Her Majesty Queen Victoria was on the throne when the American Civil War was raging on; the Confederate States of America (CSA) falsely believed that the British would come to their aid because of their overconfidence in the British need of the country’s cotton. They believed “cotton is king” and would help them gain allies in their fight against the United States.
The South was desperate for British intervention. What has not been discussed in this too much was the British aristocracy’s (and rumoured royal) hidden support for the CSA and desire to go to their aid. This was something I, myself, was also surprised to learn in my American Civil War History class when I was in university.
My professor explained that the reason the aristocracy and royals were supportive of the South was due to the South having their own “aristocratic” system with the plantation owners being akin to the British aristocrats. Thus, the British aristocracy felt a kinship to the plantation owners, as it followed a similar hierarchy to which the British were accustomed.
The topic was only shortly discussed in one session, and I decided to do my own research to see if I could find any record of specifically Queen Victoria, who was against slavery, showing support for the CSA.
So, what was Her Majesty’s role in the American Civil War? She was generally on the side of the Union, but let’s take a look at some of her relations to the war raging across the pond.
Britons secretly funded the Confederates and allowed the South’s Navy to have several ships built in Liverpool. Liverpool would also be the “home” of the unofficial Confederate embassy in Great Britain. So, how did the Queen play into the fact of Confederate ships being built in Liverpool? Her Majesty would sign a document in June 1863 stating, “That the Petitioners are desirous of retaining the assistance of George Mellish Esquire, one of Our counsel, and therefore humbly pray that We will be pleased to grant to the Petitioners Our Royal License accordingly. We being graciously pleased to condescend to the Petitioners’ request and accordingly dispense with the said George Mellish, and grant him Our Royal License and permission to be counsel…”
The statement, on the only document Queen Victoria ever signed relating to the Civil War that has been seen, allowed the law firm Fawcett, Preston & Co. to be representatives of the defendants in support of the Confederacy. To acquire royal authorisation, which was required, to act as their defence counsel, the Queen had to sign this document.
The Queen also stepped in with the Trent Affair, where a Union captain removed two Confederate diplomats from a British ship illegally. This threatened war between Britain and the Union as an angered Britain said their neutrality was violated. In the end, Britain strengthened their troops in Canada, demanded an apology and the release of the diplomats. The Queen’s husband, Prince Albert, amended the British cabinets’ proposed response to the Trent Affair to the US government saying that the following should be added in the text:
“The expression of hope that the American captain did not act under instructions, or if he did, that he misapprehended them—that the United States Government must be fully aware that the British Government could not allow the flag to be insulted, and the security of her mail communications be placed in jeopardy, and Her Majesty’s Government are unwilling to believe that the United States Government intended wantonly to put an insult upon this country … and that we are therefore glad to believe that they would spontaneously offer such redress as alone could satisfy this country, viz: the restoration of the unfortunate passengers and a suitable apology.”
After the resolution of this issue, Queen Victoria later said to Parliament at its opening in 1862, “The friendly relations between Her Majesty and the President of the United States have therefore remained unimpaired.”
By 13 May 1861, Queen Victoria, on the advice of her ministers, issued a proclamation declaring the United Kingdom as neutral in America’s battle between North and South for the continuation of the war – an action that angered many in the Union government. By doing so, the Queen asserted Britain as neutral but also gave a sort of legitimacy to the Confederacy since Britain did not elect to outright support the Union and condemn the Confederacy. The Queen’s statement, it should be noted, did not officially recognise the CSA as an independent country, which would have completely given legitimacy to the rebels’ new country.