James Ford Rhodes (18481927). History of the Civil War, 18611865. 1917.
UNTIL the spring of 1862 the government of Great Britain preserved the neutrality which had been declared by the Queens proclamation at the commencement of the war; and this neutrality would not have been violated had the feeling of the dominant classes been friendly to the North. The main body of the aristocracy and the highest of the middle class desired that the great democracy should fail, partly because it was a democracy, partly because it enacted high protective tariffs, partly because of sympathy with a people who desired release from what they deemed a position of irksome political subordination and partly because the division of a great power like the United States, which had frequently threatened Great Britain with war, would redound to their political advantage; but with the portion of the middle class engaged in commerce and manufactures, the desire that overshadowed all others was that the war should come to an end so that England could again secure cotton and resume the export of her manufactured goods to America. The North could terminate the war by the recognition of the Southern Confederacy; and the irritation was great over her persistence in the seemingly impossible task of conquering five and one-half millions of people. Conquer a free population of 3,000,000 souls? the thing is impossible, Chatham had said, and this was applied with force to the case in hand.
The friends of the North remained as sincere and active as in the previous autumn, but like the patriots at home they had days of discouragement at the small progress made towards a restoration of the Union. The most significant and touching feature of the situation was that the operatives of the North of England who suffered most from the lack of cotton, were frankly on the side of the United States. They knew that their misery came from the war, and were repeatedly told that it would cease in a day if the North would accept an accomplished fact; but discerning, in spite of their meagre intelligence, that the struggle was one of democracy against privilege, of freedom against slavery, they resisted all attempts to excite them to a demonstration against its continuance. They saw their work fall off, their savings dwindle, their families in want and threatened even with the lack of bread, yet they desired the North to fight out the contest.
If the indictment which Americans bring against the governing classes of England for their sympathy with the South is maintained at the bar of history, it will be because they sympathized with a slave power, and thereby seemed to admit their own government and people to have been wrong on the slavery question for a generation past. The attempt of Englishmen to persuade themselves that slavery was not the issue of the war was a case of wilful blindness. For the truth was patent to all observers: The South held slaves, the North was free. Lincoln had been elected President for the reason that he represented the opposition to the extension of slavery, and his election was the cause of the secession and the war. If the North won, slavery would certainly be restricted, would perhaps be abolished; if the South gained her independence, slavery would be ratified and extended and the African slave trade would probably be revived. The nature of the conflict and its possible consequences were stated to the English by Professor Cairnes and John Stuart Mill in logic impossible of refutation, yet a majority of the million voters remained unconvinced.1 Nothing could be less candid than many of the current expressions. In 1861 when the avowed object of the war was the restoration of the Union, it was said, Make your war one against slavery and you will have the warm sympathy of the British public; yet Lincolns plan of compensated emancipation was pronounced chimerical and its proposal insincere, as being for the purpose of affecting European opinion. Gladstone, a friend of the North in January, was later swayed by the sentiment of the powerful classes. On April 24, 1862, he told the men of Manchester that the deplorable struggle was the cause of their misery, but that if the heart of the South were set upon separation, she could not be conquered and Englishmen should therefore be careful not to alienate her 6,000,000 or 10,000,000. He argued against the call of sympathy for the North on the ground that the contest was between slavery and freedom, declaring, We have no faith in the propagation of free institutions at the point of the sword. When William E. Forster said in the House of Commons that he believed it was generally acknowledged that slavery was the cause of the war, he was answered with jeers and shouts of No, no! and The Tariff. When he insisted, Why Vice-President Stephens said that the South went to war to establish slavery as the corner stone of the new republic, his retort was apparently looked upon as only the usual House of Commons repartee.
The government of Great Britain was guilty of culpable negligence in permitting in March the sailing of the Florida, a vessel equipped for war, which had been built in Liverpool for the service of the Confederates. Sincere and diligent inquiry on the part of the authorities in Liverpool would have disclosed her true character and destination, and a friendly disposition towards the United States would have caused her detention until sufficient legal investigation could be made in proceedings for her condemnation.
