it Liverpool or Birkenhead, that part of England was apparently pro South. It was commented that the British consular system in the US was most efficient. There was some discussion about the role of foreign combatants in the conflict and the distinction that should be drawn between those who were refugees and those who were in a sense foreign enlistments. Some gave their services voluntary and it was debatable whether they were true mercenaries. The Foreign Enlistments Act was difficult to enforce. It was noted that there were border tensions in both Canada and Mexico.