The British Point of View.


© Roger Hughes. 1997

     Just as the causes of the American Civil War were numerous and complicated, so to were the complex reasons for Great Britain’s reticence to recognize the new Confederacy. However, the underlying cause was the same, and hard for the average Englishmen to even understand the strange southern term for it. A "peculiar" institution it was not, there was nothing remotely peculiar about it, it was slavery, plain and simple! It mattered not when Southerners remonstrated that they had not started it, being foisted on them by Britain during formative times. It did not matter the Confederate constitution forbade the further importation of slaves. Nor did it matter that only a small proportion actually held others in involuntary servitude. It simply could not be officially accepted in the enlightened Britain of the 1860’s and that was that.

The men in Richmond knew this clearly enough, they had been told plainly and often, in political speeches, through the press and privately. On November 29th 1860 THE TIMES thundered, "Can any sane man believe that England and France will consent, as is now suggested, to stultify the policy of half a century for the sake of an extended cotton trade, and to purchase the favors of Charleston and Milledgeville by recognizing what has been called the isothermal law, which impels African labor toward the tropics on the other side of the Atlantic?" (1)

Again, directly after news of South Carolina’s secession reached the same newspaper it concluded its January 4th editorial with: "...we cannot disguise from ourselves that, apart from all political complications, there is a right and a wrong in this question, and that the right belongs, with all its advantages, to the States of the North."

Nor did it help the Confederacy’s cause when their first commissioners to Britain were vehement pro-slavers. President Davis had his reasons of course, firstly, in those heady jubilant early days there was hardly a man in the South who did not think that the whole of Europe would not recognize them, simply to get their hands on more cotton. Secondly, Davis wanted William Yancey out of the way. He had been very useful to secession, but now threatened Davis’ administration. Another commissioner, Pierre Rost was not only pro-slavery he was of French percentage, which did not sit well with fiercely nationalistic Prime Minister Palmerston.

Yancey had some years previously publicly even advocated re-opening the African slave trade! (2) and the British Foreign Secretary, raised that question when they saw him unofficially on May 3rd 1861, but Yancey denied it, saying he had changed his mind and opposed it at the Alabama Convention—which was true, but a bit like bolting the stable door after the horse had escaped. They made light of this in their own optimistic report to Jefferson Davis, yet Russell’s memorandum on the same meeting to Lord Lyons, ambassador in Washington, indicated his concern over the worrying direction. (3)

All this however was overshadowed on May 9th by the recognition by Britain of both parties as belligerents. This sent the North into convulsions, while a jubilant South construed it as official recognition being just round the corner.

When this did not materialize and Yancey resigned, Davis eventually saw the light and decided to change the commissioners, inadvertently precipitating the crisis that did almost bring England and The North to war.

James M. Mason and John Slidell, on their way to England in November 1861, were "kidnapped" by a Federal gunboat off the British mail packet Trent and the lion reared up and roared. 11,000 troops were immediately dispatched to reinforce the Canadian border and an embargo was slapped on all goods bound for the North, including some tons of saltpeter, sorely needed for gunpowder. Lord Palmerston, the aged yet highly astute British Prime Minister, remonstrated with his cabinet, "You may stand for this, but damned if I will!" (4) An ultimatum was fired off, giving Washington seven days to liberate the emissaries and apologize, or else.... On January 1st, 1862 Mason and Slidell were surreptitiously shipped aboard the British frigate Rinaldo and the best hope for the South had past.

It was a commonly held belief—perhaps more a hope in the South—that recognition would bring a swift end to the war and indisputable Southern independence. General Pierre GT. Beauregard, in charge of the defenses of Charleston, remarked to Lt. Col. Arthur. J. L Fremantle, a Coldstream Guards officer traveling through the South in 1863 that: "If England would join the South at once, the Southern armies, relieved of the present blockade and enormous Yankee pressure, would be able to march right into the northern states and by occupying their principal cities would give the Yankees so much employment they would be unable to spare many men for [ an invasion of ] Canada."(5) Fremantle makes no comment, but must have thought to himself, "Now, why on earth would we want to risk that General?"

