British Involvement in the American Civil War

The involvement of foreign nations is often overlooked when examining the American Civil War. European nations were extremely cautious when dealing with the United States of America during the Civil War, usually attempting to remain neutral during its duration. Though many nations remained neutral out of fear of war with the United States, Great Britain chose to become more and more involved as the Civil War progressed until the Emancipation Proclamation issued by President Abraham Lincoln forced Great Britain to reconsider their relationship with the Southern States.

       The reason behind Great Britain’s involvement within the American Civil War was primarily economic interest. In the mid-nineteenth century, a vast majority of the world’s cotton was produced within the Southern States of America. After the Southern States seceded from the Union, Great Britain was forced to tread carefully in order to avoid another war with the United States, which maintained that any foreign nation that aided the rebellious states would be committing an act of war against the United States. Though the United States issued a global decree warning against foreign involvement, Great Britain chose to ignore said decree and remained involved in trade and commerce with the Confederate states.

       On May 13th, 1861 Queen Victoria issued the proclamation of neutrality stating that the government of Great Britain would remain formally neutral in the United States’ domestic affairs for the remainder of the war, and instructed British citizens to observe this neutrality. However, many private British citizens and businesses covertly funded the Confederate cause. A vast majority of the Confederate Navy was built in Liverpool, England during the war using private dollar, and the port also became the unofficial location for the Confederate embassy within Great Britain. Not only were warships commissioned in Great Britain,so too were ships specifically designed to outrun Union blockade forces and smuggle illegal goods to and from Confederate controlled land. The use of Liverpool by the Confederacy, which was a source of great animosity between Union and Great Britain, could have forced Great Britain to join the American Civil War in favor of the Confederate States of America. Had it not been for Abraham Lincoln and his Emancipation Proclamation of 1863, they may have contemplated their role in the war further.

       The Emancipation Proclamation, issued January 1st, 1863, effectively made the Civil War become a matter of slavery and ethics. This was important because the people of Great Britain had forbidden slavery in their lands and holdings in 1833. In order to avert open rebellion among the working class, Great Britain officially withdrew its support of neutrality and condemned the Confederate States of America for their continued use and expansion of slavery.

Great Britain’s involvement within the American Civil War was not only a factor during the war itself, but the legacy of their involvement would affect the United States' foreign policy for years to come. Due to strong diplomatic ties with the United States, Great Britain was forced to tread carefully in the public eye, while private citizens and businesses dealt with the Confederate States of America covertly. With the amassing of funds and resources there for the war effort, the port of Liverpool became the home station for the Confederate States of America’s Navy; ships were built in order to evade the Union blockade, allowing cotton to go back to Great Britain, which would then be sold to the benefit both the Confederate and British  economy.

The Emancipation Proclamation of 1863 caused the British government to change their pledged neutrality to outright condemnation of the Confederacy in order to appease their own citizens. The overall role Great Britain played in the American Civil War was more prominent than most people know about, which is what this exhibit is focused on sharing. Enjoy.