By early January 1861, South Carolina had seceded from the Union and stood alone as an independent republic. In the ensuing weeks, six additional Southern States would follow suit. Lame-duck President James Buchanan did nothing to stop the dissolution of the Union, mainly because he did not believe he had any authority to coerce a state, but also preferring to wait for the incoming Lincoln Administration. In January Lincoln named New York Senator William H. Seward as his secretary of state-designate. Lyons was well aware of Mr. Seward and his attitudes towards England. “With regard to Great Britain, I cannot help fearing that he [Seward] will be a dangerous Foreign Minister. His view of the Relations between the United States and Great Britain has always been that they may be safely played with, without any risk of bringing on a war. He had even to me avowed his belief that England will never go to war with the United States.”[i]

This last point interested Lyons a great deal, for he believed that America might actually consider starting a crisis with Britain in order to settle down matters at home, and Seward is on record as entertaining the thought as a way to end the secession crisis. “The temptation will be great for Lincoln’s Party if they be not actually engaged in Civil War, to endeavor to divert the public excitement to a foreign quarrel. I do not think Mr. Seward would contemplate actually going to war with us, but he would be well disposed to play the old game of seeking popularity here by displaying insolence towards us. I don’t think it will be so good a game for him, as it used to be, even supposing we give him an apparent triumph, but I think he is likely to try it.”[ii]

Lyons had previously written Russell of his concern about a possible war with the United States in order to stir up patriotic and nationalistic feelings, thereby uniting the nation at a time when it might be coming apart. In May 1860, with the presidential election in full swing, he dispatched a letter to Russell expressing this concern. The letter also reveals his attitude toward the United States and the supremacy of England:

Whichever Party is in power in this Country, we must, I am afraid, be always prepared for a declaration of war from the United States, if we are involved in serious difficulties in Europe. With the lowest class, which is the governing class, a war with England would always be popular; and this class have been flattered into the belief that the United States are a great Naval and Military Power. Even with many Conservatives a foreign war finds favor, as a remedy for [internal] divisions. I do not think any government would intentionally bring on a war with us, at a moment when we could bring all our forces to bear upon America. The danger is that almost every one in this Country believes, that we should endure anything rather than go to war with the United States; and with this feeling the temptation to curry favor with the populace by a display of arrogance towards us, is too great to be resisted.

This fear of war was of particular concern should the Lincoln Administration come to power, as Lyons felt Lincoln’s cabinet would be “particularly indisposed to make any concessions to us” in any matter that might come up.[iii]

By April 1861 seven Southern States had seceded and formed the Confederate States of America. War had broken out in mid-month. The Lincoln Administration moved at once to establish a blockade of Southern ports and hold the Upper South States in the Union. “The blockade has not yet been officially announced to me,” wrote Lyons on April 23. “If it be carried on, with reasonable consideration for Foreign Flags, and in strict conformity with the law of Nations, I suppose it must be recognized. I understand that the Northern Ports insisted upon a Blockade, as a sine qua non, condition of their giving their support to the government. Of course they could not endure to see foreign trade diverted to the South.” In another letter, written three days later, Lyons informed Russell yet again on the blockade situation. “In common with the most influential of my Colleagues, I exhausted every possible means of opposition to the Blockade. The great North Eastern Cities insisted upon it, not only as a measure of vengeance, but as one essential to the preservation of their own prosperity. They could hardly be expected to make sacrifices for the contest, unless they were secured from seeing their Trade diverted to Southern Ports.” This was especially true since the Confederacy had declared itself in favor of free trade and had even outlawed protective tariffs in its Constitution. European nations would have favored trading with the new Confederacy instead of paying Lincoln’s high tariff, with rates over 50 percent.[iv]

The tariff was certainly a source of contention for Great Britain, and would continue to be for the remainder of the century. Britain’s policy of free trade, brought about by the likes of John Bright and Richard Cobden, and can be traced to the repeal of the Com Laws in 1846. England desired America to join it in a system of global free trade, but under the fiercely protectionist Lincoln, there would be no chance of that. The Morrill Tariff was passed by Congress in 1861 and before the end of the war its rates were raised a dozen times and caused great economic harm to Britain. Lyons saw this danger early. “There is another possible danger [other than war with the U.S.], peculiar to England, to be apprehended when Congress meets. In the endeavor to rearrange the Tariff, with a view to producing more Revenue, the Reciprocity Treaty is very likely to be attacked. The objective already made to it have turned very much upon the amount of Revenue of which it deprives the Treasury.”[v] And therein lies Lincoln’s motive for war.

