The Civil War Connections Blog

Outside Intervention

When reflecting upon the Civil War, it is easy to focus solely on the events that occurred within the continental U.S.  But why shouldn’t we?  Doesn’t the nature of a civil war beg scholars to pore over maps, recounts of battles, and other sources which provide first-hand accounts of the conflict that raged on this nation’s soil?  The truth remains, however, that the global climate of the 1860’s should not be forgotten in the wake of the clash between the Union and the Confederacy.

American citizens during the conflict did not cast their eyes away from the affairs of the world.  If anything, they were quite astute in regard to international relations; at least, in relation to how other nations could affect the outcome of the war.  In the February 15, 1862 issue of Harper’s Weekly, an article titled “Foreign Intervention” on page 98 highlights the concern which resonated amongst residents in the northern states that England or France could possibly intervene in the Civil War.  In the following excerpt, notice how the author tries to dissuade this notion by discrediting the foreign papers which allude to any possibility of involvement.  And, like any good journalist of the 19th century, the imperative aid which France leant the colonies during the revolution is purposefully omitted.

To be fair to the spirit which drives this article, foreign intervention in the Civil War was no laughing matter.  The rhetoric displayed was not employed solely to gain an audience, but to diffuse the rational fear that a European power could become involved and change the circumstances of the war…in favor of the Confederacy.  The author is correct in asserting that countries such as England were interested in the cotton and raw materials that the South produced and harvested.  Though the following assertion is only speculation, had England leant full military support to the Confederacy, the relations developed after the war with that nation, as well as the overall outcome of the war, could have been radically different.



Quite a hubbub was created last week by a few articles in obscure London journals suggesting an armed intervention of the great Powers of Europe in our quarrel. The papers in question are not known, even by name, to the bulk of our readers, and their utterances are entitled to no more notice than would be paid here to the disquisitions of any of our fourth or fifth rate political sheets. Yet our people are so absurdly sensitive to every thing that is said of them abroad, and foreign papers are somehow regarded as so much more reliable than journals at home, that the idle nonsense of the London Observer and the Manchester Guardian disturbed men’s digestion, and caused a general decline in the stock market.


It is hard to see what either England or France would gain by intervening in our quarrel. What they want is cotton in the first place, and a market for cotton and silk goods in the second: in other words, they want to see their old commercial relations with this country re- stored. No one surely supposes that they can achieve this by becoming parties to the war. They can not bombard us into buying their manufactures, nor can they expect to import cotton from the Southern States in the teeth of our privateers and our armies. The war has already deprived them of one half their customers in this country; intervention would strip them of the other half. Their true policy is to hasten a peace; and as soon as our armies be- gin to “earn their living,” as Secretary Stanton says, they will perceive that this can best be done by ceasing to afford shelter to Southern privateers and to lionize rebels. No other kind of intervention would be either safe or politic, or reconcilable with the interests of their commerce.


International usage is very clear in regard to the intervention of one power in the domestic quarrels of another. Seventy-five years ago such interventions were common, and England, the great bully of the world, was excessively prone to them. She spent over $5,000,000,000 in an intervention against Napoleon the First. France, again, in 1823, intervened in Spain, and the fall of the Bourbon dynasty was partly due to the odium the measure reflected on the French Government. In 1827, France, England, and Russia intervened in Greece, and secured its independence. The consequence of this intervention was the Crimean war. In fact, there has not been an intervention of any kind for a century which has not been productive of injury to the nation intervening. This principle is so well understood in Europe that non-intervention has long been a cardinal principle of European international polity. Some of the British papers draw fancied analogies between the affair of Greece and Turkey and the rebellion of the Southern States. If the analogy existed it would afford the best possible reason for letting us alone, for every European statesman is well aware that Navarino was a gigantic political blunder. But the cases are, in fact, widely dissimilar. Greece had been struggling for freedom against a brutal, God-forsaken, Moslem despotism for six long years, and for many months before the battle of Navarino the Turkish general, Ibrahim Pacha, had been causing the blood of all Christians to curdle in their veins by cropping the ears of every male Greek upon whom he could lay his hands, and selling the young girls into Turkish harems—dealing with his enemy, in fact, much as the officers of the British army dealt with their enemy in the Indian rebellion of 1857. Even our English critics will admit that no such horrors have taken place here.

A favorite falsehood of the British newspaper writers is to assert that France is urging England to break the blockade. Not a line or a word in support of this theory is to be found in any French paper; and there is, in fact, no reasonable ground for supposing that the sagacious sovereign of France is really pursuing so unwise a course. The silk manufacturers of Lyons are distressed, it is true, by the falling off in the demand for French silks at the North. But it is hardly the right way to remedy this mischance to go to war with us about it…