Phillip E. Myers. Caution and Cooperation: The American Civil War in British-American Relations (New Studies in U.S. Foreign Relations). Kent, OH: The Kent State University Press (March 28, 2008). 332 pages, notes, bibliography, index. ISBN: 978-0873389457 $55.00 (Hardcover w/DJ).
How close did Great Britain and the North come to blows while the American Civil War raged? Not as close as previously thought, according to Caution and Cooperation author Phillip E. Myers. In his book, Myers goes against the commonly held belief that British involvement in the Civil War was imminent several times during that conflict. Myers overturns the commonly held assumption that war was only narrowly averted between the two nations from 1861-1865 by looking at British-American relations prior to, during, and after the Civil War. Using multiple sources, especially the writing of those involved in diplomatic relations, Myers is able to demonstrate how diplomacy controlled the Civil War rather than the other way around.
Prior histories of British-American relations during the war have given undue influence to events such as the Trent Affair and the building of the Confederate raider Alabama in Great Britain. However, Myers shows that the diplomatic tradition of caution and cooperation established in the antebellum decades continued to work uninhibited by civil war. There was a “prewar rapprochement ” for quite a few reasons, according to Myers, among them a common tradition, commerce and investments between the two nations, an antislavery policy, antimilitarism, Francophobia, and compromise (especially on the British side). Myers asserts that some other historians have missed this longstanding spirit of caution and cooperation by focusing exclusively on the years from 1861 to 1865.
Myers believes there was an “unsettled atmosphere” in British-American relations from the beginning of the Civil War through the Trent affair and the British and American cabinet crises of late 1862. Once President Lincoln and Prime Minister Palmerston successfully handled the Trent issue and overcame their cabinet issues, however, the antebellum status quo returned for the rest of the war. I was particularly impressed with Myers’ comparison of the Lincoln and Palmerston cabinets at the end of 1862, so impressed I thought I would include the relevant paragraph here:
The Lincoln and Palmerston cabinets began to resemble each other in their policies. Neither wanted a foreign war. Gladstone and Lewis, like Chase and Stanton, were anxious to succeed their master. Gladstone and Chase, the most ambitious ministers, embarrassed themselves. The chief executives propelled their ministers and prevailed in decision making. These similar experiences stopped war talk in both cabinets. Domestic politics were more important than risking political careers in an international war. Thus the outcomes of the cabinet crises on both sides of the Atlantic helped preserve the rapprochement.
While reading, I was struck by Myers’ continued stress on the importance of private diplomacy. The author focuses mainly on two relationships. The first was between Lord Richard Lyons, British foreign minister to America, and William Henry Seward, American Secretary of State. Lyons quickly recognized that despite some early bluster, Seward was dedicated to keeping the peace between the two nations and had Lincoln’s fill support. The second was between American foreign minister to Great Britain Charles Francis Adams and British foreign secretary Lord John Russell. Adams and Russell also formed a strong team and grew to understand each other as the war progressed. Russell’s actions taken to prevent more raiders like the Alabama from being built and launched from British ports did much to appease the North.
The thorny issue of the Union blockade of the Confederacy for the British government is widely discussed in Caution and Cooperation. Rather than being a divisive issue, however, Myers believes several issues involving the blockade actually helped British-American relations. First, the British recognized the Union blockade earlier than was necessary. This had a calming effect on American politicians who were worried about the threat the British posed. Second, Lincoln purposefully allowed some traffic to slip through the blockade in order to benefit British trade. Inflammatory commanders such as Charles Wilkes, prominently involved in the Trent Affair and other incidents, were transferred away from possible flash points. Cooperative leaders such as British Admiral Alexander Milne, on the other hand, were quietly given approval by both governments. Milne, for instance, was wined and dined in Washington, D.C.
Slavery played a large role in Myers’ evaluation of relations between the Lion and the Eagle as well. Most British citizens, from Lord Palmerston down to the poorest of the poor, did not relish the possibility of supporting a slaveholding South. Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation only magnified the issue and showed the British population that one of the North’s main war aims was to eradicate slavery.
Southern attempts at diplomacy ironically strengthened British-American cooperation, says Myers. Mason and Slidell, the foreign ministers to Great Britain and France captured aboard the Trent, were terribly equipped to do the job they were sent for. Davis’ strategy to withhold cotton also backfired when Great Britain saw through the scheme.
Canada initially considered a major point of concern by both sides. Britain had to worry about France as a major threat in Europe and could not spare the troops required to defend Canada. The United States worried that Great Britain might open a second front in the northern United States and attempt to break the Union blockade of the South. However, it became apparent very soon after the war started that the United States had no interest in taking Canada by force or annexation. This greatly eased British worries. At the same time, America saw that Britain had no interest in a troop build-up in Canada, instead insisting that the Canadian provinces form their own confederation and raise a militia for self-defense.
From 1863-1865, both sides worked together tirelessly and behind the scenes to make sure no incidents precipitated a war between the two powers. Throughout the book, Myers repeatedly stresses the endless reasons why neither side could afford a war with the other. Lincoln had the very obvious issue of a Civil War. Palmerston faced a potential invasion threat posed by Napoleon III and France. Both men ran governments holding power very precariously, and booth wanted to avoid any major issues with the other at all costs. Though Lincoln and Palmerston both died in 1865, British and American caution and cooperation continued unabated, just as it had for decades.
Myers uses a variety of bibliographic sources, and the book is full of end notes. The author looked at the unpublished papers of many key players, including Lincoln, Palmerston, Russell, Seward, and Adams. His treatment of private diplomacy benefits as a result. The author appears thoroughly well-versed in the historic literature on this topic, both from his discussions in the text and his lengthy notes.
Caution and Cooperation is an excellent addition to my Civil War library. Myers convincingly and repeatedly shows that private diplomacy, a reliance on a tradition of caution and cooperation, and a mutual desire to avoid war at all costs permeated British-American relations throughout the Civil War. Myers also thoroughly debunks the assertions of past historians that Great Britain and America ever came realistically close to fighting a war in the years from 1861-1865. Published by The Kent State University Press, Caution and Cooperation is a little pricey at a listed price of $55.00. However, if you follow the link to Amazon I provided earlier in the review, you can find the book for a very reasonable price. This is especially true since Myers has produced a model study which I am sure will produce much discussion on this subject in the years to come. If you are interested in Civil War era politics, foreign relations, and particularly the subject of British-American relations, you will enjoy Caution and Cooperation: The American Civil War in British-American Relations.
I would like to thank Susan L. Cash and Brett J. Neff at The Kent State University Press.
Drew Wagenhoffer reviewed Caution and Cooperation last week.
Check out Brett’s Civil War Books!
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