Ideas & Events: The Civil War

When Abraham Lincoln named Charles Francis Adams U.S. minister to Great Britain in 1861—the third member of his family to hold that post—Adams understood, on a uniquely personal level, the vital role diplomacy plays in wartime. His grandfather, John Adams, had procured foreign loans for the U.S. government during the Revolutionary War and helped negotiate the Treaty of Paris, which ended the war. His father, John Quincy, brokered the Treaty of Ghent, ending the War of 1812 and securing expanded borders for the U.S. Though Charles didn’t know it at the time, his diplomatic efforts would also indirectly affect his son, Charles Francis Jr., an officer in the Union Army who would serve with distinction during the Gettysburg Campaign and other battles.

The importance of naval superiority

Adams’s diplomatic assignment was strategic to the war effort. In an era when regional economies relied heavily on shipping, Great Britain was a shipbuilding power with political sympathies toward the South. If Britain entered the war on the side of the Confederacy, the South could assemble a strong navy to protect its ports and merchant shipping while damaging the North’s economy—possibly changing the outcome of the conflict and altering the course of U.S. history.

The battle for naval superiority was embodied in the cruiser CSS Alabama, which was secretly built in England and commissioned by the Confederate navy in 1862. Used as a commerce destroyer, it captured 65 merchant ships and sank the USS Hatteras before being sunk in the English Channel by the USS Kearsarge, a sloop-of-war that had been built under the North’s emergency shipbuilding program.

Keeping a world power out of a civil war

Against this backdrop, Charles Francis Adams is widely credited with persuading Britain to remain neutral during the war while also preventing British diplomatic recognition of the Confederacy. In addition, his frequent protests over the Confederacy’s purchase of British-built warships helped to slow down the supply of vessels and resulted in two ironclads being held back from delivery to the South.

In turn, by retaining its advantage in naval power, the North was able to blockade Southern ports and disrupt the export of cotton to foreign markets—thereby starving the South of cash—while also preventing badly needed European-made goods from reaching the Confederate army and civilian population.

Poet and diplomat James Russell Lowell, who lost three nephews in the war and later served as minister to Great Britain, wrote of Adams, “None of our generals, not Grant himself, did us better or more trying service than he in his forlorn outpost of London.”

Winning a last victory

In a postscript to the war, Charles Francis Adams successfully negotiated the Alabama Claims, winning $15,500,000 in gold for damages inflicted on Union merchant ships by the Alabama and other British-built warships. Settled in 1871, the claims are considered significant in international law for two reasons: They furthered the use of arbitration to resolve maritime disputes, and they defined the responsibilities of neutral countries to prevent the arming of vessels that are hostile to any power at peace with the neutral country.