Although Napoleon III of France wished to recognize the Confederacy from almost the beginning, he was unwilling to take this step except in tandem with Britain. (All other European powers except perhaps Russia would have followed a British or French lead.) British policy on recognition of a revolutionary or insurrectionary government was coldly pragmatic. Not until it had proved its capacity to sustain and defend its independence, almost beyond peradventure of doubt, would Britain risk recognition. The Confederate hope, of course, was for help in gaining that independence.
Most European observers and statesmen believed in 1861 that the Union cause was hopeless. In their view, the Lincoln administration could never reestablish control over 750,000 square miles of territory defended by a determined and courageous people. And there was plenty of sentimental sympathy for the Confederacy in Britain, for which the powerful Times of London was the foremost advocates. Many Englishmen professed to disdain the vulgar materialism of money-grubbing Yankees and to project a congenial image of the Southern gentry that conveniently ignored slavery. Nevertheless, the government of Prime Minister Viscount Palmerston was anything but sentimental. It required hard evidence of the Confederacy’s ability to survive, in the form of military success, before offering diplomatic recognition. But it would also require Union military success to forestall that possibility. As Lord Robert Cecil told a Northern acquaintance in 1861: “Well, there is one way to convert us all—Win the battles, and we shall come round at once.”
But in 1861 the Confederacy won most of the battles—the highly visible ones, at least, at Manassas [Virginia], Wilson’s Creek (Missouri), and Balls Bluff. And by early 1862 the cotton famine was beginning to hurt….
The Times stated that if England could not “stop this effusion of blood by mediation, we ought to give our moral weight to our English kith and kin [Southern whites], who have gallantly striven so long for their liberties against a mongrel race of plunderers and oppressors.” The breakup of the United States, said the Times in August, would be good “riddance of a nightmare.”
SOURCE: Crossroads of Freedom: Antietam: The Battle That Changed the Course of the American Civil War, by James M. McPherson (Penguin, 2003), pp. 37-38, 58. Originally published by Oxford University Press in its series, Pivotal Moments in American History, which seeks “to encourage interest in problems of historical contingency,” according to the editor’s note by David Hackett Fischer, who continues:
Ideas of contingency are drawing more attention in historical scholarship, for several reasons. They offer a way forward, beyond the “old political history” and the “new social and cultural history,” by a reunion of process and event. They also restore a lost element of narrative tension to historical writing. A concept of contingency makes history more teachable and learnable, more readable and writable, more important and even urgent in our thinking about the world, and most of all more true to itself.
UPDATE: Jim Bennett leaves a well-informed comment that makes me want to add a few more points about the contingencies that McPherson’s account highlights:
It has become almost an article of faith in alternate histories that Britian was chomping at the bit to recognize the Confederacy. However, the balance of forces between the pro-Confederate and pro-Union forces was more nearly even than is sometimes recognized. The legacy of the British abolitionist movement was very strong, particularly in the Liberal Party, and in the powerful evangelical movement (to the extent that these three phenomena were not entirely congruent…). The subject cannot be discussed without reference to the mass pro-Union rallies in places like Birmingham and Manchester, by cotton workers who were often unemployed because of the Union blockade and who had every economic incentive to be pro-Confederate. Sympathetic Britons had explained many times to high-ranking Confederates that recognition would almost certainly have to entail a committment to emancipation, however gradual and compensated it might be. Yet the Condererates never took the hint. Once the Emancipation Proclamation had been made, the door to recognition was closed in terms of the realities of British politics.
Here’s a bit more from McPherson on European attitudes toward slavery:
Next to events on the battlefield and the worsening cotton famine [due to Southern embargoes as well as the Northern blockade], the slavery issue influenced European attitudes. Something of a paradox existed on this question, however. The American cotton wanted by British and French mills was nearly all grown by slaves. Yet most Europeans were antislavery. Britain had abolished slavery in its New World colonies in 1833 and France had done the same in 1848. The British were proud of their navy’s role as the world’s police against the African slave trade. Many in Britain who were inclined to sympathize with the Confederacy found slavery a large stumbling block.
McPherson stresses that Lincoln’s issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation was contingent upon an important Union victory, specifically, the very costly one at Antietam/Sharpsburg. (Lincoln didn’t want the Proclamation to be seen as a measure of desperation.) That victory in turn was contingent partly on Union officers intercepting Gen. Lee’s Special Order 191, which revealed how he had divided his forces; on the success of both Gen. McClellan and the citizens of northern Maryland in raising the morale of dispirited Federal troops; and on the general failure of Marylanders to rally to the Confederate cause, even though Maryland was a slave state. Finally, Lee’s decision to invade the north in the fall of 1862 reflected a desire to deal a knockout blow in the east to follow on a series of Union losses there and Confederate counteroffensives in Kentucky and Tennessee after the loss of New Orleans and most of the Mississippi River (except Vicksburg) in the spring of 1862. McPherson continually emphasizes the pendulum swings in domestic morale, political momentum, and foreign diplomacy that hinged on a web of contingencies that could have gone either way.