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Book Review: Persuading John Bull

By Gordon Berg
1/27/2017 • America's Civil War Magazine

Persuading John Bull: Union and Confederate Propaganda in Britain, 1860-1865

By Thomas E. Sebrell II Lexington Books 2014, $35

The Civil War was a propaganda war as well as a shooting war. Nowhere was this more evident than in Great Britain, where two journals—one Union and one Confederate—waged a spirited contest for the opinions of England’s nobility, political leaders and average citizens. Thomas Sebrell, an American expatriate living in London, has closely examined the records of The Index, the official Confederate mouthpiece, and The London American, a privately funded newspaper that supported the Union cause. His objective is to give “historians and scholars a much better idea of who, exactly, in British society, supported either side, what social backgrounds they came from, what occupations they had, how they expressed themselves publicly in favor of intervention or nonintervention, and how some of them had strong influence over MPs and  Cabinet members.”

In the main, Sebrell succeeds. He documents Northerner John Adams Knight’s May 1860 arrival in London to establish an American newspaper focused on commerce, politics, emigration and patents. Only later did his newspaper report on the slavery issue, emancipation and war news. His Southern competition and official representative of the Confederate government, Henry Hotze, didn’t arrive until two years later. His role, Sebrell maintains, was “infiltrating the British press so  as to help paint a positive image of the Confederacy abroad.” From then until the end of the war, the two journals conducted a spirited war of words, each propagandizing the policies and battlefield exploits of their respective sides.

While Sebrell’s prose is less than scintillating, his research is sound and the conclusions he draws from it are persuasive. He asserts that the English government was more likely to declare war against the Union over the 1861 Trent Affair and other naval issues than from any prodding originating from Richmond.

But as the Union blockade became more effective and the cotton famine in England’s weaving counties grew more severe, talk in Parliament and among Cabinet members moved away from recognizing the Confederacy as a belligerent nation to intervening as a neutral third party with the aim of ending the war status quo ante. When the war turned in the Union’s favor, Britain’s wily prime minister, Lord Palmerston, concluded the North would not react favorably to an offer of English mediation.

Supporting Union war aims, including black emancipation, eventually cost The London American most of its English subscribers. Meanwhile, Hotze’s propaganda machine, Sebrell concludes, “was weakened by its openly pro-slavery sentiments, advocating the ‘peculiar institution’ not only as an economic necessity, but a social one.” A nation standing on the shoulders of an enslaved population was never popular with the English government or most of its citizens. Sebrell therefore concludes both journals’ propaganda efforts failed. But failure cost the Confederacy far more than it cost the Union.


Originally published in the March 2015 issue of America’s Civil War. To subscribe, click here.

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