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Chapter 38:

  • Relations with Foreign nations
  • -- the public questions -- ministers abroad -- usages of intercourse between nations -- our action -- mistake of European nations: following the example of England and France -- different conditions of the belligerents -- injury to the Confederacy by the policy of European powers relative to the blockade -- the Paris conference: principles adopted -- acceded to by the Confederacy with a single exception -- extent of the pretended blockade -- remonstrances against its recognition -- sinking vessels to Block up harbors -- every Proscription of maritime law violated by the United States government -- addition made to the law by Great Britain -- policy pursued favorable to our enemies -- mediation proposed by France to Great Britain, and Russian letter of French Minister -- reply of Great Britain -- reply of Russia -- letter to French Minister at Washington -- various offensive actions of the British government -- hollow profession of neutrality.

The public questions arising out of our foreign relations were too important to be overlooked. At the end of the first year of the war the Confederate States had been recognized by the leading governments of Europe as a belligerent power. This continued unchanged to the close. Mason became our representative in London, Slidell in Paris, Rost in Spain, and Mann in Belgium. They performed the positions with energy and skill, but were unsuccessful in obtaining our recognition as an independent power.

The usages of intercourse between nations require that official communication be made to friendly powers of all organic changes in the constitution of states. To those who are familiar with the principles upon which the states known as the United States were originally constituted, as well as those upon which the Union was formed, the organic changes made by the secession and confederation of the Southern states are very apparent. But to others an explanation may be necessary. Each of the states was originally declared to be sovereign and independent. In this condition, at a former period, all of those then existing were severally recognized by name by the only one of the powers which had denied their right to independence. This gave to each a recognized national sovereignty. Subsequently they formed a compact of voluntary [312] union, whereby a new organization was constituted, which was made the representative of the individual states in all general intercourse with other nations. So long as the compact continued in force, this agent represented merely the sovereignty of the states. But, when a portion of the states withdrew from the compact and formed a new one under the name of the Confederate States, they had made such organic changes in their Constitution as to require official notice in compliance with the usages of nations.

For this purpose the provisional government took early measures for sending to Europe commissioners charged with the duty of visiting the capitals of the different powers and making arrangements for the opening of more formal diplomatic intercourse. Prior, however, to the arrival abroad of these commissioners, the government of the United States had addressed communications to the different cabinets of Europe, in which it assumed the attitude of being sovereign over the Confederate States, and alleged that these independent states were in rebellion against the remaining states of the Union, and threatened Europe with manifestations of its displeasure if it should treat the Confederate States as having an independent existence. It soon became known that these pretensions were not considered abroad to be absurd as they were known to be at home; nor had Europe yet learned what reliance was to be placed in the official statements of the cabinet at Washington. The delegation of power granted by the states to the general government to represent them in foreign intercourse had led European nations into the grave error of supposing that their separate sovereignty and independence had been merged into one common sovereignty, and had ceased to have a distinct existence. Under the influence of this error, which all appeals to reason and historical fact were vainly used to dispel, our commissioners were met by the declaration that foreign governments could not assume to judge between the conflicting representations of the two parties as to the true nature of their previous relations. The governments of Great Britain and France accordingly signified their determination to confine themselves to recognizing the self-evident fact of the existence of a war, and to maintain a strict neutrality during its progress. Some of the other powers of Europe pursued the same course of policy, and it became apparent that by some understanding, express or tacit, Europe had decided to leave the initiative in all action touching the contest on this continent to the two powers just named, who were recognized to have the largest interests involved, both by reason of proximity to and of the extent of intimacy of their commercial relations with the states engaged in war. [313]

