Forced to be Enemies of Great Britain

As May opened, U.S. Secretary of State William H. Seward informed Lord Richard Lyons, 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. These instructions were made public on the 6th:

“You cannot be too decided or too explicit in making known to the French government that there is not now, nor has there been, nor will there be any—the least—idea existing in this Government of suffering a dissolution of this Union to take place in any way whatever. There will be here only one nation and one government, and there will be the same republic and the same Constitutional Union that have already survived a dozen national changes and changes of government in almost every other country. These will stand hereafter, as they are now, objects of human wonder and human affection.”

Seward added: “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 Secretary of State Robert Toombs instructed John T. Pickett, envoy to Mexico, to work with Mexican officials to secure recognition just as the envoys in Europe were doing. Toombs had minimized the role that slavery would play in the Confederacy when presenting his case to Europe, but he highlighted that role in his case to Mexico. He wrote that “the institution of domestic slavery in one country and that of peonage in the other establish between them such a similarity in their system of labor as to prevent any tendency on either side to disregard the feelings and interest of the other.”

In London, Confederate envoys William L. Yancey, A. Dudley Mann, and A. Pierre Rost met with Lord John Russell, British secretary of state for foreign affairs, 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 (in fact, it was outlawed in the Confederate Constitution).

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 threat that the Federal blockade posed to it. Russell made no commitments and ended by saying that 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 likened the U.S. break from them 85 years before to the southern break from the U.S. As such, Russell instructed Lord Lyons to do all he could 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. Russell also recommended to Queen Victoria that she proclaim neutrality in the conflict. The Queen complied on the 13th by bestowing rights of belligerents to both parties and urging British citizens to avoid siding with either one.

The Queen’s decree disappointed the Davis administration; it had been hoped that Britain would grant the Confederacy full recognition as an independent nation or even provide military aid. But belligerent status at least allowed the Confederates to buy food, fuel, and other non-military essentials in foreign ports; they could also obtain loans to buy military supplies from neutral nations and raid U.S. commerce on the high seas. Confederate officials remained hopeful that future military success would prompt the European powers to eventually grant full recognition.

The Lincoln administration was also disappointed by the Queen’s proclamation; the Federals had hoped that Britain would not recognize any Confederate rights and would stop trading with them. However, according to international law, President Abraham 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 hopes 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.”

Seward warned the British that it would be a big mistake for them to intervene in a conflict between the U.S. and the Confederacy, reminding them of what had happened in the War for Independence: “Europe atoned by 40 years of suffering for the error that Great Britain committed in provoking the contest. If that nation shall now repeat the same great error, the social convulsions which will follow may not be so long but they will be more general. When they shall have ceased it will, we think, be seen, whatever may have been the fortunes of other nations that it is not the United States that will have come out of them with its precious constitution altered or its honestly obtained dominion in any degree abridged.”

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, who was quick to offend the British: “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.

By month’s end, Adams reported from London that the prevailing sentiment was that the British were warming to relations with the U.S., and they meant nothing offensive in granting belligerent status to the Confederacy. Conversely, U.S. officials began realizing that there was a great difference between granting belligerency and granting recognition to an entity, and as such they began warming to the British as well.


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