top of page

What was happening outside America 1861-1865?

Speaker Jeremy Mindell In his wide-ranging presentation at the National Army museum in December 2007 Jeremy Mindell argued that wars rarely happen in a vacuum and that the American Civil War was no exception. To understand why the South lost, he argued, one had to look at events in Europe as well as Southern war strategy.

The period between the end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815 and the European Revolutions of 1848 saw no major great power military confrontation. Revolutionary upheavals in Europe actually aided the Northern States since, along with the Irish potato famine their failures brought many refugees of varying talents to America, the majority to northern states. But any reasoned analysis would show that the North could not hope to fight a war on two fronts: North and South were too evenly balanced and European intervention at any point before the Northern elections in November 1864 would probably have led to Southern independence. The two powers that had most to gain - or lose - from the outcome of the Civil War were France and Britain. Jeremy pointed out a paradox between the American Civil War and wars of national uprising in Europe. Reviewing the route to freedom of a united Italy, he paraphrased Winston Churchill by saying that never in the field of a struggle of independence have so few of the liberated people been involved in the struggle and so unsuccessfully for so long. How could the South with all its bravery and heroism have failed to achieve the same? Britain realised how difficult it would be to defend Canada from Northern attack. This was one of the reasons why Britain was generally more cautious in dealing with the North than the adventurous Emperor Napoleon III of France, who had no such commitments. Even so, Jeremy argued, history shows that wars can be built on trivial foundations. Ultimately the near miss of a war between the Northern States and Britain that was sparked off by the Trent Affair benefited the North. And Cornwell Lewis, the British Secretary of State for War was keenly aware of the difficulties that the British armies would face in any confrontation of the North. He consistently spoke both in cabinet and in public against any deviation from strict neutrality. Britain was also mistrustful of French ambitions for expansion under Napoleon III. Jeremy used a more recent historical analogy by asking if a man, claiming to be a descendant of the Kaiser, had come to power in Germany 40 years after the end of the First World War, venerating his memory and achievements? You might well imagine the fuss... But the 1860’s were an unusually dangerous time for Europe too, since Prussia, Austria, Russia and France were all revisionist powers. That is, they were each dissatisfied with their territorial boundaries and with the treaties that maintained them. All actively used diplomacy – and occasionally war - to seek changes to the status quo. Jeremy asked us to discard our 21st century hindsight of the achievements of the European powers and to consider them at this time. Equally it was important to discard our current view of America as the predominant world power and of Lincoln as the giant that he posthumously became. So, Prussia was actually the weakest of the European powers; Austria the most over-extended. Russia took a pro-northern line to counter-balance British power. Perhaps most surprisingly of all given our collective perception of Victorian Imperialism, the 1860’s were a period when colonisation was considered by many in Britain - including Disraeli - as a burden. There was a shift from imperial expansion towards free trade, via a realisation - well understood in Britain immediately after the American War of Independence - that colonies were expensive to run. So at the time of the Civil War Britain was looking to minimise its colonial activities and expenditure, not increase its empire Against this shifting background and revolutionary pressure for change, Jeremy showed how the five major European powers might have combined in any number of different alliances. For its part the Southern diplomatic strategy completely failed to draw in the interests of the five powers and was faulty from the start. It sought leverage by restricting the export of its cotton. This was a big risk, based on the hope that Europe would be forced into the Civil War. The Southern Secretary of State Judah P Benjamin admitted after the war the Confederacy had underestimated the extent to which the British government would let its cotton workers become destitute rather than intervene to obtain the cotton supplies sorely needed. Jeremy illustrated how the timings of events in America seemed to actively conspire against British and French intervention. In particular it was unfortunate for the South - and fortunate for the North - that the Confederate victory at Second Manassas/Bull Run (July 1862) took place during a British parliamentary recess. Had Parliament been in session at the time of such a sweeping victory, government action would certainly have been considerably stronger and recognition of the South might well have followed. But by the time parliament was back, the unfinished business of Italian unification had become a crisis in turn for the French government. That caused paralysis in its ministry, just at the point when Lord John Russell was seeking support for his mediation initiative following the battle of Antietam (September 1862). Had the Italian crisis not happened during the autumn of 1862, Russell’s initiative might have received a more immediate and conclusive support from France. But it was the Confederacy's misfortune that on the one occasion when the British were prepared to lead a mediation effort a crisis in Italy came along to divert French interests. By the following year, 1863 the Polish Revolt diverted the priorities of the European powers yet again, causing them to again line up on different sides and create the spectre of a general European war. The background to the revolt was the fear of the governing Russian authorities of the spread of liberalism from the Italian unification struggle. They tried to draft Polish radicals into the army, which led to the rebellion. France showed solidarity for its ancient Polish allies, even proposing an expedition with Swedish help against Russia. The French proposal fell through because Britain was not prepared to support it. In June 1863 (after the Southern victory of Chancellorsville and before its defeat at Gettysburg) France proposed the creation of an autonomous Polish state and an immediate armistice. It was at this time that the Russian fleet made its well-publicised visit to New York and San Francisco: a considerable boost to Northern morale and a suggestion of support from at least one power. Yet the move was primarily intended to keep the fleet out of harms way in the event of the real prospect of a general European war breaking out over Poland. The Polish Revolt rumbled through until the autumn of 1863 when it petered out. The following year, 1864 saw the final incident of this period under review. In the Schleswig Holstein crisis, Britain again proved unable to influence events in Europe. In spite of all its military and economic might it failed to actively support Denmark in its claim to the duchies, which were successfully invaded and annexed by Prussia and Austria. By this time the North had gained the upper hand in the Civil War and the opportunities for European intervention faded. Jeremy summed up his talk by asserting that had the South not have remained isolated - sometimes purely by the chance developments in a volatile Europe - we would certainly not be talking today about the United States. A question and answer session followed, when Jeremy demonstrated his very thorough knowledge of modern European and American history.


bottom of page