Review: Caution and Cooperation: The American Civil War in British-American Relations

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.

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10 responses to “Review: Caution and Cooperation: The American Civil War in British-American Relations

  1. Fred Ray Avatar

    Haven’t read it yet, of course, but I’m not so sure that things were quite as lovey-dovey as the author seems to say. True that neither side was looking for enemies and the British were vulnerable in Canada, the Empire did wish to weaken the US if it could.

    I did a review of THE LONDON CONFEDERATES that looked at the broader picture — the British press was pretty much pro-Confederate and the Crown turned a blind eye to quite a lot of arms dealing. How does Meyers explain that Britain was the Confederacy’s largest supplier of arms and military supplies?

  2. Stephen Graham Avatar
    Stephen Graham

    It’s incorrect to state that Britain was the Confederacy’s largest supplier of arms – it wasn’t the British government but rather British merchants, who were largely seeking to make as large a profit as they could. Meyers makes the point that blockade runners more often ran in luxury goods.

    The other needed comparison is what was sold to the US. Rather a larger amount, wasn’t it? Would you then make the argument that Britain supported the US based that?

  3. Fred Ray Avatar
    Fred Ray

    I think you’re splitting hairs here. Certainly profit was a motive, but there was a considerable ideological content as well. The Crown could have cracked down on the arms trade (which included, small arms, artillery, material, and even ships) but turned a blind eye to it when possible. If Meyers thinks only luxury goods came in he hasn’t done his homework.

    I’ve seen nothing to indicate more arms were sold to the US, in fact after early 1862 at the latest the US preferred to make its own. Due at least in part to Southern sympathies, the Confederates got the best weapons, most of the trash went North.

    It was in the strategic interest of the British Empire to weaken the US if possible, and to insure its cotton supply by supporting an independent South. It wasn’t worth a war, however.

  4. Stephen Graham Avatar
    Stephen Graham

    The Crown did crack down on the arms trade and with greater force as the war drew on. That’s one of the major points Meyers makes.

    Note that Meyers said that blockade runners more often ran in luxury goods, not always. As far as I know, this is true.

    As for the Confederacy getting the “best weapons”, exactly how much did they get? What’s the monetary value of that compared to the trade conducted with the US? Which was really more valuable to Britain?

  5. Phil Myers Avatar
    Phil Myers

    Thanks to Brett for taking time to review my book. I enjoyed the review and the subsequent comments about the book. I’d be happy to engage in further discussion about some of the point Brett and the responders brought up. I’m working on the sequel that will continue the argument through the end of the century. It is tentatively entitled: Collapsing Tension: The Resolution of British-American-Canadian Disputes After the Civil War.” It will be another three years though with more archival trips coming up. Thanks again to all.

  6. […] theme of recent book reviews for another day, let’s take a look at the comments section from my recent review of Phil Myers’ new book Caution and Cooperation: The American Civil War in Br….  Fellow TOCWOC blogger Fred Ray long-time TOCWOC reader Stephen Graham had a discussion about the […]

  7. Mark Kucinic Avatar
    Mark Kucinic

    An excellent review, but . . .

    the premise is more hyperbole than fact. I’m unaware of any serious historian who thought a war between G.B and U.S. during this period was remotely possible.


    “Palmerston faced a potential invasion threat posed by Napoleon III and France.”

    I would be interested in knowing what documents he cites for this. France and Great Britian had just fought the Crimean War as allies and it is essentially accepted that in foreign policy matters, in spite of Napoleon’s often adventuristic exploits (Mexico!) he defered to Palmerston on matters of international relations. Britian, on the other hand, was having very strained relations with Russia, Prussia and Austria, so a continental threat did exist, it just most certainly wasn’t France.

    “While reading, I was struck by Myers’ continued stress on the importance of private diplomacy.”

    An excellent point, but it should be kept in mind that before the rise of democracies and, more importantly, the media, this was essentially Standard Operating Procedure in international relations. When it worked and it was administered by first rate diplomats, it worked well. When it didn’t, we got World War I.

  8. Phil Myers Avatar
    Phil Myers

    I appreciate Mark’s points. Perhaps I can shed more light on them. First, Palmerston worried with other British statesmen of the Whig and Conservative persuasions about a French invasion threat from 1806 onwards. In his mind, this threat became pronounced with the advent of steam which elevated the proximity of the French army and navy to Britain irregardless, as Pam said, of wind and waves. He was certainly wary of this threat during his first stint as foreign secretary in the 1830s and his second stint prior to the Crimean War. Franco-British relations were none too good during that war; and hard feelings between the two powers issued from it. As prime minister after the war, Pam worried about the naval arms race with France; and tensions increased to a peak about modern ironclad naval construction up to and including the first years of the American Civil War. In 1859-60, so frightened were British leaders of both the Liberal and Conservative parties of a French invasion that a volunteer force to protect Britain’s ports was formed and Pam worked to prepare these ports for a French invasion although he had opposition from Gladstone and others who wanted to cut defense expenditures. His plans included fortifying the channel islands also.

    Palmerston knew Napoleon III but, like the rest of Europe, never trusted the emperor. It was telling that the British reluctantly went along on the expedition with France and Spain into Mexico in the winter of 1861 (the U.S. refused to join) but sent only a token naval force, partly because of the perceived threat of France to the British lifeline in the Mediterranean and on to the Far East, and partly because of the need for the Royal Navy to be present as a deterrent, Pam’s strategy for decades, on the North American and West Indies station. No one knew how the CW would break out in terms of naval operations at the time. Meanwhile, Napoleon III was concocting his “Grand Design” to liberalize conservative Europe and spread the seeds of that plan to Mexico, albeit under a monarchy. This pronounced British suspicions about the emperor.

