people tend to overlook foreign nations involvement in the American civil war.
Though many European nations were involved, they tried to be as neutral as
possible when dealing with the United States during the war. This though did
not apply to all nations, the United Kingdom of Great Britain were very much tangled
in the war much until the president, Abraham Lincoln, issued the Emancipation
Proclamation forcing Great Britain to reconsider the relationship they had with
the Southern states1.
However, the British Empire legally acknowledged the status of Confederate
States of America but never acknowledged the United States as a nation. They
also decided never to sign treaties with the United States or exchange
ambassadors, so the elites supported the Confederacy while the ordinary people
backed the United States of America.
between the nations continued as usual with the Union exporting grains to
Britain while the British manufactured munitions and shipped them to the Union.
The trade between the Confederacy and the British fell over 85%2
from the period of prewar with some munitions being slipped in by plenty of
blockade runners and a small amount of cotton being sent to Britain3.
The British private interests funded and operated the trade under the
International law hence avoiding any sort of disputes between them. There was a
diplomatic dispute that arose in 1861 over the ‘Trent Affair’4
but was resolved peacefully months later however Blackett believed it “done
incalculable damage to the British public’s view of the United States.”5
was in 1861 when the Southern States decided to secede themselves from the
Union and form their own confederation. The reason behind the secession was the
central government claims to exercise a larger control over the separate states
than it was supposed to. The Northern States did not support the secession
arguing that the Union was federal and the Southern States trying to secede was
an act of rebellion6.
The Southern claimed that the Union was just a confederation and anyone had the
right to separate from it at their own will. The British Government chose not
to judge them so as to maintain their relationship7.
The sporting instincts of the Britain citizens were very influential in favor
of the Southern States because it was battling against the heavy odds.
American people viewed the British neutrality with extreme resentment. The
resentment was unjustified because the Northern and southern people felt it in
equal degree, both feeling convinced that they were the correct side and that
it was evil for the British not to act on that assumption. The people from
North felt that the American nationality was at stake while others felt the
importance of giving their whole sympathies to the eradication of slave trade.
The Southern people thought they were fighting for political freedom which was
appealed by many Britons. The Southerners believed that slavery was sanctioned
by the scriptures and majority of the preferred the perfect contentment of
slaves rather than the horrific abuses by the whole system. At the end, both sides
were so angry with the British for not giving it a passionate and rigid
is undeniable to point out that the main intention behind the involvement of
Great Britain in the American Civil War was economic concerns8.
Majority of cotton in the world during the mid-nineteenth century was produced
in the Southern States in America. After the Southerner’s successful secession
from the Union, Great Britain had no option but to tread carefully so as not
get involved in another war with the USA9.
The United States issued a global verdict cautioning against any foreign
involvement and maintained that any country that funded the Southern States to
secede would be pledging an act of war towards the United States. Great Britain
decided to ignore the verdict and continued to be more and more involved in
trade with the Confederate States as the war progressed.
Victoria delivered the proclamation of neutrality in 186110
which stated that Great Britain’s government had to remain formally neutral in
the domestic affairs of the United States for the rest of the war, and gave the
British citizens the authority to ensure this neutrality11.
However, a majority of British businesses and the citizens chose to fund the
Confederate cause. Most of Confederate Navy was organized in Liverpool, England
used the private dollar in the course of the war, and the port was made a place
for the Confederate embassy in Britain. The Liverpool Southern Club existed to
outsource money (over £3000) from patriotic European southerners to help the
only were ships designed to outpace Union blockade marines as they smuggled
good inside the Confederate land but were also commissioned by Great Britain.
Liverpool was a source of boundless enmity between Great Britain and the Union as
the Confederacy used it to calculate its operations and could have made Britain
to join the war in favor of the south if not of the Emancipation Proclamation
by Abraham Lincoln. Although, Historians have debated that support wasn’t as
extensive as once thought because Liverpool was the most pro-confederacy city
and it still had difficulty acquiring support from the British public13.
Emancipation Proclamation made the war to become all about an issue of ethics
Great Britain withdrew its support of neutrality and accused the Confederate
States of their support and expansion of slave trade15.
It also caused the British government to divert its assured neutrality to the
absolute disapproval of the Confederate States to conciliate their own citizens.
At this point, the war had gone on longer and became more complex than
expected. Although relations between the Confederate state and Britain
continued throughout the war, Britain began to trend heavily for the sake of
policy of neutrality.
battle of Sharpsburg as known by the Confederacy had a lot to do with the
British crystallization on opinion against its participation in the American
civil war. The Union won this battle which led to the greatest number of
casualties. The silence that followed gave Abraham Lincoln a chance to release
emancipation declaration freeing all slaves in the rebelling states. The high
number of casualties and the policy rendering freedom to slaves caused
restlessness in Britain. A wealthy man who owned a slave business in the United
States criticized the Confederate independence and warned about British
intervention on humanitarian grounds16.
