The Civil War: A Conflict of International Diplomacy

The Civil War: A Conflict of International Diplomacy

U.S. citizen Cornelius Gold, while on his trading expedition to Hong Kong during the American Civil War (1861-1865), panicked upon reading an article in an English newspaper, dated December 30, 1861, about Confederates James Mason and John Slidell, and their involvement in what became known as the Trent Affair. This affair, in which a Union ship attacked a neutral British vessel, augmented the international tensions already present during the war. Although the Civil War was fought exclusively in the United States between the Northern Union and Southern Confederacy, Britain and France were politically and economically impacted by the implications of foreign warfare despite their claims of neutrality. These nations tried to avoid the war’s repercussions, but were unable to, especially Britain, due to the atrocities committed against its peoples and country as a whole, including but not limited to the Trent Affair. As it turned out, the American Civil War was not a national war exclusively, but a conflict between nations about proper foreign diplomatic procedures during this period.

The British and French nations saw aspects from their own cultures in the Union and Confederacy alike, and declared neutrality to avoid siding with one standard of living over the other, and to circumvent mass rebellions in their own countries. These constitutional monarchies feared their citizens would secede with the South as their inspiration and so refused to recognize and actively defend the Confederacy as a state separate from the Union. In addition, both nations, which had previously abolished slavery, acknowledged the hypocrisy of fighting for the slave-holding South and feared their peoples would protest against actively arming a slave state. Nonetheless, the British and French favored the South’s traditional lifestyle, similar to their own, and thus respected the Confederacy’s attempts to guard this chosen existence against Northern impositions. For these reasons, the British and French preferred to stand on the sidelines and see what would befall the United States in the long run.

Despite these intentions, Britain and France intervened eventually exclusively for the purpose of protecting their citizens and economical interests in the United States. During this period, British diplomat Lord Lyons and French representative M. Mercier negotiated with the Union’s Secretary of State, William Seward, to ensure the preservation of their international rights during American warfare. Lyons, in one of his letters, once commented on Seward’s attitude during these talks, stating, “I was still more persuaded…that, at this moment, the United States would, at all hazards, declare war with any power which recognized the Confederate States” (186). Lyons claimed the Union’s frustration towards European neutrality propelled the former to capriciously arrest British citizens residing in the United States, sent to military prisons and denied habeas corpus. Lyons cited the British Queen in his letters, who claimed these arrests violated the American constitution, and her threats to stop sending British traders to the United States in consequence. Lord Lyons also fought passionately for the discharge of underage British subjects pressured to enlist in the Union army without parental consent and demanded, along with Mercier, their nations’ right to trade amongst warring states without fear of naval attacks as neutral entities. These instances and Lyon’s quote about Seward indicate that the Union felt justified in violating foreign policy towards nations that refused to take up arms against the Confederacy. The Civil War was compounded by international calls demanding respect of neutrality and commitments to maintaining diplomatic principles regardless of warfare; these protests in turn escalated this national disagreement into a conflict under which members of the intercontinental world butted heads and verged on war.

The Trent Affair on November 8, 1861 served as a breaking point between the United States and the international world, and threatened war between the Union and Britain over the former’s failure to maintain expected diplomacy during wartime. Preceding this event, the South strove to gain British sympathies and manpower the first year of war and so sent the Confederate diplomats, Mason and Slidell, to England on the neutral British mail packet, RMS Trent, to gain said support. However, the Northern naval vessel, USS San Jacinto, fired at the Trent on its journey and apprehended the Southern diplomats as contraband of war. After this incident, the French Minister wrote a letter to Abraham Lincoln on behalf of the British cause while English newspapers addressed Britain’s intentions to declare war on the Union for violating diplomatic naval codes. Although not personally affected by the Trent Affair, France clearly understood Britain’s anger and emphasized with it enough to write the abovementioned letter, especially taking into account the talks both had engaged in previously with Seward about international rights to free seas. France also had reason to be concerned, considering that they could potentially face the same stunt if the Union similarly went after them. The Union’s lack of diplomatic tact incurred them two enemies and created enough antagonism to propel an international cry for war.

Cornelius Gold claimed the specific article he read made him fearful of such a war in his May 2nd journal entry in 1862, and although he never gave his opinion on the subject, many Americans did so openly in articles they wrote following the Trent Affair and Lincoln’s eventual judgment to issue an apology and return the diplomats as Britain had ordered. Many viewed this decision as cowardly and demonized the British consequentially. People accused the English of desiring to start a war to recapture the United States and intentions to push the Ministerial press to increase public animosity against the U.S. Furthermore, these critics of Lincoln alleged that the British were quite hypocritical considering that they often practiced stopping and searching suspicious naval vessels themselves. Lastly, by issuing an apology and acquiescing to British demands, people believed that the U.S. had empowered the British, which would lead to more demands. In contrast, others praised Lincoln’s response to the Trent Affair as strategic and well thought out in consideration of international relations. For example, by averting war with the British, the Union had won considerable support from the French, especially the republicans of the French government. Despite these firing debates, it is clear that Lincoln made the right choice by acting diplomatically as he saved the Union from an international war with Britain, and France debatably.

The Trent Affair and the issues leading up to it prompted debate and potential warfare between intercontinental powers concerning proper diplomacy during the late nineteenth century. Britain, France, and the United States alike looked towards, or sometimes in the latter’s case, disregarded, diplomatic etiquette to defend their general self-interests during warfare. The Civil War can thus be defined by a series of escalating international tensions that fed off of each other and caused international upheaval over what ironically started out as a small-scale national war.

- Olivia Giuliano and Matthew Hwa 


Works Cited

Barnes, J. James and P. Patience Barnes. The American Civil War through British Eyes: Dispatches from British Diplomats. Kent, Ohio: The Kent State University Press, 2003. Print.

The Economist. “Operation of a War with America on England.” London Morning Post, 30 Dec. 1861: 2. Print.

Mure, D. “Mr. D. Mure, M.P. on the American Question.” London Morning Post, 30 Dec. 1861: 2. Print.

"Europe's View of the War." American Civil War Reference Library. Kevin Hillstrom and Laurie Collier Hillstrom. Ed. Lawrence W. Baker. Vol. 3: Almanac. Detroit: UXL, 2000. 87-97. U.S. History in Context. Web. 28 Oct. 2015. 

"The Settlement of the Trent Question - The Admirable Attitude." The New York Herald, 29 Dec. 1861: n. pag. Accessible Archives. Web. 15 Oct. 2015.

"The Surrender of Mason and Slidell. The Pretext so Eagerly Seized." The New York Herald, 11 Jan. 1862: n. pag. Accessible Archives. Web. 15 Oct. 2015.