Continuing as Mere Lookers-On

The Confederacy desperately needed foreign aid to bolster its war effort. It especially needed help from the top European powers, Great Britain and France. In September, the British seemed poised to step in and offer to mediate an end of the war between the Federals and Confederates. British Foreign Minister Lord John Russell had gone so far as to unofficially ask the French foreign minister if France would be willing to assist in a mediation.

British Foreign Minister Lord John Russell | Image Credit:

But in early October, news arrived of Robert E. Lee’s defeat at Antietam, his withdrawal back to Virginia, and President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation. Russell wrote to British Prime Minister Lord Palmerston, “I think unless some miracle takes place this will be the very time for offering Mediation.” Palmerston was not so sure: “These last battles in Maryland have rather set the North up again. The whole matter is full of difficulty, and can only be cleared up by some more decided events between the contending armies.”

This did not deter the many British officials who continued to support Confederate independence. On October 7, British Chancellor of the Exchequer William E. Gladstone delivered a speech at Newcastle which he thought reflected the sentiments of both Palmerston and Russell (i.e., Confederate independence). Gladstone began by praising the northerners: “They are our kin. They were… our customers, and we hope they will be our customers again.” He claimed that Britain did not have “any interest in the disruption of the Union.”

But then Gladstone declared, “We may have our own opinions about slavery; we may be for or against the (Confederacy). But there is no doubt that Jefferson Davis and other leaders of the South have made an army. They are making, it appears, a navy. And they have made what is more than either; they have made a nation.” Amid loud applause, Gladstone said, “We may anticipate with certainty the success of the Southern States so far as regards their separation from the North is concerned.”

The Newcastle speech held significant merit because Gladstone was the third ranking member of the British government. An editorial in the British Economist contended that the speech “echoes the general sentiment of the country, and probably the real opinion of most members of the (British) Government.” However, it also defied Britain’s declaration of neutrality, and as such it prompted Gladstone to later declare that it was his greatest political blunder. After Gladstone’s speech, cotton prices fell and U.S. support rose in Britain.

The speech prompted a public response from Sir George Cornwall Lewis, the fourth ranking member of Palmerston’s cabinet. Lewis opposed Gladstone’s assertion that Confederate independence was certain and argued against recognizing the Confederacy. He also distributed a counterpoint to a recent memorandum distributed by Russell asking whether Europe had a duty to get the Federals and Confederates to agree to suspend hostilities.

Lord Palmerston | Image Credit:

Palmerston discussed the matter at a cabinet meeting on the 22nd and then wrote to Russell, “We must continue to be mere lookers-on till the war shall have taken a more decided turn.” In an informal meeting without Palmerston the next day, most cabinet members supported Lewis’s position, with only Russell and Gladstone favoring intervention. The U.S. minister to Great Britain, Charles Francis Adams, met with Russell that same day and wrote:

“If I had entirely trusted to the construction given by the public to a late speech, I should have begun to think of packing my carpet-bag and trunks… His Lordship at once embraced the allusion, and whilst endeavoring to excuse Mr. Gladstone, in fact admitted that his act had been regretted by Lord Palmerston and the other Cabinet officers. Still he could not disavow the sentiments of Mr. Gladstone so far as he understood them, which was not that ascribed to him by the public. Mr. Gladstone was himself willing to disclaim that. He had written to that effect to Lord Palmerston. His Lordship said that the policy of the Government was to adhere to a strict neutrality and to leave the struggle to settle itself. But he could not tell what a month would bring forth. I asked him if I was to understand that policy as not now to be changed. He said, ‘Yes.’”

It was therefore decided that the British would not intervene to try to end the war. Russell reported to Palmerston, “As no good would come of a Cabinet (to consider mediation), I put it off.” The Federal victories in Maryland, Kentucky, and Mississippi, along with the Emancipation Proclamation, played a key role in turning the British against interference. The Proclamation was highly popular among British subjects, even though official British society thought less of it. According to the London Times:

“Mr. Lincoln will, on the 1st of next January, do his best to excite a servile war in the states which he cannot occupy with his armies… He will appeal to the black blood of the Africans. He will whisper of the pleasures of spoil and of the gratification of yet fiercer instincts; and when blood begins to flow and when shrieks come piercing through the darkness, Mr. Lincoln will wait amid the rising flames, till all is consummated, and then he will rub his hands and think that revenge is sweet… Sudden and forcible emancipation resulting from the ‘efforts the Negroes may make for their actual freedom’ can only be effected by massacre and utter destruction.”

The topic came up at another meeting a week later, with Russell and Gladstone both urging reconsideration of Confederate recognition. But Palmerston maintained the situation had changed since last month, “when the Confederates seemed to be carrying all before them… I am very much come back to our original view that we must continue merely to be lookers-on…” The cabinet rejected Russell’s and Gladstone’s request.

Meanwhile, Pope Pius IX wrote a letter to the Cardinals of New York and New Orleans that was published in the Catholic press, asking them to try helping to bring peace; the Pope supported Confederate independence. Less than a week later, Napoleon III of France met with Confederate envoy John Slidell at St. Cloud, where Napoleon suggested forming a joint council of France, Britain, and Russia to mediate a peace between the U.S. and the Confederacy. Napoleon said:

“My own preference is for a proposition of an armistice of six months. This would put a stop to the effusion of blood, and hostilities would probably never be resumed. We can urge it on the high grounds of humanity and the interest of the whole civilized world. If it be refused by the North, it will afford good reason for recognition, and perhaps for more active intervention.”

Napoleon had selfish reasons for wanting Confederate independence. He was looking to conquer Mexico and install a European emperor, and he could do that much more easily by having an independent Confederacy to his north that would not oppose such a move as the U.S. did. Napoleon directed Drouyn de l’huys, his Minister of Affairs, to write the French ambassadors at London and St. Petersburg. Since the lack of southern cotton imports was devastating the European economy, it was proposed that the ambassadors work with the Queen of England and Emperor of Russia to “exert their influence at Washington, as well as with the Confederates, to obtain an armistice.”

The governments of Britain and Russia considered the matter. Russia, which favored the U.S., refused to participate because the proposal seemed too much in favor of the Confederacy. Britain also declined, maintaining its neutrality policy. France, which had been inclined to recognize the Confederacy, followed Britain’s lead in continuing its neutrality until the military situation changed.


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