A still more culpable act of negligence was that which permitted the escape of the Alabama. Adams asked Russell that she be prevented from sailing unless the fact should be established that her purpose was not inimical to the United States. The communication was referred to the proper department and in due course reached Liverpool, where the sympathy of the community with the Confederate States was notorious. The surveyor of the port, who undoubtedly suspected for whom the ship-of-war was intended, took care to shut his eyes to any condemnatory evidence, and made a colorless statement which was submitted by the Commissioners of Customs in London to their solicitor and was adjudged by him to be sufficient ground for advising against her seizure. The Commissioners in their communication to the Lords of the Treasury concurred in the opinion of their legal adviser, but said that the officers at Liverpool will keep a strict watch on the vessel. All these papers came to Earl Russell who, on the advice of the Attorney-General and Solicitor-General, suggested to Adams that the United States consul in Liverpool (Dudley) be instructed to submit to the collector of the port any evidence that confirmed his suspicion. Adams and Dudley were indefatigable and on July 9 Dudley addressed to the collector a letter which no impartial man could have read without being convinced that the vessel in question was designed for the Southern Confederacy. The greater part of his statements, wrote Chief Justice Cockburn afterwards in his opinion dissenting from the award of the Geneva Tribunal, could not have been made available in an English Court. But the moral evidence was complete and needed only time and opportunity to be converted into legal proof. It is hardly surprising, then, that historical analysis of the situation should lead to the conclusion that the collector, the solicitor and the Commissioners of Customs knew in their minds that the Alabama was intended for the Confederate government, wished in their hearts that she might get away, and, since they had not strictly a legal case against her, persuaded themselves that they were performing their official duty. Chief Justice Cockburn, who puts the best face possible upon the action of the English authorities, intimates that, at this juncture, these officials should have addressed an inquiry to the Messrs. Laird, demanding for whom this war-ship was designed. If this had been done, he added, the high character of these gentlemen would doubtless have insured either a refusal to answer or a truthful answer. The former would have helped materially to establish a case against the vessel, the latter would have justified her immediate seizure. This criticism is unanswerable. To require from Dudley direct proof which he must procure in a hostile community, with the quiet opposition probably of an unsympathetic and technical bureaucracy, was unfriendly and unreasonable.
Three weeks had passed since the customs officials in Liverpool and London had been enjoined to find out the truth, but, had they actually conspired to suppress it, they would hardly have acted differently. They showed no disposition to search for proof and carped at the evidence offered them. On July 17 Adams wrote to Dudley to employ a solicitor and secure affidavits to submit to the collector. Four days later Dudley and his solicitor brought to the collector documents amounting to a direct proof. Six persons deposed to the character and destination of the vessel; five of them showed it to be reasonably probable that the Alabama was destined for the Southern Confederacy, while the sixth, a mariner of Birkenhead, swore that it is well known by the hands on board that the vessel is going out as a privateer for the Confederate government to act against the United States under a commission from Mr. Jefferson Davis. We cannot detain the vessel, says the collector. Insufficient evidence, says the solicitor of customs. You are both right, say the commissioners. The work of getting the Alabama ready went on with swiftness and zeal while the Circumlocution Office moved with the pace of a snail. The papers went to the Lords of the Treasury.
Meanwhile Adams had retained a Queens counsel of eminence, Sir Robert P. Collier, to whom the six depositions and two additional ones were submitted. Colliers opinion is in no uncertain tone. I am of opinion, he wrote, that the collector of customs would be justified in detaining the vessel. Indeed I should think it his duty to detain her. It appears difficult to make out a stronger case of infringement of the Foreign Enlistment Act, which, if not enforced on this occasion, is little better than a dead letter. It well deserves consideration, whether, if the vessel be allowed to escape, the Federal government would not have serious grounds of remonstrance. This opinion went to the customs authorities in Liverpool. It was the duty of the collector of customs at Liverpool, declared Cockburn, as early as the 22nd of July to detain this vessel. The collector would not act and referred the matter to his superiors, the Commissioners of Customs. Insufficient evidence is still the word of the assistant solicitor of customs, who added, I cannot concur in Colliers views. At this stage in the proceedings, wrote Cockburn, it became in my opinion the duty of the Commissioners of Customs at once to direct the seizure to be made. Misled by advice which they ought to have rejected as palpably erroneous, they unfortunately refused to cause the vessel to be seized.
In the meantime Adams had sent the affidavits, Colliers opinion and many other papers relating to the case to Earl Russell. I ought to have been satisfied with the opinion of Sir Robert Collier, wrote Russell in after years, with a candor which does him honor, and to have given orders to detain the Alabama at Birkenhead.
