By Nancy Spannaus
Dec. 9, 2022–Most Americans don’t think about it that way, but the U.S. Civil War was far from being a domestic affair. From beginning to end, the world’s leading powers lined up in either support or opposition to President Abraham Lincoln’s commitment to save the Union and defeat slavery. They knew the outcome of that war would have major international repercussions.
So, who supported us in this endeavor? Was it the British Empire, which is celebrated for having abolished slavery in 1833 (1843 in India)? Was it the French, who had initially banned slavery in the early 1790s, and were the oldest international allies of the United States?
No, neither. To quote the U.S. Naval Historical Association, “The only important European country which was not openly anti-Northern was Russia.” In fact, the Russian government of Czar Alexander II not only acted to block European recognition of the Confederacy, but it also sent a naval squadron to our shores in the fall of 1863 to indicate support.
A Remarkable Report
I came across this report by the Naval Historical Association when looking up some details about the arrival of the Russian fleet. Within the current geopolitical environment, it is nothing less than astounding for its frankness.
First, there’s the portrayal of the view of the British Empire, allegedly the most active force against slavery on the world scene. Why wouldn’t its leaders eagerly support an anti-slavery war? Let’s quote the Navy Foundation document:
Just prior to the Civil War, however, the trials which democracy in the United States was experiencing were of interest to many of the world powers. It was in the interest of some to see the Union split in two. Independence of the Confederacy would weaken a growing and dangerous commercial competitor. “King Cotton” could rule again. A divided United States was of interest to others because that would, in their opinion, weaken the effectiveness of the Monroe Doctrine and the prospect of its enforcement. The point of common interest, however, was who was to be the winner in the event of a divided United States.
In England, the landed aristocracy had much in common with their counterparts in the Southern states. The working class, however, was sympathetic to the North for its anti-slavery attitude as upholding the cause of free white labor. The British government could find it quite expedient, therefore, at least to proclaim neutrality. Actually, so long as England considered the objective of the war as extending only to the restoration of the Union, rather than to the freeing of the slaves, the sentiment was against the North. A divided United States gave Britain a sense of greater security. (emphasis added)
In fact, the outlook of the British aristocracy was potentially much more menacing to the American republic. During the fall of 1862, there was active discussion about Britain and France agreeing to lift the blockade of the Confederacy, effectively siding with the insurgents. Chancellor of the Exchequer William Gladstone, allegedly anti-slavery, was the most outspoken advocate of siding with the South. Eventually, in part because Russia indicated its unwillingness to join in this strategy (which was being sold under the name of “mediation”), Great Britain decided against the move.
And the French? As I have noted previously with my post on the Cinco de Mayo, Emperor Napoleon III was also anxious for a split-up of the United States, as advantageous to his efforts to take over the nation of Mexico. To quote the Naval document,
France, under Napoleon III, was probably the most persistent European anti-Northern country. Striving for world power and prestige, it was pleased at the prospect of a divided United States that would be less effective in the enforcement of the Monroe Doctrine, which Napoleon considered as standing in the way of his plans for a French colonial empire. The political chaos then prevailing in Mexico led him to conclude that it offered an appropriate jumping-off place for devitalizing the Doctrine. The Emperor laid plans to establish Archduke Maximilian on the throne in Mexico. The Archduke was a brother of the Austrian Emperor which enhanced the sentiment for the South in the Vienna Court. As early as April 1861, the French Minister, Henri Mercier, made overtures to Lord Lyons, the British Minister, and Edouard de Stoeckl, the Russian, to have them obtain the authority of their respective governments to recognize the Confederacy when they considered “the right time” had come. Actually, Mercier’s moves were unproductive because neither of them was willing to act.
Where the Naval Foundation article falls short, is in its discussion of why autocratic Russia would be amenable to an alliance with the republican United States. Yes, it mentions the two nations’ joint opposition to British financial dominance, which certainly was a live concern, as well as the drives for modernization in both countries. These were, in my view, the major dynamics which brought the nations together. But the Naval Foundation puts primary emphasis on the fact that Russia was engaged in suppressing a revolt by the Poles at the time, and therefore had an interest in preventing “separatism” as represented by the South.
Of course, both the British and French Empires had equally strong commitments to holding their empires together – but that did not make their leaderships sympathetic to the Lincoln Administration and its Hamiltonian program for true economic independence and economic development. The British were particularly annoyed by the Morrill Tariff, which was designed to protect and build up U.S. heavy industry. Lord Palmerston is famously quoted as telling August Belmont: “We do not like slavery, but we want cotton and we dislike your Morrill tariff.”
The International Repercussions
It is beyond the scope of this article to further discuss the strategic dimensions of the Civil War. But a few words about the global repercussions of the Union victory are required.
The Union’s success can truly be said to have shifted the world in the direction of economic progress and freedom. The United States experienced what could be called an economic takeoff, evident in the rapid growth of infrastructure and industry, and overtaking of Great Britain in areas of industrial production like steel. The U.S. also became a global model to nations who had found their economic growth suppressed by the British Empire and other oligarchies. The nations of Germany and Japan, in particular, sought to follow the lead of the American System in breaking down local satrapies, using tariffs to support industry, establishing national banking, and unifying their nations with modern infrastructure.
Russia and many South American countries were also greatly influenced by the ideas which had put the United States on the road to progress. The “experiment” which the Founders had begun in 1787 has definitely shown that it was here to stay.
Are there lessons for today we can learn from this slice of history? I leave it to you to decide.
 This association was founded in 1926 in order to preserve and publicize U.S. Naval history. It is currently being dissolved through a merger with the U.S. Naval Institute.
 For more on this program, see Hamilton Versus Wall Street, The Core Principles of the American System of Economics, by this author. Available at https://www.iuniverse.com/BookStore/BookDetails/788568-hamilton-versus-wall-street