Former reference librarian John D. Bennett, who lives in Leicester, England, has written the what I believe is the first book length account of the “London Confederates” i.e. the individuals and groups, both American and British, who backed the American South there during the Civil War. As such it’s a valuable addition to the political and cultural history of the conflict, but given the rather steep price of $55 it probably will find a space only on the shelf of the specialist. The book itself is nicely done by McFarland Press here in North Carolina, and includes a gazetteer, an index and no less than seven appendices.
Bennett opens with a lengthy and interesting chapter on London in the 1850s, then follows with chapters on diplomacy, propaganda, military supplies, ships for the Confederacy, spying, the Cotton Loan, business relations with the South, cultural support, and a chapter on support for the South in British society. Overall the book has a rather academic tone and in places is rather heavy going, but on the other hand there is a great deal of information there. Bennett’s former profession as a reference librarian and his ready access to British sources gives him ready access to sources that might elude an American author. To me the strongest part of the book deals with cultural matters, and here he has done a great job of digging out long-forgotten songs, plays, articles and the like pertaining to the Confederacy, who rightness or wrongness he does not judge. Bennett also includes an excellent selection of photos he took of various buildings still standing in London that played a part in the saga. My biggest criticism of the book is that the rich cast of characters in London on the 1860s—diplomats, arms dealers, spies, rogues, propagandists and many others—could have been more appealingly handled.
What comes across in the book is that support for the Confederacy in Britain was broad but not very deep, meaning that there was considerable sympathy across all levels of society (especially the intellectuals) for the Confederacy, but no willingness to go to war on its behalf or even to risk the consequences of an open break with the United States. The British Prime Minister, Lord Palmerston, while he followed an official policy of strict neutrality, nevertheless recognized the South as a belligerent, allowed unofficial meetings with its representatives, and permitted (or at least turned a blind eye to) a certain amount of arms sales and blockade running. The British withheld diplomatic recognition and Bennett confirms the conventional wisdom that this was dependent on battlefield victories. The only motion for recognition was introduced in Parliament in the summer of 1863 and withdrawn without a vote after Confederate defeats at Gettysburg and Vicksburg. One wonders what might have happened if Lee had won a smashing victory in Pennsylvania.
While there is a chapter on arms for the Confederacy, I do wish Bennett had gone into greater detail on this, as it is a special interest of mine. He does describe the largely successful efforts of Major Caleb Huse to procure first-class arms and to get them across the Atlantic. Regardless of their neutrality, the British were the chief arms suppliers to the Confederacy, and were the source of other vital military supplies as well.
Among the fascinating characters in London was Henry Hotze, a German-born Confederate, who organized a highly successful propaganda operation in London almost singlehandedly. He founded a newspaper, The Index, which printed Confederate propaganda; and also cultivated sympathetic journalists and intellectuals, feeding them information and encouraging them to write what would now be called op-eds in various influential newspapers and journals. This very modern operation was highly successful, and at least in part because of Hotze’s efforts much of the the British intelligentsia (e.g. Lord Acton, Thomas Carlyle, Matthew Arnold, Alfred Lord Tennyson, etc.) supported the cause of Southern independence even though they despised slavery. Many reasoned that slavery would be abandoned once the South gained its independence and joined the community of nations.
Speaking of slavery, it was definitely a sticking point for the British (who had abolished it in 1807) and there is no question that Lincoln struck a major blow against the Confederacy in Britain with the Emancipation Proclamation in the fall of 1862. Bennett is careful to point out that the South had plenty of enemies in Britain as well, especially those who saw the war as one of emancipation.
I found it amusing that the issue of media bias was as much of a problem then as it is now. Bennett shows that the London press, with few exceptions, was pro-Confederate and tended to report Southern successes and Union setbacks rather uncritically. The established press narrative became that the North could never subdue the South, and thus the fall of Richmond and the surrender of Lee’s army came as a shock to Fleet Street, who hastily issued revisions, much like the modern press after the success of the “surge” in Iraq. He also quotes numerous complaints by US officials of press bias and the failure of British authorities to enforce regulations against thinly disguised arms dealing, blockade running, and the arming of cruisers like the Alabama. Eventually the US officials established their own spy system to keep tabs on the Confederates, and would then lodge official protests against violators.
Overall, the Confederacy achieved much in Britain with very limited resources—arming and equipping its armies; obtaining ships for blockade running and raiding; raising money and establishing a limited diplomatic presence; and running a highly successful propaganda operation. Nevertheless, it failed in its larger goal of obtaining diplomatic recognition and bringing Britain into the war as an ally.
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