The : “Help from England” Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

In May 1861, news arrived in the United States regarding what Great Britain would do concerning the outbreak of war in North America. The Chicago Tribune, a staunch supporter of both the Republican Party and President Abraham Lincoln, celebrated what seemed to be a British pledge to remain uninvolved. Yet there were hints in the Chicago Tribune’s editorial that the British might extend “belligerent” status to the South and might, therefore, become involved at some point, either as a mediator or as a contributor of arms or men to the Confederate cause. The editorial demonstrated the transatlantic context of the American Civil War and revealed many of the international dimensions of the conflict, which ranged from the important position of Southern cotton in Britain’s Industrial Revolution to the transnational network of antislavery activists in the North Atlantic during the mid-nineteenth century. Internationalizing the history of the American Civil War reveals both the larger context within which the conflict took place, including the increasingly global capitalist economy, and the pattern of state consolidation and centralization in Europe and the Western Hemisphere in which the United States was participating during the mid-nineteenth century.

Summary Overview

In May 1861, news arrived in the United States regarding what Great Britain would do concerning the outbreak of war in North America. The Chicago Tribune, a staunch supporter of both the Republican Party and President Abraham Lincoln, celebrated what seemed to be a British pledge to remain uninvolved. Yet there were hints in the Chicago Tribune’s editorial that the British might extend “belligerent” status to the South and might, therefore, become involved at some point, either as a mediator or as a contributor of arms or men to the Confederate cause. The editorial demonstrated the transatlantic context of the American Civil War and revealed many of the international dimensions of the conflict, which ranged from the important position of Southern cotton in Britain’s Industrial Revolution to the transnational network of antislavery activists in the North Atlantic during the mid-nineteenth century. Internationalizing the history of the American Civil War reveals both the larger context within which the conflict took place, including the increasingly global capitalist economy, and the pattern of state consolidation and centralization in Europe and the Western Hemisphere in which the United States was participating during the mid-nineteenth century.

Defining Moment

Major European nations, especially France and Great Britain, were intensely interested in what was happening in North America in 1861. Would the rapidly expanding and industrializing United States split in two? If the Confederacy was successful, would two strong countries emerge that Europeans would have to contend with or would two weaker ones? In addition, large segments of the British population were concerned with the issue of slavery. As a result of the lengthy campaigns of activists such as William Wilberforce, in 1807, the British government ended the international slave trade in its empire and used its fleet to patrol the Atlantic Ocean to force other nations to do so as well. The United States officially ended the importation of slaves in 1808, but the British went further in 1833, when they abolished slavery in their empire. Therefore, the British had ended slavery almost three decades before the advent of the American Civil War, and British public opinion was often on the side of the North during the conflict.

The first phase of the Industrial Revolution in Britain relied heavily on the nation’s textile industry, which in turn depended on an ample supply of cotton from the American South. Recognizing this, most Southern states voluntarily adopted non-exportation and refused to ship cotton to Great Britain, even during the early part of the Civil War when the Union blockade was not yet effective along the Southern coast. The South hoped that, by withholding cotton, they could put enough financial pressure on British industry to compel British industrialists and workers to pressure Parliament to intervene, probably through mediation, but potentially even with force. While the dictatorial Emperor Napoleon III of France seemed to support the South more solidly in public, in reality, he would not intervene without the British cooperation, so the South’s greatest hope for international aid lay with Great Britain. The editorial from the Chicago Tribune, appearing six weeks before the First Battle of Bull Run (Manassas) on July 21, was in reaction to the first major news from England on what the British government would do regarding the outbreak of war in North America.

Author Biography

Founded in 1847, the Chicago Tribune began a rise to prominence when Joseph Medill and Charles H. Ray bought large shares in the paper and became the dominant owners in 1855. Medill owned one-third of the paper and was the managing editor, while Ray owned one-fourth and was the editor in chief. The paper had previously focused on some of the issues, such as temperance, advocated by the Protestant reform societies that emerged from the Second Great Awakening, a religious revival movement during the first half of the 1800s in the United States.

