At the begginings of the American Civil War (1861-1865), the government of the Confederacy (Confederate States of America), had many hopes for help from Europe (military, resources, diplomatic etc.), especially from Britain and France. The Confederate President J. Davis hoped for an official recognition of the Confederation by these countries and (his ultimate hope) for their military involvement in the war in favor of the American South. But efforts to approach these countries failed, because of the following reasons. First, because of the fear of Britain and France for military intervention of the Union/Federation (United States of America) in their American colonies. Second, due to the common opinion of the people of the two European countries which rejected slavery and therefore did not want to enforce the Confederacy. Third, because of the skilful diplomacy of two Republican colleagues of the Federal President Abraham Lincoln: Foreign Minister William Seward and Federal ambassador in London, Charles F. Adams.
It seems that the British government could not “forgive” the “rebellion” of the Americans in 1776-1783 and their independence from the British Empire. Although the English could not support openly the Confederation, they did whatever they could for its “preservation to life”, aiming possibly to a permanent break of the U.S.A. Except the aforementioned vengeful tendencies of London and its concern for the exponential growth and rise of the U.S. in international politics, the British had two more good reasons to seek covertly for the weakening of the Union: the permanent American assertion in Canada and the national Irish liberation cause (Canada and Ireland were parts of the British Empire). But the same reasons prevented the British from their active support to the American South, as we shall discuss below.
The U.S. were aiming to the annexation of rich Canada since 1783, and until 1861 this possibility was becoming more realistic. Most English-Canadians descended from the U.S. because they were descendants of the “loyal” Americans (loyal to the English king during the American Revolution) who chose to immigrate to Canada when the Thirteen American colonies-states became independent (1783). However by 1861, many of the Anglo-Canadians did not reject the idea of their accession to the Unites States. The Irish-Canadians (and other Celtic-Canadians) desired this accession. Thus, paradoxically, the French-Canadians (who constituted half of the Canadian population then) became the “stronghold” of the British rule in Canada, because they did not want to be annexed to the vast federation of the U.S.A. in which the English language and the Anglo-Saxon culture prevailed. In this case, their own French language and culture would inevitably disappear, as it did happen with the French and French-speaking inhabitants of Louisiana. Instead, the British had already ensured the protection of their French character. London was alarmed about the American claims to Canada, possibly mostly because of the recent annexation of half of the Mexican territory by the United States (in 1845-1848). Generally the British wanted to prevent in anyway the American annexation of Canada, because otherwise the U.S. would become a “super country” with an area of over 19,000,000 sq. km., with inexhaustible natural resources and vast unpopulated territories. These territories would be populated and exploited by the Americans, and this exploitation together with the American seamanship and high technology, would seriously threaten the British supremacy in the world in that period. London would never allow it to happen.
The British feared that if they openly supported the Confederation, and the Union won the Civil war, the U.S. would find the ‘formal occasion’ that they were waiting for, to occupy Canada and annex its territories as new federal states. Thus, in 1867, two years after the American Civil War and while the American-British relations were still tense due to several pro-confederate actions of London, the British ascertaining that they could not effectively defend Canada against the Americans, made a deft political move. They declared the independence of Canada under British patronage (high dominance), founding the Canadian Federation as a British Dominion (and no longer a colony). Moreover, British Columbia and Manitoba, two western British colonies in North America which did not belong geographically to Canada (and were still coveted by the U.S.), joined the new Canadian federation in 1869. The Americans had to confine only to the purchase of Alaska from Russia in 1867. So the British finally prevented the union of Canada with the U.S., because the Americans could invade and annex a British colony (moreover with the support of the Irish-Canadians and possibly of most of the Anglo-Canadians), but they could not do the same to an independent state. But also in 1867, Canada was essentially relieved of the British rule.
Young Union soldiers. The numerous casualties of the American Civil war led to the conscription of increasingly younger ages.
