The Terrible Cost of Reconciliation

Americans could never have won their national independence in 1783 without the naval and military aid of France. Similarly, the Union could not have been preserved in the Civil War if England and France had carried out a tempting and much-debated proposal to recognize the Confederacy and impose a truce that would break the Union’s naval blockade of the South. France’s Emperor Napoleon III strongly favored such joint action with Britain, and both Lord John Russell, England’s foreign minister, and William E. Gladstone, chancellor of the exchequer, advocated recognition of the Confederacy, which, as Gladstone asserted in October 1862, had by a series of military triumphs already “made a nation.”

The American South had supplied three quarters of the raw cotton for Britain’s textile industry, the very heart of the British industrial economy, and by the summer of 1862 such cotton imports had fallen to one third of their 1860 level. This led to a “Cotton Famine” and widespread unemployment. Yet Britain’s prime minister, Viscount Palmerston, remained cautious in the face of French pressure and reluctant to give formal recognition to the Confederacy until he could be certain of the latter’s impending military victory. After a summer of Union defeats in 1862 and growing pressure from his cabinet for some kind of intervention, Palmerston and the Union were saved, at least temporarily, by Robert E. Lee’s defeat in Maryland, on September 17, 1862, at the extremely bloody Battle of Antietam. It was this longed-for if marginal Union victory that opened the way a few days later for Lincoln’s Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation. The central question, for both Palmerston and later historians, was the issue of British public opinion.

In Divided Hearts R.J.M. Blackett oddly ignores, or takes for granted, the debates over the Civil War in Parliament and Palmerston’s cabinet. But he presents the most thorough and deeply researched study ever done of the British public’s extraordinarily complicated response to the American Civil War. Because of the Britons’ remarkably strong sense of linguistic, cultural, and historical bonds, the public became absorbed with the American Civil War to a degree that surpassed any other external event, even for those who regarded the once-rebellious colonies with contempt and hate. Moreover, like the British government, both pro-Confederate and pro-Union factions knew that the mobilization of British public opinion, including the disfranchised working class, would have a crucial effect on British intervention and thus on the outcome of the American war. Though Britain was surely not a democracy, public pressure had been decisive in such earlier decisions as Catholic emancipation, political reform, and the freeing of colonial slaves.

Even readers familiar with Civil War literature will be astonished by the extent and diversity of British anti-Union opinion, especially during the period from April 1861 to October 1862. As might be expected, the landed aristocracy, country gentlemen, Anglican clergy, and even many lawyers, doctors, and other professionals supported the right of the South …

This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:

Print Premium Subscription — $94.95

Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.

Online Subscription — $69.00

Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.

One-Week Access — $4.99

Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.

If you already have one of these subscriptions, please be sure you are logged in to your nybooks.com account. If you subscribe to the print edition, you may also need to link your web site account to your print subscription. Click here to link your account services.