Europe's View of the War

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Europe's View of the War

As the military leaders of the North and the South prepared their armies for the coming war, the politicians of the Union and the Confederacy were also very busy. During the spring of 1861, President Abraham Lincoln (1809–1865) and Northern senators and representatives worked to provide the Union Army with all of the resources it would need for the upcoming conflict. Meanwhile, Confederate president Jefferson Davis (1808–1889) and other Southern leaders scrambled to establish a whole new government while also preparing their people for war. But the men who led the Union and Confederate governments also spent a great deal of time trying to figure out what the European reaction to a civil war might be.

Both sides knew that if a powerful country like England or France decided that the Confederacy's claim of independence was legitimate, the South's position would be greatly strengthened. Davis and other Southerners realized that English or French support for the Confederacy might force the Union to let the Southern states go or risk a disastrous trade war with Europe. A trade war is a situation in which two countries or regions use measures like price increases or trade laws to punish the other side for its position on one issue or another. Trade wars often have a negative economic impact on the citizens of both countries, so most governments try to avoid them at all costs.

Some Southern leaders also believed that formal recognition from France or England might even help them on the field of battle. They speculated that if England or France decided that their claim of independence was legitimate, the governments of one or both nations might send soldiers to fight on the South's behalf. With these possibilities in mind, Southern diplomats launched a major effort to secure European allies, while representatives of the Union tried to convince England, France, and other nations to stay out of the dispute.

European concerns about the rebellion

England and France were, along with the United States, the most powerful countries in the world during the mid-nineteenth century. As a result, other countries watched with great interest to see if either of the two nations would help the Southern states in their bid to secede from the United States. But while the leaders of those two European powers did not always agree with the actions or policies of the United States, they were in no hurry to see the country torn in two by civil war.

At the time of the American Civil War, both France and England were ruled by monarchies, a system of government in which a single person holds complete power over everyone else in the country. Napoleon III (1808–1873) was the ruler of France, and Queen Victoria (1819–1901) sat on the throne in England. Both monarchies, supported by a small number of rich and powerful families and individuals, saw the South's decision to secede from the Union as a form of revolt against established governmental rule. This view of the conflict did not help the South, because the leaders of both France and England were always worried that such rebellions might erupt in their own nations and threaten their own systems of government. Some officials in France and England even feared that their own citizens would follow the South's example if its efforts to make a new government were successful.

Another factor that made it much more difficult for the South to obtain support from France or England was its reliance on slavery. The institution of slavery had been outlawed in England and all of its colonies in 1833, and France had taken the same action in 1844. Most people in Europe realized that the practice was a terrible and savage one that should be abolished wherever it existed. French and English leaders knew that any efforts to help the South would spark a great deal of anger and unrest in their own countries if citizens believed that such aid served to advance the practice of slavery.

The South hopes for support

Despite these considerations, however, the leaders of the Confederacy believed that other factors might convince France or England to support them. For example, in the months leading up to and immediately following the start of the war, President Lincoln and other Federal leaders continued to insist that they entered the war solely to restore the Union, not to eliminate slavery. Some Southern and European diplomats argued that since the North itself claimed that the war was not about slavery, any assistance provided to the Confederacy by England or France would not necessarily be regarded as a defense of slavery.

Another factor that favored the South was Europe's interest in seeing the United States divide itself in two. Both England and France were used to getting their way in world affairs, but the leaders of both nations worried that the United States was becoming too powerful. For example, Napoleon III wanted to establish a French presence in Mexico, but he held back because of concerns about how the Americans might react. The French ruler knew that it would be easier for his country to assume power in Mexico, America's southern neighbor, if the military force of the United States was divided in two.

In addition, many members of the English and French aristocracy (privileged noblemen who wielded great power and influence over their neighbors) recognized that the culture of the South was similar to their own, with a relatively small number of people serving as the region's primary decision makers. Moreover, the wealthy plantation owners in the American South cultivated an image of style and old-fashioned elegance that appealed to the ruling classes in England and France, who instinctively identified with the Southerners' desire to protect their way of life.

