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Foreign Diplomacy of the American Civil War

Published onApr 29, 2022
Foreign Diplomacy of the American Civil War

The issue of slavery was left unresolved from the start of the creation of the United States and would eventually lead to The American Civil War. This four year long conflict remains the deadliest conflict in American history. Although the American Civil War remained an American conflict, European nations were still paying close attention to the conflict from its start. Both the Union and Confederacy worked to gain support of European nations.1 The peak of this war of Union and Confederate diplomats took place from 1861-62 and Confederate diplomats had moments to where European intervention on behalf of the Confederacy looked likely.


The issue of slavery was already decided among the major European colonial, with many of them abolishing slavery by 1861. Many Europeans viewed slavery very negatively, especially in the United Kingdom, with them becoming the leader of the abolition movement across Europe.2 When 11 states seceded from the Union after the election of Abraham Lincoln, the primary goal of President Lincoln was to preserve the United States and put down the rebellion. His stance was noted in his first inaugural address with him saying “I have no purpose, directly or indirectly, to interfere with the institution of slavery in the States where it exists.”3 With this in mind, Confederate diplomats were sent to multiple European nations to try and win popular support. These diplomats focused on painting the Confederacy as fighting a tyrannical government. They would also use Southern cotton as a way to try and convince European politicians to support them due to Europe’s reliance on Southern cotton.4

One of the closest times a European nation came to supporting the Confederacy was November 8, 1861. On that day, a Union warship fired upon a British ship carrying two Confederate diplomats. The diplomats were arrested and war seemed likely between the United States and United Kingdom. Much of the British populace were angered by this event, seeing the event as unlawful and damaging the prestige of the British Navy.5 Although war seemed likely, the diplomatic dispute ended when the United States released the Confederate diplomats and issued an informal apology to the British government.

British Pattern 1853 Enfield rifled musket. The Confederacy imported over 300,000 of these British rifles from private contractors

The major turning point occurred in September of 1862. Lincoln had plans to issue an Emancipation Proclamation, but he decided to wait for a military victory to issue it. He got the victory on September 17, 1862 when the Union Army led by George McClellan defeated Robert E. Lee near Sharpsburg, Maryland. Now popularly known as the Battle of Antietam, it halted Lee’s invasion of Maryland, and although not a decisive victory, it still gave Lincoln a reason to issue the Emancipation Proclamation. On September 24, he issued the proclamation, freeing any slaves in states that were in rebellion against the Union, with it going into effect January 1, 1863.

Burnside’s Bridge, Battle of Antietam

Initial reaction across Europe to the Emancipation Proclamation were skeptical. Abolitionists were angered that Lincoln did not free slaves in the Union border states of Missouri, Kentucky, Maryland, and Delaware. These states never seceded from the Union, but still had slave populations, so this was viewed as hypocritical to European abolitionists. Meanwhile, Conservatives across Europe suspected it would cause race wars and slave uprisings.6 The initial skepticism would die down by 1863 with European abolitionists viewing the proclamation favorably, and conservatives fears of race wars and slave uprisings being proven false. The American Civil War was now shifted on the issue of slavery after the Emancipation and this shift killed any chance for the European recognition of the Confederate States. If any European nation did recognize the Confederacy, it would now be seen as them supporting the institution of slavery, which Europeans had already abolished before 1861.

Although the Emancipation Proclamation destroyed Confederate hopes for European recognition, the Civil War would still go on. Battles would continue and the casualty count would continue to rise until 1865, when all Confederate would surrender after Robert E Lee’s surrender at Appomattox Courthouse. The deadliest conflict in American history was over. The issue of slavery would finally be resolved in December 1865 when the 13th Amendment was ratified.

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