This essay was originally published in Southern Partisan Magazine, 1985.
Historians have long misinterpreted the responses of Europeans to the events of the American War Between the States. One of the earliest cases in point was Karl Marx, who considered himself a scientific historian and a knowledgeable commentator on the great American Crisis. Writing on December 12, 1862, about the Emancipation Proclamation, Marx praised Lincoln’s capacity to “accomplish the most significant things in the least conspicuous way possible.” Marx was convinced that Lincoln would win the hearts and minds of the European working class by making a morally compelling case for the Union. However snidely English newspapers treated Lincoln’s rustic manners, Marx was convinced that European workers and progressives would rally to support the Great Emancipator.
Marx’s view of Lincoln is puzzling for at least two reasons. One, Marx claimed to be an historical materialist who saw ideas as derivative from economic circumstances. Yet, in the matter of refounding the American regime, he had faith in the power of Lincoln’s hidden moral vision to touch everywhere proletariat souls. This would occur, or so Marx believed, despite the military-strategic purpose of the Proclamation and despite the resentment of millworkers in Lancashire and in other English industrial centers left jobless because of the Northern blockade of the cotton-producing South.
Two, Marx pitifully misread Europe’s reaction to the Emancipation Proclamation. The document was widely ridiculed as an example of military-political opportunism cloaked in moral righteousness.
Contrary to another common textbook misconception, pro-Confederate, and certainly anti-Union, sentiment was not limited in England to Tory aristocratic circles. The self-serving reports of Northern diplomats in England often seemed to indicate such a situation, but Lincoln’s shrewd ambassador in London, Charles Francis Adams, knew better. The Union side had few friends in England in the fall of 1861. Lincoln had dared to impose a blockade on Southern ports; though he and his Secretary of State, William Seward, had assured the British earlier that the War was no more than an American internal matter. British ships were seized trying to trade with the South. To make matters even worse, a Union naval officer, Charles Wilkes, on November 8, 1861 captured an English mail steamer en route to Southampton from Havana. Wilkes abducted two passengers, both Confederate commissioners, James Murray Mason and John Slidell, whom he subsequently brought to Boston as prisoners.
In England cries of outrage and demands for the release of Mason and Slidell came from every social class. Significantly, it was the royal family and the very aristocratic British ambassador to Washington, Lord Lyons, who frustrated the popular will for revenge. Prince Albert and Lord Lyons turned the English government’s ultimatum into a mere admonition, followed by negotiable demands for Mason’s and Slidell’s release.
The most vocal support for the Union in England came from liberal and radical democratic reformers. Richard Cobden and John Bright, on the democratic capitalist Right; John Stuart Mill and John Elliot Cairnes, both feminists and social democrats; and Marx and Friedrich Engels, on the revolutionary socialist Left, typified the Union’s hard-core ideological support in England. But the more realistic observers among this band had no illusions about their small numbers. In a revealing comment published in 1862 in Westminster Review, John Stuart Mill lamented, “Why is the general voice of our press, the general sentiment of our people bitterly reproachful toward the North while for the South, the aggressor in the war, we have either mild apologies or direct and downright encouragement? And this is not only from the Tory and anti-democratic camp, but from liberals, or soidisant such.” Mill had noticed that classical liberal publicists and journals were applauding the Confederacy for its defense of free trade. Conversely, they criticized the Union and Lincoln’s Republican Party for their support of tariffs. One liberal, anti-slavery journal with wide readership, the Economist, argued early in the war that an independent Confederacy, devoted to free trade, was more likely to abolish slavery than a South subjugated by the North. Even after the Emancipation Proclamation, the Economist remained generally unsympathetic to the Northern side.
In France the government was perhaps more open than in England in expressing support for the Confederates. The Southern commissioner, John Slidell, developed warm relations with Louis Napoleon and his ministers. Largely because of Slidell’s influence in Paris, the South obtained naval supplies and other assistance from France throughout the War. The French Emperor knew of the role being played by Francophile Southerners and Southerners of French extraction in the Confederate cause, particularly in Slidell’s own state of Louisiana. Louis Napoleon’s attempt, starting in 1862, to take over Mexico, made him even more favorable to an independent Confederacy, especially one beholden to him for its freedom.
Contrary to what Marx and Mill might have wished, the Union drew its major European political support from backward, autocratic Russia. The North also enjoyed superlative relations with Bismarck’s Prussia. Though Bismarck, as a landed aristocrat, felt an affinity for the Southern gentry, in foreign policy he inclined toward the American North and Tsarist Russia. Prussian military observers accompanied Sherman and Grant on their campaigns, and they paid their grizzled hosts the supreme compliment of imitation. In 1866 the Prussian army defeated the Austrians by applying the technological advances which the American North had used against the American South.
The Russian connection that the Union diligently cultivated was, ironically, the work of Lincoln’s enemies. The pro-Southern Democrat James Buchanan, while ambassador at St. Petersburg in the 1830s, had negotiated commercial treaties with the Tsar’s ministers. After the Crimean War, the future secessionist governor of South Carolina, Francis W. Pickens, worked as ambassador to the Russian court, to improve Russo-American relations. Russia was then seeking to break out of the political isolation that had befallen her during and after the Crimean War. That war had begun when Russian advances against the decaying Turkish empire had brought about an anti-Russian coalition led by England and France. During the almost two-year war that was fought around the Black Sea and in the Crimea, Russia had stood alone against the Western power. Even the Hapsburg Empire— to which she had sent soldiers to put down Hungarian rebels in 1849—abandoned Russia by 1854. The Austrian Imperial government was terrified by the prospect of Russian expansion into the Balkans, if the Turks were driven from the region.