If diplomacy would not do it then "King Cotton" surely would. The staple had been depicted as the South’s salvation since James H Hammond’s famous "Cotton is King" speech in the Senate, March 1858. It would now override all moral and ethical issues according to the simple law of supply and demand. England and Europe demanded it and only the South could supply it—but could they? A slight impediment existed almost from day one of the war, in the form of the Union Navy’s blockade of Southern ports.

Such was the confidence in cotton however, that a merchant in Charleston expressed indifference to William H Russell, THE TIMES correspondent, who was traveling through early in 1861. "Why, I expect sir, that if those miserable Yankees try to blockade us, and keep you from our cotton, you’ll just send their ships to the bottom and acknowledge us. Look out there," he said, pointing to the wharf, on which were piled some cotton bales; "There’s the key will open all our ports and put us into John Bull’s strong box as well." (6)

Whether the Federal blockade was effective or not became somewhat academic when, in late 1862, the Confederacy imposed its own cotton blockade in the form of an embargo, to try to force the recognition issue. This was not official policy, but made decidedly more effective through strong public sentiment and press bellicosity. The Charleston Mercury clamored gleefully: "The cards are in our hands and we intend to play them out to the bankruptcy of every cotton factory in Great Britain and France or the acknowledgment of our independence." (7) Not exactly the sort of headline designed to ingratiate the British Government or people to the Southern cause. In fact there was a surplus of raw material when the war began, and the worsening situation spurred production in Egypt and India to the extent that Europe practically became independent of the South for this commodity. Once more Southern political ineptitude had shot itself in the foot.

Great Britain was also very much a democracy and her politicians were subject to an extraordinarily free press and the wiles of the people. The party in power were as susceptible to public opinion as any elected government, and graves were still fresh from the bitter Crimean war only five years earlier. What with the Napoleonic war ( 1804 - 1815 ), the American war ( 1812 - 1815 ), and the Crimean war ( 1854 - 1856 ), all in the same half-century, it may be fairly supposed that England was a bit fed-up with wars. No politician wanted to be the one to start another.

William H. Seward, Lincoln’s fiery Secretary of State had no illusions what would happen if Britain did recognize the Confederacy, "We from that hour shall cease to be friends and become once more, as we have twice before been forced to be, enemies of Great Britain." (8)

Although most if this sort of rhetoric was considered bombast, it still made people consider of the consequences.

An ancillary problem suddenly arose on Saturday December 14th 1861, when Queen Victoria’s husband died. She went into deep mourning and Palmerston personally felt he could not burden her with foreign complications. Half the time he could not even obtain an audience. Moreover, many in England considered America nothing but a loud pubescent upstart. Nassau W Senior wrote in 1857, "We have long been smarting under the conceit of America, we are tired of hearing her boast that she is the freest and the most enlightened country that the world has ever seen." (9) It was certain that some Americans rarely missed an opportunity to ram their successful separation down the throats of Englishmen, so there must have been some sadistic gratification in seeing this adolescent "people’s" democracy stewing in her own juice.

There were also those who hoped the split would undermine the growing power of The US, amongst whom, privately, was the Prime Minister himself. Gladstone wrote, " Lord Palmerston desired the severance as a diminution of a dangerous power, but prudently held his tongue." (10 ) 

Nor should it be forgotten that the last war between England and The United States was not the war of independence, but the conflict of 1812, within memory of most of Britain’s elder statesmen and businessmen. Palmerston for instance had been in parliament five years by 1812.

The question of profit naturally also reared its head whenever recognition was discussed in business circles. Britain’s sales of articles of war had increased dramatically to both sides, and the aphorism, "It’s an ill wind that blows nobody any good" definitely applied in this case. The workers of Laird’s Birkenhead shipyard or the Enfield small arms factory north of London had little reason to wish the American conflict over, least of all through intervention by their own government. Enormous profits were also being made by British owned blockade runners operating from the mid-Atlantic island of Bermuda, a British colony.