Under the new editors, the paper continuously voiced an antislavery message. In addition, the paper helped strengthen the new Republican Party, which came into being in the mid-1850s after the Whig Party collapsed because of massive divisions over the proslavery Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854. For instance, Ray was at the May 1856 meeting that formed the Republican Party officially, and he may also have helped prod Lincoln to run against Stephen A. Douglas for a Senate seat in 1858. Lincoln lost the campaign, but his speeches that year made him a national political figure. During the 1860 presidential campaign, the Chicago Tribune was solidly behind Lincoln and continued to support him during the war years. Eventually, Ray left the paper, and Medill was largely in control of the paper until his death in 1899. During the Civil War, the circulation of the Chicago Tribune increased from eighteen thousand to forty thousand. As a result of the efforts of its editors, the paper was an early and consistent voice against slavery and in favor of reunion and emancipation.

Document Analysis

Even before major military battles took place in the American Civil War, the question of potential European involvement was on the minds of both Northerners and Southerners. The editors of the Chicago Tribune believed, based on a speech by the British foreign secretary, that British neutrality in the conflict was assured. While there were a number of reasons for the British to abstain from aiding the Confederacy, the suggestion that Great Britain might extend the status of “belligerent” to the South carried a possibility of future British involvement that the Chicago Tribune did not recognize as potentially dangerous to the North. Overall, the Chicago Tribune’s editorial on potential British involvement provided a window into Confederate hopes of international aid during the Civil War and revealed the important international dimensions of the conflict.

As a staunch supporter of Lincoln and the Republican Party, the Chicago Tribune was solidly against secession. Therefore, the opening line of the editorial minced no words by labeling the Confederate government the “Montgomery traitors.” The Chicago Tribune referred to the city of Montgomery, Alabama, because when the Deep South seceded, that city had become the official Confederate capital. When the upper South left the Union, the Confederate legislature voted in May 1861 to move the capital to Richmond, Virginia, but, at the time the editorial was written, the move had not yet occurred. The new government would not meet until July in Richmond, so in May, the Chicago Tribune was still referring to the original Confederate capital city.

While the Chicago Tribune was an antislavery paper, there was no mention in the editorial of slavery, but only of “traitors” to the Union. There are two likely reasons for this. First, while the central tenet of the Republican Party in the late 1850s had been an opposition to the expansion of slavery into the western territories, few Northerners wanted to abolish slavery where it existed in the South. Lincoln was one who held to this majority view. Therefore, ending slavery completely may not have been a goal of the Chicago Tribune. Second, and related, was that Lincoln’s initial war goals did not include the abolition of slavery where it existed. Until the fall of 1862 Lincoln voiced a singular objective of reunion, of bringing the South back into the United States. Therefore, the Chicago Tribune may also have been expressing the early war goals of Northern leaders and Northern public opinion, centered on only restoring the Union.

The British Will Not Intervene

Early in the war the Confederacy hoped for intervention on the part of England and France. The South sent envoys James Murray Mason and John Slidell to Great Britain in November 1861, and a Northern warship seized the British vessel they were on. A war scare followed between the United States and Great Britain, known as the Trent Affair, until Lincoln released the British ship, and the Confederates continued on their way. However, even at the beginning of the conflict, many Southern leaders believed that the sudden end of cotton imports to British textile factories would cause economic dislocation and then social pressure on Parliament to intervene on the side of the South, whether in the form of either mediation or, as the South hoped, naval or other military involvement. This Southern hope is evident in the Chicago Tribune editorial when the paper mentions the claims by “the New Orleans Delta Crescent and Picayune, the Savannah News, and the two spiteful organs of treason at Charleston” that “British war-steamers” would soon arrive to break the Union blockade, a tactic that had been announced but had not been effective initially. The Chicago Tribune noted that some Southern newspapers had even “predicted that English squadrons would be sent to blockade New York, Boston and Philadelphia.” The latter type of involvement would certainly have been a deep intervention on the part of the British government and would have likely led directly to war between the North and Britain.

