Could aid from Britain have altered the outcome of the Civil War?

4/18/2013 • Ask Mr. History

Had Britain sent military and naval aid to the South, could it have altered the outcome of the Civil War in favor of the Confederacy?

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If the British had committed a large enough land force to Canada and some of its powerful navy, it may have worked to the Confederacy’s favor, especially if they could coordinate their efforts. After all, just six commerce raiding cruisers, some of which had been sold the Confederates under-the-counter by British ship builders (e.g., Alabama, Shenandoah) were enough to wreck the U.S. Merchant Marine and knock it out of No.1 world trading status from 1865 to 1941.  

What Britain could have done became a moot point, however, in January 1863, when President Abraham Lincoln declared Antietam victory enough to issue his Emancipation Proclamation. In so doing, he officially made slavery an issue in the war and confronted both Britain and France with the moral dilemma of whether either of them were prepared to recognize, let alone aid, a self-declared nation whose economy was founded on a system that both had renounced (Britain, in fact, being the first, in 1831). Neither power was ready to do that. In that respect, Lincoln, rather than McClellan, may have made Antietam a greater strategic victory than Gettysburg.




Jon Guttman
Research Director
World History Group
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