It was manifest that the course of action adopted by Europe, while based on an apparent refusal to determine the question or to side with either party, was, in point of fact, an actual decision against our rights and in favor of the groundless pretensions of the United States. It was a refusal to treat us as an independent government. If we were independent states, the refusal to entertain with us the same international intercourse which was maintained with our enemy was unjust, and was injurious in its effects, whatever might have been the motive which prompted it. Neither was it in accordance with the high moral obligations of that international code, whose chief sanction is the conscience of sovereigns and the public opinion of mankind, that those eminent powers should have declined the performance of a duty peculiarly incumbent on them, from any apprehension of the consequences to themselves. One immediate and necessary result of their declining the responsibility of a decision, which must have been adverse to the extravagant pretensions of the United States, was the prolongation of hostilities to which our enemies were thereby encouraged, and which resulted in scenes of carnage and devastation on this continent and of misery and suffering on the other such as have scarcely a parallel in history. Had those powers promptly admitted our right to be treated as all other independent nations, none can doubt that the moral effect of such action would have been to dispel the pretension under which the United States persisted in their efforts to accomplish our subjugation.

There were other matters in which less than justice was rendered to the Confederacy by ‘neutral’ Europe, and undue advantage conferred on the aggressors in a wicked war. At the inception of hostilities, the inhabitants of the Confederate States were almost exclusively agriculturists; those of the United States were to a large extent mechanics, merchants, and navigators. We had no commercial marine, while their merchant vessels covered the ocean. We were without a navy, while they had powerful fleets built by the money we had in full share contributed. The power which they possessed for inflicting injury on our coasts and harbors was thus counter-balanced in some measure by the exposure of their commerce to attack by private armed vessels. It was known to Europe that within a very few years past the United States had peremptorily refused to accede to proposals for the abolition of privateering, on the ground, as alleged by them, that nations owning powerful fleets would thereby obtain undue advantage over those possessing inferior naval force. Yet no sooner was war flagrant between the Confederacy and the United States than the maritime powers of Europe [314] issued orders prohibiting either party from bringing prizes into their ports. This prohibition, directed with apparent impartiality against both belligerents, was in reality effective against the Confederate States only, for they alone could find a hostile commerce on the ocean. Merely nominal against the United States, the prohibition operated with intense severity on the Confederacy by depriving it of the only means of maintaining its struggle on the ocean against the crushing superiority of naval force possessed by its enemies. The value and efficiency of the weapon which was thus wrested from our grasp by the combined action of ‘neutral’ European powers, in favor of a power which professes openly its intention of ravaging their commerce by privateers in any future war, is strikingly illustrated by the terror inspired among commercial classes of the United States by a single cruiser of the Confederacy. One small steamer, commanded by officers and manned by a crew who were debarred by the closure of neutral ports from the opportunity of causing captured vessels to be condemned in their favor as prizes, sufficed to double the rates of marine insurance in Northern ports, and consign to forced inaction numbers of Northern vessels, in addition to the direct damage inflicted by captures at sea.

But it was especially in relation to the so-called blockade that the policy of European powers was so shaped as to cause the greatest injury to the Confederacy, and to confer signal advantages on the United States. A few words in explanation may here be necessary.

Prior to the year 1856 the principles regulating this subject were to be gathered from the writings of eminent publicists, the decisions of admiralty courts, international treaties, and the usages of nations. The uncertainty and doubt which prevailed in reference to the true rules of maritime law, in time of war, resulting from the discordant and often conflicting principles announced from such varied and independent sources, had become a grievous evil to mankind. Whether a blockade was allowable against a port not invested by land as well as by sea, whether a blockade was valid by sea if the investing fleet was merely sufficient to render ingress to the blockaded port evidently dangerous, or whether it was further required for its legality that it should be sufficient ‘really to prevent access,’ and numerous other similar questions, had remained doubtful and undecided.

Animated by the highly honorable desire to put an end ‘to differences of opinion between neutrals and belligerents, which may occasion serious difficulties and even conflicts’ (such was the official language), the five great powers of Europe, together with Sardinia and Turkey, adopted in 1856 the following declaration of principles: [315]

1. Privateering is and remains abolished.

2. The neutral flag covers enemy's goods, with the exception of contraband of war.

3. Neutral goods, with the exception of contraband of war, are not liable to capture under enemy's flag.

4. Blockades, in order to be binding must be effective, that is to say, maintained by a force sufficient really to prevent access to the coast of the enemy.

