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Civil War - Foreign Neutrality

One of the most important victories won by the United States during the Civil War was not ever fought on a battlefield. Rather, it was a series of diplomatic victories that ensured that the Confederacy would fail to achieve diplomatic recognition by even a single foreign government. Although this success can be attributed to the skill of Northern diplomats, the anti-slavery sentiments of the European populace, and European diversion to crises in Poland and Denmark, the most important factor stills rises from the battlefields on American soil. The Confederate states were incapable of winning enough consecutive victories to convince European governments that they could sustain independence.

The alignment between President Lincoln and Russian Emperor Alexander II dealt a lethal blow to British strategic plans and contributed substantially to the victory of the North. The two great interlocutors of Union foreign policy were Great Britain and Russia, and the geopolitical vicissitudes of the twentieth century tended to distort perceptions of both, minimizing the importance of both British threat and Russian friendship.

During the Civil War the Confederacy repeatedly sought international support for its cause, often calling upon foreign reliance on its cotton exports to obtain it. The Union, on the other hand, strove to prevent other nations from recognizing the Confederacy as a legitimate nation and from getting involved in the Civil War.

In an attempt to starve the Confederate economy and to cut it off from its international supporters, the Union engaged in a blockade of Confederate ports — a move that was of questionable legality in international law. Despite the Confederacy’s significant international commercial ties, the lack of definitive military victories for the South and the success of Union efforts to link the Confederacy with the institution of slavery ultimately prevented any of the European powers from officially recognizing or supporting the South.

The people of the Confederacy very confidently expected foreign aid, both moral and material, in exacted foreign the establishment of their independence. It was affirmed that promises of that kind had been given before the first public movements of secession in Charleston were undertaken. The national government also, not without reason, looked for the favorable opinion of that powerful influence in Europe which represents itself as dedicated to the support of law, order, and liberty.

Both, however, were disappointed. If a French army appeared on the American continent, it was not in avowed support of the Confederacy, but for the carrying out of European purposes in Mexico.

The neutrality proclamation was issued by the British government on the 13th of May. It was shortly followed by a circular from the Foreign Office interdicting the armed ships and privateers of both parties. This was succeeded, on the 11th of June, by a proclamamntition of neutrality issued by the Emperor Napoleon III, and still again (June 17th) by a neutrality proclamation of the Queen of Spain. The three governments, Great Britain, France, and Spain, were at this time in perfect accord on American affairs.

In the wake of the South’s victory at Bull Run on July 21, 1861, Jefferson Davis again decided to press Britain and France to recognize the Confederacy. But Britain had no intention for the foreseeable future of recognizing the Confederacy.

The blockade had a negative impact on the economies of other countries. Textile manufacturing areas in Britain and France that depended on Southern cotton entered periods of high unemployment, while French producers of wine, brandy and silk also suffered when their markets in the Confederacy were cut off. Although Confederate leaders were confident that Southern economic power would compel European powers to intervene in the Civil War on behalf of the Confederacy, Britain and France remained neutral despite their economic problems, and later in the war developed new sources of cotton in Egypt and India.

Tactically, the battle fought at Antietam on 17 September 1862 was a drawn battle, but in the larger sense its result was decisively in favor of the Union. After it, Lee retreated from Maryland, while McClellan advanced, into Virginia. The battle deterred England and France from according to the Confederates the recognition which the governments of those countries had been contemplating ever since the beginning of the war. The diplomatic history of the period makes it evident that in the autumn of 1862 those two great powers were more inclined than at any other time earlier or later, to pronounce the Confederacy an established nation.

Three days before the battle of Antietam, the Prime Minister of England, Lord Palmerston, stated in a note: "It is evident that a great conflict is now taking place to the northwest of Washington and its issue must have a great effect on the state of affairs. If the Federalists sustain a great defeat, they may be at once ready for mediation, and the iron should be struck while it is hot. If on the other hand, they should have the best of it, we may wait a while and see."

Lee's failure to carry the war deeply or effectively into the northern states or even to maintain himself in Maryland, coupled with the almost simultaneous repulse of Bragg's invasion of Kentucky, which was turned back at the Battle of Perryville on October 8, 1862, caused Great Britain to "wait and see". No later occasion arose which seemed favorable to the British Government. Probably the greatest significance of Antietam in American national history, therefore, lies in the fact that if Lee had won that battle it very likely would have foreshadowed the final independence of the Confederacy. But when he turned back to Virginia, the most promising, if not the last, opportunity of foreign intervention vanished.

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