Now ensues an episode which, useful as it would have been to the writer of an opera-bouffe libretto, or to Dickens for his account of the Circumlocution Office, completely baffles the descriptive pen of the historian. The papers received from the Commissioners of Customs and those which Adams had sent to Russell were submitted to the law officers of the Crown, one set reaching them July 23, the other July 26; that is to say, they reached the senior officer, the Queens Advocate, on those days. Sir John Harding, who was then the Queens Advocate, had been ill and incapacitated for business since the latter part of June; in fact, his excitable nerves and weak constitution had succumbed to the strain of work, and he was now verging on insanity. At his private house these papers lay for five days. Work on the Alabama went on briskly, and everybody in the kingdom was satisfied with having done his duty. The collector had referred the matter to the Commissioners; the Commissioners had referred it to the Lords of the Treasury; the Lords and Earl Russell had referred it to the law officers of the Crown. The papers on which perhaps depended war or peace between two great nations either received no notice whatever or were examined only by a lawyer who was going mad. Finally on July 28, the Attorney-General and Solicitor-General got hold of the papers. Their report was conclusive. We recommend, they said on July 29, that without loss of time the vessel be seized by the proper authorities. It was too late. The Alabama had left port that morning, and under pretence of a trial trip had gone out to sea. Yet she was still off the Welsh coast, only fifty miles from Liverpool, where the most ordinary energy on the part of the London and Liverpool authorities would have been sufficient to effect her apprehension before she started on the career which was to do so much in driving the American merchant marine from the high seas.
The Alabama left Liverpool without guns or munitions of war of any kind; these as well as coal were brought to her at the Azores by two British vessels which sailed from England about the middle of August.
However unfriendly the action of England was in the case of the Alabama, it must be borne in mind that the fault was one of omission. The British government, unlike the Emperor of the French, was during the whole war innocent of any overt unfriendly acts. The Queens speech at the prorogation of Parliament on August 7, 1862 declared that her Majesty had still determined to take no part in the contest on the American continent.
Again, though the dominant sentiment of England toward the North is to be deplored and the want of due diligence in the performance of her duties as a neutral is unquestioned, her atonement has been ample. English books, magazines and newspapers are full of sincere admissions that the public opinion of the country took a wrong direction. In the treaty of Washington, the regret which Great Britain expressed at the escape of the Confederate cruisers is all that can be asked in the way of moral reparation from a high-spirited people conscious of their strength. As far as pecuniary damages were concerned, our case, already very strong, was made absolutely secure by the terms submitting the dispute to arbitration. That the score has been wiped out should be recognized at the bar of history.
McClellans failure on the Peninsula, Popes inglorious campaign resulting in his crushing defeat at the second battle of Bull Run, during the summer of 1862, had a profound influence on the governors of England. The correspondence between Palmerston and Russell indicates that they were about ready to propose to the Cabinet that England should take the initiative and ask France, Russia and the other powers to join her in some intervention in the struggle in America. The Federals got a very complete smashing, wrote the Prime Minister on September 14; and if Washington or Baltimore fall into the hands of the Confederates, as seems not altogether unlikely, should not England and France address the contending parties and recommend an arrangement upon the basis of separation? Russell replied: I agree with you that the time has come for offering mediation to the United States Government with a view to the recognition of the Confederates. I agree further, that in case of failure, we ought ourselves to recognize the Southern States as an independent State. He suggested, moreover, a meeting of the Cabinet, and if a decision were arrived at, to propose, first, the intervention to France and then on the part of England and France to Russia and the other powers. When Palmerston replied to this letter, he was watching the Antietam campaign, and thought that if the Federals should sustain a great defeat it would be well to proceed with the project of mediation; but if they should have the best of it we may wait awhile and see what may follow.
Gladstone, the Chancellor of the Exchequer and the third member of the Cabinet in importance, was well aware of Palmerstons and Russells attitude and, feeling certain that such would develop into the policy of the government, anticipated this probable event in a speech at Newcastle on October 7, wherein he expressed positively the view of the Prime Minister and Foreign Secretary as well as that of most of the aristocracy and higher middle class. There is no doubt, he declared, that 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 eitherthey have made a nation. We may anticipate with certainty the success of the Southern States so far as their separation from the North is concerned.
An exchange of confidential letters between members of a ministry is a different affair from an announcement to the public of a policy which has not been fully determined upon, and, soon after the delivery of this speech, it was felt that Gladstone had committed an indiscretion; yet for the moment Palmerston and Russell were bent on the policy of mediation and probable subsequent recognition of the independence of the Confederate States. On October 13, Russell sent to his colleagues a confidential memorandum putting the question whether it is not a duty for Europe to ask both parties in the most friendly and conciliatory terms to agree to a suspension of arms.
Fortunately for the North there were differences in the Cabinet, and Gladstones speech provoked a quasi-reply from Sir George Cornwall Lewis, the member of the Cabinet ranking next in importance to the Chancellor of the Exchequer. Addressing his constituents on October 14, he in effect asserted that the time had not yet arrived for the recognition of the Southern States and he followed this up by circulating among his Cabinet colleagues a confidential counter memorandum in reply to the circular letter of Earl Russell.