Not only did this solemn declaration announce to the world the principles to which the signing powers agreed to conform in future wars, but it contained a clause to which these powers gave immediate effect, and which provided that the states not parties to the Congress of Paris should be invited to accede to the declaration. Under this invitation every independent state in Europe yielded its assent—at least, no instance is known to me of a refusal; the United States, while declining to assent to the proposition which prohibited privateering, declared that the three remaining principles were in entire accordance with their own views of international law.

No instance is known in history of the adoption of rules of public law under circumstances of like solemnity, with like unanimity, and pledging the faith of nations with a sanctity so peculiar.

When, therefore, this Confederacy was formed, and when neutral powers, while deferring action on its demand for admission into the family of nations, recognized it as a belligerent power, Great Britain and France made informal proposals, about the same time, that their own rights as neutrals should be guaranteed by our acceding, as belligerents, to the declaration of principles made by the Congress of Paris. The request was addressed to our sense of justice, and therefore met immediate and favorable response in the resolutions of the provisional Congress of August 13, 1861, by which all the principles announced by the Congress of Paris were adopted as the guide of our conduct during the war, with the sole exception of that relative to privateering. As the right to make use of privateers was one in which neutral nations had, as to the then existing war, no interest; as it was a right which the United States had refused to abandon, and which they remained at liberty to employ against us; as it was a right of which we were already in actual enjoyment, and which we could not be expected to renounce flagrante bello against an adversary possessing an overwhelming superiority of naval forces—it was reserved with entire confidence that neutral nations could not fail to perceive that just reason existed for the reservation. Nor was this confidence misplaced; the official documents published by the British government contained the expression of the satisfaction of that [316] government with the conduct of officials who conducted successfully the delicate transaction confided to their charge.

These solemn declarations of principle, this implied agreement between the Confederacy and the two powers just named, were suffered to remain inoperative against the menaces and outrages on neutral rights committed by the United States with unceasing and progressing arrogance during the whole period of the war. Neutral Europe remained passive when the United States, with a naval force insufficient to blockade effectively the coast of a single state, proclaimed a paper blockade of thousands of miles of coast, extending from the Capes of the Chesapeake to those of Florida, and encircling the Gulf of Mexico from Key West to the mouth of the Rio Grande. Compared with this monstrous pretension of the United States, the blockades known in history under the names of the Berlin and Milan Decrees, and the British Orders in Council, in the years 1806 and 1807, sink into insignificance. Those blockades were justified by the powers that declared them, on the sole ground that they were retaliatory; yet they have since been condemned by the publicists of those very powers as violations of international law. It will be remembered that those blockades evoked angry remonstrances from neutral powers, among which the United States were the most conspicuous, and were in their consequences the chief cause of the war between Great Britain and the United States in 1812; they also formed one of the principal motives that led to the declaration of the Congress of Paris in 1856, in the fond hope of imposing an enduring check on the very abuse of maritime power which was renewed by the United States in 1861 and 1862, under circumstances and with features of aggravated wrong without precedent in history.

Repeated and formal remonstrances were made by the Confederate government to neutral powers against the recognition of that blockade. It was shown by evidence not capable of contradiction, and which was furnished in part by the officials of neutral nations, that the few ports of the Confederacy before which any naval forces at all were stationed were invested so inefficiently that hundreds of entries were effected into them after the declaration of the blockade; that our enemies admitted the inefficiency of their blockade in the most forcible manner, by repeated official complaints of the sale to us of goods contraband of war—a sale which could not possibly have affected their interests if their pretended blockade had been sufficient ‘really to prevent access to our coasts’; that they alleged their inability to render their paper blockade effective as the excuse for the odious barbarity of destroying the entrance [317] to one of the harbors by sinking vessels loaded with stone in the channel; that our commerce with foreign nations was interrupted, not by the effective investment of our ports, but by watching the ports of the West Indies; not only by the seizure of ships in the attempt to enter the Confederate ports, but by the capture on the high seas of neutral vessels by the cruisers of our enemies, whenever supposed to be bound to any point on our extensive coast, without inquiry whether a single blockading vessel was to be found at such point; that blockading vessels had left the ports at which they were stationed for distant expeditions, were absent for many days, and returned without notice either of the cessation or renewal of the blockade; in a word, that every prescription of maritime law and every right of neutral nations to trade with a belligerent under the sanction of principles heretofore universally respected were systematically and persistently violated by the United States. Neutral Europe received our remonstrances, and submitted in almost unbroken silence to all the wrongs that the United States chose to inflict on its commerce. The Cabinet of Great Britain, however, did not confine itself to such implied acquiescence in these breaches of international law which resulted from simple inaction, but, in a published dispatch of the Minister for Foreign Affairs, assumed to make a change in the principle enunciated by the Congress of Paris, to which the faith of the British government was considered to be pledged. The change was so important and so prejudicial to the interests of the Confederacy that, after a vain attempt to obtain satisfactory explanations from that government, I directed a solemn protest to be made.