British Prime Minister Viscount commended a policy of neutrality even before
the war began. In the course of the war, British reactions to American dealings
were based on past policies in Britain and their national interests, both
tactically and economically. As relations between the United States and the
Western Hemisphere improved, Britain was very careful about challenging the USA
over matters concerning Central America. The United States specifically the
diplomatic observers grew suspicious of British intentions. Eduard de Stoecki
who was then the Russian Minister based in Washington pointed out that
“The Cabinet of London is watching attentively the internal dissensions of
the Union and awaits the result with an impatience which it has difficulty in
He advised the government that Great Britain will recognize the Confederate
states and its earliest opportunity. Cassius Clay on the other hand who was a
USA minister in Russia said that “I saw at a glance where the feeling of
England was. They hoped for our ruin! They are jealous of our power. They care
neither for the South nor the North. They hate both.”18
Lincoln appointed Charles Adams as a minister in the Great Britain whose main
mission was to make it clear to British that the civil war in America was an
internal affair and afforded the Confederacy no right as stated in the
Any action by Britain of supporting the Confederacy was to be reflected as an
act of unfriendliness towards the United States. Seward instructed Adams to
tell the British that a country with widely- scattered belongings and the
homeland of Scotland and Ireland, should be cautious of setting a dangerous
example. Just like the majority of leaders in Britain, Lord Lyons who was a
British minister in the USA had many doubts about Seward and talked about it in
his correspondence which circulated widely within the British government. He
wrote that Seward was a precarious foreign minister who would contemplate going
to war with Britain and his view about the relationship between the United
States and Great Britain was that there were good resources to make political
the August of 1862, the chances of Britain recognizing the Confederacy began to
show. At this point as many Europeans could point out, the civil war seemed to
be a standoff20.
United States efforts to capture the capital of Confederate had failed and the
Confederates both in the east and west were on the offensive. Charles Adams had
warned the United States that the British would one day choose to mediate
between the South and North, which would be a gentle but effective procedure of
insinuating that according to British opinion. The British thought that the war
had gone for so long and the best way to settle the matter was to give the
Southerners what they demanded21.
According to Adams, recognition endangered all-out war with the USA. The war
would involve full-scale invasion on British shipping interest globally, lay an
attack in Canada, stop shipping grains to Britain which was a major part of the
food supply in Britain and end selling of machinery in the United States by
The Lancashire cotton
blockades in the Southern port restricted raw cotton supplies which were key
area of dependency by the Lancashire cotton industry forcing the British
government to offer funds to the South. The cotton scarcity that followed led
to people suffering in Britain as it deprived Lancashire workers their means of
Massive credit was due to the British government as well as to the lavish
generosity of the citizens for commendably organized action to get rid of the
awful distress which came as a result. The workers are highly recommended for
their impressive control they demonstrated. This incident is also known as the
king cotton argument were the Southerners cut off the shipment trying to exert
cotton diplomacy. Though the trick did not work for the time because Britain
had plenty of raw cotton stored in their warehouses, shortages became critical
later in 1862. The south used the cotton famine in attempt to win approval for
their cause, but the Union sent barrels of food to please the UK to avoid war
“by all means.”23
The Trent affair
was an incident that almost caused a war between the United States and Great
Britain after a Britain civilian vessel called the RMS Trent was stopped by
U.S. warship and detained two Confederate diplomats24.
Jefferson Davis who was the Confederate president appointed Mason and John
Slidell to represent confederate in foreign countries. USS San Jacinto had
located a port in Cuba searching for Confederate agents who were said to be
roaming in that locality. The presence of Mason and Slidell was discovered by
Wilkes. It was agreed that if a nation was still at war had the right to search
a merchant ship in case they suspected it to be carrying supplies for the
enemy. Mason alongside Slidell journeyed to the Bahama Channel were they fired
at the Trent and then sent a boat full of crew members who arrested the Confederate
commissioners who were taken to Boston and held as prisoners.
British referred to this act as a violation of the neutral rights and initiated
uproar in Great Britain. It sent 1100 troops to Canada and put them on a war
footing, with a strategic plan to seizure the New York City in case the war
kicked off, and they sent a note to Abraham Lincoln in Washington demanding for
an immediate release of their men and an apology25.
Lincoln was very concerned with British joining the war so he unheeded
anti-British sentimentalities. He issued something which was not exactly an
apology but the British interpreted it as one and then sent a command the
prisoners to be freed.
were claims by the United States against Great Britain as a result of
destruction that was caused by a number of Confederate warships which were made
The Northerners were very annoyed of the non-tolerance act by the British
particularly in the making of the warships. USA demanded huge compensation for
reparations caused by commerce raiders specifically CSS Alabama but Palmerston
refused to pay. Though the British act of foreign enlistment banned
construction of foreign warships, the Confederates managed to evade the letter
of this law and purchased several cruisers. After the completion, the vessels
destroyed more 250 merchant ships from America and converted 700 of them to
U.S. merchant marine had lost almost half of their ships by the end of the war.
