The British Involvement in the American Civil War
Created | Updated Nov 14, 2008
In 1861, the United States of America split into two, the industrial North and the agricultural South. The reasons were complicated enough, but the motivation for the split revolved around the election of Abraham Lincoln as President. One of his policies was the abolition of slavery, which he saw as being against the principles of the Constitution. That same Constitution outlined that each state could act 'in its sovereign and independent character'.
These 'state rights' were interpreted by some as the right to set their own laws and not have them imposed by federal government. To the Southern States, this promised imposition threatening their economy was the last straw. One by one they left or seceded from the Union.
There was much talk about Free Trade - the trading of goods without let or hindrance. The Northern States supported home trade and imposed high tariffs on imports from Europe (mainly Britain). This, the South supposed, allowed them to sell goods like tools or machinery at inflated prices, while making imports even more costly. Since these Northern States held the majority in Congress, it was not easy to change these policies.
The South's major exports were cotton and tobacco - crops whose main destination was Britain. Both of these products were grown on vast plantations and cultivated using slave labour. The abolition of slavery, they claimed, would make them slaves to the Northern industrialists. If they were free of federal intervention, they could sell direct to their suppliers and obtain imported goods from them at lower prices.
The Secession started in January 1861, and on 9 February they formed a government under Jefferson Davis and blockaded federal forts within their territory. Despite assurances from Lincoln on his inauguration, on 12 April, the Confederate States began bombarding Fort Sumner and the American Civil War began. It was to last four bloody years.
Britain and North America
Britain had no love for the United States as it had suffered humiliating defeats in the Wars of Independence. In 1812, when the USA tried and failed to take Canada, Britain took revenge in 1814 by invading and burning the Capitol in Washington. The Northern States in particular disliked the idea of being subservient to the British and their imposition of import tariffs hit British exports hard.
Free Trade was seen as being 'British' and many believed (and still do) that British finance and influence in the South was akin to a British colony within the USA. Given the trade links with the Southern cotton and tobacco industries, and the hostility with the North, it was natural that the British should side with the Confederate States. The recognition of the Confederate States as a belligerent power did nothing to improve relations between Britain and the Union.
Britain and the Blockade
On the outbreak of war in 1861, the US Navy was directed to blockade all maritime traffic into and out of Confederate ports. This effectively cut off all legitimate imports. This was particularly galling for the Confederates as they had no major arms or manufacturing industry and had to import most of their military goods from Europe. They were lucky to have a number of agents in England who were able to acquire large amounts of arms and equipment.
Both sides used the Enfield Pattern 1853 rifled musket but the South also bought Armstrong rifled cannon and muskets. The Armstrong rifle was especially valued for its accuracy and it was used as a sniping rifle. Footwear for the South was manufactured in Northampton and amounted to $1 million in the first 18 months alone. The Confederate army also depended on procuring supplies from Europe. As well as arms, they purchased uniforms, leather goods, hospital stores, and numerous other necessities.
The US Navy blockade necessitated a new route for imports. Nassau in the Bahamas was used as a staging post for Confederate supplies along with Bermuda and Havana. The supplies were then loaded onto blockade runners, ships of mainly British registration, and taken to the ports on the Gulf of Mexico. About $200 million worth of goods from British ports got delivered to the Confederacy this way. The blockade was still effective at preventing the export of Confederate goods and, since these were to pay for the goods imported, it caused many financial problems for the South.
So few blockade runners were caught, about 1500 vessels all told – about 18% - that the British argued that it was only a 'paper blockade' and therefore not recognisable by international law. The Confederates expected the British to break the blockade or escort ships through it, but this never happened. Unusually, Britain did not even object to the seizure of British ships running the blockade.
Confederate Commerce Raiders
One aspect that the Union did object to was the building of Confederate ships in British dockyards. These were purely commercial transactions with civilian shipbuilders to build unarmed vessels. These were built, engined and fitted out for seaworthiness before they were dispatched to a rendezvous with supply ships and fitted out as fighting ships. The crews were generally European, mainly British, but with the guns came Confederate officers. Thus manned, equipped and led, these ships wreaked havoc with Union shipping, forcing an increase in insurance for merchant ships.
Although not in the same league as the Royal Navy or US Navy ships, they made names for themselves. The CSS Alabama (built Liverpool 1862) went to the Indies and took 40 US merchantmen1. After putting into Cherbourg for refit in June 1864, she sailed out to attack the USS Kearsarge and was sunk. The CSS Shenandoah (built Glasgow 1864) went to the North Pacific and attacked the US whaling fleet. On hearing the news of the Confederate defeat, she sailed to Britain and surrendered to the Royal Navy in Liverpool on November 1865, six months after the war ended.
Charles F Adams
One of the reasons why Britain and France did not recognise the Confederate States was the efforts of Charles F Adams, the US Minister to England from 1861 to 1868. His first diplomatic emergency was the Trent Affair in which two Confederate diplomatic agents on the British merchantman Trent were seized by the USS San Jacinto in international waters. This threatened a British intervention on the Confederate side which may have tipped the balance of any military action in their favour. After much diplomatic wrangling, the two were released into British custody and an official apology given.
Adams spent much of his time looking for ways in which the British violated their neutrality. He was not best pleased with the British involvement in the building of commerce raiders, particularly the CSS Alabama. He realised that much of Britain's grain imports came from North America and used this and other threats, as well as appeals to the British people, to keep Britain out of the war. He did this in a very low key way, avoiding much publicity and consequently, his actions were little known in the USA.
Despite this, he made a real and effective contribution to the Union's war effort. Due to his interventions, he kept Great Britain and France out of the war as they may have gone to the aid of the South. As it was, the Confederacy was never recognised and support dwindled to nothing as the war progressed. James Russell Lowell said of him:
None of our generals, nor Grant himself, did us better or more trying service than he in his forlorn outpost of London.
Those that Fought
The British never entered the war as a nation, but many individuals served in both armies, most of them in the Confederate Army. There were never many of them but they were noted for their previous military service and often became leaders. One member of a Union unit wrote home:
The Corporal of our detachment is an Englishman and celebrates today as the anniversary of 'Inkerman'2 and wears his medals on his jacket, including the Victoria Cross with silver bars3, possibly the greatest honour an Englishman can earn. He was Sergeant Major in the Rifle Brigade and I can assure you he is by far the best soldier in our company. I find it worthy of mention that there are about 20 Englishmen in our Company (about a fifth) and although we are small in proportion, every Sergeant is English excepting the Quartermaster Sergeant who is Scots.
British nationals in the Union Army won 67 Congressional Medals of Honor4 during the Civil War. Many who fought for the Confederacy were undocumented, but a number of senior officers were British. As ever in fields of battle, there was a generous representation from Ireland, including General Patrick Cleburne of the Confederate Army, born in Cork, commanding a division in the Army of Tennessee. He too had served in the British Army, the 41st Regiment of Foot, in which he reached the rank of Corporal.
Healing the Wounds
At the end of the war, Britain retained the diplomatic position it held during the war. Some complicity in the Confederate cause was identified and at the Tribunal of Arbitration held in Geneva in 1872, Charles F Adams served as an arbitrator to settle any financial claims of damage against Britain. Damages of $15.5 million were awarded to the USA in respect of the damage caused by the commerce raiders to the US merchant fleet and their cargoes. Thus ended the involvement of Britain in the American Civil War
- Blockade Runners
- The American Question Abroad
- The Confederation and England
- The Lincoln Presidency: Foreign Affairs
- Charles F Adams