In April 1861, the United States declared a state of insurrection against the Confederacy of rebellious southern states. In Europe, the ordeal was referred to as "The American Question." The question could not be evaded; a choice had to be made between neutrality and intervention. European attitudes towards the American Civil War would have a significant effect on the war's ultimate outcome (Randall and Donald 355).
Throughout the early months of the conflict, the reaction of Europe was of great interest to both sides; Queen Victoria's Great Britain, in particular. Would Queen Victoria recognize Confederate independence? Such recognition would legitimize the Confederacy and provide it with allies who could furnish weapons and supplies the Southern cause desperately needed (Davis 197).
At the outbreak of the war, most foreigners were poorly informed about America, according to Leslie Stephen in 1865: The name of America five years ago, called up to the ordinary English mind nothing but a vague cluster of associations, compounded of Mrs. Trollope, Martin Chuzzlewit, and Uncle Tom's Cabin. The choice between neutrality and intervention was not an easy one; either choice would lead to more choices. The question dealt with several issues, and it was difficult to read the conflict amidst threatening demands of angry belligerents. England had to guess the future in order to make a wise decision while balancing interests at home (Randall and Donald 355). Europe's three greatest powers were England, France, and Russia. England and France had won control of Central and Eastern Europe by defeating Russia in the Crimean War (1854-1856) and now salivated at the prospect of a possible downfall of the United States government. Russia, on the other hand, needed the United States to balance its European enemies (Davis 197). Britain, however, was the biggest concern of the warring factions across the Atlantic. Neither side wanted Britain to remain strictly neutral. The Union wanted Britain to deny belligerent status to the Confederacy. The Confederacy wanted open intervention on their behalf (Randall and Donald 355). Queen Victoria issued her proclamation of British neutrality on May 13, 1861. She did, however, acknowledge the Confederacy as belligerents. This recognition gave the Confederacy the ability to purchase arms from neutral nations and seize ships on open oceans (Davis 197). The war had a direct impact on United States foreign relations. The most important of these relations was with Great Britain and France, Europe's two greatest powers ("Europe and the American Civil War" internet no page number). Queen Victoria's recognition of the Confederates as belligerents was viewed as an unfriendly act by United States President Abraham Lincoln's administration (Davis 197). The ruling classes of Britain and France clearly sympathized with the Confederacy so strongly that they might have been easily convinced to intervene with force of arms and bring about Southern independence. Both countries were monarchies, and under normal circumstances, monarchies do not like to see a rebellion succeed in any land, as the example may prove contagious; but the South was an aristocracy, and aristocrats shared a common bond. The fact that the Confederacy was largely democratic could be easily overlooked from across the Atlantic. French and English aristocrats had always been unhappy about the success of Yankee democracy. Europe's rulers would have been pleased if the nation showed that democracy could not hold it together ("Europe and the American Civil War" internet no page number). For years, the South and England had been close in business as well as society. Southern planters and English gentry were seen as equivalents. English aristocrats believed that America and Europe both would receive a much-needed check to democracy with a Confederate victory. English liberals also favored the South, as they likened the South's desire...
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