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What Drove the Terrible War?

The Union War

by Gary W. Gallagher
Harvard University Press, 215 pp., $27.95
Library of Congress
‘Fate of the Rebel Flag’; lithograph published by William Schaus in 1861, based on a painting by William Bauly

As we begin to move through four years of commemorating the sesquicentennial of the American Civil War, the outpouring of new books will add to that conflict’s status as the most-written-about event in our history. One of the largest of these volumes—in length as well as scope—is Amanda Foreman’s spacious narrative of Anglo-American and Anglo-Confederate relations during the war. Born in England, raised in Los Angeles, and residing in London and New York, Foreman is well qualified to write about “Britain’s crucial role in the American Civil War.” This subtitle as well as her main title (“A World on Fire”) might strike some as an exercise in hyperbole. The book mainly covers the North Atlantic world, and the British government and armed forces did not intervene in the Civil War.

But many British subjects did: as soldiers of fortune who fought on both sides (often in violation of Britain’s Foreign Enlistment Act); as officers and crews of blockade-running ships carrying supplies into Confederate ports and cotton out of them; as Confederate financial agents in Liverpool and in transshipment ports for blockade runners in the Bahamas, Bermuda, and Halifax; and as crew members (commanded by Confederate officers) in a half-dozen commerce-raiding ships built in Britain that captured or destroyed most of the 257 merchant ships and whalers lost to raiders during the war. And the fires that sank these ships did light up many of the world’s oceans from the waters off the Brazilian coast to the Bering Sea.

These activities were probably not “crucial” to the war’s outcome. But Britain’s official nonintervention was like the dog that did not bark in the Sherlock Holmes story. It played an important part in the North’s ultimate victory because any such intervention would have favored the Confederacy. Some form of intervention did come close to happening more than once, however. When Britain (followed by other nations) granted the Confederacy status as a belligerent power under international law in May 1861 and declared its neutrality in the conflict, Union Secretary of State William H. Seward thundered his protest and warned of war if the British took the next step and recognized Confederate nationhood.

But the Lincoln administration had already in effect recognized the Confederacy’s belligerent status by proclaiming a blockade of Southern ports, and this crisis passed. It was replaced by a new one in November 1861 when a zealous Union naval captain, Charles Wilkes of the USS San Jacinto, stopped the British passenger and mail steamer Trent on the high seas and took off James Mason and John Slidell, Confederate emissaries on their way to London and Paris. The British government angrily condemned this violation of neutral rights and threatened war with the United States unless the diplomats were released. The Lincoln administration, acknowledging its ability to fight only “one war at a time,” backed down and released them the day after Christmas 1861.

By the late summer of 1862 a new crisis in Anglo-American relations had arisen. The US government was incensed by Britain’s lax enforcement of its own Foreign Enlistment Act, which forbade the construction and fitting out of warships in British yards to be used against a nation with which Britain was at peace. The escape of the CSS Florida and CSS Alabama from Liverpool shipyards owing to loopholes in the law and British officials who looked the other way enabled these ships to get to sea and destroy nearly one hundred American merchant vessels and whalers during the next two years.

Meanwhile a “cotton famine” caused by the war and the blockade had reduced the amount of cotton coming to British and French mills to a pittance and thrown hundreds of thousands of workers and their families onto the dole. Confederate military victories in the summer of 1862 seemed to prove that the North could never crush this rebellion. As Southern armies invaded Maryland and Kentucky in September, the British and French governments planned to offer mediation to bring the American war to an end on the basis of Confederate independence. If the Lincoln government refused such an offer (as surely it would have), the British and French intended to recognize the Confederacy. France wanted to go ahead with this project even after Confederate armies were turned back at the battles of Antietam and Perryville. But the British backed off, and the French emperor Napoleon III did not want to act alone. Once again the dog did not bark.

It almost did a year later as two powerful ironclad ships being built at the Laird works in Birkenhead neared completion. Known as the “Laird rams,” these double-turreted vessels with a seven-foot underwater spike attached to the prow had been commissioned by Confederate agents who disguised their ultimate destination with a series of subterfuges. The American consul in Liverpool, Thomas Dudley, and the American minister in London, Charles Francis Adams, presented reams of intelligence showing that the vessels were intended to be used as Confederate warships against the American navy. One of Adams’s notes to British Foreign Minister Lord John Russell warning of the consequences if the government allowed these ships to escape concluded simply: “This is war.” But Russell had already ordered the ships detained, and they were eventually purchased by the Royal Navy.

Many historians have chronicled the ebb and flow of Anglo-American and Anglo-Confederate relations, which left both sides embittered toward Britain. The contribution of A World on Fire lies in its richness of description, vivid writing, and focus on individual personalities, including not only public officials but also (mostly on the British side) a wide variety of editors, reporters, cartoonists, aristocrats, labor leaders, soldiers of fortune, and retired naval officers commanding blockade runners. Some two hundred people figure with varying degrees of prominence in Foreman’s story.

And a gripping story it is. British public opinion was divided between those who favored the Union and those who sympathized with the Confederacy. While these two categories cannot be precisely quantified, and there were significant shifts toward the North after Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, what particularly struck Foreman was the number of Britons who “thought the slaveholding South had the moral advantage over the antislavery North.” Trying to understand “how the Confederacy had managed to achieve this ascendency” with people “who might generally be considered as belonging to the ‘progressive’ classes in Britain—journalists, writers, university students, actors, social reformers, even the clergy—became one of the driving obsessions behind this book.”