In a published dispatch from Her Majesty's Foreign Office to her minister at Washington, under date of February 11th, 1862, occurred the following passage:

Her Majesty's Government, however, are of opinion that, assuming that the blockade was duly notified, and also that a number of ships is stationed and remains at the entrance of a port sufficient really to prevent access to it, or to create an evident danger of entering it or leaving it, and that these ships do not voluntarily permit ingress or egress, the fact that various ships may have successfully escaped through it (as in the particular instance here referred to), will not of itself prevent the blockade from being an effectual one by international law.

The words which I have italicized were an addition made by the British government of its own authority to a principle, the exact terms of which were settled with deliberation by the common consent of civilized nations, and by implied convention with our government, as already explained, and their effect was clearly to reopen to the prejudice of the

Confederacy one of the very disputed questions on the law of blockade [318] which the Congress of Paris proposed to settle. The importance of this change was readily illustrated by taking one of our ports as an example. There was ‘evident danger,’ in entering the port of Wilmington, from the presence of a blockading force, and by this test the blockade was effective. ‘Access is not really prevented’ by the blockading fleet to the same port; steamers were continually arriving and departing, so that, tried by this test, the blockade was ineffective and invalid. Thus, while every energy of our country was evoked in the struggle for maintaining its existence, the neutral nations of Europe pursued a policy which, nominally impartial, was practically most favorable to our enemies and most detrimental to us.

The exercise of the neutral right of refusing entry into their ports to prizes taken by both belligerents was especially hurtful to the Confederacy. It was sternly adhered to and enforced.

The assertion of the neutral right of commerce with a belligerent, whose ports are not blockaded by fleets sufficient really to prevent access to them, would have been eminently beneficial to the Confederate States, and only thus hurtful to the United States. It was complaisantly abandoned.

The duty of neutral states to receive with cordiality and recognize with respect any new confederation that independent states may think proper to form, was too clear to admit of denial, but its postponement was equally beneficial to the United States and detrimental to the Confederacy. It was postponed.

In this statement of our relations with the nations of Europe, it has been my purpose to point out distinctly that the Confederacy had no complaint to make that those nations declared their neutrality. It could neither expect nor desire more. The complaint was that the declared neutrality was delusive, not real; that recognized neutral rights were alternately asserted and waived in such manner as to bear with great severity on us, while conferring signal advantages on our enemy.

Perhaps it may not be out of place here to notice a correspondence between the cabinets of France, Great Britain, and Russia, relative to a mediation between the Confederacy and the United States. On October 30, 1862, the French Minister of Foreign Affairs, Drouyn de l'huys, addressed a note to the ambassadors of France at London and St. Petersburg. In this dispatch he stated that the Emperor had followed with painful interest the struggle which had then been going on for more than a year on this continent. He observed that the proofs of energy, preseverance, and courage, on both sides, had been given at the expense of innumerable calamities and immense bloodshed; to the accompaniments [319] of civil conflict was to be added the apprehension of servile war, which would be the climax of so many irreparable misfortunes.