Finally, the leaders of the South knew that both England and France bought huge quantities of cotton from their plantations to make clothing and other materials. The climate in those countries made it impossible for them to grow large quantities of cotton themselves. Southern legislators reasoned that if European mills began to experience severe shortages of cotton and other goods that they were used to getting from the South, French or British leaders might ask the North to call off the war and negotiate a treaty that would recognize the Confederacy. With this in mind, Southern leaders stopped shipments of cotton to Europe in hopes of pressuring England and France into supporting their bid for independence. But the strategy ended up backfiring, with severe consequences for the South.

South uses cotton as a weapon

On April 12, 1861, Confederate troops opened fire on the Union garrison at Fort Sumter in South Carolina, an action that marked the beginning of the American Civil War. Around this same time, the South suspended shipments of cotton to Europe in hopes of convincing Queen Victoria or Napoleon III to announce their support for the Confederacy.

But England, France, and most other countries believed that since the North enjoyed big advantages in weaponry and army size over the South, the war would be over in a few short months, with the Union victorious. Their political leaders did not want to anger Lincoln and other Northern leaders, so they decided to stay on the sidelines. On May 13, 1861, Queen Victoria announced British neutrality (showing favoritism to neither side), although she noted that the Confederacy was free to purchase arms from England and other neutral nations. Napoleon III made a similar announcement of French neutrality on June 13. By taking positions of neutrality, both countries were telling the warring sides in America that they refused to take part in the conflict on behalf of either side. The announcements disappointed Jefferson Davis and other leaders of the Confederacy, but the South thought that France and England might change their positions if the cotton shortage became severe enough. After all, more than 150,000 millworkers in England alone would be left unemployed if the country ran out of cotton. As a result, the Confederate government decided to continue its strategy of withholding cotton from European markets.

This decision proved disastrous for the South for two major reasons. First, Confederate leaders had seriously overestimated demand for cotton in Europe. Cotton crops in the years immediately prior to the Civil War had been very good. These big harvests had enabled France, England, and other nations to store large surpluses (stockpiles) of cotton. Even after the South stopped sending cotton, the British and French did not experience shortages of cotton for more than a year. Second, the South could have traded cotton to Europe in exchange for the bullets, guns, artillery, medicine, and other materials that the Confederate Army so desperately needed. Instead, the Confederacy's decision to hoard its cotton deprived its army of a golden opportunity to improve its firepower.

The South eventually realized that its decision to hold on to its cotton was a serious strategic error. In 1862, it belatedly attempted to resume its exports of the "white gold," as cotton was sometimes called, to Europe. By that time, however, the North had established an effective naval blockade around all of the South's major harbors. Union warships took up positions at all Southern ports, cutting off any boats that tried to pass through. Occasionally, Confederate or privately owned British ships known as blockade runners were able to slip past the Union ships, but this trickle of supplies did not come close to meeting the South's many needs. Even the most optimistic Southern politician had to admit that the new Confederate government had committed an enormous blunder. By holding on to its cotton during the first months of the war, when the Union blockade was still forming, the South actually made the blockade effective until the Union Navy was able to enforce it.

The "Trent Affair"

France and Britain maintained their neutral positions throughout the summer of 1861. But in October 1861, an incident on the high seas threatened to spark outright war between the Union and the British Crown. On October 11, a Confederate ship carrying two Southern diplomats, John Slidell (1793–1871) and James Murray Mason (1798–1871), slipped out of Charleston, South Carolina, on a very important mission. Slidell and Mason had been selected to go to France and England in order to ask personally for official recognition of the Confederacy.

Mindful of the Union naval blockade that intercepted vessels bound for Europe, the ship carrying the two diplomats instead raced for Cuba, an island country off the southern coast of Florida that lay outside the area of the blockade. Once they arrived at their destination, Slidell and Mason quickly jumped on the Trent, a British steamer scheduled to leave for England. Since the Trent was leaving from Cuba rather than a Southern harbor, the two Confederate representatives thought that they would be able to make it to Europe without any trouble.

But shortly after taking off, the Trent was intercepted by the U.S.S. San Jacinto, a Union ship commanded by Captain Charles Wilkes (1798–1877) that had stopped in Cuba on its way back from a tour of duty along the African coast. While in Cuba, Wilkes had heard about the mission of the two Confederate diplomats, and he was determined to stop them. As soon as he caught up with the Trent, he ordered the San Jacinto to fire two cannon shots across the British steamer's bow as a warning to halt. The commander of the Trent recognized that if he did not stop his boat, the San Jacinto's next volley of cannonballs might sink his vessel on purpose. The Trent stopped dead in the water, and Wilkes arrested Mason and Slidell over the angry objections of the Trent's British captain.

