Keeping Quite Clear of the Conflict

Since Great Britain often took the lead in setting European international policy, both U.S. and Confederate officials looked to the British to see how Europe would react to the war between North and South. Britain was still split between the two sides; the London Post favored British recognition of the Confederacy, while the London Times supported the United States.

However, Confederate officials were encouraged by an article in the Times on the 16th quoting a speech by British Foreign Secretary Lord John Russell at Newcastle. According to the Times, Russell said that the war was not being fought over slavery or tax policy; rather, it was being fought over which political party would rule the South. Russell declared that one party fought for “empire” and the other for “independence,” and separation was “the only logical and permanent settlement of the controversy.”

This did not change the fact that the official British position remained neutrality. Two days after the Times article was published, Prime Minister Viscount Palmerston reminded Lord Russell that Great Britain’s “true policy” was “to go on as we have begun, and to keep quite clear of the conflict.”

British Lord Palmerston and Lord John Russell

One thing that British officials agreed upon was that the people were starving for cotton. Not only was the Federal blockade limiting southern exports, but the Confederates were withholding cotton in the hopes that countries needing the precious commodity would intervene on their behalf. Both Palmerston and Russell contended that “the cotton question may become serious by the end of the year… We cannot allow some millions of our people to perish to please the Northern States.” Discussion began among British and French diplomats about possibly joining forces to lift the Federal blockade.

Meanwhile, Charles Francis Adams, U.S. minister to Great Britain, issued a complaint to Lord Russell that the Confederacy was importing supplies for the war effort from Nassau in the Bahamas. Russell responded by obtaining a report from Nassau authorities denying the charge. Russell forwarded the report to Adams, who stated that this sufficiently dispelled “the suspicion thrown upon the authorities by that unwarrantable act.” While British authorities resisted supplying arms to the Confederacy, they openly supplied them to the U.S.

France followed Britain’s lead, with Henri Mercier, French minister to the U.S. notifying Lord Richard Lyons, British minister to the U.S., that if Britain recognized Confederate independence, France would follow suit. But Adams used his powerful influence to prevent the British from doing so for now.

The French then capitalized on the war by landing an army at Vera Cruz, ostensibly to suppress a civil war in Mexico. This was part of Emperor Napoleon III’s plan to set up a protectorate that would expand French influence into the Western Hemisphere. The Mexicans resisted at Puebla, but the French prevailed. President Benito Juarez’s regime was replaced by a puppet government led by Napoleon’s handpicked ruler, Archduke Maximilian of Austria.

The Lincoln administration noted that the French conquest of Mexico violated the Monroe Doctrine, which had declared that the U.S. would not permit Europe to interfere in Western Hemisphere affairs. Administration officials worried that France would extend its influence to other Western nations and ally itself with the Confederacy. Ultimately, the French did neither out of fear of U.S. reprisals.


  • Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government: All Volumes. Heraklion Press, Kindle Edition 2013, 1889.
  • Josephy, Jr., Alvin M., War on the Frontier: The Trans-Mississippi West. Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983.
  • Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day. New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971.
  • McPherson, James M., Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era. Oxford History of the United States Book 6, Oxford University Press (Kindle Edition), 1988.

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