Foreign Powers Consider Mediation

By mid-September, news of the Federal disaster at Second Bull Run was beginning to reach Europe. The Confederacy desperately needed foreign aid to win its independence, particularly from the European powers of Great Britain and France. The British had been watching the conflict closely, and with Federal fortunes plummeting in the largest theater of the war, Great Britain seemed ready to recognize the Confederacy as a separate nation.

British Prime Minister Lord Palmerston wrote to Foreign Minister Lord Earl Russell, “The Federals got a very complete smashing; and if Washington or Baltimore fall into the hands of the Confederates, as seems not altogether unlikely, should not England and France address the contending parties and recommend an arrangement upon the basis of separation?” Russell responded:

“Whether the Federal army is destroyed or not, it is clear that it is driven back to Washington, and had made no progress in subduing the insurgent states… I agree with you that the time is come for offering mediation to the Federal Government, with a view to the recognition of the independence of the Confederates. I agree further that, in case of failure, we ought ourselves to recognize the Southern States as an independent State.”

Lord Palmerston and Lord Russell

Russell unofficially contacted French Foreign Minister Antoine Trouvenel to see if France would be willing to assist in a mediation. But then news arrived that General Robert E. Lee was leading his Confederate army in an invasion of Maryland. This prompted Palmerston to pull back:

“It is evident that a great conflict is taking place to the northwest of Washington, and its issue may have a great effect on the state of affairs. If the Federals sustain a grave defeat, they may be at once ready for mediation, and the iron should be struck while it is hot. If, on the other hand, they should have the best of it, we may wait a while and see what may follow.”

As September ended, news had not yet arrived of Lee’s defeat at Antietam. Nevertheless, Russell received a letter from the Second Earl of Granville, George Gower, who served as Lord President of the Queen’s Council. Gower argued against any serious mediation efforts at this time:

“We might selfishly argue that it was not politically disadvantageous to us that both parties should exhaust themselves a little more before they make Peace… I doubt whether in offering to mediate, we should do so with any bona-fide expectation of its being accepted… It would not be a good moment to recognize the South just before a great Federal Success–If on the other hand, the Confederates continue Victorious as is to be hoped, we should stand better then than now in recognizing them. In any case I doubt, if the War continues long after our recognition of the South, whether it will be possible for us to avoid drifting into it.”

Those in Great Britain who wanted to mediate an end to the war on the basis of Confederate independence would quickly reconsider this in October, when they learned of both the Federal victory at Antietam and the Emancipation Proclamation.


  • Bailey, Ronald H., The Bloodiest Day: The Battle of Antietam. Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983.
  • Foote, Shelby, The Civil War, A Narrative: Fort Sumter to Perryville. New York: Vintage Books, 1958.
  • 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.
  • Rhodes, James Ford, History of the Civil War, 1861-1865. New York: The MacMillan Company (Kindle Edition, Reservoir House, 2016), 1917.
  • Thomas, Emory M., The Confederate Nation. HarperCollins e-books, Kindle Edition, 1976.
  • Time-Life Editors, The Blockade: Runners and Raiders. Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983.

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