A Cabinet meeting was called for October 23. Previous to that time, the Prime Minister had changed his mind and did not travel to London from the country to keep the engagement. Hence no Cabinet meeting was held, but in the informal discussion among the ministers who had gathered, Russell and Gladstone were in favor of some sort of interference while the others held to the position formulated by Lewis. Adams saw the Foreign Secretary by appointment on the same afternoon and said to him: If I had entirely trusted to the construction given by the public to a late speech, I should have begun to think of packing my carpet-bag and trunks. His Lordship, as Adams proceeds to relate the conversation, at once embraced the allusion, and whilst endeavoring to excuse Mr. Gladstone, in fact admitted that his act had been regretted by Lord Palmerston and the other Cabinet officers. Still he could not disavow the sentiments of Mr. Gladstone so far as he understood them, which was not that ascribed to him by the public. Mr. Gladstone was himself willing to disclaim that. He had written to that effect to Lord Palmerston. His Lordship said that the policy of the Government was to adhere to a strict neutrality and to leave the struggle to settle itself. But he could not tell what a month would bring forth. I asked him if I was to understand that policy as not now to be changed. He said, Yes.
In the meantime, the Emperor of the French had made an attempt to conquer Mexico and place a European monarch upon her throne. For the success of his Mexican policy and because France wanted cotton for her manufacturing industries, he favored the Southern Confederacy. On October 30, 1862 he asked his Ambassadors at St. Petersburg and London to propose that the three governments exert their influence at Washington as well as with the Confederates to obtain an armistice for six months.
Earl Russell had shown discretion in warning Adams that he could not tell what a month would bring forth. At a Cabinet meeting in November,2 he submitted the Emperors proposition and although it was known that Russia had declined, in terms friendly to the North, to be a party to such a mediation, Russell advised that the proposal of France be accepted. Lewis gave this account of the meeting: Palmerston followed Lord John and supported him but did not say a great deal. The proposal was now thrown before the Cabinet, who proceeded to pick it to pieces. Everybody present threw a stone at it of greater or less size except Gladstone who supported it and two others who expressed no opinion. The principal objection was that the proposed armistice of six months by sea and land, involving a suspension of the commercial blockade, was so grossly unequalso decidedly in favor of the South, that there was no chance of the North agreeing to it. After a time Palmerston saw that the general feeling of the Cabinet was against being a party to the representation, and he capitulated. I do not think his support was very sincere: it certainly was not hearty. Gladstone also made a report. The United States affair has ended and not well, he wrote. Lord Russell rather turned tail. He gave way without resolutely fighting out his battle. Palmerston gave to Russells proposal a feeble and half-hearted support.3
Two months later a combination of circumstances caused the Emperor to propose for his government alone a mediation between the two belligerents. The apparently crushing disaster of Fredericksburg satisfied him, as indeed it confirmed the public opinion of Europe, that the cause of the North was hopeless. At the same time the distress in the cotton-manufacturing districts of France which had become acute was brought home as the winter wore on. More than a hundred thousand operatives in one department alone were out of work and in a condition of utter misery, subsisting, according to report, by roaming at night from house to house and demanding rather than asking alms. On January 9, the Emperor dictated a despatch, in which he offered courteously and diplomatically, the friendly mediation of his government between the two sections without the suggestion of an armistice which had been contained in his former proposition. This message went through the usual diplomatic channels and was presented, on February 3, 1863, by the French Minister at Washington to Seward, who, three days later, acting upon the Presidents instructions, declined the offer in a polite, gently argumentative and considerate letter. The Emperor lacked the courage to proceed further in his policy of intervention without the coëperation of Great Britain which was persistently withheld.
