The American Question Abroad in the Civil War (Part 3)

        Through all the diplomatic maneuvers there ran the central question of recognition of the Confederacy and the related questions of mediation, intervention, and the demand for an armistice. Had the South won on any of these points, victory would have been well-nigh assured. With Confederate commissioners clamorously pleading for recognition while Minister Adams was under instruction to break relations if this should happen, the British cabinet was confronted with a delicate situation. Recognition having been avoided in 1861 and the Trent affair having been satisfactorily adjusted, the prospects of "Lincoln, Seward and Co." in England in the early months of 1862 seemed distinctly brighter; but by the summer of that year it was evident that on this very question of recognition, which was then being seriously considered by the British cabinet, a crisis was approaching. By September of 1862 Palmerston and Russell's deliberations had reached the point where, in view of the failures of McClellan and Pope and the prospects of Lee's offensive, Palmerston suggested "an arrangement upon the basis of separation" (i.e., Southern victory); while Russell, the foreign minister, wrote in answer that in his opinion the time had come "for offering mediation ... with a view to the recognition of the independence of the Confederates." He added that in case of the failure of mediation, England should on her own part recognize the South. At this point Russell did in fact tentatively launch a mediation plan involving joint action by England, France, and Russia. Though there was little doubt of French support, Russian support could not be obtained; and just at this juncture there came a bombshell in the speech of the chancellor of die exchequer, W. E. Gladstone, at Newcastle (October 7) in which he said: "Jefferson Davis and other leaders of the South have made an army; they are making, it appears, a navy; and they have made what is more than either, -they have made a nation.... We may anticipate with certainty the success of the Southern States so far as regards their separation from the North." Delivered offhand without approval by the ministry, this speech served to forecast a policy which had not matured; nevertheless it had the effect of stimulating Russell's efforts to bring British interposition in the American question to a head, for on October 13 the foreign minister sent a memorandum to the cabinet members proposing an armistice so that the weighty questions of peace could be calmly considered. E. D. Adams has stated that this mediation plan of Russell constituted "the most dangerous crisis in the war for the restoration of the Union." ' For such a mediation plan to have developed to the point of an official program in Great Britain would probably have meant a severance of relations between Washington and London; had it been followed by intervention to stop the conflict, war with the United States would, according to all indications, have been the result.
        At this critical point, however, various factors acted as a brake upon British policy. Lee's repulse at Antietam and Lincoln's emancipation proclamation (though its significance was discounted by the cabinet) were having their effects; Cornewall Lewis, a member of the cabinet, made a speech in answer to Gladstone in which he urged a continuance of strict neutrality; Cobden, Bright, and Forster backed him up; and Palmerston, having doubts of the unconquerableness of the Confederacy, held back, advising on October 22 that "we must continue... to be lookers-on till the war shall have taken a more decided turn." A cabinet consideration of the question, set for October 23, was postponed; and by October 31 the tenseness between the United States and England had so far been relaxed that J. P. Benjamin referred to the conviction at Richmond "that there exists a feeling on the part of the British ministry unfriendly to this [the Confederate] Government." On this date he advised Mason to address a formal protest to Earl Russell (on another matter) and hinted that the Confederacy was considering the propriety of expelling the British consuls, That the crisis of October passed was also due in large part to Charles Francis Adams, who, keeping in the background his instructions to depart if England recognized the Confederacy, made just enough reference to packing his carpetbag and trunks to make Russell cautious. In the matter of mediation Adams made it unmistakably clear that an affirmative answer from Washington was impossible.

This Page last updated 02/16/02