A day later, Wilkes arrived in Boston with his two Confederate captives. The commander of the San Jacinto received a hero's welcome from the people of the North, and the U.S. Congress formally thanked him for his "brave, adroit, and patriotic conduct in the arrest of the traitors." Over in England, however, Queen Victoria and her subjects were outraged by the incident. They could not believe that Wilkes had stopped a British ship and forcibly removed two passengers from its decks. British officials accurately charged that Wilkes' actions were a flagrant violation of international law. Lord Palmerston (1784–1865), England's foreign minister, warned that Britain would attack the United States if the two diplomats were not released. Furious editorials by English newspapers, meanwhile, called Wilkes a criminal and branded the United States as a country of cowards and bullies. The Times of London, for example, commented that "by Capt. Wilkes let the Yankee breed be judged. Swagger and ferocity, built on a foundation of vulgarity and cowardice, these are the characteristics, and these are the prominent marks by which his countrymen, generally speaking, are known all over the world."

Initially, both the United States and Britain refused to back down. But when England decided to send eleven thousand troops to Canada and place its naval fleet on battle alert, Lincoln realized that things were getting out of hand. Commenting that he was only prepared to fight "one war at a time," he told Secretary of State William Seward (1801–1872) and Charles Francis Adams (1807–1886), the Union's minister to Great Britain, to smooth things over. Over the next few weeks, Adams and Seward skillfully defused the tense situation, and on January 1, 1862, Mason and Slidell were released to the British with an apology.

Europe considers Confederate successes

Mason and Slidell were unable to convince Queen Victoria or Napoleon III to support the Confederacy publicly. But by the fall of 1862, a string of Confederate victories on the battlefield forced England to reconsider its assumption that the Union would be able to put down the Confederate rebellion. After all, by that time the South had not only turned back the Union's bid to capture the Confederate capital of Richmond, Virginia, but had also mounted offensives that threatened to overrun key Northern cities, including the Union capital of Washington, D.C. Moreover, the Confederacy had managed to acquire a number of Britishbuilt warships despite England's official position of neutrality, and these "commerce raiders," as they were called, had launched a number of successful and highly publicized attacks on Northern vessels on the open sea.

As British officials watched these surprising developments unfold, they began to talk openly about recognizing the Confederacy's claims of independence. British foreign secretary John Russell (1792–1878), for example, wrote in mid-September that "whether the Federal army is destroyed or not, it is clear that it is driven back to Washington, and has made no progress in subduing the insurgent [rebellious] States. . . . I agree . . . that the time is come for offering mediation to the United States Government, with a view to the recognition of the independence of the Confederates."

But in the final days of September 1862, two major events convinced England and France to keep quiet. First, Union forces stopped the advance of General Robert E. Lee (1807–1870) into Union territory at the bloody Battle of Antietam. Then, a few days later, President Lincoln issued his famous Emancipation Proclamation, in which he announced that all slaves held in rebelling Southern states would be free as of January 1, 1863. At the time that Lincoln made this announcement, the United States did not have the power to enforce this new law in the South, causing Confederate lawmakers to ridicule the president's action. But the Emancipation Proclamation was an important step because it gave the people of the North a new reason to continue the fight against the South. Lincoln's decision to cast the Union as a force dedicated to ideals of human freedom unified the people of the North, who subsequently showed a renewed willingness to support the war effort.

The Emancipation Proclamation also had a profound effect on Europe's view of the war. After Lincoln's announcement, people around the world began to see the conflict as one that revolved around slavery. Suddenly, the Union was viewed as a government dedicated to destroying the monstrous practice of slavery, while the Confederacy found itself cast in the role of slavery's villainous defender. As this new view of the war took hold, the leaders of England and France realized that their peoples would be very angry if any official recognition was given to the Confederate government. As a result, Queen Victoria and Napoleon III stayed out of the war. "The open recognition, the active aid, the material and financial support which the South needed so greatly was never forthcoming," wrote Bruce Catton in The Civil War. "North and South were left to fight it out between themselves."