Lincolns Emancipation Proclamation was received abroad with coldness and suspicion. The governing classes of England, whose organs in 1861 had asserted that, if the North should make her fight for the emancipation of the negro, she would commend her cause strongly to their sympathies, could now see in it nothing but an attempt to excite a servile insurrection. But the friends of the North comprehended it. John Stuart Mill wrote that no American could have exulted more than himself; John Bright said, I applaud the proclamation.4 These utterances proved a prelude to the rise of anti-slavery sentiment toward the end of the year 1862. When the intelligence came that the Presidents emancipation policy was confirmed by the supplementary proclamation of January 1, the demonstrations of support were greater than had been known for any movement since the uprising for the abolition of the duties on corn. A deputation from the Emancipation Society waited on the American minister to offer to President Lincoln their warmest congratulations; Reverend Newman Hall, one of the speakers, asserted that the leading newspapers really did not represent the feelings of the masses. On a Sunday Spurgeon thus prayed before his congregation of many thousands, Now, O God! we turn our thoughts across the sea to the terrible conflict of which we knew not what to say; but now the voice of freedom shows where is right. We pray Thee give success to this glorious proclamation of liberty which comes to us from across the waters. We much feared our brethren were not in earnest and would not come to this. Bondage and the lash can claim no sympathy from us. God bless and strengthen the North, give victory to their arms. The immense congregation responded to this invocation in the midst of the prayer with a fervent Amen. Public meetings were constantly occurring. The Duke of Argyll and Milner Gibson, both Cabinet ministers, made speeches, indicating greater confidence in the treatment of the American question and its relation to slavery. There was even a reaction at Liverpool, which town had witnessed with joy the departure of the Alabama. Bristol, the last port in Great Britain to relinquish the slave trade, addressed the President with respectful sympathy. On January 29, Exeter Hall was the scene of a more earnest demonstration of public opinion than had been known in London since the days of the Anti-Corn Law League. So vast was the crowd that an overflow meeting was held in a lower room and another in the open air. In the great hall, the mention of Jefferson Davis brought out manifestations of dislike, while the name of Abraham Lincoln was greeted with a burst of enthusiasm, the audience rising, cheering and waving hats and handkerchiefs. The resolutions adopted showed intelligence as well as fellow-feeling. On the same night a public meeting at Bradford, Yorkshire, declared that any intervention, physical or moral, on behalf of the slave power would be disgraceful, and closed its proceedings with three hearty cheers for President Lincoln. A large anti-slavery meeting in Gloucestershire, in a sympathetic address to the President, deplored any apparent complicity [of Englishmen] with the Southern States in the clandestine equipment of war ships. Everybody that I now meet, declared John Bright, says to me, public opinion seems to have undergone a considerable change.
The month of February witnessed similar large meetings, which adopted like resolutions. There were gatherings at Leeds, Bath, Edinburgh, Paisley, Carlisle, Birmingham, Manchester, Liverpool, Merthyr Tydvil and many other places. A concourse of citizens in Glasgow said to the President in their address, We honor you and we congratulate you. On March 26, at a meeting of skilled laborers held in London at the call of the Trades-Unions, John Bright took the chair, and made an eloquent speech, in which he expressed the meaning of the assemblage and the spirit of their address to Abraham Lincoln. Privilege has shuddered, he said, at what might happen to old Europe if this grand experiment should succeed. But you, the workersyou, striving after a better timeyou, struggling upwards toward the light with slow and painful stepsyou have no cause to look with jealousy upon a country which, menaced by the great nations of the globe, is that one where labor has met with the highest honor, and where it has reaped its greatest reward. This fearful struggle, he went on, is between one section where labor is honored more than elsewhere in the world and another section where labor is degraded and the laborer is made a chattel. He closed his speech with prophetic words: Impartial history will tell that, when your statesmen were hostile or coldly neutral, when many of your rich men were corrupt, when your presswhich ought to have instructed and defendedwas mainly written to betray, the fate of a continent and its vast population being in peril, you clung to freedom with an unfaltering trust that God in his infinite mercy will yet make it the heritage of all His children.
It is interesting to look, with the eyes of Adams, upon these expressions of a noble public opinion. Thus wrote he in his diary: January 17, 1863. It is quite clear that the current is now setting very strongly with us among the body of the people. January 30. Things are improving here. The manifestation made at Exeter Hall last night is reported as one of the most extraordinary ever made in London, and proves, pretty conclusively the spirit of the middle classes here as elsewhere. It will not change the temper of the higher classes but it will do something to moderate the manifestation of it. Speaking of a large and respectable delegation of the British and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society, he wrote: They left me with hearty shakes of the hand that marked the existence of active feeling at bottom. It was not the lukewarmness and indifference of the aristocracy but the genuine English heartiness of good-will. On February 26, The current is still setting strongly with us among the people.
These demonstrations show what potent arguments for the Northern side were the Emancipation Proclamation and the organized anti-slavery agitation. Those Englishmen who had espoused the cause of the South now became, by the logic of the situation, apologists for slavery. The Times presented the Biblical argument for the justification of it and told the story of Paul and Onesimus in the language and temper of the Southern planter. Slavery, it argued further, is no more at variance with the spirit of the gospel than sumptuous fare, purple and fine linen; and it said of the Proclamation that was arousing the enthusiasm of the masses, President Lincoln calls to his aid the execrable expedient of a servile insurrection. Egypt is destroyed but his heart is hardened and he will not let the people go. The Saturday Review urged that the laws dictated from on high, as recorded in the Old Testament, sanctioned and protected property in slaves. But the American law-giver not only confiscates his neighbors slaves but orders the slaves to cut their masters throats. Nor is the matter left to the remote guidance of Old Testament precedent. St. Paul sent Onesimus, the fugitive slave of that time, back to his master Philemon; so that without the masters consent it was not competent, even in an Apostle, to release a slave. But what St. Paul might not do Abraham Lincoln may. Later it spoke of the movement which was ennobling the common people of England as a carnival of cantarousing agitation on behalf of the divine right of insurrection and massacre. The Times and Saturday Review, according to the Spectator, represented the higher intelligence of England, and their ground of reasoning revealed clearly the bond of sympathy between the two landed aristocracies separated by the sea. The Southern lords, by their system of labor, were relieved from the minute cares of money-making, were enabled to maintain an open and generous hospitality, and were afforded leisure for devotion to society and politics, thus obtaining a kind of community of life, tastes and aims with the English noblemen, who, in turn, had begun by looking kindly upon the Southern Confederacy, wishing for its success, and ended with taking up cudgels for negro slavery.