Now that war had broken out and the North had set upon itself the policy of bringing the South back into the Union by force, Lyons wrote Russell a lengthy analytical letter on the conflict that demonstrates perfectly the thinking of the upper classes in England on the American crisis:

I confess I can see no better policy for us than a strict impartiality for the present. The sympathies of an Englishman are naturally inclined towards the North, but I am afraid we should find that anything like a quasi alliance with the men in office here would place us in a position which would soon become untenable. There would be no end to the exactions which they would make upon us. There would be no end to the disregard for our neutral rights, which they would show, if they once felt sure of us. If I had the best hope of their being able to reconstruct the Union, or even of their being able to reduce the South to the condition of a tolerably contented or at all events obedient dependency, my feelings against Slavery might lead me to desire to cooperate with them. But I conceive all chance of this to be gone for ever. The question now is only how long and how bloody the war will be, and how much injury it will cause to both divisions of the Country. The injury inflicted on both will be felt in England, but the Consequences of the sudden failure of the supply of cotton from the South are appalling.

So, in other words, England found itself between a rock and a hard place. They did not trust the Lincoln Administration enough to ally with it yet they also need Southern cotton badly but could ill-afford to side with a new nation they believed was founded upon the principles of slavery. For Britain, the only policy, at this point in the conflict, had to be neutrality.[vi]

Lyons continued his long letter to his boss in London, further explaining his views toward the war and steps England might consider adopting if the conflict escalated:

One cannot but hope that the North, not withstanding its apparent fury and unanimity may in the end get tired of the war. It would seem by President Davis’ Message [to the Confederate Congress] that the South only asks to be let alone. I do not think the sensible men in the North have any expectation of conquering the South. The war is made from wounded pride, from a natural reluctance to acquiesce in the diminution of the greatness of the Nation. It may be worthy of consideration whether means should not be provided for effectively defending Canada against any inroad from this Country [the North], made with or without the sanction of the government here.

Once again, Lyons expressed fear about a possible war with the United States. England at this time had always maintained a certain degree of nervousness about a possible American invasion or annexation of Canada, which the Americans had tried to take during the Revolution. It had to be seriously considered as a distinct possibility and Lyons continued to write Russell about these fears.[vii]

A month later, Lyons continued to state his belief that there might be war with the United States, a concern he had above all other considerations:

I hope we may see some moderation of the tone of the newspapers. The people in the North are beginning to be aware of the immense encouragement, which their prediction of a war with England, have given to their Southern Foe. I understand that the effect at Richmond of the repeated assertions in the Northern Papers of the hostility of England to the North has been prodigious. I have written so much officially on the risk of a sudden declaration of war against England by the United States, that I have nothing to add on that subject. That such an act of madness is so far from impossible, that we ought to be prepared for it at any moment, I am thoroughly convinced.

He further advised Russell that “the first thing to be done towards obtaining anything like permanent security, is to remove the temptation to attack Canada.” Lyons was particularly worried about Northern aggression towards them given the current situation in the Confederacy. “The present apparent success of the South in founding an independent government is so galling to the North, that anything which implies the admission of this self evident fact agitates them beyond measure,” he wrote. Seward, he explained, continued to “deny the existence of the fact, not to explain it, to threaten anyone who shall dare to assert it, or even to perceive it.” The United States would consider an act by any nation that recognized Confederate independence to be an act of war.[viii]

The outcome of the American War, at this point, was anybody’s guess. Lord Lyons tried in vain to keep London informed of events.

But nothing has yet happened to give any clear notion of the probable event and duration of the struggle. The perseverance of neither side has yet been put to the test. No military engagement has taken place, and consequently the effect of defeat or victory of the two divisions of the Country, can only be conjectured. Hitherto the North has advanced gradually into Virginia without opposition, but if the advance is to go on at the same rate, it will take about half a century to get on to Florida. On the other hand we have been again threatened with an attack upon Washington; and no doubt if President Davis could move his troops with rapidity such an attack would have a fair chance of success.

