Britain in the U.S. Civil War

Jenson Phillips

Abraham Lincoln was elected into office in 1860 and promised to end slavery. Even before he took office, seven states in the south broke away from the union and formed a new nation. On 12 April 1861, the confederates opened fire on Fort Sumter and forced it to lower the American flag in surrender. According to James McPherson, "the real fighting began in 1862. Huge battles like Shiloh in Tennessee, Gaines' Mill, Second Manassas, and Fredericksburg in Virginia, and Antietam in Maryland foreshadowed even bigger campaigns and battles in subsequent years, from Gettysburg in Pennsylvania to Vicksburg on the Mississippi to Chickamauga and Atlanta in Georgia."

Between 1801 and 1850, over 50% of the British population shifted from agriculture to industry. In 1822, a large government reform came about which had been introduced by the Tory government. The new reforms included abolishing 180 of the 200 reasons a person could be hung.

In 1829, Sir Robert Peel created the first modern police force in London. This is the first such force in all of Britain. The police are still called bobbies today because Robert (or Bobby) was Peel's first name.

Railways became a large part of transportation in Britain, as well as the US. By 1848 there were over 5,000 miles of railways in Britain. Through the beginning and middle of the nineteenth century, Britain was the most powerful nation in the world.

The nineteenth century was relatively peaceful for Britain except for the Crimean War (1853-1856) and their involvement in the American Civil War (1861-1865).

The US Civil War, while not having a direct impact on Britain, was a highly contested and debated topic throughout Britain. There were pro-confederate balls, anti-slavery petitions, and cotton boycotts. The Confederate states believed they would have the support because of the impact on cotton in the British economy. The attitude varied based on region and social classes. The British ruling and middle class favored the Confederacy because of the fear of competition from the advanced industrial North. The radicals and lower middle class as well as the working class favored the North due to the issue of anti slavery and democracy. Despite the idea that the rulers supported the Confederacy, the government did not view the Confederacy as an independent nation.

In November of 1861, the USS San Jacinto intercepted the RMS Trent. Onboard the Trent were two confederate diplomats: James Mason and John Slidell. Charles Wilkes , the commanding officer on board the San Jacinto, forcibly removed the diplomats and took them to Boston. While that action was popular with the Union, Britain was not happy with what happened. Britain demanded that the two men be returned. This resulted in the possibility of war with the British and the Confederacy being diplomatically recognized by the British. Fortunately, a diplomatic compromise was reached in part by the efforts of Secretary of State William Seward. The two men were released in 1862 and a huge crisis was averted.

While Britain may not have been politically all-in for the Civil War, economically Britain was. Britain purchased more war bonds on each side than any other party. Along with the bonds, Britain sold many items to both sides in the war such as guns, artillery, bullets, uniforms, and machinery. This resulted in an industrial boom throughout Britain.

A prime example of the way Britain supplied war products to both sides is the CSS Alabama. Built by Britain, the Alabama was built for the purpose of destroying Union ships to hurt commerce in the North. The ship was launched on 29 July 1862 near Liverpool, England. It snuck across the Atlantic to the South. The CSS Alabama was a big cause of controversy in the North who questioned why England would be supplying a ship to the South. The damages caused by the Alabama were a large part of why the North sought compensation after the war in the "Alabama Claims." The Alabama was sunk by the USS Kearsarge on 19 June 19 1864.

When the Emancipation Proclamation was signed by President Lincoln on 1 January 1863, many of the English people began to side with the North. Slavery had been completely abolished in England by 1833 and very few in England believed the need for slaves that the South was fighting for. Over 50,000 Englishmen volunteered to fight in the war. Sir John Courcy, who later became Lord Kingsale, was actually a colonel in the 16th Ohio Volunteers. Philips Baybutt received an English Medal of Honor for fighting in the Civil War. British volunteers served in all capacities from doctors to soldiers.

After the war, the alliance continued with the United States and England. However, the British needed to pay back over 15.5 million dollars to the United States for damages caused by the CSS Alabama and other ships that caused destruction to Union property. The Treaty of Washington was established in 1871 between Secretary of State Hamilton Fish and British Representative Sir John Rose.

Dr. Sousanis' Unflattening states our "awareness stems from our ability to reflect on ourselves and on our environment." (130) The British were not only aware of what was going on in the United States, they were able to reflect on the situation during and after the war to make the right decisions. Secondly, the book states we are "separate yet connected, and see ourselves simultaneously from different vantage points." England saw the United States differently from an outside perspective than we do from a America perspective.

For Further Reading

Painting by Rear Admiral J.W. Schmidt, USN (Retired), 1961, depicting the Alabama in chase of a merchant ship.