1863: “We Will Give A Checkmate To The Foreign Hopes Of The Rebels”

London. 23 January, 1863.

My dear Charles:

I have but a moment till it grows dark and the [mail] bag closes, but I don’t think I have much to say, so it don’t matter. I’ve had a hard day’s work too, as we generally do on Fridays, and am tired. We are in the dark as to movements at home since the 8th, no steamer being yet in owing I suppose to the awful gales.

We are as usual very quiet, having been dragged to rounds of the Christmas pantomimes and bored to death with them. I wish you or John were here to be funny and amuse people; you know I never could do it, and now I grow stupider and stupider every year as my hair grows thinner. I haven’t even the wit left to talk to girls. I wish I were fifty years old at once, and then I should feel at home.

The Emancipation Proclamation has done more for us here than all our former victories and all our diplomacy. It is creating an almost convulsive reaction in our favor all over this country. The London times is furious and scolds like a drunken drab. Certain it is, however, that public opinion is very deeply stirred here and find expression in meetings; addresses to Pres. Lincoln; deputations to us; standing committees to agitate the subject and to affect opinion; and all the other symptoms of a great popular movement peculiarly unpleasant to the upper classes here because it rests altogether on the spontaneous action of the laboring classes and has a pestilent squint at sympathy with republicanism. But the Times is on its last legs and has lost its temper. They say it always does lose its temper when it finds such a feeling too strong for it, and its next step will be to come round and try to guide it. We are much encouraged and in high spirits. If only you at home don’t have disasters, we will give such a checkmate to the foreign hopes of the rebels as they yet have had…

Henry Adams – the son of the U.S. ambassador to Britain during the war.

Henry Adams to his brother Charles F. Adams, Jr., January 23, 1863.

From London To America

As we’ve discussed before, both Union and Confederacy wanted European powers either on “their side” or strictly neutral. Officially, European countries stayed neutral, though many citizens had strong opinions about the American conflict.

How did news get from North America to Europe during the Civil War? Well, a transatlantic telegraph cable had been laid 1858, but during the Civil War years it was out of commission. (Repaired in 1866.) Communication went back to the decades-old method: by ship. Fortunately, there were regular steamer schedules for transatlantic crossing, ensure relatively recent new arrived in the capitals…unless there was a storm.

Henry Adams references the news delay caused by “gales,” and this particular delay resulted created a gap between the arrival of the news of the Emancipation Proclamation and the reaction news returning to America or further details arriving Europe.

Britain & Abolition

In 1807 after a long fight in Parliament, Britain outlawed their slave trade. In 1833, a law to abolish slavery throughout the British Empire passed. Many Englishmen looked unfavorably on American slavery, and for some, it was a definite reason to stay out of the conflict. Others secretly or openly argued in favor of the Confederacy.

An announcement for a church service, celebrating the disappearance of slavery in the British West Indies by 1838

However, Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation drew the metaphorical line in the sand and gave Europeans something to consider. Since the Southern states did not return to the Union, if the North won the war, slavery was on its way out – though still waiting to be formally ended throughout the whole country with a Constitutional amendment. Suddenly, there were greater stakes in the conflict. Moral stakes. And England was in an era of great interest in moral and social reform causes (at least outwardly).

The historic document also sparked controversy in England, as recorded by Henry Adams and others. It called to mind the debate over forms of government and forms of thinking. How much power should “common man” have? Republicanism vs. Monarchy?! What if the idea of equality extended all the way to social classes; would the working classes of England – powering the factories and economic system – stay contented in “their place”?

Ultimately, the Emancipation Proclamation brought a discussion of American ideas to England – at least for a few weeks. And it laid the groundwork for a rout of Confederate attempts for an alliance and diplomacy. Although Britain officially remained neutral (and unofficially built warships and blockade runners for the South), many politicians, diplomats, and citizens were wary about fighting against the North and its abolition cause.

Charles Francis Adams, Jr. with comrades from the 1st Massachusetts Cavalry. Adams is second from the right.

Historical Musings

“If only you at home don’t have disasters…” wrote Henry Adams to his older brother, who was serving in the military. Military disasters. Although there had been Union victories in the west, the Federal record in the east still left much to be desired. Adams felt confident in January 1863 that Britain would not align with the Confederacy. Now, if the Union generals and armies could avoid military or political disasters and avoid creating scandals that echoed to England…it seemed probable that the Union would keep Britain either out of the war or join on their side.

Henry Adams couldn’t have looked ahead to the defeats and victories for the Union cause in 1863. And he didn’t know the full power of the Emancipation Proclamation. But if he could’ve known, he would have been pleased to know that the Rebs were almost in diplomatic checkmate as he predicted on that cold, tiresome January day.

Your Historian,

Miss Sarah

About Sarah Kay Bierle

I’m Sarah Kay Bierle, historian, editor, and historical fiction writer. When sharing history, I try to keep the facts interesting and understandable. History is about real people, real actions, real effects and it should inspire us today.
This entry was posted in 1863: In Their Words, American Civil War and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to 1863: “We Will Give A Checkmate To The Foreign Hopes Of The Rebels”

  1. Meg Groeling says:

    Prince Albert was no slouch in this area either.

  2. Pingback: 1863: “Friends Among Strangers” | Gazette665

  3. Pingback: 1863: “Use Your Official And Personal Influence To Remove Prejudices” | Gazette665

  4. Pingback: At Gettysburg: John Adams’s Great-Grandson | Gazette665

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