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Throughout the early months of the conflict, the reaction of Europe was of great interest to both sides; Queen Victoria's Great Britain, in particular. Would Queen Victoria recognize Confederate independence? Such recognition would legitimize the Confederacy and provide it with allies who could furnish weapons and supplies the Southern cause desperately needed (Davis 197).
At the outbreak of the war, most foreigners were poorly informed about America, according to Leslie Stephen in 1865:
The name of America five years ago, called up to the ordinary English mind nothing but a vague cluster of associations, compounded of Mrs. Trollope, Martin Chuzzlewit, and Uncle Tom's Cabin.
The choice between neutrality and intervention was not an easy one; either choice would lead to more choices.
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Europe's three greatest powers were England, France, and Russia. England and France had won control of Central and Eastern Europe by defeating Russia in the Crimean War (1854-1856) and now salivated at the prospect of a possible downfall of the United States government. Russia, on the other hand, needed the United States to balance its European enemies (Davis 197).
Britain, however, was the biggest concern of the warring factions across the Atlantic. Neither side wanted Britain to remain strictly neutral. The Union wanted Britain to deny belligerent status to the Confederacy. The Confederacy wanted open intervention on their behalf (Randall and Donald 355).
Queen Victoria issued her proclamation of British neutrality on May 13, 1861. She did, however, acknowledge the Confederacy as belligerents. This recognition gave the Confederacy the ability to purchase arms from neutral nations and seize ships on open oceans (Davis 197).
The war had a direct impact on United States foreign relations. The most important of these relations was with Great Britain and France, Europe's two greatest powers ("Europe and the American Civil War" internet no page number). Queen Victoria's recognition of the Confederates as belligerents was viewed as an unfriendly act by United States President Abraham Lincoln's administration (Davis 197).
The ruling classes of Britain and France clearly sympathized with the Confederacy so strongly that they might have been easily convinced to intervene with force of arms and bring about Southern independence. Both countries were monarchies, and under normal circumstances, monarchies do not like to see a rebellion succeed in any land, as the example may prove contagious; but the South was an aristocracy, and aristocrats shared a common bond. The fact that the Confederacy was largely democratic could be easily overlooked from across the Atlantic. French and English aristocrats had always been unhappy about the success of Yankee democracy. Europe's rulers would have been pleased if the nation showed that democracy could not hold it together ("Europe and the American Civil War" internet no page number).
For years, the South and England had been close in business as well as society. Southern planters and English gentry were seen as equivalents. English aristocrats believed that America and Europe both would receive a much-needed check to democracy with a Confederate victory. English liberals also favored the South, as they likened the South's desire to escape Northern "tyranny" to the national aspirations of Germany and Italy. The London Times newspaper was also pro-southern (Randall and Donald 356).
There were also large segments of British opinion that favored the North. Many English manufacturers favored the North due to their strong business ties. The British antislavery society found it difficult to sympathize with the Confederacy. Friends of democracy saw the United States as a model to be cherished, and the more radical ones saw the Southern insurrection as a blatant attempt to divide the United States. Leaders of the British labor movement also sided with the North (356-357).
It was with a reasonable hope for success that in May 1861, the infant Confederacy looked for support abroad. Delegates were sent to Britain, France, Russia, Belgium, Spain, Mexico, Ireland, the Pope, and other world powers with orders from the Confederate government to present the nature and purposes of the Confederate cause, to open diplomatic relations, and to negotiate treaties of friendship, commerce, and navigation (Randall and Donald 357-358).
The North was correct in its belief that neither Britain nor France would ever condone slavery, the South's "peculiar institution," but until late 1862 when Lincoln issued his Emancipation Proclamation, slavery was not an open issue. When the conflict began, the Federal government had made it clear that they were fighting only to preserve the Union. If a Southern emissary wanted to convince the European governments that they could aid the Confederacy without condoning slavery, he could cite the Federal government's own words to prove his case. There was no moral issue as far as Europe was concerned, so the power politics game could be played with a clear conscience ("Europe and the American Civil War" internet no page number).
