The Power of Soft Power: Union Diplomacy in the Civil War


Charles Francis Adams

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

This is another section of my Gettysburg and Civil War text. For those that have been following my posts on this subject

Diplomacy is a key part of the whole of government, the whole of national power, and the understanding of waging war and winning the peace and it does matter before, during, and after the conclusion of any war. Diplomacy is an essential part of the DIME and Union diplomacy had a major effect on the American Civil War, and during the war it was the Federal government and Union diplomats who understood this far better than their Confederate counterparts and were facing leaders of Britain and France who resented the power of the United States and wanted it to fail. This was particularly the case with the conservative British Tory party, like so many other governments of aristocratic regimes the English aristocracy “sympathized with what they saw as a corresponding plantation aristocracy in the South, and were not sad at the prospect of the American republic demonstrating what they had all along insisted was the fate of all popular democracies – instability, faction, civil war, and dismemberment.” [1]

Early Confederate diplomacy was based on the belief that European trading partners could not do without Southern cotton and would intervene in the war to break the Union blockade. As a result, cotton became “the principle weapon of Southern foreign policy.” [2] England depended on southern cotton to supply its massive textile industry and before the war the South had supplied roughly seventy-five percent of its demand. While the Confederates were able to receive recognition as a belligerent from some European powers, including the British, whose position infuriated Secretary of State Seward, the Confederacy, much to the chagrin of its leaders never received diplomatic recognition as a nation.

The efforts of the Confederacy to secure recognition would be due to Union diplomacy, much of it led by the United States Minister to Great Britain, Charles Francis Adams who “tirelessly represented the Union Cause to the British government and the British people but also financed an active network of spies and agents who relentlessly exposed Confederate violations of the British neutrality laws and hobbled Confederate efforts to raise money and but arms.” [3]

Union diplomats in Europe had to manage a very complex situation at the very outset of the conflict when a Captain Charles Wilkes of the United States Navy, commanding the steam sloop USS San Jacinto, fired on and stopped the British passenger steamer Trent, in international waters during November 1861 and removed two Confederate diplomats, James Mason and John Slidell and their secretaries, who were on their way to Britain. Ignoring the protests of the Trent’s master, Wilkes returned the two Confederates to New York setting of a firestorm of protest. The British Prime Minister, Lord Palmerston, “immediately drafted an ultimate and ordered a squadron of steamers and 7,000 troops readied to send to Canada.” [4]

The incident became known as the Trent affair and provided an early challenge for Union diplomacy, and nearly wrecked the Union war effort. As Charles F. Adams noted in a letter to his son, “Captain Wilkes has not positively shipwrecked us, but he has come as near close to it without succeeding as he could.” [5] Confederates rejoiced, the chief Confederate propagandist in England wrote, “If Commodore Wilkes designed making a sensation he succeeded to his heart’s content…. The usually apathetic Englishmen were roused to a sudden frenzy by this insult to their flag, such as I have never witne4ssed in them before.” [6] Fears of war with Britain dominated the financial markets and “dried up the sale of bonds to finance the war against the Confederacy.” [7]

These fears were not unfounded, as the crisis dragged on into December, Britain made other military preparations some 5,000 Canadian troops trained to British Army standards and 35,000 other Canadian volunteer militia were called up, and “an additional 11,000 British Regulars were soon on their way to Canada.” [8] Additionally the British government placed an embargo on the shipment of saltpeter from India to the United States until the affair was settled. Since India was the largest supplier of this material which was vital to the manufacture of gunpowder, this threatened to cripple the Union war effort, and as soon as the crisis was ended, this vital material was soon on the way to Northern manufacturers who rapidly turned it into gunpowder.

Had it not been for the skilled efforts of Adams, the United States minister to defuse the situation, the affair could have led to British recognition of the Confederacy and intervention in the war. Adams’ efforts to defuse the situation in Britain, and to convince Lincoln to release the Confederates and return them to the British were so successful that they “left Anglo-American relations in better shape than before the crisis.” [9]

Adams also had to deal with Abraham Lincoln and Secretary of State William H. Seward’s indignation of Confederate commissioners meeting with British Foreign Minister Lord Russell. Those meetings sent Seward into a rage, he told Senator Charles Sumner “God damn them, I’ll give them hell” and he wrote Adams instructing the American Minister to “break off relations if the British government had any more dealings with southern envoys. If Britain officially recognized the Confederacy, “we from that hour, shall cease to be friends and become once more, as we have twice before been forced to be, enemies of Great Britain.” [10] Lincoln, knowing how critical the situation was gave Adams the discretion of presenting the substance of the matter verbally rather than hand Seward’s dispatch to Russell. Adams handled the matter deftly, and Russell “conceded that he had twice met with the Southern commissioners, but “had no expectation of seeing them any more.” [11]