The sympathies of many of the eminent literary men were withheld from the North. Grote, who loved democracy in Greece and could palliate its excesses in Athens, criticised with acrimony the Northern people, because they insisted that England had violated her declared neutrality and because their protests were not couched in courteous and polished language. Carlyle, who had received the first money for his French Revolution from Boston, when not a penny had been realized in England, and who was profoundly thankful for all that this implied, as well as for the needed money, had now no fellow-feeling with the North. No war ever raging in my time, he said, was to me more profoundly foolish looking. Neutral I am to a degree: I for one. Again he spoke of it as a smoky chimney which had taken fire, and when asked to publish something in regard to the conflict, he wrote his Ilias Americana in nuce. Peter of the North (to Paul of the South): Paul, you unaccountable scoundrel, I find you hire your servants for life, not by the month or year as I do. You are going straight to hell, you
Dickens, who had brought tears and laughter into every household from the Atlantic to the Missouri river, who was loved in the free States as few writers have been loved, might have been expected from his vehement denunciation of slavery in the American Notes to see, now that the battle was joined, that the right would prevail. Yet when a friend of his returning from America in the spring of 1863 said that the North would ultimately triumph, he treated this opinion as a harmless hallucination. Indirectly and undesignedly he was a contributing cause to the view which the English higher classes took of the North, for his caricatures in Martin Chuzzlewit came to be regarded as a true portrayal of the character of the men and women who were now risking all for unity and freedom. But Anthony Trollope had an assured confidence that the North would win.5 And Tennyson, the poet of the people, though filled with conventional horror at the war, was inspired by the hope of the abolition of slavery and used to sing with enthusiasm,
The most significant feature in the aspect of English sentiment during the spring of 1863 is the feeling of our friends that our cause was utterly hopeless. Queen Victoria and Disraeli were certain that the Union could not be restored.6 The news of Hookers disaster at Chancellorsville strengthened this belief. Then came the intelligence of Lees invasion of Pennsylvania, fostering the rumors which were abroad that England and France would decide on intervention. Attempts were now made by assemblies of the people to stimulate and extend that phase of sentiment which favored recognition of the Southern Confederacy. Meetings were held in Manchester, Preston, Sheffield and some other places which recommended this policy and were answered by other gatherings that protested against any interference.
On April 5, 1863, Earl Russell stopped the Alexandra, a gun-boat which was building at Birkenhead for the Southern Confederacy. His action was contested and although the decision in the Court of Exchequer was against the English government, the case remained for a long while in the Courts on one legal point and another, with the result that the vessel never got into Confederate hands to be used against American commerce.
The fluctuations of ministerial and House of Commons discussions during the spring and summer of 1863 need not here be reviewed; it should, however, be stated that a distinct line of demarcation is to be discerned between English sentiment and action before and after the victories of Gettysburg and Vicksburg, the news of which reached Europe soon after the middle of July.
In the meantime, work was proceeding on two steam iron-clad rams which the Lairds were building at Birkenhead for the Confederates. Adams was diligent in calling Earl Russells attention to the transaction, and in furnishing him the evidence supplied by Dudley, our consul at Liverpool, which showed the character and destination of these vessels; and in pursuance of these communications, Earl Russell conscientiously set affairs in train to ascertain for whom the rams were building, his design being to stop them should there be warrant for such action under the law. While their construction was a matter of common knowledge, and while, as the Times remarked, ninety-nine people out of a hundred believe that these steam rams are intended to carry on hostilities sooner or later against the Federals, Captain Bulloch, the able naval representative of the Southern Confederacy, who had contracted for these war-ships, as well as for the Alabama, and had been enlightened by the seizure of the Alexandra, was managing the business astutely, with the sympathetic coëperation of the Lairds. To a report that they were for the Emperor of the French, Palmerston, in an allusion in the House of Commons, gave some credence: when this was shown to be without foundation, it was stated to the English government that they were for the viceroy of Egypt. This was in turn denied. Representations were then made to the officials who were investigating the matter that they were owned by a firm of French merchants, and for this there was a legal basis, inasmuch as Bulloch, fearing the seizure of the vessels, had sold them in June to a French firm who had engaged to resell them to him when they should get beyond British jurisdiction.
