Treaty of Washington Settles U.S. Claims vs. Britain Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

This treaty, which settled U.S. claims against Great Britain for having violated its neutrality during the Civil War, as well as several other disputes, was a milestone in international conciliation that helped to define the responsibilities of neutral nations in future international conflicts.

Summary of Event

During the years immediately following the U.S. Civil War (1861-1865), British-American relations were dangerously tense. The principal cause was the lasting bitterness of Americans who had supported the Union toward what they regarded as Great Britain’s shamefully unneutral support of the Confederacy. On several occasions, Britain had come perilously close to recognizing the independence of the Confederate States of America Confederate States of America;and Great Britain[Great Britain] —an act that would have been tantamount to intervening on the South’s behalf. Washington, Treaty of (1871) Great Britain;and United States[United States] Great Britain;and U.S. Civil War[U.S. Civil War] Civil War, U.S. (1861-1865);and Great Britain[Great Britain] Alabama, CSS Sumner, Charles [p]Sumner, Charles;and Great Britain[Great Britain] [kw]Treaty of Washington Settles U.S. Claims vs. Britain (May 8, 1871) [kw]Washington Settles U.S. Claims vs. Britain, Treaty of (May 8, 1871) [kw]Settles U.S. Claims vs. Britain, Treaty of Washington (May 8, 1871) [kw]U.S. Claims vs. Britain, Treaty of Washington Settles (May 8, 1871) [kw]Claims vs. Britain, Treaty of Washington Settles U.S. (May 8, 1871) [kw]Britain, Treaty of Washington Settles U.S. Claims vs. (May 8, 1871) Washington, Treaty of (1871) Great Britain;and United States[United States] Great Britain;and U.S. Civil War[U.S. Civil War] Civil War, U.S. (1861-1865);and Great Britain[Great Britain] Alabama, CSS Sumner, Charles [p]Sumner, Charles;and Great Britain[Great Britain] [g]Canada;May 8, 1871: Treaty of Washington Settles U.S. Claims vs. Britain[4570] [g]United States;May 8, 1871: Treaty of Washington Settles U.S. Claims vs. Britain[4570] [g]Great Britain;May 8, 1871: Treaty of Washington Settles U.S. Claims vs. Britain[4570] [c]Diplomacy and international relations;May 8, 1871: Treaty of Washington Settles U.S. Claims vs. Britain[4570] Fish, Hamilton Adams, Charles Francis Cockburn, Alexander Rose, John

Although that step was never taken, British sympathy for the Confederacy was manifested by the government’s toleration of repeated evasions of Britain’s Foreign Enlistment Act of 1819, Foreign Enlistment Act of 1819 especially the section that prohibited British construction of warships for belligerent foreign powers. The Confederacy hoped to break the Union’s naval blockade Civil War, U.S. (1861-1865);Union blockade Civil War, U.S. (1861-1865);and Great Britain[Great Britain] Great Britain;and U.S. Civil War[U.S. Civil War] of its ports and drive Union commerce from the seas by building its own navy Navy, Confederate in Great Britain. The gamble almost succeeded. During the war, Confederate warships that had been built in Britain sank or seized about 250 Union merchant ships. Three fast commerce destroyers, the Florida, the Shenandoah, and especially the notorious Alabama, accounted for almost one-fourth of the sinkings.

On June 19, 1864, the notorious CSS Alabama was sunk off the coast of Cherbourg, France, by the USS Kearsage.

(Francis R. Niglutsch)

The case of the Alabama was so blatant a violation of Great Britain’s neutrality that just before its scheduled launching in July, 1862, the British government began proceedings to detain the ship. However, the Alabama escaped to begin an amazing career that would prove extremely embarrassing to the British government. Although the British government soon closed the loopholes in its neutrality laws, the U.S. government considered that the damage had already been done and that Britain should pay for its callous disregard of its neutrality obligations.

During the remainder of the war, Union claims for indemnity arising from Confederate depredations committed by the Alabama and other British-built warships mounted steadily, but the government of Lord Palmerston Palmerston, Lord [p]Palmerston, Lord;and U.S. Civil War[U.S. Civil War] refused to accept responsibility for the Confederate cruisers’ activities. The determination of the U.S. government to gain satisfaction culminated in the suggestion in 1869 by Senator Charles Sumner, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, that Great Britain be made to pay for the estimated $15 million in damage caused by the Confederate cruisers, plus the cost of catching them and an addition $110 million for the destruction caused to U.S. merchant vessels. Moreover, because the cruisers’ actions had prolonged the war by two full years, Britain should pay an additional $2 billion to cover the cost to the Union of the war for those extra years.

Sumner’s real aim was not to bankrupt the British treasury but to force Britain to satisfy American demands by ceding Canada to the United States. The British government dismissed Sumner’s demands as utter insanity but was forced to note that both President Ulysses S. Grant and his new secretary of state, Hamilton Fish Fish, Hamilton , supported Sumner’s claims.

