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Why Didn't Europe Intervene In The American Civil War?

Martin Meenagh, a tutor at Balliol College, Oxford, addressed the Annual Luncheon held at the Royal Over-Seas League. Martin began by asserting that many thought there would be European intervention. Britain, then the world's greatest power, could have taken the lead. Ultimately however, Britain - despite pressures on Palmerston - never recognised the South (it remained neutral), nor did France or Russia. One State however did recognise the South - the Vatican.

Martin's talk focused on issues such as the Emancipation Proclamation (vehemently criticised in many circles in Britain) and the Trent affair (whose impact in Martin's view was overblown). Martin referred to the threat of the Fenians on the Canadian border and in Ireland. He commented on the failure of the South to justify its existence. Did the South exist? The South itself was a very divided country.

Martin discussed the Trent Affair in some detail. Traditionally considered to be the Cuban Missile Crisis of the Civil War, the Trent Affair was, in Martin's view more like 'Gilbert and Sullivan'! Martin described John Slidell and James Mason the South's emissaries to Europe, as "Abbott and Costello"! Martin described well the legal gymnastics performed by the North to extricate itself from the problems posed by the affair. He concluded that the Trent affair was not the great crisis. More dangerous to the North was a military victory by the South.

Martin expressed the view that the inevitability of recognition by Britain was always an illusion. Economically, Britain had stockpiles of cotton and the linen industry was given a great boost. Chartism laid the grounds for sympathy for the North. Palmerston, likened to Churchill in 1940, was excluded from "The Establishment" and he connected with the people. "Outsiders" did not want Britain to recognise the South and wanted the North to win.

Martin's talk then covered the naval struggle between North and South and the shock to Britain's navy in particular, of the impact made by the clash of ironclads. The South could not lift the naval blockade, nor win their necessary military victory whilst the North could just churn out all the ironclads they needed. Martin concluded his wide-ranging talk by saying there was never one South. It had no clear story to tell about itself. The Civil War was the result of an attempt to create a State that could not succeed. A lively question and answer session followed Martin's well-received talk.

© ACWRT (UK) 2000 & 2001


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