The Union saw the rebellion in the South as an irresponsible insurrection and wished for Britain to do the same. United States Secretary of State William Seward said that the South's "pretend government" should not be recognized as having belligerent rights. However, in the eyes of Europe, the Confederacy was seen as a responsible government conducting war (Randall and Donald 358).
In the summer of 1862, the Confederacy looked like a winner. In a speech given on October 7, 1862, William E. Gladstone, the Chancellor of Exchequer said
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. We may anticipate with certainty the success of the Southern states so far as regards to their separation from the North.
Confederate diplomats sent to Britain were unable to secure full recognition of the Confederate government. They were disappointed when Britain refused to denounce the Union blockade of Southern ports. Britain denied Confederate privateers the use of foreign ports, and Confederate hopes of open intervention from England were differed. The diplomats bickered amongst themselves and felt they had been snubbed. They were soon relieved (359).
In 1858, James Hammond of South Carolina said that without Southern Cotton, "England would topple headlong and carry the whole civilized world with her." Hammond was mistaken. New sources of cotton emerged in Egypt and India, so the loss of Southern cotton was of far less concern than the loss of the lucrative Northern wartime market (Davis 199).
The Emancipation Proclamation destroyed the Confederacy's hope for recognition of independence in Europe. No foreign power would side against a nation that was fighting to destroy slavery (199). Europe refused to take part in America's conflict, and North and South were left to fight it out between themselves ("Europe and the American Civil War" internet no page number).
In the fall of 1861, a hot-headed United States Naval officer, Captain Charles Wilkes, made a brash decision and got a bigger reaction than the United States was prepared to handle. European recognition was critical to the young Confederacy, and there was great tension between the United States and Great Britain. The issue almost exploded into all out war over what came to be known as the Trent Affair (Davis 197).
On the night of October 11, 1862, a Confederate blockade runner slipped out of the Charleston Harbor during a storm. The ship was carrying Confederate diplomats James Mason and John Slidell. Mason was bound for London, Slidell for Paris; their mission was to seek official recognition of the Confederate government (198).
The Confederate ship docked in Havana, Cuba, and the Confederate diplomats transferred to the Trent, a British steamer headed for England. At the same time, the U.S.S. San Jacinto was returning to the United States from a long tour of duty along the coast of Africa. She put in at a Cuban port, looking for news about Confederate raiders reportedly active in the area, when Captain Wilkes heard about Mason and Slidell. It was generally agreed that a nation at war had the right to stop and search a neutral ship if the ship was suspected of carrying enemy dispatches. In a novel interpretation of international law, Wilkes reasoned that Mason and Slidell were in effect Confederate dispatches, and it was his right to remove them ("Europe and the American Civil War" internet no page number).
The Trent met up with the San Jacinto in the Bahama Channel on November 8, 1861. Wilkes fired twice across the Trent's bow and sent a boarding crew aboard. Mason and Slidell were seized and imprisoned in Boston Harbor's Fort Warren ("Europe and the American Civil War" internet no page number).
Wilkes was hailed as a hero in the North. Congress voted him its thanks for his "brave, adroit, and patriotic conduct in the arrest of the traitors" (Davis 198). Even the ordinarily cautious Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles warmly commended Wilkes ("Europe and the American Civil War" internet no page number).
"Alabama Claims." The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia. 2004. Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia. 14 Oct. 2004 http://www.infoplease.com/ce6/history/A0802983.html
Donald, David and J.G. Randall. The Civil War and Reconstruction. Boston: D.C. Heath and Company, 1966: 355-278.
Davis, Kenneth C. Don't Know Much About the Civil War. New York: William Morow and Company, Inc., 1996: 169-199.
"Europe and the American Civil War." Civil War Potpourri. 2004. http://www.civilwarhome.com/europeandcivilwar.htm
Franklin, John Hope. Reconstruction: After the Civil War. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1961: 178-179.