At this point it is clear that Lyons has no confidence whatsoever in the Union Army or its ability to conquer the South. The British government did not believe the Confederacy could be defeated for a variety of reasons. First, the British army had a hard time in the Southern colonies during the Revolution, particularly with guerrilla warfare. Second, no territory as large as the Southern Confederacy had ever been militarily conquered and occupied in modem times. British sympathy might have been with the North but its money was on the South.[ix]

The Union war effort began badly for Lincoln. The first major battle, at Manassas, Virginia, ended in an overwhelming Confederate victory, with Northern forces reeling back into Washington. Maryland, a slave state with strong ties to Virginia, was inching ever closer to severing its ties with the Union. Should Maryland secede and join the Confederacy, Washington would find itself within that jurisdiction. This, coupled with the military defeat at Manassas, might be the death blow of the Union. Therefore, Lincoln decided to prevent Maryland’s secession at any and all cost. Throughout the spring and summer of 1861, Maryland had been in a state of uproar. Its citizens had attacked a Massachusetts regiment in Baltimore on its march to Washington, burned bridges leading to the nation’s capital, and conducted other acts of violence against established order. Lyons wrote Russell of this deteriorating situation: “I have just seen the Consul and Vice Consul from Baltimore who have come over to report to me the state of affairs there. They describe the Anti­Union and Anti-North excitement. The town seems to be entirely in the hands of the mob.” Lincoln would soon crack down on this mob to Lyon’s horror.[x]

The Lincoln Administration moved military units into Baltimore and the surrounding areas and began making arbitrary arrests, mostly apprehending citizens thought to be dangerous. Later, more arrests were made, including Baltimore’s mayor, the police chief, and several police commissioners.

The arrests continue and indeed increase very much in number. The mayor of this town [Baltimore], and two ladies well known in society here are among the latest victims. To advocate peace is now interpreted to be “giving aid and comfort” to the enemy, and the principle of opposition newspapers have been accordingly stopped at the Post Offices, or suppressed by the Government or the mob. I don’t think however that the men in power here [Washington] have the nerves, the talent, or the standing in the Country, to set up a real reign of terror. What is more to be apprehended is that it may become necessary to their personal safety to keep up an excitement which… prevent their being called to account for their transgressions of the law and the Constitution. This may lead them to the desperate measure of a foreign war.

Again, Lyons showed concern that the Lincoln Administration intended to make war, perhaps on England, to relieve their burdens, which seemed to mount daily.[xi]

A few days later, Lyons again wrote Russell about the situation for the North, but particularly the behavior of the federal government towards Maryland, the American people in general, and in the government’s treatment of the Constitution, a situation he called “a dangerous state of things.”

Under all difficulties and discouragements the North has resources enough to beat the Confederates in the long run, if it chooses to persevere in the contest. But according to present appearances it will be a work of years. And if the struggle last for years, what will become of the Constitution and the liberties of the People. The progress towards despotism or anarchy is already frightfully rapid. The Executive government here, and, I am afraid, Mr. Seward [secretary of state] not least, seem to enter with gusto upon a system of espionage, persecution and arbitrary arrests. As for American citizens, if they submit to these attacks on their liberties, it is their own affairs.

These events greatly disturbed Lyons, who had, as did many British citizens, a profound love of liberty and hatred of despotism. Seward was a particular worry for him, who he believed “takes a personal pleasure in spying and arresting.”[xii]

To one’s surprise, it seems as if Lyons was much more concerned about the destruction of liberty rather than the destruction of the Union. “It looks as if things were coming to a point at which the Violent Minority will impose its will by force on the Moderate Majority,” he wrote. But he was encouraged by hopeful signs in the North that things might be heading in a new direction.

A meeting however, of the old “Democratic” party in the State of New York has adopted a declaration of principles, which would form the ground for a salutary opposition, if such a thing as Constitutional opposition is to be allowed to exist any longer. Their declaration speaks strongly for the Union, but declares against the suspension of habeas corpus without the authority of Congress, the passport system, the establishment of a government political police, and the suppression of newspapers by the Executive Authority.