If these calamities affected America only, these sufferings of a friendly nation would be enough to excite the anxiety and sympathy of the Emperor; but Europe also had suffered in one of the principal branches of her industry, and her artisans had been subjected to most cruel trials. France and the maritime powers had, during the struggle, maintained the strictest neutrality, but the sentiments by which they were animated, far from imposing on them anything like indifference, seem, on the contrary, to require that they should assist the two belligerent parties in an endeavor to escape from a position which appeared to have no issue. The forces of the two sides had hitherto fought with balanced success, and the latest accounts did not show any prospect of a speedy termination of the war.

These circumstances, taken together, seemed to favor the adoption of measures which might bring about a truce. The Emperor of the French, therefore, was of the opinion that there was now an opportunity of offering to the belligerents the good offices of the maritime powers. He, therefore, proposed to Her Majesty, as well as to the Emperor of Russia, that the three courts should endeavor, both at Washington and in communication with the Confederate States, to bring about a suspension of arms for six months, during which time every act of hostility, direct or indirect, should cease, at sea as well as on land. This armistice might, if necessary, be renewed for a further period.

This proposal, he proceeded to say, would not imply, on the part of the three powers, any judgment on the origin of the war, or any pressure on the negotiations for peace, which it was hoped would take place during the armistice. The three powers would interfere only to smooth the obstacles, and only within the limits which the two interested parties would prescribe. The French government was of the opinion that, even in the event of a failure of immediate success, those overtures might have proved useful in leading the minds of men heated by passion to consider the advantages of conciliation and peace.

The reply of Great Britain, through Lord John Russell, on November 13, 1862, is really contained in this extract:

After weighing all the information which has been received from America, her Majesty's Government are led to the conclusion that there is no ground at the present moment to hope that the Federal Government would accept the proposal suggested, and a refusal from Washington at the present time would prevent any speedy renewal of the offer.

The Russian Government, in reply, said: [320]

According to the information we have hitherto received, we are inclined to believe that a combined step between France, England, and Russia, no matter how conciliatory, and how cautiously made, if it were taken with an official and collective character, would run the risk of causing precisely the very opposite of the object of pacification, which is the aim of the wishes of the three courts.

The unfavorable reception of the proposal was communicated by the French Minister of Foreign Affairs to the representative of France at Washington. In this communication he said:

Convinced as we were that an understanding between the three powers in the sense presented by us would answer as much the interests of the American people as our own; that even that understanding was, in the existing circumstances, a duty of humanity, you will easily form an idea of our regret at seeing the initiative we have taken after mature reflection remain without results. Being also desirous of informing Mr. Dayton, the United States Minister, of our project, I confidently communicated it to him, and even read in his presence the dispatch sent to London and St. Petersburg. I could not but be surprised that the Minister of the United States should oppose his objections to the project I communicated to him, and to hear him express personally some doubts as to the reception which would be given by the Cabinet at Washington to the joint officers of the good offices of France, Russia, and Great Britain.

It has already been stated that, by common understanding, the initiative in all action touching the contest on this continent had been left by foreign powers to the two great maritime nations of Western Europe, and that the governments of these two nations had agreed to take no measures without previous concert. The result of these arrangements, therefore, placed it in the power of either France or England to obstruct at pleasure the recognition to which the Confederacy was justly entitled, or even to prolong the continuance of hostilities on this side of the Atlantic, if the policy of either could be promoted by the postponement of peace. Each, too, thus became possessed of great influence in so shaping the general exercise of neutral rights in Europe as to render them subservient to the purpose of aiding one of the belligerents, to the detriment of the other. Perhaps it may not be out of place to present a few examples by which to show the true nature of the neutrality professed in this war.

In May, 1861, the government of Her Britannic Majesty assured our enemies that ‘the sympathies of this country [Great Britain] were rather with the North than with the South.’

On June 1, 1861, the British government interdicted the use of its ports ‘to armed ships and privateers, both of the United States and the so-called Confederate States,’ with their prizes. The Secretary of State of the United States fully appreciated the character and motive of this interdiction, when he observed to Lord Lyons, who communicated it, [321] that ‘this measure and that of the same character which had been adopted by France would probably prove a death-blow to Southern privateering’—a means, it will be remembered, which the United States had refused to abandon for themselves.