If not out-and-out recognition, then how about mediation? By July 1862 both Russell and William. E Gladstone, Chancellor of the Exchequer, considered the parties irreconcilable and desired to stop the bloodshed. They advocated mediation by the super powers and things started to look promising. On September 24th, the Prime Minister tentatively agreed upon, "some early representation of a friendly kind to America, if we can get France and Russia to join."A few days later, knowing of Gladstone’s proposed tour of the North of England, Palmerston added that if both [ North and South ] should accept, an armistice would follow, and negotiations on the basis of separation. If both should decline, then Lord Palmerston assumed they would acknowledge the independence of the South. (11) Russell acquiesced and off went Gladstone on his whirlwind tour, where, in Newcastle he let fall his famous bombshell. "...Jefferson Davis and other leaders of the South have made an army; they are making, it appears, a navy; and they have made what is more than either, they have made a nation." It was a little premature, but the Confederacy was again rolling down recognition road. News of the battle of Antietem however caused Palmerston to, "...come back to our original view that we must continue merely to be lookers-on until the war shall have taken a more decided turn." (12)

The decided turn came immediately in the form of the emancipation proclamation, and even though the Times declared it a sham, because it did not free all the slaves, it effectively put a stop to all thoughts of recognition. How could Britain now interfere in a holy crusade declared by the country’s top executive to be for the eradication of slavery?

Finally, let us place ourselves in the shoes of Henry John Temple Palmerston, and consider a very simple yet probable scenario of what might have happened if his government had recognized the Confederate States of America.

The first action would undoubtedly have been the breaking off of relations between Washington and London, thus indeed leaving the long border with British Canada vulnerable. Commerce with the North would have come to an abrupt halt and with it much needed supplies of North American grain and flour, not to mention war supplies going the other way. British merchants would quite naturally assume they had an uninterrupted right to ship goods into and out of the Confederacy, blockade or no blockade. After a few merchant ships had been intercepted, captured or sunk, involving no doubt the loss of British lives, a general outcry would demand the Royal Navy escort her merchantmen through the labyrinth. An engagement between the two navies would inevitably follow, which would surely precipitate full-scale war. Nor could it be certain how France and especially Russia, who were always pro-North, might act under these circumstances. It was all very tricky and best kept at arms length.

This outcome would naturally have been a consummation devoutly to be wished by the young Confederacy—having a big brother at your side to bash the bully—but it is difficult to see where any advantage to England lay. There seemed to be a decided lack of empathy in the South with nobody asking that most important of salesman’s questions, "What’s in it for the customer?" Therefore, a pragmatic if somewhat hard-headed reply to the question, "When will you recognize our Confederacy?" might well have been: "Why the d.... should we?"


 (1) Great Britain and the American Civil War. E.D Adams. Smith 1957. Vol. 1. p. 40.

(2) Impending Crisis, 1848 - 1861. David MPotter, Harper and Row. p. 398.

 (3) Foreign Office papers Vol. 755. No 128. Russell to Lyons May 11th, 1861.

 (4) Battle Cry of Freedom. James M Mcpherson. Oxford University Press. p. 193.

 (5) Three Months in The Southern States. A.J.L Fremantle. University of Nebraska Press. p. 193.

 (6) My diary, North and South. William Howard Russell. Harper and Brothers, New York. p. 69.

 (7) Battle Cry of Freedom. James M Mcpherson. Oxford University Press. p. 383.

 (8) William Henry Seward - Lincoln’s Right Hand. John M Taylor. Harper Collins. p. 179.

 (9) N.W Senior American Slavery p. 38 From Great Britain and the American Civil War. E.D Adams. Vol. 1. p. 33

 (10 The Life of William Ewart Gladstone. John Morley. The Macmillan Company. 1911 Book V. Chapter V. p. 82.

 (11) Ibid., Book V. Chapter V. p. 75 - 76. ( Italics are this authors ).

 (12) Ibid., Book V. Chapter V. p. 79.