As the Chicago Tribune noted, British involvement would not materialize. British foreign secretary Russell, who held a position similar to the American secretary of state, announced that the British position would be noninterference in the American Civil War. Of course, if British lives and property were “assailed,” as threatened to occur in the Trent Affair later in the year, the British government would act. However, apart from such incidents, the British announced they would stay out of the conflict in North America. Not only did this mean abstaining from any sort of direct military involvement on either side, but also, as the Chicago Tribune noted, “Lord John Russell carries this wise and just policy so far as to reprobate even giving of advice to either party.” In a sign of true neutrality, Russell would not help either side. Therefore, this excluded even the possibility of British mediation that would likely have resulted in a peace settlement and in a permanent division of the United States. Thus, the pro-Republican, pro-Union, and pro-Lincoln Chicago Tribune roundly praised this first sign of British noninvolvement.

Reasons for British Noninvolvement

Overall, the British had few incentives to intervene on the part of the Confederacy. First, while the textile industry did suffer from the abrupt end of Southern cotton shipments and while a number of workers in that industry experienced reduced hours and reduced wages, by the 1860s, British industry did not rely solely on textiles. Heavy industrial production was already expanding in Britain, as it would in the United States after the Civil War; historians identify this period as the second part of the Industrial Revolution as it took place in the two nations, when textile production and steam power were eclipsed by iron and steel production, coal power, and even electricity.

Second, and related, the British soon found other sources of cotton. The sudden exit of Southern cotton from the world market, in an expanding global economy largely created and held together by British trade and British warships, led to a rapid expansion of cotton production in Egypt, Argentina, and India. Southern cotton had been higher in quality and lower in cost than cotton produced elsewhere, but with a global shortage of cotton, it became profitable to grow more of the crop in these British-dominated areas. Indeed, some of the economic hardships faced by the postwar South resulted from a glut of cotton on the global market and the resulting low prices for the product–issues directly related to the expansion of cotton production in other places.

Third, British trade with the North was quite substantial and would have ended, or at least would have been threatened, if British mediation occurred. Fourth, the South had fewer people and was weaker militarily and industrially than the North. With the economies of the Northern states completely oriented toward war production and with increasing numbers of men entering the Union Army, there was no guarantee that any sort of military involvement on the part of the British or French would have achieved Southern victory on the battlefield.

Fifth, British public opinion largely sided with the North. While ending slavery would not be an official goal of the war until the fall of 1862, with Lincoln’s Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation after the Battle of Antietam (also known as the Battle of Sharpsburg), British citizens recognized that the South was defending slavery and that the North (at least some of its Republican Party) was attempting to halt the expansion of slavery in North America. With the official end of slavery in the British Empire in 1833 and with a significant movement of social reformers, which included a strong abolitionist segment (as it did in the United States), the British public was not likely to support intervention on behalf of the Confederacy.

Potential Threats to the North in 1861

At the same time, the Chicago Tribune was insufficiently worried about the threat contained in the potential British extension of the status of “belligerent” to the South. While the Chicago Tribune noted that the British government would recognize the Confederacy “not as a power, not as a Government, but simply as a ‘belligerent,’” such a label could have possibly ended with some form of British intervention. When a nation truly desires to aid neither side in a conflict, or at least when it does not want to aid the rebelling side, it will remain silent on the status of the two sides. Technically, this means that a nation would not recognize that there are two contending sides in an armed conflict, despite the situation on the ground, and would act only as if the legally constituted government was the only entity with whom one could deal and interact. Extending the status of “belligerent,” however, means that a nation recognizes that there are two armed sides in a conflict and thus opens the possibility that aid–in the form of money, troops, ships, or mediation–can be extended to either side, including the rebels. Therefore, the possibility that the British may have recognized the Confederacy as a “belligerent” in May 1861 was not as reassuring as the Chicago Tribune seemed to think. Not only would Confederate privateers be allowed to operate (if they stayed away from British property) under belligerency status, but also the British might deepen their contacts with the Confederacy after establishing that such status existed. Military intervention was still unlikely, but the Chicago Tribune was incorrect to be so calm about the possibility that the British would extend belligerency status to the Confederacy.

