Wars not Fought: Neutrality and European Navies in American Waters during the US Civil War

Mark Markov is a PhD candidate from Durham University in the United Kingdom. He was awarded a Rose fellowship in support of his research on Wars not Fought: Neutrality and European Navies in American Waters during the US Civil War.  He conducted his research the spring of 2022.

David Anderson, a Confederate prisoner of war in the spring and summer of 1862, unable to help his cause, placed his hopes on European intervention. In his diary, he placed hope on “English news” from London and Paris of the recognition of the Confederacy of the nonrecognition (and presumable break-up) of the Union blockade, revelling at how the news “gives the Yankees fits.” Held at Governor’s Island in New York Harbor, Anderson also had full view of Spanish, French, and British warships entering and leaving the city, particularly noticeable as they saluted the fort that he was held in when they came in. On May 19th he asked in his diary: “What are 3 French War Vessels doing here?” The prisoner did not seem to notice the connection between the foreign men-of-war and his hoped-for diplomatic outcome, puzzling at the ships’ presence. In fact, British and French warships were directed to observe the Union blockade so their governments could establish its legality under international law and communicate with their consuls in Southern ports. New York was the base of operations for the French naval division. The collections preserved at the Stuart A. Rose Manuscript, Archives, and Rare Book Library at Emory University, including Anderson’s diary (MSS/20, Subseries 1.1 Confederate Civil-War-era documents), have helped me better understand the unacknowledged role of these men-of-war in American waters.

The papers of the British consulate in Savannah (MSS 15) are of particular interest to my research because with the exception those of the New York consulate, the papers of British representations in America in this period have not survived. Vice-Consul Allan Fullerton, who took over British consulate after Consul Edmund Molyneux fell ill, returned to South with his family on the HMS Steady, the first British warship to communicate across the blockade. British and French warships would continue to anchor outside Charleston and other Confederate-controlled ports to deliver consular dispatches. However, the Savannah consulate papers show that communication with the outside world remained difficult despite this naval courier service. On Jan 30, 1863, Lord Lyons, the British minister plenipotentiary in Washington, sent a circular to consuls in the reminding them not to transfer any contraband on Royal Navy ships, particularly specie. This dispatch only reached Fullerton in July, probably before it reached Mobile, where Consul Magee places gold belonging to British creditors on the HMS Vesuvius. This was a serious breach of relations with the Washington government and Magee was later fired for doing so. Charleston Harbor, the main entry point for British and French dispatches to the Confederacy, was the site of a major Union naval offensive, making communication difficult. A telegraph from the battle survives in Charleston Harbor Documents (MSS 17) countermanding and order to provide a boat to the Acting French Consul to presumably communicate with a French warship outside the harbor.

The Savannah consular papers also show the progressive decline in relations between British representatives in the South and Confederate authorities. Earlier messages to Molyneux and Fullerton contained pleasantries such as “Accept my best wishes for your personal prosperity and happiness. If public duties will permit, I promise myself the pleasure of calling on you when I again visit Savannah.” However, by mid-1863 relations were strained by consular efforts to protect British subjects from conscription, whom Governor Joseph Brown of Georgia dismissed as “a class of consumers, who produce none of the necessaries of life.” In October 1863 Fullerton and most of the other British consuls in Confederate-controlled territory were asked to leave Secretary of State Judah Benjamin. There was a similar deterioration in ties with Union authorities, including the Federal navy. As Admiral Francis Dupont wrote early in the war: “But oh my! All this does not the less show up England in great infamy – I have done with her now, have been rather an Angloman.”3 The diary of Peter Taylor (MSS 20, Subseries 2.1 Union documents), an officer on the USS Princess Royal, shows describes an awkward but telling incident that demonstrates that this animosity was still present in June 1865. When other Union officers would not approach British visiting officers on the Princess Royal and Taylor tried to diffuse the situation: “I made an ass of myself and went out of my place and shook them all by the hand pumphandle fashion.” The mortified officer later found out that in this fashion he shook the hand of a son a duke.

Most of the Civil War collections that I looked through at the Rose Library contain scant information on the British and French warships that observed the conflict, save for the increased interest caused by the Trent Affair. The transfer of the Confederate commissioners that were removed from the Trent to the HMS Rinaldo in Boston Harbor was worthy of a souvenir signature for a fellow Confederate prisoner (MSS 20, Subseries 1.1). The Papers of Reverend John McClintock, head of the American Church in Paris and senior Union propagandist in Europe, (MSS 33) do not mention any other naval controversy. The letters of Samuel Sanders, a Confederate soldier based in Charleston Harbor, to his daughter (MSS 422), describe a successful sally-out by the port’s flotilla against the blockading Union force in January 30, 1863 that he could partially see from his position on Morris Island. However, Sanders did not note the presence of the HMS Peterel inside Charleston Harbor at the time, whose commander, George Watson, declared that he witnessed the breakup of the blockade. As Secretary Benjamin’s letter to Fullerton shows, the Confederates thought that an official break in the blockade required it to be re-established “de novo.” Other soldiers based in Charleston, such as Hugh Mercer (MSS 215) and Charles Platten (MSS 20, Subseries 1.1) also do not note the foreign warships’ presence. Though this may be partially due to chance – that is, what was collected or preserved at the Rose Library and what the writers of the documents chose to record –, it may also be a sign of the relative success that the foreign navies had at diffusing controversial incidents. Indeed, warships received instructions to be not only neutral, but police and discreet. Commander Watson received a reprimand for his efforts. Perhaps the lack of mention and the puzzlement of Anderson in Governor’s Island is a sign of the successful implementation of those instructions.


[1] Grant to Milne, October 7, 1861. National Maritime Museum, London. MLN/115/2.

[2] Eugune H. Berwanger, The British Foreign Service and the American Civil War (University of Kentucky Press, 1994), 85.

[3] John Hayes, edt., Samuel Francis du Pont: A Selection from his Civil War Letters (Cornell University Press, 1969), 295.