May 3, 1861 – Confederate envoys met with the British foreign secretary as both the U.S. and the Confederacy moved to shore up foreign support for their respective causes.
On May 1, U.S. Secretary of State William H. Seward informed the British minister in Washington that Federal agents had been dispatched to purchase arms in Great Britain and France. The minister had no objections. Three days later, Seward wrote to William L. Dayton, U.S. minister to France, instructing him to assure the French that preserving the Union was a certainty:
“The thought of a dissolution of this Union, peaceably or by force, has never entered into the mind of any candid statesman here, and it is high time that it be dismissed by the statesmen in Europe.”
Meanwhile, Confederate envoys William L. Yancey, A. Dudley Mann, and A. Pierre Rost met with Lord John Russell, British secretary of state for foreign affairs, in London on the 3rd. The British government labeled this meeting unofficial, even though U.S. diplomats protested it being held at all. Russell told the Confederates at the outset that “under present circumstances, I shall have but little to say.”
The envoys explained that the Confederacy stood for peace, and that secession had been a legally proper action to counter Federal infringement on states’ rights. Russell asked if the Confederates planned to reopen the international slave trade, something that Britain and most other nations opposed. Yancey, who had advocated reopening it in the past, assured Russell that it would not be a Confederate policy.
By this time, most European and Western Hemisphere nations had abolished slavery, and it was a critical point of difference between those nations (especially Britain) and the Confederacy. The envoys reported to their superiors later this month that “the public mind here is entirely opposed to the Government of the Confederate States of America on the question of slavery… The sincerity and universality of this feeling embarrass the Government in dealing with the question of our recognition.”
The envoys minimized the slavery question by closing with their strongest argument–the importance of southern cotton to the European economy, and the risk that it could be lost to Europe due to the Federal blockade. Russell made no commitments and ended by saying he would present the envoys’ case to the British cabinet for further consideration. Many Europeans saw the division of the U.S. as inevitable, especially the British, who compared the U.S. break from them 85 years before with the southern break from the U.S. As such, Russell instructed Lord Richard Lyons, minister to the U.S., to do anything possible to support a peaceful settlement.
Three days later, Lord Russell introduced a resolution in the British Parliament recognizing the Confederacy as a belligerent. This would not recognize the Confederacy as an independent nation, but it would grant Confederate ships the same trading status in British ports as U.S. ships.
On May 13, Queen Victoria issued an official Proclamation of Neutrality in the war between the U.S. and the Confederacy. The Queen bestowed rights of belligerents to both parties and urged British citizens to avoid siding with either one. Lord Russell had recommended that the Queen take this stance.
The Davis administration was disappointed by the Queen’s decree, hoping that Britain would grant them full recognition as an independent nation or even provide military aid. Nevertheless, belligerency status allowed the Confederacy to purchase food, fuel, and other items (except military equipment) in foreign ports; as well as to obtain loans to buy arms from neutral nations and raid U.S. commerce on the high seas. Confederate officials hoped that future military success would eventually persuade the British to go a step further and grant full recognition.
The proclamation also disappointed the Lincoln administration, which hoped that Britain would not recognize any Confederate rights and stop trading with them. However, according to international law, President Lincoln’s blockade of Confederate ports was an act of war indicating that the Confederacy was indeed its own nation since the U.S. could not blockade itself. Other European nations soon followed Britain’s lead in declaring neutrality and granting belligerent status.
Charles Francis Adams, son of John Quincy Adams and grandson of John Adams, arrived at Liverpool on the day of the Queen’s proclamation. Lincoln had appointed Adams minister to the Court of St. James in the hope that his reputation as an abolitionist would appeal to the British. However, Adams feared that Britain’s recognition of the Confederacy as a belligerent was the first step toward extending full diplomatic recognition, and as such he was skeptical about his mission.
Adams met with Lord Russell on the 18th to formally protest the Queen’s Proclamation of Neutrality. Adams contended that Britain had recognized the Confederates as belligerents “before they had ever showed their capacity to maintain any kind of warfare whatever, except within one of their own harbors (Fort Sumter) under every possible advantage… it considered them a maritime power before they had ever exhibited a single privateer upon the ocean.”
Adams also expressed his concern that Britain would soon extend full recognition to the Confederacy. Russell told Adams that Britain was not considering recognition, but if that position changed, Adams would be notified.
Russell then instructed Lord Lyons to urge the Confederacy to abide by the 1856 Declaration of Paris. This was an international agreement banning participating nations from engaging in piracy against each other, protecting neutral goods shipped to belligerent nations except for “contrabands of war,” and recognizing blockades only when they proved effective.
Back in Washington, Lincoln endorsed Dispatch No. 10, a directive from Seward to Adams. This was a stern response to Lord Russell’s meeting with the Confederate envoys on May 3. The dispatch included demands that the British accept the Federal blockade, allow the U.S. to deal with Confederate privateers as pirates, and pledge to stop interacting (officially or otherwise) with “the domestic enemies of this country.” If Britain tried intervening in the conflict, then “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.”
When Seward had submitted the letter for Lincoln’s approval, Lincoln sent it to Senator Charles Sumner, chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, for his opinion. Sumner, shocked by its bluntness, persuaded Lincoln to remove some of the more offensive passages. Adams was also told not to deliver the letter to Russell’s British Foreign Office, but rather share only what he deemed proper verbally. Sumner then warned Lincoln about Seward, “You must watch him and overrule him.”
Soon afterward, news arrived in the U.S. that Britain would consider the Confederacy a belligerent. Lincoln and Seward responded by warning the British that “to fraternize with our domestic enemy” could mean that war between the U.S. and Britain “may ensue, caused by the action of Great Britain, not our own.” This made the British reconsider bestowing such status on the Confederacy and France, following Britain’s lead, hesitated as well. Preventing the Confederacy from getting much needed foreign aid made this an important U.S. diplomatic victory.
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- Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government: All Volumes (Heraklion Press, Kindle Edition 2013, 1889), Loc 18125
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- Wikipedia: Trent Affair