The Irish struggled for centuries to shake off the English rule in their island, and those who had taken refuge in the U.S. were causing more anxiety to London than those who remained in Ireland. Ireland became one more “geopolitical weapon” of the Union against Britain, so that the English would fear to openly enforce the Confederation. In 1861 the Federal military command founded the so-called Irish Brigade aiming at the following three objectives. First, to attract the support of as many as possible of the Irish-Americans, both Northern and Southern. Most of the Irish were favoring the Confederacy, because their fellow countrymen in Ireland were also conducting a struggle for independence. Moreover, Lincoln’s proclamation about the future affranchisement of the black slaves displeased them, because it would cause a mass migration of the Afro-American population to the industrial cities of the American North, that would deprive the Irish immigrants of their jobs. The second objective of the Union was to “send a message” to the British government in order not to enforce the Confederation. The founding of the Irish Brigade – of which many soldiers were “famous” anti-British Irish rebels – warned the British that their support to the Confederacy would bring about an active support of the Federation to the Irish national liberation movement. Finally, the Federals sought to attract all the American Catholics under their banner, who until then had faced some inequity because of their religious doctrine. Most of the American Catholics were Irish. As the Civil war went on, many old Irish-Americans or American citizens born in Ireland joined the Federal army, reaching a total of about 700,000 and becoming one of the key factors of the final Union victory.
France did not suffer the strong geopolitical pressure of the Union (as it was the Federal pressure to Britain), but Paris was following closely the British diplomacy. However, France also had geo-economic interests in the Americas and therefore could not support openly the Confederation. Moreover, Paris (like London) did not want to bring about the annexation of Canada to the U.S.: the metropolitan French cared about the survival of the French-Canadian population. Additionally they feared the possibility of an American conquest of the rich French Caribbean islands (Guadeloupe, Martinique, etc.) as it happened later to the Spanish islands of Cuba and Puerto Rico in the same sea (1898) but also to the Spanish Philippines in the Pacific.
Concerning the diplomatic actions, the first diplomatic controversy between Britain and the Federation occurred in November 1861, when a Federal warship halted a British steamship carrying the Confederate envoys James Mason and John Slidell in Europe (in London and Paris respectively). The Federal Captain Charles Wilkes captured the two Southern diplomats, causing a strong English protest in Washington about this attitude onboard a British ship. Eventually President Lincoln ordered the release of the two envoys in order to avoid a diplomatic incident. Later the British did not succumb to the protest of the Federal Ambassador Adams because they allowed the newly built cruiser «Alabama» (built in England on behalf of the Confederacy) to sail and join the Confederate Navy. The famous cruiser «Alabama» caused incalculable damage to the Union/Federal merchant fleet. But London succumbed later, in another case, when Lincoln was briefed on the building of two more battleships in England (ironclads) on behalf of the Confederate government. This time Adams handed to the British Prime Minister Palmerston an expostulatory letter written by Lincoln, with the phrase “this means war!”. So Palmerston was forced to order the retention of the armored ships.
German map of North America in 1880, with the British Dominion of Canada (Canadian Federation), the U.S. and the European colonies in the islands of the Caribbean (Spanish, British, French, Dutch etc.).
The victory achieved by General Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia at the Second Battle of Bull Ran (Manassas) in the end of summer 1862, and the Confederate invasion of Maryland was a landmark of the “diplomatic Civil war.” After the impressive Confederate victory, the British government volunteered to mediate for a peace treaty between the warring Americans, apparently in favor of the Confederacy. If President Lincoln refused the mediation, the British would probably intervene military in the war in favor of the South. Lincoln rejected the proposal of the British but they did not had enough time to intervene, because the repulsion of the Confederate army at the battle of Antietam, again made them cautious. In the summer of 1863, the Confederates were defeated in the battles of Gettysburg and Vicksburg. These defeats almost ensured the neutrality of London and Paris. The two European governments were led then to a stable neutrality, moreover because the Union found a new supporter in the Russian Empire. The British and the French did not want to bring about the increase of the Russian international influence with a Russian-American alliance. London did not react even when the supply of cotton of the American South to Britain (of which the British industry depended a lot) minimized because of the effective Federal naval blockade to the Confederate harbors. Towards the end of the war, the Confederate government proposed to London the abolition of slavery in the American South, in exchange for official recognition and support by Britain, but to no avail.
(1) Foote, Shelby: THE CIVIL WAR: A NARRATIVE, Random House, New York, 1958.
(2) McPherson, James M.: BATTLE CRY OF FREEDOM: THE CIVIL WAR ERA (Oxford History of the United States), Oxford University Press, 1988.
(3) Sauers, Richard A.: ENCYCLOPEDIA OF THE AMERICAN CIVIL WAR: A POLITICAL, SOCIAL AND MILITARY HISTORY, W.W. Norton & Company, 2000.
(4) Gallagher G., Engle S. Krick R.: THE AMERICAN CIVIL WAR, Osprey publishing, Oxford, 2003.
(5) Russell, Weigley: A GREAT CIVIL WAR: A MILITARY AND POLITICAL HISTORY, 1861–1865, Indiana University Press, 2000.