Earl Russell caused all the facts which were submitted to him to be sifted with care by the Law officers of the Crown who gave him two positive opinions nearly a month apart, that there was no evidence capable of being presented to a Court of Justice, that the ships were intended for the Confederates, but that, on the other hand, the claim of French ownership seemed to be legally sustained: they could not, therefore, advise the government to detain the vessels. Still Russell was not satisfied, and he continued his inquiries, leaving no stone unturned to arrive at the truth; but, in spite of his suspicions, he could not get over the palpable tokens that they belonged to a firm of Paris merchants. He therefore wrote to Adams, on September 1, that the government was advised that they could not in any way interfere with these ships, but he promised that they would maintain a careful watch, and be ready to stop them should trustworthy evidence show any proceeding contrary to the statute. At this time, he was at his country-seat in Scotland, and his letter did not reach Adams until four oclock in the afternoon of September 4.
Meanwhile our Minister had returned from an outing in Scotland, cheered by friendly intercourse with members of the government; but, on his arrival in London, he was immediately confronted with the critical question of the iron-clad rams, one of which, as Dudley had good reason to believe, might at any time go to sea. On September 3 Adams wrote to Russell, transmitting copies of further depositions and averring that there were no reasonable grounds for doubt that the vessels were intended for the Confederate service; and next day, hearing from Dudley that one of them was about to depart, he sent to the Foreign Office a last, solemn protest against the commission of such an act of hostility against a friendly nation. Soon afterwards he received Russells note of September 1 which, as he wrote in his diary, affected me deeply. I clearly foresee that a collision must now come out of it. I must not, however, do anything to accelerate it, and yet must maintain the honor of my country with proper spirit. The issue must be properly made up before the world on its merits. The prospect is dark for poor America. After a night given to such reflections, My thoughts turned strongly upon the present crisis. My conclusion was that another note must be addressed to Lord Russell. So I drew one which I intended only to gain time previous to the inevitable result. This was his famous despatch of September 5: My Lord, he wrote, at this moment, when one of the iron-clad vessels is on the point of departure from this kingdom, on its hostile errand against the United States, I am honored with yours of the 1st instant. I trust I need not express how profound is my regret at the conclusion to which Her Majestys Government have arrived. I can regard it no otherwise than as practically opening to the insurgents free liberty in this kingdom to execute a policy of attacking New York, Boston and Portland and of breaking our blockade. It would be superfluous in me to point out to your lordship that this is war.
As early as September 1, however, Russell was better than his word to Adams. Layard, the Under Secretary for Foreign Affairs, who was in London, wrote on that day to the Treasury: I am directed by Earl Russell to request that you will state to the Lords Commissioners of her Majestys Treasury that so much suspicion attaches to the iron-clad vessels at Birkenhead, that if sufficient evidence can be obtained to lead to the belief that they are intended for the Confederate States Lord Russell thinks the vessels ought to be detained until further examination can be made. Reflection, in which the belief that he had been tricked in the escape of the Alabama undoubtedly played a part, led him, two days later [September 3], to direct that the iron-clad rams be prevented from sailing. On this day he wrote from Meikleour, Scotland: My dear Palmerston,the conduct of the gentlemen who have contracted for the two iron-clads at Birkenhead is so very suspicious that I have thought it necessary to direct that they should be detained. The Solicitor-General has been consulted, and concurs in the measure as one of policy, though not of strict law. We shall thus test the law and, if we have to pay damages, we have satisfied the opinion which prevails here as well as in America, that that kind of neutral hostility should not be allowed to go on without some attempt to stop it. If you do not approve, pray appoint a Cabinet for Tuesday or Wednesday next [the 8th or 9th]. Palmerston did not dissent and therefore called no meeting of the Cabinet. But Russell was not content to bide the slow course of the post or the approval of the Prime Minister, and on the same day [September 3] telegraphed to Layard to give direction to stop the iron-clads as soon as there is reason to believe that they are actually about to put to sea and to detain them until further orders. On September 4, he sent word to Adams that the matter is under the serious and anxious consideration of Her Majestys Government; but this Adams did not receive until after he had despatched his note, saying, It would be superfluous in me to point out to your Lordship that this is war. On September 5 Russell ordered that the vessels be prevented from leaving Liverpool on a trial trip or on any other pretext until satisfactory evidence can be given as to their destination, and on the same day he sent a confidential note to the chargé daffaires in Washington requesting that Secretary Seward be apprised that they had been stopped from leaving port; but for some unexplained reason he did not advise Adams of this action until three days later.