For Russia, the main enemy during and after the Crimean War was Lord Palmerston’s England. England, after all, had been the architect of the anti-Russian combine of the 1850s, and by the 1860s was creating for herself a Central Asian empire in competition with Russia. Pickens and, later, Seward presented the Americans as a countervailing force to Russia’s Western enemies. But the Russians wished to believe this in any case. Two days before Georgia’s secession Edward Stoekl, the Russian ambassador to Washington, bared his breast in a letter to Prince Alexander Gorchakov: “Great Britain seems to enjoy a stroke of fortune rare in history. She alone will profit by the destruction of the United States, but it will be fatal to the rest of the world.” Soon after, in communicating with Seward, Gorchakov described the Union as “an essential element in the political equilibrium of the world” and as “the only commercial counterpoise to Great Britain.”
The diplomatic evidence suggests that Russia and the Union were linked almost exclusively by ties of Realpolitik. The notion of Lincoln and Tsar Alexander II choosing each other as role models for emancipating serfs and slaves is simply a textbook fiction. Alexander freed his serfs—that is, put them under Tsarist supervision—before it became clear that Lincoln would emancipate Negro slaves. Moreover, Lincoln, from all available evidence, disliked Tsarist Russia. He had violently and repeatedly denounced it in the 1850s for mistreating the Hungarians and for suppressing national minorities. Indeed it was the Southerner Pickens, not Lincoln, Seward, or any Republican, who pursued the Russian connection on the eve of the War Between the States.
Dennis Reinhartz, writing for Continuity, maintains that the Russian connection was the keystone of Lincoln’s foreign policy. One might add that it was the trump card that the proto-secessionist Pickens handed to his adversaries, even before the firing on Fort Sumter. Lincoln would play this card against England and, indirectly, France to keep the Confederates from building firmer ties with Europe. The Union’s relationship with Russia was a cause for concern in the English government. In 1863 Palmerston backed down in trying to force Russia to moderate her policies in Poland. Faced by a Russia no longer isolated, Palmerston reneged on his assurance to Louis Napoleon that their two countries would take a hard line on the Polish question.
Louis Napoleon also played Lincoln’s game, because of his ties to England. Since the events leading to the Crimean War, the French Emperor had tried to construct a privileged relationship with England, against the two Eastern powers, Russia and Austria. His biographer, Albert Guerard, describes his often frustrated, but persistent efforts on behalf of this policy: “[He] sought England’s friendship. He won over the fiery Palmerston, an old enemy of France, Queen Victoria, and Prince Albert. But these were personal victories; under a tone of acidulous or ironic courtesy the policy of the English government was completely anti-French; and English public opinion spurned even that diplomatic veil.” Although Guerard may exaggerate English Francophobia in the 1860s, he is correct in stressing Louis Napoleon’s attempt to undo the effects of the first Napoleon’s hostile relations with England. Louis Napoleon grimly accepted Palmerston’s about-face on Poland and waited for England to move first in recognizing the Confederacy.
This brings us to a final misconception that historians have spread about diplomacy during the War. In John D. Hicks’s The Federal Union, one of the last patriotic American history textbooks used in our schools, he insists on treating Southern leaders and diplomats as lacklustre foils to their Union counterparts. To underscore Charles Francis Adams’s diplomatic skills, he depicts William Yancey and, even more, James Mason as blundering neophytes in international affairs. Southern commissioners in Europe supposedly idled around, or paid lavish court on aristocrats, while waiting for bales of cotton to be shipped from Savannah, New Orleans, and Mobile. They foolishly believed that the need for King Cotton in Europe would open all diplomatic doors for them.
With all due respect to Hicks and other critics of Southern diplomacy, the Confederate commissioners in England and France were not inferior to their opposite numbers. Both Charles Francis and Henry Adams paid grudging respect to Mason as a resourceful adversary. Slidell was a polished, apt diplomat who made heroic efforts to pull Louis Napoleon out of the English into the Southern orbit. With no real bargaining chips, Confederate representatives in Spain worked doggedly to extract assistance there, promising to support (whatever that meant) Spanish claims to Santa Domingo. Southern commissioners failed to win recognition for their side from European states because they had been dealt a bad hand.
But other factors also weighed on the international scene. The South was hurt by its financial problems, such as the failed opportunity to market its cotton crop in Europe. The North, by contrast, benefited even from its material difficulties. In 1863 the American North ran an unfavorable balance of trade with Europe totaling 54 million dollars. This figure rose to 91 million dollars by 1864 and was paid for in species—European countries having no faith in either Union or Confederate paper money. The European, particularly English, mid-tile class sold many consumer commodities to the North, which had gone over to a wartime economy. Although the English also sold to the South, which they furnished with commercial destroyers, the blockade and growing indigence throughout the war-ravaged Confederacy made it commercially less valuable to Europeans than the North. Outside the textile trade, European commerce benefited from having the North at war. Recognition of the South by major European powers might have ended the profitable conflict—or have turned the North against its European trade partners.
It is of course unlikely that European recognition would have done much to change the course of events after 1863. Vicksburg, Gettysburg, and the other Union victories of that year made Northern leaders believe their war was winnable. As in the case of Southern military efforts, the war on the diplomatic front could only have been won in the early stages of the struggle. Then it still would have been possible to force a demoralized Union to the peace table through a combination of military victory and diplomatic break throughs. Afterwards harsh economic, geopolitical, and demographic realities were inevitably decisive.