The following demands for payment took the name of the most destructive ship
which was known as Alabama. During the Johnson-Clarendon Convention in 1869,
the U.S. and British diplomats worked out urging the commission to go over the
Alabama claims. Unfortunately, their proposal was defeated in Senate where the
head of foreign relations committee Charles Sumner spoke passionately about the
issue. He pointed out that the British were responsible for all losses incurred
even by the citizens and the war costs after Gettysburg. He proposed that Great
Britain compensate 2.1 billion dollars28
for all loses and suggested the cession of Canada also. The matter continued
for some years until the death of Palmerston when Gladstone, the British Prime
Minister accepted to the United States war claims in treaty discussion on other
unfinished matters like border disputes and fishing rights. The proposal was
accepted in early 1872 and Britain paid the full amount of compensation as
requested by the USA of 15.5 million dollars29.
Late 19th century
in the 1860s were chilly as American citizen resented the role of British in
the course of the Civil War. The authorities in America did not even bother
when the Irish ‘Fenians’ planned to attack Canada which had close ties with
Britain back then. The British continued its policy of free trade even when the
main rival, the U.S turned to high costs. The American industry was heavy and
grew bigger and faster compared to that of Britain. By 1980s, the United States
was had taken control over the world market and was crowding British products
and machinery out of it. However, London continued to be the financial center
in the world through numerous investments were focused towards the American
railways. The British remained far ahead of America in insurance and
invasion of the British home market by America required a response. The tariffs
were not imposed until in late 1930 although increasingly under consideration.
As a result, British businessmen were forced to lose their market or decide to
come up with plans to modernize their operations30.
The market for shoe machinery was then taken by America because the shoe
industry in British experienced a lot of imports from the American footwear.
British industries realized that their rival was rising far above them, so they
went back to their traditional work methods, relations in the industry as well
as labor utilization.
conclusion, the relations between Britain and the US was unstable during the
period of the civil war. Issues over cotton and the Trent affair created
economic and political divisions that crippled relations between the UK and the
US. The north, realized the need to keep Britain neutral if they wished to win
the war sending political and economic appeasement. When the issue became about
ethics and slavery, Britain had to dis-associate with the south. The UK never
recovered its industry’s supremacy, allowing the US to surpass them, ‘bad
blood’ existed much after the civil war but was repaired in the early 20th
Drew Gilpin. Mothers of invention:
Women of the slaveholding south in the American civil war. Univ of North
Carolina Press, 1996.
Fellman, Michael. Inside War: The Guerrilla Conflict in Missouri During the
American Civil War. Oxford University Press, 1990.
4 Blackett R.J.M. Divided Hearts: Britain and the American
Civil War. Louisiana State University Press,2001 Pg. 61
Washington, George. “Proclamation of Neutrality.” April 22,
no. 1793 (1793): 585.
Albert Burton. Conscription and
Conflict in the Confederacy. Pickle Partners Publishing, 2017
Brent J. “Ontological security and the power of self-identity: British
neutrality and the American Civil War.” Review of International Studies 31, no. 3 (2005): 519-540.
Frederik. Nomads of south Persia-The
Basseri tribe of the Khamseh confederacy. Read Books Ltd, 2013
10 The Queen’s Neutrality Proclamation. Downing
Street, London, February 1, 1862. Pdf. Retrieved from the Library of Congress,
https://www.loc.gov/item/scsm000229/. (last accessed 27/12/17)
12 Op Cit. Divided Hearts pg.64
13 Ibid pg 64
Emory M. The Confederacy as a
revolutionary experience. Reaktion Books, 1971.
Gaines M. Ghosts of the Confederacy:
Defeat, the Lost Cause, and the Emergence of the New South, 1865-1913.
Oxford University Press, 1988.
Brent J. “Ontological security and the power of self-identity: British
neutrality and the American Civil War.” Review of International Studies
31, no. 3 (2005): 519-540.
17 Charles P. Roland. “An American Iliad: The Story of the
Civil War.” University Press of Kentucky, 1 Jan 2004. Chapter 10, pg. 157
18 Ibid pg. 157
^ Thomas, Emory M. The Confederacy as a revolutionary
experience. Reaktion Books, 1971.
W. Walker. “Temporary shocks and persistent effects in urban economies:
Evidence from British cities after the US Civil War.” Review of
Economics and Statistics 99, no. 1 (2017): 67-79.
Roger. “Fustian and Velvet Cutting—A Subdivision of the Lancashire Cotton
Industry.” Industrial Archaeology
Review 38, no. 2 (2016): 131-145.
Smelser, Neil J. Social change in the
industrial revolution: an application of theory to the Lancashire cotton
industry, 1770-1840. Routledge & Paul, 1959.
23 Op Cit. Divided Hearts Pg. 171
Daniel. “Public Opinion and the Trent Affair.” HISTORY MATTERS
(2016): Pg. 31.
Dickinson, Jack L. “Part 3: Cruise of the Alabama.” (2017).
28 US Department of State Archive, Bureau
of Public Affairs, https://2001-2009.state.gov/r/pa/ho/time/cw/17610.htm last accessed 28/12/17
Robert J. The rise and fall of
American growth: The US standard of living since the civil war.
Princeton University Press, 2017.