It is difficult to ascertain whether Lyons was pro-North or pro-South, but he did hope that the rule of law would prevail in America, no matter how many nations existed.[xiii]

Even though England would not side with the Confederacy or the Union, both belligerents desired British aid for its cause, and in the case of the South, British recognition. The North hoped to use the slavery issue to gain English support and deny it to the Confederacy. Lyons hoped to be able to use such Northern feelings to his advantage and his nation’s. “There seems to be a desire to rally the Anti-Slavery feelings in England to the Northern Cause. I hope I may be able to take advantage of it to obtain something sufficiently definite for our cruisers to act upon with respect to American slavers.” The slavery issue was a major issue and Lyons knew it. For the old Union to be restored, short of the military conquest of the South, then the “claims of the slaves” would have to be addressed. “If the effect of the expeditions against the Coast [North and South Carolina] be to cause the escape of a great number of slaves,” he continued, “the bitterness of feeling of the Masters will be rendered still more intense. As a means of forcing the South back into the Union, it can have no effect unless the return to the Union is to be followed by guarantees for the maintenance of Slavery, and the restitution of slaves who escape.” But the South had no desire to return to the Union, only to obtain independence, hopefully with British aid.[xiv]

British recognition of the Southern Confederacy was, on the surface, unlikely, mostly because of the slave issue. However, there were several instances which nearly brought the British into the conflict on the Southern side. The major incident occurred at sea in November 1861 and is known as the Trent Affair. The U.S. Navy, which had blockaded Southern ports, stopped a British mail steamer, the Trent, in international waters. Found on board were two Confederate diplomats headed for London, James Mason and John Slidell. Both were placed under arrest, removed from the ship, and taken to prison in the North. The British were outraged and demanded both an apology from the Lincoln Administration and the immediate release of the two diplomats. A major international crisis ensued, which nearly brought British forces into the American war.

Lord Lyons had a major role to play in the Trent Affair and helped avert a catastrophe. “I have been all along expecting some such blow as the capture onboard the Trent,” he wrote Russell. The episode would “produce an effect on public opinion in both Countries, which will go far to disconcert all my peaceful plans and hopes.” Should the capture of the Trent “be unjustifiable, we should ask for the immediate release of the prisoners, promptly… with a determination to act at once, if the demand were refused. If on the other hand the capture be justifiable, we should at once say so, and declare that we have no complaint to make on the subject. Even so, we should not escape the evil of encouraging the Americans in their belief that we shall bear anything from them.” The Trent Affair was eventually resolved without any significant strain to British-American relations. As Raymond A. Jones has written, Lyons’ work on the “Mason-Slidell affair … established his well-deserved reputation as Britain’s greatest mid-century ambassador.”[xv]

Lord Richard Lyons returned to England for a time soon after the Trent Affair, but would later return before the end of the war. During his time in Washington, he served admirably as Great Britain’s ambassador to the United States, at a time when relations between the two could have easily broken off. The United States had made it known that recognition of the Confederacy, and even sufficient aid, would be viewed as an act of war. Lyons had to maintain good relations between the two nations, yet look after what was in England’s best interest, namely acquiring Southern cotton. His letters to Foreign Minister Russell were, in historian E. D. Adams’ words, “remarkable for their clear analysis.”[xvi] His insight is equally remarkable and a gold mine for historians of the American crisis.

[i] January 7, 1861.

[ii] Ibid.

[iii] May 8 and October 22, 1860.

[iv] April 23, 1861.

[v] June 24, 1861.

[vi] May 6, 1861.

[vii] Ibid.

[viii] June 10 and 14, 1861.

[ix] June 18, 1861.

[x] April 23, 1861.

[xi] August 27, 1861.

[xii] September 6, 1861.

[xiii] Ibid.

[xiv] November 11, 1861.

[xv] November 22, 1861; Raymond A. Jones, The British Diplomatic Service, 1815-1914 (Waterloo Canada: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 1983), 126.

[xvi] E. D. Adams, Great Britain and the American Civil War, 2 Volumes (New York: Russell & Russell, 1924), I, 42.


Ryan Walters

Ryan Walters is and independent historian and the author of The Last Jeffersonian: Grover Cleveland and the Path to Restoring the Republic.

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