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Sunday, September 04, 2005

The US Threatens The UK, September 5, 1863

Today in 1863, Charles Adams sent a very strongly-worded letter to the British government threatening war between the United States and the UK if the latter allowed two ironclad ships to set sail from British ports.

Adams was the US Foreign Minister to Great Britain, a job that required a great deal of delicate diplomacy in the first half of the 1860's. The United States was fighting a civil war and the British Empire had much to gain or lose depending on how things turned out. Early in the conflict, the British had considered taking the step of officially recognizing the Confederacy, a move that would have given the South credibility in Europe. It also would’ve strained US-British relations past the breaking point.

The British backed away from recognizing the Confederacy after President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation at the end of 1862. England had abolished slavery by this time and many politicians thought it would be difficult to explain British support of a pro-slavery nation to voters. But although the hope for a formal political alliance was dashed, there was still money to be made from the war, mainly through ship-building for the Confederacy.

Britain could not sell warships to the South outright since this would be a violation of British law. Instead, the shipyards built unarmed ships and sold them to southern agents to do with as they pleased. The ships were sailed to another country in Europe where they were armed and then sent into battle against the Union blockade ships that were slowly strangling the South.

By the summer of 1863, the Laird Shipbuilding Company was building a new type of ship for the Confederacy: two ironclads. These iron monstrosities were a radical departure from the steam and wind-powered ships of the day. They had sloping sides, almost no freeboard and some of them sported turrets, a new addition to 19th century naval warfare. The British-built ironclads both had a large iron spike attached the their bows so that could ram right through the sides of wooden Union hulls. These two ships could have radically changed the balance of sea power along the Atlantic coast.

Union spies soon delivered plans for the two ships to Adams, inspiring him to write his letter to the government in London. For diplomats of that day, this was considered a bold and daring move. He was considered a hero in the United States, but his actions were probably unnecessary. We now know that the British government had already decided to hold the ships instead of turning them over to the Confederacy.

This was the last gasp for the those in Great Britain who supported recognition of the southern states as a legitimate government. With their foreign support gone, it was only a matter of time until the rebels would crumble under the weight of Union manufacturing and manpower.

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