Union in Peril: the Crisis Over British Intervention in the Civil War

by Howard Jones, Chapel Hill, U. of NC Press, 1992

Did McClellan's victory at Antietam edge the U.S. and Britain closer to war? So says the this dustjacket, making a selling point of the contention that "the bloody battle of Antietam, followed by the Emancipation Proclamation temporarily heightened the British move toward intervention rather than undercutting such a move." (The commonplace is that Antietam staved off European intervention.)

Author Jones is more cautious than his jacket designers. His text kills their interpretations:

[Prime Minister] Palmerston, of course, was the central figure in a mediation decision, and if he had moved closer to taking such an action before Antietam, in early October he moved just as cautiously farther away.

Case closed: McClellan staves off European intervention. Union out of Peril. End of book? No.

Jones shows, and Americans (including book jacket blurb writers) need to learn that the effects of McClellan's victory might have been undone by Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation, which released a storm of fury in Europe, turned much foreign public opinion against the North, and placed great pressure to intervene on Britain's fence-straddling government. Lincoln's proclamation, addressing as it did areas not under U.S. control, was seen as a pure-and-simple incitement to revolution and massacre. Newspapers were wild in their denunciations of Washington. That stream of argument contending that humanitarianism demanded intervention was strengthened.

So a distinction must be made between Antietam and the Proclamation, between the British public and the British government. Lord Palmerston, made his own use of McClellan's victory. He

devised a ... plan that would highlight Antietam's atrocities as a reason for peace wile delaying any formal interventionist move until the South achieved a decisive victory on the battlefield.

That the victory did not materialize while interventionist opinion was at its ripest was, perhaps, an extraordinary piece of luck for an Administration (Lincoln's) that constantly manufactured diplomatic bad luck for itself. There came a point when the British foreign minister learned that McClellan rebuked Lincoln for seizing the Trent: "I wish McClellan could be made dictator" he writes. This is my pick for quote of the book. (A close second is Seward's repeated public threat against France and Britain, "We will wrap the world in flames.")

Jones has done a good job isolating the intervention issue from the general mass of related diplomacy. His sympathy for Britain is evident and gives his perspectives freshness. This book is a fair choice for readers looking to get their feet wet in international relations during the Civil War.

Lord Punch: That was Jeff Davis, Pam! Don't you recognize him? Lord Palmerston: Hm! Well, not exactly - may have to do so some of these days.


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(c) 1998 The McClellan Society