At the same time the Foreign Office made a systematic and careful investigation, demonstrating, to a moral certainty, that the French ownership was a blind, and that the iron-clad rams were intended for the Confederates. On October 8, by order of Earl Russell, the vessel the more advanced in construction was seized, and the next day the Broad Arrow was likewise put upon the other. The Lairds were annoyed at this action, and their operatives showed much ill feeling. In order to defeat any attempt at rescue the ships were watched by a powerful naval force. The question whether the iron-clads should be condemned was never passed upon by the courts. Neither the government nor the owners were eager to run the chances of a trial. In the end, as the best way out of the complication, the vessels were purchased by the British Admiralty.
Stopping these iron-clads is a question of life or death, wrote Fox, assistant Secretary of the Navy.7 They were indeed formidable vessels of war and had they got away would undoubtedly have broken the blockade at Charleston and Wilmington; and as the blockade, constantly growing in efficiency, was a potent weapon on the Northern side, the harm would have been incalculable: the victories even of Gettysburg and Vicksburg might have been neutralized. Bulloch deemed that our iron-clads might sweep the blockading fleet from the sea front of every harbor, ascend the Potomac and render Washington itself untenable, and lay Portsmouth (N. H.) and Philadelphia under contribution. From some such damage, Earl Russell, by his careful and decisive action, had saved the North and thereby prevented a war between the United States and Great Britain, which the energy of Bulloch and the sympathy and cupidity of a firm of Birkenhead ship-builders had come near bringing about. The seizure of the rams was a serious blow to the Confederate cause.8
As early as January, Benjamin, the Confederate Secretary of State, complained, when writing to Slidell, that Mason had been discourteously treated by Earl Russell; in March, that the irritation against Great Britain is fast increasing; and in June he indulged in words almost abusive of the English government. On August 4, he wrote to Mason that the President was convinced, from the recent debates in Parliament, that England would not recognize the Confederacy, and he therefore instructed him to consider his mission as at an end and withdraw from London. Mason received this despatch on September 14, and after waiting a week to consult with Slidell, notified Earl Russell that in accordance with his instructions he should terminate his mission. Jefferson Davis in his message to his Congress in December, gave vent to his dissatisfaction with the conduct of the British government, two of his many grievances being that they respected the Federal blockade and had seized the iron-clad rams.
Although Englands attitude toward us was not as just as ours toward her during the Crimean War, it should be borne in mind that our only well-wisher in Europe was Russia, and that the course of the British government if contrasted with that of the French will appear to border on friendliness. England, indeed, was the insurmountable obstacle to a recognition of the Southern Confederacy by France and other European nations. While the English Cabinet looked with regret on the operations of English merchants and ship-builders who, by selling arms, munitions and vessels to the South greatly embarrassed the government in its relations with the United States, Louis Napoleon was instigating the Confederates to construct two iron-clads and four clipper corvettes in France and giving an indirect assurance that they might be armed and equipped as well; but these vessels never got to sea under the Confederate flag, and in November, 1863, the Emperor altered his attitude toward the American war. While Russell declined to see Mason, subsequent to their first meeting shortly after his arrival in February, 1862, and Palmerston saw him only once at a time when all danger of foreign interference had passed, the Emperor accorded three interviews to Slidell and the Minister for Foreign Affairs and other members of the imperial ministry and household maintained with him an unrestricted intercourse. Moreover Louis Napoleon conquered Mexico and placed a European monarch on her throne.9
Note 8. In this account of the affair of the iron-clad rams I have been much assisted by an article by Brooks Adams printed in the M. H. S. Proceedings XLV, 243. [back]
Note 9. My authorities are IV, Chap. XXII with the various references; Charles F. Adams, Life of Adams; Trans-Atlantic Solidarity; A Crisis in Downing St., M. H. S., XLVII, 372; Brooks Adams. The Seizure of the Laird Rams, M. H. S., XLV, 243; Letters of Goldwin Smith to C. E. Norton, M. H. S., XLIX, 106; Diary of Benjamin Moran, M. H. S., XLVIII, 431; Morleys Gladstone, II; Maxwells Clarendon, II; Fitzmaurices Granville, I; The Public Life and Dip. Corr. of James M. Mason; Retrospection of an Active Life, John Bigelow, II; Life of John Bright, G. M. Trevelyan; Atkins, W. H. Russell; Dasent, Delane. I have not attempted to reconcile my account with Sewards declarations to Welles noted in the Diary under dates Aug. 12, 29, Sept. 17, 18, I, 399, 429, 435,437. [back]