Today in 1861, Queen Victoria of Britain issued a "proclamation of neutrality" which recognized the Confederate States of America as having belligerent rights. While this proclamation was not a formal recognition of the breakaway states, it was indicative of the edgy foreign policy Great Britain and other nations, such as France, practiced during the early days of the US Civil War.
The War Between the States began in April, 1861. The nation was essentially split in half, but the two halves were vastly different. The northern states had a larger population and an exponentially larger industrial base. The southern states’ economy was centered around agriculture, mainly cotton, a fact that would become critical to the Confederacy’s attempts to gain international recognition. The south had one critical advantage over the north: military leadership. While the Union Army suffered from a glut of overly-cautious peacetime officers early in the war, the Confederacy had officers, both in the general and lower ranks, who were decisive and thorough tacticians who eager to prove their mettle on the battlefield. This, too, would play a hand in how Great Britain and other European nations viewed the civil war playing out on the other side of the Atlantic.
The President of the Confederacy, Jefferson Davis, was counting on British and possibly French support. Britain was dependent on southern cotton for her textile industry, a fact which Davis believed would lead to diplomatic recognition. Once Britain recognized the Confederacy as a free and separate nation, other European powers would follow. Davis hoped this would lead to a British-mediated end to the war, the result of which would be the permanent seperation of the northern and southern United States. More remote was the possibility of British military intervention on the side of the Confederacy. This would all but guarantee a battlefield victory and leave Jefferson Davis free to name his terms for peace.
The Union, led by new President Abraham Lincoln, was hoping to persuade Europe to not recognize the breakaway states. Great Britain was seen as being at the center of this attempt, since she seemingly had the most to gain from forming a relationship with the Confederacy. Lincoln, however, had an advantage in that the relationship between Britain and the United States had reached a sort of high point in the years leading up to the war. The British recognized the legitimacy of the Northern blockade of the South early on in the war, a move that frustrated Jefferson Davis' government. However, the proclamation was more than a little self-serving. As the world's leading naval power, Great Britain used the power of the blockade often and demanded that neutral nations not interfere. Thus, London could not fail to recognize the Union blockade in the same manner.
After the beginning of hostilities in the spring of 1861, the British public and government seemed to back away from the pre-war good feelings that had developed between London and Washington. In fact, one event almost ruined the relationship entirely. In November, 1861, the warship USS San Jacinto fired two shots across the bow of the Trent, a British mail steamer. The Trent had just left the Cuban port of Havana headed for home. On board were two Confederate commissioners tasked to represent their cause in England and France. It was a commonly held belief during the 19th century that any neutral merchant ship could be stopped in international waters and searched by a warring nation’s navy if the neutral ship was thought to be carrying the enemy nation’s dispatches. The captain of the San Jacinto, Charles Wilkes, reasoned that the two Confederate commissioners were, at least in some way, dispatches from his nation’s enemy. The two Confederates were taken off the Trent, arrested aboard the San Jacinto and taken to a Union prison in Boston. The northern public, hungry for a victory at that early stage of the war, was elated.
The reaction in Britain was, to put it mildly, less positive. The Royal Navy began provisioning a fleet to sail for the Atlantic seaboard and 11,000 troops were dispatched to Canada. A communique was sent to President Lincoln demanding the release of the two Confederates and an apology. Lincoln, believing that one war at a time was enough for any nation, ordered the two men released and apologized for the incident.
Could the United States and Great Britain have really come to blows in the fall of 1861? It was certainly possible, but unlikely. The British were concerned with their far-flung empire and the trouble the US Navy, a formidable force, could cause in remote areas not easily reinforced by the Crown. More importantly, during the decade of the 1860’s, the United States provided nearly half the wheat and corn Britain imported every year. If the US stopped exporting that grain, it would have been all but impossible to make up the deficit from other nations.
As late as the summer of 1862, there were still those in London who believed something could be gained by mediating an end of the war so as to ensure in independent South that would continue to sell cotton on the world market at cheap prices. But mediation meant recognizing the Confederacy, a move that, once again, could drive the Union to declare war on the British Empire.
Three things occurred between the summer of 1862 and the summer of 1863 which all but ended British support of the Confederacy. First was the Battle of Antietam in September, 1862. While the battle was inconclusive from a tactical standpoint, it ended the southern invasion of Maryland and showed that, sooner or later, superior Union numbers and industry, if lead effectively, would end the rebellion.
Second was the failure of the Confederacy to dominate the cotton market in Europe. By early 1863, England and France had replaced their southern cotton imports with cotton from other countries. In the eyes of Europe, the Confederacy simply stopped being an important economic entity.
Finally, there was the Emancipation Proclamation, which went into effect on January 1st, 1863. It stated, in part, that any slave held in a state that was in rebellion was considered free. While it did little at the time to actually free anyone, the Proclamation changed the war from being just about maintaining the union of states to also being about a larger cause, that of human freedom and the end of forced bondage. By this time, slavery was outlawed in all of Western Europe. What nation would now stand in the way of President Lincoln when he stood for such a noble goal?
Even though the Civil War would continue for another two years, by 1863 it was clear that European (and specifically British) recognition of the Confederacy was an impossibility. Without notice and support from the European powers, it was only a matter of time until the rebellion by the southern states ended in defeat.