    Mark, you are correct about Napoleon not intervening in the CW unless Britain led the way. But his correspondence with Spain and, reticently, with Whitehall showed that he was willing to intervene. British suspicions that he might back out of an intervention thrust and leave Britain at war with the Union, along with Britain’s traditional non-intervention policy, was a reason that Britain continued strict neutrality during the war and became more stringent in stopping Confederate naval building after the escapes of the raiders in 1862.

    Finally, the historiography of this period suggests tensions between Britain and the United States that could at any time have resulted in an international war. There was enough of that writing to lead me to my book to allay the argument of those suggestions by historians such as Kenneth Bourne, Charles Campbell, Howard Jones and others. Moreover, the historiography of war chances had been undeveloped since Jones’s Union in Peril on the CW’s first two years through the intervention crisis. Jones argues that even after Antietam the possibilities of a war heightened and that relations were tense enough to bring on fighting through the mid-summer of 1863. I try to dissolve that idea in chapter 5 of my book by drawing on Britain’s traditional “hands off” policy toward North America that had resulted in her redeployment and cession of her territorial interests by treaty after 1815.

    On private diplomacy, I showed that it has been overlooked as a medium for maintaining stability in British-America relations; and I am working now to show how it grew in influence following the CW to take the relationship to the other side of tensions on a number of matters. The stability in relations that I show was achieved and strengthened during the CW and throughout the antebellum period underlines what I am doing now.

    Thanks for your perceptive comments. I’ve tried to add additional information. Also remember Britain’s isolationist stance in international relations during this time, which meant that although its relations were strained with France and the other powers, her prosperity was too great to risk a fight with anyone. Liberalism, which meant smaller military budgets, was on the rise in Britain during the 1860s and was a further influence pushing Britain back from being a vindictive power. After the CW, the focus of my present work, liberal politics eased the relationship and led to, for the times, comprehensive treaty making and arbitration to settle British-American disputes, which was quite different, as you say, from what was happening to the opportunistic Napoleon III and the method of settlement by warfare on the Continent. As you say so well, war as the primary method of settlement kept building into the twentieth century. British-American relations went the way of peace and the rapprochement continued to strengthen as the twentieth century approached and got underway.

  9. Mark Kucinic Avatar
    Mark Kucinic

    I am . . . abashed! I thought I was addressing the messenger and I see I have the author.

    First, I would like to say that I’m probably 100% in agreement with your book’s conclusion. Morgenthau, Kissinger, et al have long characterized Great Britian’s policy of “splendid isolation” during this period and, although she was not above posturing, almost all her actions, were based on formal agreements. Furthermore, since “it takes two to tango” and both Seward and Lincoln clearly wanted to avoid any distractions to the issue at hand, the prospect of actual conflict was highly remote indeed.
    My argument is with your interpretation of the peripheral issue of Franco-British relations. While France no doubt posed some “threat” (just because your paranoid, doesn’t mean someone isn’t plotting against you) I should think that, as you say “you are correct about Napoleon not intervening in the CW unless Britain led the way”. Hence, had Great Britian sought to go to war, Napoleon could be viewed as minimally a disinterested ally, not a threat.

    I would contend that the only threat France did pose was as a proverbial “loose cannon” that would upset the exceedingly fragile peace/balance of power in Europe and in which the conservative government felt it had a very real stake in maintaining.

    With the exception of Kenneth Bourne, I am unfamiliar with the other historians you mention. However, having long held that one is more apt to learn something from a well reasoned argument by someone with whom you disagree than someone you agree, could you suggest a book or article by one of these authors.

  10. Phillip E. Myers Avatar
    Phillip E. Myers

    Hi Mark,
    I agree with you on Napoleon III as a “loose cannon.” But there is rather disconcerting book out that shows him as trying to assert a moral influence on Europe (behind his 400,000 man army, that Britain needed to support its defensive posture in Europe-the Scheldt Estuary for commerce), through his “Grand Design.” This book is by Cunningham, Michele. Mexico and the Foreign Policy of Napoleon III. New York: Palgrave, 2001. Nicholas C. Edsall addresses the Anglo-French naval rivalry in Richard Cobden: Independent Radical, I believe in his chapter 8, which is succinct and worth a look. Charles S. Campbell’s From Revolution to Rapprochement. New York, John Wiley, 1974, is the antithesis of my argument, and a good survey in addition to Bourne’s scholarship. For more on the international proportions of the Civil War see Crook, D. P. The North, the South, and the Powers, 1861-1865. New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1974. On the Anglo-French naval rivalry see Hamilton, C. I. Anglo-French Naval Rivalry, 1840-1870. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1993; and two books by Lambert, Andrew. Battleships in Transition: The Creation of the Steam Battlefleet, 1815-1860. Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1984.
    ______. The Crimean War: British Grand Strategy, 1853-56. New York: Manchester University Press, 1990. For Britain’s accepting the French invasion scare in the 1840s, 50s, and early 60s as a real threat, and what Britain did about it, see Partridge, Michael Stephen. Military Planning for the Defense of the United Kingdom, 1814-1870. Contributions in Military Studies, no. 91. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1989.

    I’ll stop there but let me know if you need more.



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