When Britain decided to negotiate, Secretary Fish adopted a more moderate position, asking only for payment of existing American claims and an expression of regret. Informal conversations were begun between Fish and Sir John Rose Rose, John , a British-Canadian statesman and businessman residing in England, whom the British Foreign Office had chosen to convey its interest in pacific settlements of the various disputes. It was soon agreed that a joint commission should be convened to deal with all unresolved issues: the Alabama claims, a long-standing conflict over American fishing rights off the Canadian coast, the matter of ownership of the San Juan Islands in Puget Sound, and other minor problems.

On February 27, 1871, official Washington shrugged off late winter dreariness to celebrate the beginning of a momentous gathering of American and British dignitaries. The social festivities that took place did much to dissipate the feelings of bitterness and suspicion that had dominated British-American relations since the war. The Washington conference had been called to deal with the U.S. claims against Britain. Proceedings began on a surprisingly cordial note, and within three months the two delegations had reached solutions or provided for later agreement on almost all matters at issue. Neither side would have believed when the negotiations were first arranged that such an explosive issue as the Alabama claims could be resolved with so little difficulty.

Comprising five American and five British representatives, the commission met in Washington from February 27 to May 8, 1871. Buoyed by foxhunting weekends, liberal ministrations of fine liquor, and superb food, the commissioners agreed without serious difficulty on a fair settlement. Most important was the treaty provision regarding the Alabama claims. Great Britain offered to express its formal regrets for the escape of the Alabama and other warships and agreed to submit the claims to binding arbitration. Furthermore, it accepted a definition of rules to govern neutral obligations toward belligerents.

Arbitration of the Alabama claims took place in Geneva Geneva , Switzerland, in December, 1871. The discussions nearly collapsed at the outset, for Charles Francis Adams Adams, Charles Francis , the United States commissioner, carrying out express instructions from Secretary of State Fish, revived an issue that the British had thought dead and buried, that of indirect damages. Fish’s Fish, Hamilton motivation was neither gaining more money nor acquiring Canada, but satisfying the needs of American domestic politics. He wanted the tribunal to deal with and reject the matter of indirect damages. Otherwise, he feared that the U.S. Congress might throw out the treaty. Although the British representative, Sir Alexander Cockburn Cockburn, Alexander , lord chief justice of England, was enraged by this tactic, the tribunal exceeded its jurisdiction and ruled out the indirect claims. This act allowed for adjudication of the direct claims. The court found in favor of the United States and awarded damages of $15.5 million.


Although these regulations were not retroactive, the British were conceding victory to the American position in the forthcoming arbitration proceedings. This British-American agreement was a historic one for the future of neutrality. The treaty also provided for a temporary resolution of the quarrel over fishing privileges, an agreement to submit the question of the San Juan Islands to arbitration, and numerous other economic and territorial agreements. The Washington Treaty was a remarkable accomplishment and had been termed by some as the greatest example of international conciliation ever known. It also represented a significant diplomatic victory for the United States.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Allen, Harry C. Great Britain and the United States: A History of Anglo-American Relations, 1783-1952. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1955. Useful survey of British-American relations from the time of the American Revolution through the Korean War of the twentieth century.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Boykin, Edward C. Ghost Ship of the Confederacy: The Story of the “Alabama.” New York: Funk & Wagnalls, 1957. Popular account of the notorious British-built Confederate warship Alabama.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Cushing, Caleb. The Treaty of Washington: Its Negotiation, Execution, and the Discussions Relating Thereto. Freeport, N.Y.: Books for Libraries Press, 1970. First published in 1873, this contemporary analysis of the Washington negotiations by the American diplomat who served as U.S. counsel at the Geneva tribunal is still valuable, especially for understanding the personalities and political issues involved.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Duberman, Martin B. Charles Francis Adams, 1807-1886. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1961. Comprehensive biography based on exhaustive research in the Adams papers. Describes the crucial role Adams played in the resolution of the Geneva tribunal.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Jones, Howard. Great Britain and the Confederate Navy, 1861-1865. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2004. Scholarly examination of the British role in the development of the Confederate navy.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Luraghi, Raimondo. A History of the Confederate Navy. Translated by Paolo E. Coletta. Annapolis, Md.: Naval Institute Press, 1996. Fullest account yet published on the Confederate navy, by a leading European historian of the U.S. Civil War. Pays particular attention to Confederate innovations in technology and tactics during its unequal struggle against the Union navy.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Smith, Goldwin A. The Treaty of Washington, 1871: A Study in Imperial History. 1941. New York: Russell & Russell, 1971. Study of the treaty that focuses on Canada’s role in the negotiations over the Alabama claims. Also clarifies numerous aspects of the diplomatic engagement.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Still, William N., Jr., ed. The Confederate Navy: The Ships, Men, and Organization, 1861-65. Annapolis, Md.: Naval Institute Press, 1996. Well-illustrated guide to the ships of the Confederate navy, edited by a distinguished naval historian. A good companion to Raimondo Luraghi’s narrative history.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Winks, Robin W. Canada and the United States: The Civil War Years. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1960. This excellent monograph places in context difficulties between the United States and Canada.

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