On June 12, 1861, the United States Minister in London informed Her Majesty's Minister for Foreign Affairs that the fact of his having held interviews with the commissioners of our government had given ‘great dissatisfaction, and that a protraction of this would be viewed by the United States as hostile in spirit, and to require some corresponding action accordingly.’ In response to this intimation Her Majesty's Minister gave assurance that ‘he had no expectation of seeing them any more.’

Further extracts will show the marked encouragement to the United States to persevere in its paper blockade, and unmistakable intimations that Her Majesty's government would not contest its validity.

On May 21, 1861, Earl Russell pointed out to the United States Minister in London that ‘the blockade might, no doubt, be made effective, considering the small number of harbors on the Southern coast, even though the extent of three thousand miles were comprehended in the terms of that blockade.’

On January 14, 1862, Her Majesty's minister in Washington communicated to his government that, in extenuation of the barbarous attempt to destroy the port of Charleston by sinking a stone fleet in the harbor, Seward had explained that ‘the Government of the United States had, last spring, with a navy very little prepared for so extensive an operation, undertaken to blockade upward of three thousand miles of coast. The Secretary of the Navy had reported that he could stop up the ‘large holes’ by means of his ships, but that he could not stop up the “small ones.” It has been found necessary, therefore, to close some of the numerous small inlets by sinking vessels in the channel.’

On May 6, 1862, so far from claiming the right of British subjects as neutrals to trade with us as belligerents, and to disregard the blockade on the ground of this explicit confession by our enemy of his inability to render it effective, Her Majesty's Minister for Foreign Affairs claimed credit with the United States for friendly action in respecting it. His lordship stated that—

The United States Government, on the allegation of a rebellion pervading from nine to eleven States of the Union, have now, for more than twelve months, endeavored to maintain a blockade of three thousand miles of coast. This blockade, kept up irregularly, but, when enforced severely, has seriously injured the trade and manufactures of the United Kingdom.

Thousands are now obliged to resort to the poor-rates for subsistence owing [322] to this blockade. Yet her Majesty's Government have never sought to take advantage of the obvious inperfections of this blockade, in order to declare it ineffective. They have, to the loss and detriment of the British nation, scrupulously observed the duties of Great Britain toward a friendly state.

It is not necessary to pursue this subject further. Suffice it to say that the British government, when called upon to redeem its pledge made at Paris in 1856, and renewed to the Confederacy in 1861, replied that it could not regard the blockade of Southern ports as having been otherwise than ‘practically effective in February, 1862,’ and that ‘the manner in which it has since been enforced gives to neutral governments no excuse for asserting that the blockade had not been effectively maintained.’

The partiality of Her Majesty's government in favor of our enemies was further evinced in the marked difference of its conduct on the subject of the purchase of supplies by the two belligerents. This difference was conspicuous from the very commencement of the war. As early as May 1, 1861, the British minister in Washington was informed by the Secretary of State of the United States that he had sent agents to England, and that others would go to France, to purchase arms; this fact was communicated to the British Foreign Office, which interposed no objection. Yet, in October of the same year, Earl Russell entertained the complaint of the United States minister in London that the Confederate States were importing contraband of war from the island of Nassau, directed inquiry into the matter, and obtained a report from the authorities of the island denying the allegations, which report was enclosed to Adams, and received by him as satisfactory evidence to dissipate ‘the suspicion thrown upon the authorities by that unwarrantable act.’ So, too, when the Confederate government purchased in Great Britain, as a neutral country (with strict observance both of the law of nations and the municipal law of Great Britain), vessels which were subsequently armed and commissioned as vessels of war after they had been far removed from English waters, the British government, in violation of its own laws, and in deference to the importunate demands of the United States, made an ineffectual attempt to seize one vessel, and did actually seize and detain another which touched at the island of Nassau, on her way to a Confederate port, and subjected her to an unfounded prosecution, at the very time when cargoes of munitions of war were openly shipped from British ports to New York, to be used in warfare against us. Further instances need not be adduced to show how detrimental to us, and advantageous to our enemy, was the manner in which the leading European power observed its hollow profession of neutrality toward the belligerents.

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