Words to Know

Blockade the act of surrounding a harbor with ships in order to prevent other vessels from entering or exiting the harbor; also the act of ships or other military forces surrounding and isolating a city, region, or country

Confederacy eleven Southern states that seceded from the United States in 1860 and 1861

Emancipation the act of freeing people from slavery or oppression

Federal national or central government; also refers to the North or Union, as opposed to the South or Confederacy

Union Northern states that remained loyal to the United States during the Civil War

People to Know

Jefferson Davis (1808-1889) president of the Confederate States of America, 1861-65

Abraham Lincoln (1809-1865) sixteenth president of the United States, 1861-65

Napoleon III (1808-1873) emperor of France, 1852-71

Queen Victoria (1819-1901) queen of Great Britain, 1837-1901

Confederate Commerce Raiders

The Union's military superiority helped it maintain control over much of America's waters during the Civil War. President Abraham Lincoln was able to establish a largely effective blockade of the Confederate coastline with the Union's naval forces, and the North, using its greater manufacturing capacity, dramatically widened its advantage in fleet size during the war.

The South did not surrender the seas without a fight, however. By mid-1862, Confederate ships known as commerce raiders were prowling the North Atlantic in search of Union merchant vessels traveling along the Northern coastline or trading with Europe. These raiders seized millions of dollars in Union goods, and they destroyed or captured hundreds of vessels (the Confederate raider Alabama alone burned fifty-five American ships valued at more than $4.5 million). These rebel cruisers did not "alter the outcome of the war," wrote James M. McPherson in Battle Cry of Freedom, but "they diverted numerous Union navy ships from the blockade, drove insurance rates for American vessels to astronomical heights, forced these vessels to remain in port or convert to foreign registry [the raiders concentrated their attacks on ships flying the American flag], and helped topple the American merchant-marine from its once-dominant position, which it never regained."

The best-known Confederate raiders were the Florida and the Alabama. Both of these vessels had been built in English shipyards and sold to the rebels (Confederates) by shipbuilders who managed to find loopholes in Great Britain's declaration of noninvolvement in the American conflict. The Florida destroyed thirty-eight American ships before the Union Navy captured it in October 1864. The Alabama was even more deadly to Northern ship commerce. The rebel cruiser, under the command of Captain Raphael Semmes (1809–1877), raided 294 ships, capturing or destroying 64 of them, before the U.S.S. Kearsarge sank it in a battle off the coast of France in June 1864.

After the Civil War was over, the United States demanded payment from Great Britain for the destructive activities of the British-built Confederate cruisers. At first, England refused to acknowledge the American claims. In 1872, though, an international court in Geneva, Switzerland, ordered England to pay the United States $15.5 million for damage caused by the Alabama, the Florida, and a third British-built raider called the Shenandoah.

Keeping Great Britain on the Sidelines

Historians credit the diplomatic skills of Charles Francis Adams, America's minister to Great Britain from 1861 to 1868, as being a key factor in the Union's successful efforts to keep England neutral during the Civil War. Adams was raised in one of America's most distinguished political families. In fact, his grandfather, John Adams (1735–1826), had been America's second president, and his father, John Quincy Adams (1767–1848), had served as the nation's sixth president. Charles Francis Adams never managed to reach the White House himself, but he did carve out a significant reputation for himself during the mid-1800s as a distinguished statesman and leader in the efforts to keep slavery from expanding into America's western territories.

As a dedicated opponent of slavery, Adams was happy when Abraham Lincoln won the 1860 presidential election. One day after the Republican's victory, Adams wrote in his diary, "The great revolution has taken place. . . . The country has once and for all thrown off the domination of the Slaveholders." A short time later, Lincoln asked him to join his administration as ambassador to Great Britain, and Adams accepted.

Once the Civil War started and Confederate officials began to lobby England for help and recognition, Adams's job became difficult. As he admitted in December 1862, "the great body of the aristocracy and the commercial classes [in Great Britain] are anxious to see the United States go to pieces." But Adams proved to be a very good choice. His quiet and reserved manner appealed to English diplomats like John Russell, Great Britain's ambassador to the United States, and his carefully crafted communications with British officials were vital in convincing them to stay on the sidelines for the duration of the war.

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Europe's View of the War

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