The American Civil War and British Intervention: The Threat of Anglo-American Conflict

By Carroll, Francis M. | Canadian Journal of History, Spring-Summer 2012 | Go to article overview

The American Civil War and British Intervention: The Threat of Anglo-American Conflict


Carroll, Francis M., Canadian Journal of History


The year 2011 marked the one hundred and fiftieth anniversary of the outbreak of the American Civil War. This conflict is regarded by many as the most important and traumatic event in American history, the crisis that threatened the survival of the republic created by the War of Independence. The fortunes of the Federal and Confederate causes in the Civil War are usually traced through the epic battles fought from the bombardment of Fort Sumter in April of 1861 to the retreat from Richmond in April, 1865. However, the Federal government faced several international crises that were of very serious dimensions and had the potential to tum the course of the war in an unanticipated direction. Between 1861 and 1863 there were two, possibly three, moments when British intervention, and ultimately war, were distinct possibilities: first, in late 1861 and early 1862 as a result of the Trent affair; second, in September and October of 1862 when the British government seriously considered mediation, recognition of the Confederacy, and intervention; and, third, somewhat more problematically, in September 1863 when the warships being built in Liverpool for the Confederate navy (the Laird rams) seemed likely to put to sea. This article will consider the first two, both of which emerged from overt decisions made by the British government.

The primary objective of Union diplomacy during the war was to prevent the European powers from extending recognition to the Confederacy or intervening in the conflict. It fell to Secretary of State William H. Seward to safeguard against possible intervention. Seward is regarded today as one of the great secretaries of state. However, his appointment was almost entirely political. He had been a leading candidate for the Republican Party presidential nomination, and he was the key figure of a powerful block within the party in New York. Although Seward had travelled abroad and been a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, he had no diplomatic experience and be was regarded by the British with great alarm as a result of his bellicose talk. Once appointed, Seward seemed to bear out British concern--attempting to usurp Lincoln, proposing a foreign war to unite the country, and conducting affairs in a blustery and belligerent manner. In retrospect, all of this has been interpreted as Seward's attempt to bluff the European powers--keep them off balance while the Federal government struggled with the problems and disasters which placed it in a weak position to sustain its policy abroad--that the Confederacy did not exist and that lawless elements would be quickly suppressed. (1) One undeniably brilliant move was the appointment of Charles Francis Adams as the United States Minister to Britain. He was the grandson of John Adams, the son of John Quincy Adams; he was educated abroad (partly in England) and at Harvard, served as a congressman from Massachusetts, was an anti-slavery advocate, and became the third member of his family to hold this diplomatic position. Charles Francis Adams was not only the best representative of the Union, but he was probably the best American to deal with the British government and diplomatic community. (2)

Relations between Britain and the United States had been steadily improving since the late 1850s. Indeed, the Prince of Wales made a successful tour of the eastern states in the summer of 1860 that culminated in a ball at the White House in his honour. Britons were gratified by the cordial reception given the prince wherever he went and even The Times seemed at the moment favourably disposed toward the United States. The secession crisis and the outbreak of hostilities generated new uncertainties and as a result, in the words of R.J.M. Blackett, "the complexity and subtlety of [British] reactions to the war are almost staggering." (3)

The British government under Lord Palmerston came to power in 1859, after a period of considerable political instability and political realignment. …

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