There seems, however, to be a disjunction between this obsession and the actual evidence Foreman presents in the book. There were doubtless numerous journalists, writers, clergymen, and so on who sympathized with the Confederacy. But how many of them were “progressives” is open to debate. On the whole, those most likely to express pro-Confederate or anti-American sentiments tended to be conservatives and members of the aristocracy or gentry. The Earl of Shrewsbury looked upon “the trial of Democracy and its failure” in America with pleasure. “I believe that the dissolution of the Union is inevitable, and that men before me will live to see an aristocracy established in America.”1 The voice of the British establishment, The Times, considered the downfall of “the American colossus” a good “riddance of a nightmare…. Excepting a few gentlemen of republican tendencies, we all expect, we nearly all wish, success to the Confederate cause.”2 Charles Francis Adams believed that “the great body of the aristocracy and the wealthy commercial classes are anxious to see the United States go to pieces. On the other hand the middle and lower class sympathize with us.”3

The leading spokesmen in Parliament for these middle and lower classes—the foremost “progressives” in Britain—John Bright (for whom Foreman has little respect), Richard Cobden, and William Forster, were strongly pro-Union. The famous liberal political philosopher John Stuart Mill believed that Confederate success would be “a victory of the powers of evil which would give courage to the enemies of progress and damp the spirits of its friends all over the civilized world.”4

It is quite true that the slavery issue initially inhibited the support of British liberals for the Union cause. As Lincoln repeatedly insisted during the war’s first year, that cause was the restoration of the Union, not the abolition of slavery. Many Britons failed to appreciate the constitutional and political constraints that hindered efforts toward emancipation. “People do not quite understand Americans or their politics,” observed Charles Francis Adams in June 1861. “They do not comprehend the connection which slavery has with [the war], because we do not at once preach emancipation. Hence they go to the other extreme and argue that it is not an element in the struggle.”5 An editorial in a British labor newspaper declared that since the North was “not fighting for the emancipation of the slaves, we are relieved from any moral consideration in their favor, and as the Southerners are not any worse than they are, why should we not get cotton? Why should we starve any longer?”6

The Emancipation Proclamation changed these attitudes almost overnight. Lincoln’s edict on January 1, 1863, did “more for us here than all our former victories and all our diplomacy,” wrote Henry Adams from London, where he served as private secretary to his father. “It has created an almost convulsive reaction in our favor.”7 Mass meetings in every part of the United Kingdom roared their approval of the Emancipation Proclamation and the Union cause. These meetings, reported Richard Cobden, “had a powerful effect on our newspapers and politicians. It has closed the mouths of those who have been advocating the side of the South…. Recognition of the South, by England, whilst it bases itself on Negro slavery, is an impossibility.”8

Gary Gallagher’s The Union War analyzes the relationship between Union and emancipation, not in its connection with foreign relations but with respect to the meaning of Union for the Northern people. We rarely speak of the “Union” today except when referring to a labor organization. But to mid-nineteenth-century Americans “Union” carried powerful meanings, analogous with “nation” and “country.” It “represented the cherished legacy of the founding generation, a democratic republic with a constitution that guaranteed political liberty and afforded individuals a chance to better themselves economically,” writes Gallagher. In this view of the Union, “slaveholding aristocrats who established the Confederacy…posed a direct threat not only to the long-term success of the American republic but also to the broader future of democracy.”

This was the purpose that sustained the Northern people and especially their president through four years of bloody war. Gallagher recaptures the meaning of Union to the generation that fought for it. He rescues the “Cause” for which they fought from modern historians who maintain that the abolition of slavery was the only achievement of the Civil War that justified all that death and destruction. Perhaps he spends a little too much time criticizing those historians—and even occasionally sets up a straw man to attack—but he does make his point with force and clarity.

  1. 1

    Quoted in Ephraim D. Adams, Great Britain and the American Civil War (Russell and Russell, 1925, in two volumes), Vol. 2, p. 282. 

  2. 2

    Quoted in Frank L. Owsley, King Cotton Diplomacy: Foreign Relations of the Confederate States of America, second edition, revised by Harriet C. Owsley (University of Chicago Press, 1959), p. 86. 

  3. 3

    Charles Francis Adams to Charles Francis Adams, Jr., December 25, 1862, in A Cycle of Adams Letters, 1861–1865, edited by Worthington C. Ford (Houghton Mifflin) , in two volumes, 1920), Vol. 1, pp. 220–221. 

  4. 4

    Quoted in Europe Looks at the Civil War, edited by Belle Becker Sideman and Lillian Friedman (Orion, 1960), p. 118. 

  5. 5

    Charles Francis Adams to Charles Francis Adams, Jr., in Ford, Cycle of Adams Letters, Vol. 1, p. 14. 

  6. 6

    The Working Man, October 5, 1861, quoted in Philip S. Foner, British Labor and the American Civil War (Holmes and Meier, 1981), pp. 27–28. 

  7. 7

    Henry Adams to Charles Francis Adams, Jr., January 23, 1863, in Ford, Cycle of Adams Letters, Vol. 1, p. 243. 

  8. 8

    Cobden to Charles Sumner, February 12, 1863, in Sideman and Friedman, Europe Looks at the Civil War, p. 222. 

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