In the end the release of the Confederate envoys “improved Anglo-American relations and disappointed Confederate hopes for an Anglo-American war that might assure their independence.” [12] Adams wrote, “The first effect of the surrender of Messrs. Mason and Slidell has been extraordinary. The current which ran against us with such extreme violence six weeks ago now seems to be going with equal fury in our favor.” [13]

This was very import because there was much support for the Confederate cause in the European aristocracy and some in Europe hoped for Confederate success. They were encouraged by Union military defeats at the outset of the war, but Union diplomats helped to keep Europeans out of the war. Confederate diplomacy in Europe was not helped when the Confederates elected to embargo cotton exports in order to force Britain and other powers to recognize them. But despite the fears of the loss of cotton and the negative effects on their economies, European powers, especially the British were resentful of the Confederate attempt to blackmail them through the use of the embargo. The Times of London, a Tory paper sympathetic to the Confederacy declared that if Southerners “thought that they could extort our cooperation by the agency of king cotton… they had better think again. To intervene on the behalf of the South “because they keep cotton from us” said Lord Russell in September 1861, “would be ignominious beyond measure…. No English Parliament could do so base a thing.” [14]

British visitors to the South in 1861 were surprised and how fervently many Southerners believed that cotton would spur European involvement in the war on their behalf. The Southern hubris about their importance to the world economy was and how Britain could not survive without their cotton. One reporter wrote:

“there can be no doubt that the prevalent conviction in the South is that England cannot do without the “king” that all cotton, except American is  too short or too long; and that the medium is the only staple Manchester can have. In vain we tell them that our manufacturers would soon change their machinery, and adapt it to the necessities of the times; that our Government was making great exertions to procure cotton from India and Africa; and that it was our interest to foster our own colonies, and to produce it there if possible; and that if we were deprived of America as a market, the more strenuous would our efforts be to render ourselves independent of it. But it was of no use; they were ineradicably impressed with the conviction that they can command the market at any time; and that the distance from England at which its rivals are placed must always give the Confederacy an advantage.” [15]

By early 1862 the British government had decided to recognize the Union blockade. The cotton embargo had had an effect until Britain turned to Egypt and other cotton producers to make up the difference, and diversified by expanding the manufacture of steel and ships. Likewise, the Confederate had harmed the Southern even worse. Since so little of the cotton could be exported and sold on the foreign market, prices for it dried up and the Confederate economy began to implode. Mary Boykin Chesnut bitterly wrote of the effects in March 1862:

“Cotton is five cents a pound and labor of no value at all; it commands no price whatsoever. People gladly hire out their negroes to have them fed and clothed, which the latter cannot be done. Cotton osnaburg at 37 ½ cents a yard, leaves no chance to clothe them…. We poor fools, who are patriotically ruining ourselves will see our children in the gutter while treacherous dogs of millionaires go rolling by in their coaches – coaches that were acquired by taking advantage of our necessities.” [16]

However, Union diplomats were aided by tensions in Europe regarding the Schleswig-Holstein problem between Prussia and Austria, as well as unrest in Poland, as a result “European realpolitik hindered the Rebel’s diplomatic objectives as well.” [17] The British in particular were loath to risk intervening in a conflict that might be “a disturbance in the precarious balance of power which might be the signal for a general conflagration, they recalled Voltaire’s comment that a torch lighted in 1756 in the forests of the new world had promptly wrapped the old world in flames.” [18] Thus, European leaders and diplomats were very hesitant to allow Southern legations to convince them to intervene. In January 1863 an extremely frustrated Jefferson Davis made mention of the neutral nations of Europe which had refused to recognize the Confederacy as an independent nation.