In addition, there would be a number of moments during 1861 and 1862 when the British swung close to mediation offers. After the Union defeats of the Seven Days Battles and Second Battle of Bull Run (Second Manassas), British leaders thought about offering to help broker an agreement between the two sides. However, they decided to wait for the outcome of General Robert E. Lee’s invasion of Maryland in 1862. The resulting stalemate at Antietam showed that the Confederacy was not yet clearly victorious on the battlefield, however, and effectively scuttled the South’s chances of international involvement. In addition, Lincoln issued his Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation, and British public opinion solidified behind the North’s newly stated goal of ending slavery. At a few other points during the second half of the war the French voiced interest in intervention, and a few British figures agreed, but the strongest possibility of British intervention had been in the summer of 1862 with Union losses piling up and economic dislocation in the British textile industry beginning to cause a measure of unrest among textile workers. The point is that the Chicago Tribune was incorrect in declaring that the threat of British involvement had ended conclusively so early in the war.

Essential Themes

The international aspect of the American Civil War was an important dimension of the conflict. The question of British and French involvement on behalf of the Confederacy, whether through mediation or more substantial military assistance, was not fully settled until the fall of 1862, a year and a half after the war started. While a number of factors seemed to preclude British involvement, the combination of economic distress in the British textile industry, threats to British shipping by Northern war vessels, and Confederate victory on the battlefield had the potential, in combination, to produce British intervention in some form.

Even before the First Battle of Bull Run the solidly Republican Chicago Tribune brushed off the threat of British involvement but did not fully understand that the extension of belligerency status to the Confederacy might have been a prelude to some sort of British action in the Civil War. Historian Thomas Bender, in his book A Nation among Nations: America’s Place in World History (2006), has placed the Civil War in the larger context of the consolidation and centralization of national states–including Argentina for instance–in the mid-nineteenth century in Europe and the Western Hemisphere. In addition, the triumph of the North demonstrated to a world still largely consisting of empires and monarchies that nationalism, democracy, and liberalism could coexist in one country. Thus, the editorial from the Chicago Tribune revealed a number of international issues concerning the American Civil War.

Bibliography
  • Bender, Thomas. A Nation among Nations: America’s Place in World History. New York: Hill, 2006. Print.
  • “December 26, 1861: Possible War between US and Britain Is Averted.” This Day in History: Civil War, December 26. History.com. A&E Television Networks, LLC, n.d. Web. 15 Oct. 2012.
  • Kobre, Sidney. Development of American Journalism. Dubuque: Brown, 1972. Print.
  • Risley, Ford. “The South’s Capital Dilemma.” New York Times. New York Times Co., 21 Mar. 2011. Web. 17 Oct. 2012.
Additional Reading
  • Adams, E. D. Great Britain and the American Civil War. 2 vols. London: Longmans, 1925. Print.
  • Banner, Robert. “Slavery, Confederate Diplomacy, and the Racialist Mission of Henry Hotze.” Civil War History 51.3 (2005). Print.
  • Crook, D. P. Diplomacy during the American Civil War. New York: Wiley, 1975. Print.
  • Cullop, Charles. Confederate Propaganda in Europe, 1861–1865. Coral Gables: U of Miami P, 1969. Print.
  • Daddysman, James. The Matamoros Trade: Confederate Commerce, Diplomacy, and Intrigue. Newark: U of Delaware P, 1984. Print.
  • Hubbard, Charles. The Burden of Confederate Diplomacy. Knoxville: U of Tennessee P, 1998. Print.
  • Jenkins, Brian. Britain and the War for the Union. 2 vols. London: McGill-Queen’s UP, 1974–80. Print.
  • Jones, Howard. Abraham Lincoln and a New Birth of Freedom: The Union and Slavery in the Diplomacy of the Civil War. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1999. Print.
  • Mahin, Dean. One War at a Time: The International Dimensions of the American Civil War. Washington, DC: Brassey’s, 1999. Print.
  • May, Robert, ed. The Union, the Confederacy, and the Atlantic Rim. West Lafayette: Purdue UP, 1995. Print.
  • Schoen, Brian. The Fragile Fabric of Union: Cotton, Federal Politics, and the Global Origins of the Civil War. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 2009. Print.
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