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How Seward's Blunders Nearly Led to British Recognition of the Confederacy

How Seward's Blunders Nearly Led to British Recognition of the Confederacy
AI visualization of a mill in Liverpool, England. The Confederates hoped the implicit threat of a cut in the supply of cotton would force European recognition of the CSA.

I hope you had a Happy Thanksgiving. I took last week off because I was on a road trip, never staying in one place long enough to put out a decent episode. This week we resume the William Lowndes Yancey biographical series with a look at his diplomatic mission to Europe seeking recognition and aid for the newly formed Confederate States of America.

As discussed in the video, as unlikely as Yancey was as a diplomat, it worked in his favor that the British strongly disliked William H. Seward, Abraham Lincoln's secretary of state. Although we've seen that during the secession crisis Seward was pushing conciliation toward the South – ultimately in vain – after secession he took a much more bellicose posture toward Britain. Yancey biographer Eric H. Walther describes how Seward rubbed the British the wrong way, to the benefit of Yancey's team:

The British minister to Washington, Richard Lyons, warned [British foreign secretary] John Russell that Seward “will be a dangerous foreign Minister,” and that Seward seemed to believe that nothing the United States did to subdue the South would provoke a British military response.
A State Department dinner in Washington late in March confirmed what Lyons most feared. There Seward explained his hope for a “counterrevolution” in the South within a few months that would bring those states back into the Union. But, he added, the North might need to hasten this by blocking southern shipping. Lyons replied that if the Union attempted to use force to stop “so important a commerce as that of Great Britain with the cotton growing States, I could not answer for what might happen.” Even if the supply of cotton remained steady but prices rose due to uncertain supply, pressure would build on Britain “to use all the means in her power to open those ports.” His anger aroused, Lyons then turned the table on Seward by announcing that the simplest solution was to grant recognition to the Confederacy, but added that he hoped things would not come to that. Undaunted, Seward defiantly informed Lyons and Henri Mercier, the French minister to Washington, and their Russian counterpart, Baron Edward de Stoeckl, that if a foreign ship left a southern port without the papers required by the laws of the United States, the American navy would seize it without compensation to their owners or nations. De Stoeckl argued correctly that for such a blockade to be respected in international law it had to be effective, and that considering the vast coastline of the Confederacy the federal navy was inadequate to that task. Seward replied with the policy that he and Lincoln would follow for the course of the war: federal actions would not constitute a blockade of a foreign power, but instead represented an effort to collect tariffs and enforce federal laws.
One week later Lyons reported that Seward had grown even more confrontational. His “style of braggadocio” had become “more and more violent and noisy, saying things which it would be more convenient for me not to have heard.” By now Mercier also had lost patience with Seward and wanted Lyons to have the discretionary power to recognize the Confederacy. “This seems to me to be going too fast,” wrote Lyons, but he did favor a concert of action between England and France. Lyons then suggested to Russell that “it might perhaps be well . . . that the [Confederate] Commissioners . . . should not be met with too strong a rebuff in England or in France.” If they were, Lyons believed that it would only further embolden a reckless Seward.
In April Lyons grew more pessimistic about keeping Britain out of the American conflict. If only for his selection of Seward for the State Department, Lyons concluded, Lincoln had proven that he lacked “any natural talents to compensate for his ignorance of everything but Illinois village politics.” Lincoln's unenforceable “paper blockade” would almost certainly force Britain and France to recognize the Confederacy and to send their fleets to confront Union forces. Lyons concluded that neither Lincoln nor his cabinet knew anything about foreign affairs, and yet remained overconfident about their strength in the community of nations. The fact that Lincoln's minister to France, William L. Dayton, did not even speak French must have made Lyons (and Mercier) cringe; at least Rost and Mann could speak French. By May, Lyons found Seward even more “arrogant and reckless towards Foreign Powers,” and Lincoln's cabinet in general to have “gone far beyond their constitutional Powers in their warmaking proceedings."
Seward threatened trade restrictions and seizure of British ships; Yancey offered nearly free trade and cotton. Seward unwittingly strengthened Yancey's hand. John Russell sadly concurred with Lyons about the federal government's “foolish and aimless” diplomacy and the danger to British neutrality if the Union attempted a blockade. “I do not see how the Southern ports can be declared not to be ports of entry without forcing on the question of recognition,” Russell confirmed. The foreign secretary urged Lyons to rely on Lincoln's leadership and patience, however, if only to keep Seward from dragging Britain into the conflict. “I shall see the Southerners when they come but not officially, & keep them at a proper distance,” Russell concluded on April 6.
Seward's blunders inadvertently helped pave the way for Yancey, Mann, and Rost to meet with Russell on May 3. William Gregory made the introductions and joined the informal discussion, which lasted about an hour. Yancey emphasized to Russell the bloodless nature of secession, Confederate preparations for military defense, and, of course, their sovereign status that allowed them to cancel their allegiance to the federal compact. Yancey argued that secession occurred only to preserve the rights and liberties of the southern people, and that the Union no longer offered that security. Slavery remained conspicuously absent from the conversation. Yancey, though, did remind Russell of the southern agricultural produce and enticed him with the possibility of favorable commercial agreements. Then Yancey directly asked for recognition. The foreign minister replied that was a matter for the cabinet to decide, and for now he must reserve all comment.
Considering Yancey's limited knowledge of European diplomacy, he had not done badly. After the meeting ended, he recorded in his diary that “favorable impressions seemed to have been made on Lord John, tho he was cautious & non-committal.” The Confederate commissioners met with Russell again on May 9, and with similar results. Without waiting for an official reply by Russell, Yancey sent Rost on to Paris to begin pleading the Confederate case in the court of Emperor Napoleon III.
But both Yancey and Russell had made up their minds on some critical issues. If only because of Lincoln's blockade, Russell concluded that Britain must grant the Confederacy status as a belligerent, if not as a sovereign nation. The Confederacy “has . . . duly constituted itself, and carries on a regular form of administration of the Civil Government.” Russell deplored secession and held “the greatest apprehension and concern [for] the misery and desolation” sure to come. On May 12, Queen Victoria proclaimed that Great Britain would remain neutral, although the Palmerston government did, in fact, recognize the Confederacy as a belligerent.

Unfortunately for the Confederacy, although the British (and the French) came tantalizingly close to full recognition, as explored in this post, they waited and waited, and then the South's disastrous military reversals of 1863 permanently closed the door on action. As Sheldon Vanauken put it, describing the most hopeful moments of September 1862:

The Government did not ever decide that there would be no action; they merely did not ever decide that it was time to act. They waited for the right moment – which was not to come again. And Parliament waited for the Ministry's need. And England waited upon the Parliament. And France waited to follow England.

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