Another factor in the success of Union diplomacy was the success of Union military operations on the periphery of the Confederacy, many of them spearheaded by joint Army-Navy operations. While the Confederates won many early battles in 1861 and 1862 it was the success of the Union military that altered the diplomatic landscape and helped doom the Confederacy. The joint operations conducted by Ulysses Grant and Flag Officer Foote at Island Number Ten, Fort Henry, Fort Donaldson and Shiloh opened the door to the western Confederacy making it vulnerable to Union invasion. Likewise, the joint operations conducted by the Union Navy and Army against the Confederacy through the blockade and capture of key ports such as New Orleans by 1862; combined with the bloody repulses of Confederate armies at Perryville and Antietam allowed Lincoln to make his Emancipation Proclamation, an act which reverberated across the Atlantic.

These military successes enabled British Prime Minister, Lord Palmerston, to reject a French proposal for France, England and Russia to propose to the warring parties, a “North-South armistice, accompanied by a six month lifting of the blockade. The result, if they had agreed- as they had been in no uncertain terms warned by Seward in private conversations with British representatives overseas- would have been a complete diplomatic rupture, if not an outright declaration of war.” [19]

The issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation ensured that Europe would not recognize the Confederacy.  In part this was because even the most pro-Southern English political leaders could not appear to give the slightest appearance of supporting slavery, especially as both England and France had abolished slavery decades before, while Russia had only recently emancipated its serfs and despite being a less democratic monarchy than Britain “was pro-Union from the start….” [20] Popular sentiment in Britain, France, Russia and other European countries, outside of the ruling class and business elites, was heavily in favor of emancipation, especially among the working classes. The leaders of the workingmen of Manchester England, a major textile producer, who which had been among the “hardest hit by the cotton famine, sent him [Lincoln] an address approved at a meeting on New Year’s Eve, announcing their support of the North in its efforts to “strike off the fetters of the slave” [21] following the Emancipation Proclamation.

The success of the Union blockade was a key factor in the diplomatic efforts. There were many people, especially business leaders and members of the aristocracy in both Britain and France who sympathized with the South and hoped for Southern victory. However they were not impressed by Confederate attempts to subject them to an embargo of all Southern cotton until they recognized the independence of the Confederacy. Confederate commissioners attempted to persuade the British and French that the Union blockade was a “paper blockade” that was not binding on the British. While a good number of Confederate blockade runners got through the Union blockade, they carried very little cotton. While many Englishmen were offended by Seward’s bluster, many “resented even more the Confederacy’s attempt at economic blackmail.” [22] When the Confederates pressured the British Lord Russell announced to Parliament a corollary to the Declaration of Paris which affirmed the effectiveness of the Union blockade and “drove a stake through the heart of the Confederate efforts to convince the European governments of the blockade’s illegitimacy.” [23]

The British especially were keen on not going to war for the sake of the South, as there was far too much at stake for them. This was something that the Southern leaders and representatives did not fully comprehend. Prime Minister Viscount Palmerston and Foreign Minister Lord Russell were concerned about the economic impact of the loss of Southern cotton but also “recognized that any action against the blockade could lead to a conflict with the United States more harmful to England’s interests than the temporary loss of Southern cotton.” [24] Palmerston well remembered the war of 1812 when he served as Minister of War, and the disastrous results for the British Merchant Marine, and he realized that “England could not only afford the risk of a loss in a sideline war; she could not even afford to win one.” [25]

Union diplomats led by Adams scored another major victory against South in September 1863. During the war, Confederate agents working through shadow companies had managed to purchase large fast ships as commerce raiders. While this was not legal, while building the ships were declared by the builders of the Laird Company as merchant ships, and then sailed out of the country to be armed and equipped as Confederate commerce raiders. These include the ships which became the CSS Florida, CSS Georgia, and the most successful Confederate raider of all, the CSS Alabama.


Laird Ram

The escape of these ships and their use as raiders proved to be a great embarrassment to the British government, and in “March of 1863 the House of Commons had undertaken an investigation of the earlier cases of the Florida and Alabama. Its report condemned the government for laxness in enforcing British neutrality.” [26]   When it was discovered that Confederate agents were contracting with English and French shipyards to build modern oceangoing ironclad rams, frigates and commerce raiders, Union diplomats intervened. The two rams, to be built by Laird’s were to displace 1,800 tons, mount six nine inch guns in rotating turrets and were equipped with a seven foot long submerged bow mounted ram.

