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Abraham Lincoln. Library of Congress, Words and Deeds in American History Collection Alternate: The first reading of the Emancipation Proclamation before the cabinet

[Detail] The first reading of the Emancipation Proclamation

Chronological Thinking: Foreign Affairs During the Civil War

While the Civil War is noteworthy as a conflict that pitted Americans against Americans, its impact reached beyond its shores. Conflict within the U.S. affected international relations, which in turn affected the war at home.

In November 1861 the Confederate States of America sent James Mason and John Slidell to Europe as representatives of their new government. They traveled on board the British ship Trent. Union Captain Charles Wilkes of the U.S.S. San Jacinto intercepted and boarded the Trent, apprehended the Confederate diplomats and took them to the U.S. where they were imprisoned. This outraged the British who considered it a violation of their neutrality, and the Trent Affair threatened to detonate a war. Writing to Lincoln on December 16, 1861, former president Millard Fillmore warned him against a war with Britain:

"...if we are so unfortunate as to be involved in a war with her at this time, the last hope of restoring the Union will vanish, and we shall be overwhelmed with the double calamities of civil and foreign war at the same time, which will utterly exhaust our resources, and may practically change the form of our government and compel us in the end to submit to a dishonorable peace."

From "Millard Fillmore to Abraham Lincoln, December 16, 1861 (Trent Affair)," Page 2.

The U.S. avoided a war by releasing Mason and Slidell and paying reparations to Britain. Search on Trent Affair for contemporary first hand accounts, such as a letter from Thurlow Weed reporting on the situation in Britain to Secretary of State William H. Seward.

Two years after the Trent Affair, the U.S. threatened war when they heard that a British company, the Laird Brothers,was going to provide the Confederacy with ironclad ram ships. Search on Laird Brothers for materials pertaining to that crisis. A letter from John Campbell to Lincoln suggests that by June 1864 British-U.S. relations had changed:

"I most unfeignedly rejoice in the movements which I observe to be taking place among the States for the renomination of your Excellency.

A copy of the British Standard herewith sent, expresses my deliberate opinion, and, I believe, the opinion likewise of multitudes of candid, reflecting, patriotic, and humane men in Great Britain.

You have achieved a mighty work, under an accumulation of obstacles, such as for variety, complexity, and magnitude, has never before surrounded the Ruler of any nation....

I pray that your life and health may be preserved to complete the stupendous work you have begun and so far carried on, & that you may in due season, see the accomplishment of your utmost wishes, both as it respects the Union and Slavery."

From "John Campbell to Abraham Lincoln, June 10, 1864 (Support for Lincoln's re-nomination in Great Britain)."

  • How serious was the Trent Affair?
  • According to Thurlow Weed, what were some of the causes of Britain's confrontational attitude toward the U.S. in 1861?
  • Was Lincoln willing to risk a war with Britain or France over the Trent Affair?
  • What was the nature of the controversy over the Laird rams?
  • What can you tell from John Campbell's letter about why British attitudes towards Lincoln might have changed over the course of the war?

In 1863, Stephen A. Hurlbut and James A. Hamilton wrote Lincoln of France's plans to court the Confederacy and to establish a colony in Mexico and Texas. Search on France and Maximilian to learn about how the U.S. responded when the French Army seized Mexico City and Napoleon appointed Prince Ferdinand Maximilian as ruler over Mexico.

  • Why was the Union concerned about the possibility of British or French influence in Mexico?
  • According to Hamilton, what would Napoleon have gained in colonizing Mexico and Texas?
  • Why was the Lincoln administration alarmed with the French installation of Ferdinand Maximilian as Emperor of Mexico? What was the U.S. response?
  • How did the Civil War impact the United States' relationship with Britain and France? How did it impact Lincoln's decisions about foreign affairs?

Use a timeline, outline, or some other chronological format to trace developments in international relations during the Civil War. Consider if the Trent Affair had resulted in a war with Britain or if France had succeeded in establishing a colony in Mexico and Texas. Create a timeline or write a short narrative illustrating what might have happened.

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