TheUnderhand Role of Great Britain in the American Civil War
The American Civil War, which was fought from 1861 to 1865 betweenthe federalist northern states and secessionist southern states,redefined British-American relations. In the four short years thatthe war dragged on, about 620,000-750,000 soldiers were killed andmost of the infrastructure in the southern states completelydestroyed. So, destructive was the war that its cost was reportedlyhigher than the combined cost of the First World War and the SecondWorld War (Global Security). Although the war was fought on Americansoil, Great Britain played a major role that impacted the war’soutcome and global relations thereafter. Ideally, the Britishgovernment’s official stand was neutrality in recognition of the USas a sovereign state with a mandate to address her internal affairswithout foreign interference. However, this stand had itsramifications both planned and unplanned. Thus, this paperexplores the role played by Great Britain in the American Civil Warand the effect of her action or inactions on the war and globalpolitical relations after the war.
Discussion:The British Involvement in the War
First and foremost, when the war broke out, both the union andConfederate states actively sought support from Great Britain as theformer colonial master. On one hand, the northern states believedthat they would win the British support given that they had a sharedview on abolishment of slavery. Their hopes were hinged on the factthat Britain had abolished slavery same as the northern states (Merliand Fahey 22). On the other hand, the southern states, which wereopposed to the abolishment of slavery, hoped that Great Britain wouldsupport their cause because the two had strong trade relations. Eachof the sides desperately sought the support of Britain. For instance,the Confederate vice president, Alexander Hamilton Stephens, promisedto end slavery in an attempt to win British support and recognitionof the Confederates as sovereign states (Farmer). However, given theconflict of interest, England chose to support neither side butsecretly planned another move.
The new move that was planned together with France involved invadingand recolonizing America. The plan was to sit back and let thewarring sides weaken each other thereby making it easier for Britishand French forces to attack and take over the former Britishcolonies. Interestingly, France had also vowed neutrality in the wardespite the fact there was an urgent need to intervene as trade washeavily affected. France traded with the south in cotton, wine,brandy and silk. The union states recognized the important role thattrade played in the south and thus enforced a blockade on southernharbors and trade routes to weaken the enemy. The blockades wereannounced in April 1861 by President Abraham Lincoln (Merli and Fahey18). The blockades also kept away any foreign intervention in the warmuch to the anger of Britain.
Although France had officially taken a neutral stand in the war, thecountry under the leadership of Napoleon III desired to intervene.France first proposed intervention to Britain but was turned down.However, given that France was not very strong militarily, she couldnot intervene without British support. Thus, Napoleon III took adifferent approach by invading Mexico and establishing a newgovernment headed by Maximilian of Habsburg. The move aimed atinstalling a puppet Mexican government that would intervene in theAmerican Civil War (Global Security). However, Maximilian’sgovernment was very weak and collapsed soon after the end of warbringing to an end any intervention through proxy governments.
Another factor that thwarted Franco-British intervention plans wasthe involvement of the Russian empire under the leadership of TsarAlexander II. Same as Britain, Russia had taken a non-involvementstand in the war. However, when it became clear that France andBritain had plans to invade America, Russia adopted a new stand insupport of the union. This was a dramatic gesture that Britain hadnot anticipated. The arrival of Russia’s Baltic fleet in New YorkHarbor and the Pacific Fleet in San Francisco Harbor on 24thSeptember 1863 marked a new chapter in the war. In appreciation ofthe new Russian-American cooperation, President Lincoln sent his wifeto greet the Russians in New York City (Global Security). With theRussian navy guarding the east and west coast and also bolstering theblockades, there was little chance of the British Royal navyintervening and Americans would decide their own destiny.
Again, while the British government prophesied neutrality, publicopinion and some state actions favored the Confederates. To startwith, the British government recognized the belligerent rights of theConfederates first before recognizing those of the northern states inerecting blockades (Foreman 21). Secondly, individual members of theupper class in Britain openly supported the more aristocratic south.The north had shown democratic tendencies that were considered adirect threat to the aristocratic rule favored by the wealthyBritons. Again, major British newspapers led by The Timesopenly advocated for the Confederacy. Newspaper columnists cited thatit was easier to deal with two states instead of one with some notingthat a united America would be a threat to Britain’s globaldomination (Gambino). Wealthy individuals and some financialinstitutions also supported the Confederates financially by buyingtheir bonds. Accordingly, the official neutral position taken byBritain did not represent the true position of the country in thewar.
Although the official neutral position was misleading, it allowed thewar to take a more natural course. This meant that each side was freeto exploit its advantages and explore the weaknesses of the enemy.For example, the north had a significantly larger population of about22 million people spread out in over 35 states compared to theConfederate’s five million people (Global Security). The north alsopossessed all the major industries involved in manufacturing ofmilitary equipment. Nevertheless, the larger northern population didnot automatically result into a bigger army as many of the peoplewere enlisted in factories. In the south, the large slave populationallowed the white folks to enlist in the army in large numbers asslaves carried on with farming. Also, the southerners only had todefend their land as opposed to travelling north to wage attacks andthus knew their surroundings better. However, the Confederates wereeconomically weakened due to slowed international trade as a resultof blockades. Thus, the blockades were the most effective weaponemployed by the union states. As such, Great Britain’s neutralstand had the most negative impact on the Confederates andcontributed to their defeat.
Nonetheless, both sides of the war were angered by Britain’sactions and inactions during the war. Each side felt abandoned bytheir ‘trusted ally’. The north felt that the failedinterventionist proposal by the British cabinet under the leadershipof Prime Minister Lord Palmerston in November 1862 provided evidenceof a pro-Confederacy Britain (Foreman 35). At the same time, theConfederates were angered by the fact that Britain did not supportthem actively. In particular, the Confederates felt that banning theuse of the Laird rams, which were special heavy duty warshipsdeveloped by the British for the Confederates, to shatter theblockades imposed by the North actively helped the north.Nevertheless, some Confederate ships manufactured in Britain andflying Confederate flags and operating from British ports wereallowed to freely attack federal merchant ships in the open seas(Jones 56). Accordingly, both sides felt let down by Great Britain inthe war that the north ultimately won.
With the north winning the war, a new chapter of American-Britishrelations was opened. In Britain, there was widespread denial ofsupport for the Confederate among the masses. However, newspapersthat had taken sides with the Confederates apologized (Gambino). TheUS on the other hand sued the British government in the internationalcourt for aiding a secessionist movement. The case went toarbitration in Geneva where Britain agreed to compensate America $15million in gold for allowing the Confederacy to build war ships intheir dockyards (Jones 71). With that settlement, the two countriesmade up and forged another path of cooperation.
From the above discussion, it is clear that Great Britain played acritical role in the American Civil War. Although official recordsmay indicate that the European country took a neutral position, thereis evidence that there were indirect ways that the countrycontributed to a prolonged war by supporting the south. The Britonsallowed the Confederates to build warships in their dock yards thoughthe controlled their use. As the war dragged on for four years, theunderhand role of Britain is very clear. The essay has thusdemonstrated that Great Britain influenced the outcome of the war inmore than one way. It is presumable that the war only dragged on forfour years because the British supported the Confederates secretly.Otherwise, the blockades would have pressed the Confederates to anearly submission.
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