The presence of the turrets made them hard to disguise as merchantmen and Adams sent a note to Foreign Secretary Russel a declaration that if these ships were allowed to escape, that “It would be superfluous to me to point out your Lordship, that this is war.” [27] Having been embarrassed by the past incidents and the scrutiny of Parliament, neither Russell or Prime Minister Palmerston were about to let such an event happen again, in fact before he had even received Adam’s protest had already taken steps to detain the vessels over the protests of the Confederate agents and officials, but the British interest in the case was not simply due to the protests, again, realpolitik came into play. Russell did not want Britain to be held liable for Union financial claims of loss after the war due, but even more importantly, that in another war the situation could be reversed. In this case ships were being built for the Confederacy in British shipyards, but in the next war it was quite conceivable that “in the next war that the roles could be reversed, with warships being constructed in American shipyards for use against the British merchant fleet. Britain was generally a belligerent in nineteenth century wars, not a neutral, and it did not want to lose sight of its long term interests.” [28]

Though Palmerston was offended at the brusqueness of Adams’s note, Union diplomacy had won a victory that “Henry Adams described as “a second Vicksburg.” [29] The British eventually bought the two ships for use in the Royal Navy where they became known as the Scorpion Class of which one ship served until 1922. Russell sent a dispatch to Richmond addressed to Jefferson Davis and warned him “against the efforts of the authorities of the so-called Confederate States to build war vessels with Her Majesty’s dominions to be employed against the Government of the United States.” [30]

The efforts of Adams and his counterpart in France, William Drayton were instrumental in hampering Confederate efforts at recognition by exposing Confederate plots and machinations against the laws of England and France won the praise of Confederate propagandists, one who admitted that Adams, “played well his part, and by his singular moderation of language and action… sustained his own dignity and that of the people he represented… and won reluctant admiration from many who loved not the cause or the Government he sustained.” [31]


[1] Ibid. Guelzo Fateful Lightening p.289

[2] Ibid. McPherson. The Battle Cry of Freedom p.383

[3] Ibid. Guelzo Fateful Lightening p.298

[4] Ibid. Guelzo Fateful Lightening p.287

[5] Adams, Charles F. Letter to Charles F. Adams Jr. in The Civil War and Reconstruction: A Documentary Collection, William E. Gienapp editor, W.W. Norton and Company, New York and London 2001 p.144

[6] Ibid. Guelzo Fateful Lightening p.288

[7] Ibid. McPherson Tried by War p.54

[8] Ibid. Guelzo Fateful Lightening p.288

[9] Ibid. McPherson. The Battle Cry of Freedom p.391

[10] Ibid. McPherson the Battle Cry of Freedom pp.388-389

[11] ibid. McPherson The Battle Cry of Freedom

[12] Ibid. McPherson Tried by War p.54

[13] Ibid. Adams  Letter to Charles F. Adams Jr. p.144

[14] ibid. McPherson The Battle Cry of Freedom pp.384-385

[15] ____________. “A Month With the Rebels,” Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine 90 (December 1861): 762-763 in The Civil War and Reconstruction: A Documentary Collection edited by William E. Gienapp, W.W. Norton and Company, New York and London 2001 p.143

[16] Ibid. Mary Chesnut’s Diary p.122

[17] Ibid. Goldfield America Aflame: How the Civil War Created a Nation p.315

[18] Foote, Shelby, The Civil War, A Narrative. Volume Two Fredericksburg to Meridian Random House, New York 1963 p.154

[19] Ibid. Foote The Civil War, A Narrative Volume Two p.153

[20] Ibid. Foote The Civil War, A Narrative Volume Two p.153

[21] Ibid. Foote, The Civil War, A Narrative Volume Two p.155

[22] Ibid. McPherson. The Battle Cry of Freedom p.384

[23] Ibid. McPherson The War that Forged a Nation p. 71

[24] Ibid. McPherson. The Battle Cry of Freedom p.384

[25] Ibid. Foote, The Civil War, A Narrative Volume Two p.154

[26] McPherson, James M. War on the Waters: The Union & Confederate Navies, 1861-1865 University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill, 2012 p.202

[27] Ibid. Foote, The Civil War, A Narrative Volume Three p.100

[28] Stahr, Walter Seward: Lincoln’s Indispensable Man Simon and Schuster, New York 2012 p.374

[29] Ibid. McPherson. The Battle Cry of Freedom p.682

[30] Ibid. Foote, The Civil War, A Narrative Volume Three p.100

[31] Ibid. Guelzo Fateful Lightening p.298

1 Comment

Filed under civil war, History

One response to “The Power of Soft Power: Union Diplomacy in the Civil War

  1. I am always grateful for what I learn here.

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