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The American Civil War had international ramifications.

Great Britain and France were two world powers who each had to decide on how they would react to the conflict.

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Britain, France & The American Civil War

While many may think of the American Civil War as a contest that occurred only between the North and the South, the conflict was in some ways an international event. Because the United States was a growing country in 1860 with strong trade ties to Europe, the eyes of the world were watching the events of the Civil War.Nowhere were those events watched more closely than in Great Britain and France, two European powers with a vested interest in following what occurred during the American Civil War. Britain and France each watched, followed, and responded to the events of the Civil War in a manner that best served their own interests. Let’s learn more about this fascinating international story.

International Perspectives

At the start of the Civil War, the Union government refused to acknowledge the legitimacy of the Confederacy.

In fact, throughout the entire war, President Abraham Lincoln, the 16th President of the United States, did not recognize the South as an independent nation. In the eyes of the North, Union forces were fighting to bring rebellious states back into the country.This was far from how Southern states saw the situation.

Those in the South believed that they were forming their own country and were a legitimate nation. They first had to prove their independence in order to achieve it, however. One way of accomplishing this was to fight and win on the battlefields of the war. Another was to have international powers recognize the Confederacy as a separate nation, possibly providing legitimacy to the Confederate cause.

In addition to recognizing the South as an independent nation, the Confederacy needed help from Europe in other ways. Because the South had a tremendous deficiency in manpower, industry, and supplies, the Confederacy needed assistance to win the conflict. They required trade and supplies for financial and military support. Thus, in many ways, the Confederacy knew from the start of the war that its best chance at victory meant that ties between the South and Europe needed to be strengthened.From the perspective of Britain and France, there was good reason to help the Confederacy and intervene in the Civil War. Southern plantations produced large quantities of cotton, which was a staple used in textile production and industry in Britain and France.

Disrupting this influx of cotton would hurt European textiles, thus making it important for European countries to maintain strong ties with the Confederacy.And yet, there was still reason to stay out of the conflict altogether. From the beginning, the Union government insisted that any European intervention or assistance to the Confederacy would be greeted as an act of war.

Starting in 1861, the Union began blockading Southern ports to restrict the ships coming to and from the Confederacy, attempting to stop any trade or assistance being sent from Europe to the South.

France and the Civil War

Between these two countries, France played a much smaller role in the American Civil War. France maintained that it was officially neutral during the conflict, yet parts of the country sympathized with the Confederacy, mostly because of the need for Southern cotton.

The Union blockade restricted the flow of Southern cotton, forcing some French textile manufacturers to lay off workers, hurting their business severely.Furthermore, French Emperor Napoleon III had a desire to spread his rule into parts of Mexico, something which the Confederacy would have been able to assist with. Thus, Napoleon III had something to gain from a Confederate victory in the war.

Others in France sympathized with the Union, primarily, because of their hatred of slavery in the American South.The Confederacy did send diplomats to France to encourage assistance in the South’s cause. Men such as John Slidell, a leading Confederate diplomat to France, attempted to convince France to recognize the Confederacy as an independent nation as well as to arrange for loans and assistance for the Confederate cause. While France never officially recognized the Confederacy, some French capitalists did assist the South by providing loans and financial assistance.Perhaps one of the most notable occurrences relating to France and the American Civil War was the Battle of Cherbourg, which occurred on June 19, 1864, when the USS Kearsarge attacked and sank the CSS Alabama, a Confederate raider ship that had been plundering Union merchant ships in the Atlantic Ocean.

The Kearsarge sank the Alabama off the coast of Cherbourg, France, making it a rare occurrence of shots in the Civil War being fired off the coast of Europe.

Britain and the Civil War

While France never truly had an impact in the Civil War, Great Britain played a larger role in the conflict. Like France, Britain remained officially neutral throughout the war, but that did not stop the country from finding ways to make its presence known.Many in the government of Great Britain, such as Prime Minister Viscount Palmerston, the head of the British government during the Civil War, leaned toward recognizing the Confederacy despite Britain’s stated neutrality. Both sides still tried to sway Palmerston and his government. The Union government sent leading ambassador and diplomat Charles Francis Adams Sr. to Britain to persuade the country to maintain its neutrality, while the South sent several different diplomats.

The most prominent Confederate diplomat sent to Britain was James Mason, who worked hard to convince the British to recognize the Confederacy. In September 1862, Palmerston and his administration were on the verge of recognizing the Confederacy, but the Union victory at Antietam convinced them otherwise. Through the rest of the war, Britain would remain neutral.

Despite this neutrality, things became quite tense between the United States government and Great Britain in late 1861 during an incident that is best known as the Trent Affair. In early November that year, the USS San Jacinto captured the British steamship Trent, capturing James Mason and John Slidell, each on their way to Europe as Confederate diplomats. Britain was extremely angered by this action, believing that the San Jacinto, led by Captain Charles Wilkes, had violated British neutrality in its action.Britain readied its navy and army for war and threatened Abraham Lincoln with war if the prisoners were not returned.

Lincoln apologized to Britain and released Slidell and Mason, not wanting to start an international war while dealing with a rebellion in the South. The Trent Affair did not lead to actual fighting between the U.S. and Britain, but it was a tense moment between international powers early on during the Civil War.Despite Britain never officially allying itself with the South, Confederate ship builders still made use of British ports, where the British shipbuilders made ironclads and warships that the Confederacy used against the Union blockade.

These ships were used as commerce raiders or blockade runners, bringing needed supplies and goods from the Confederacy to the Caribbean, where British ships took them on to Britain, sending material to the South in exchange. This trade system helped the Confederacy to deal with the Union blockade for several years, no doubt helping the South to continue the war and angering the Union government. After the war, Britain would pay reparations to the United States government for its contributions in helping the Confederacy build raiders and blockade runners and in combating the Union blockade during the war.

Emancipation and Europe

In the end, despite leaning toward the South in many ways, Britain and France never officially helped or recognized the Confederacy. Perhaps the largest reason was the institution of slavery, which was illegal in Britain and France. Especially after Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, clearly stating that the war would be fought to abolish slavery and restore the Union, Europe stayed out of the American conflict.

Many in the working class in Great Britain sympathized with the North precisely because of the strong stance Abraham Lincoln and the Union government took against slavery during the Civil War.

Lesson Summary

Ultimately, the American Civil War had a great impact in Europe. Whether it was British or French textile mills hurting from a lack of Southern cotton, European leaders debating whether to recognize the South, or the production of Confederate blockade runners in British ports, the Civil War found a way to make its presence known around the world. While Britain and France never officially recognized the South, each nation played a role in the Confederacy’s hopes of winning the war.

Perhaps it is because these two nations were not more involved that the Confederacy did not succeed.

Learning Outcomes

When this lesson is over, you should be able to:

  • Explain whether Great Britain and France officially took sides in the American Civil War
  • Identify the reasons France unofficially made loans and trades for cotton and other southern goods
  • Detail how British ship building ports churned out ironclads to run the Union blockade of southern ports

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