Neutrality or Piracy? International Law, Great Britain, and the American Civil War

[[{"type":"media","view_mode":"media_large","fid":"6645","attributes":{"alt":"","class":"media-image","height":"144","style":"float: left;","typeof":"foaf:Image","width":"319"}}]]The August release of The American Civil War Collection, 1860-1922: From the American Antiquarian Society contains several items about international law and neutrality, specifically British neutrality. Prior to the American Civil War, British Prime Minister Viscount Palmerston urged a policy of pragmatic neutrality. His international concerns were focused in Europe where he had to balance both Napoleon III’s ambitions in Europe and Bismarck’s rise in Germany. However, the Confederate strategy for securing independence was largely based on the hope of military intervention by Britain, a hope that was nearly realized in the wake of the Trent Affair.

[[{"type":"media","view_mode":"media_large","fid":"6639","attributes":{"alt":"","class":"media-image","height":"314","style":"float: right;","typeof":"foaf:Image","width":"179"}}]]International Law: Case of the Trent. Capture and Surrender of Mason and Slidell (1862)
By Joel Parker

The Trent Affair is the subject of many publications found in this collection. In this work, Joel Parker examines the diplomatic incident through the principles of international law “in relation to the rights of belligerents and neutrals.” The affair occurred on November 8, 1861, when the USS San Jacinto intercepted the British mail packet RMS Trent, and Union captain Charles Wilkes removed and detained, as contraband of war, two Confederate diplomats, James Mason and John Slidell. Parker’s analysis of the affair draws on correspondences of Mason and Slidell, presidential papers, a speech by Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner, and newspaper articles.

[[{"type":"media","view_mode":"media_large","fid":"6640","attributes":{"alt":"","class":"media-image","height":"314","style":"float: left;","typeof":"foaf:Image","width":"188"}}]]Laws of War, and Martial Law: Comprising a Few Extracts from General Halleck's Work on International Law, and Their Application to Passing Events (1863)

Though once described by Abraham Lincoln as “little more than a first rate clerk,” Henry Wager Halleck was a noted army officer, scholar, lawyer, and important participant in the admission of California as a state. In 1863, John Wilson and Son reprinted, without explicit permission, several extracts of Halleck’s earlier writings. The extracts were prefaced with the following explanation:

As the Secretary of War is not a soldier, the President has had the wisdom always to retain at Washington some high military officer to consult with. General Halleck is, at present, the President’s responsible advisor on military matters. This would in itself give the public an interest in his previously expressed opinions on the subjects. He has also, for many years, enjoyed a high reputation as an author. In May, 1861, he published, in California, a large volume on International Law. I propose to take the liberty of publishing extracts from this work, without consulting the author. He might not feel at liberty now to publish his opinions on passing events.

[[{"type":"media","view_mode":"media_large","fid":"6641","attributes":{"alt":"","class":"media-image","height":"314","style":"float: right;","typeof":"foaf:Image","width":"168"}}]]English Neutrality: Is the Alabama a British Pirate? (1863)
By Grosvenor Porter Lowrey

The CSS Alabama was built for the Confederate States Navy at Birkenhead, England, and over the course of her two-year career as a commerce raider, she never anchored in a Southern port. This, among other reasons, led some to charge the British government with violating the internationally recognized principle of neutrality.

Grosvenor Porter Lowrey argued the British government had consistently failed to remain neutral, writing:

The action of [the United States] government touching these grave matters has been forbearing, although firm, and in all respects admirable, in contrast with the action and language of England herself in former times, under circumstance differing from the present only in the respect that, from the character of this war, our claim to the observance of strict neutrality is stronger than hers has, or could ever have been. The public journals of England announce that, far from any cessation of this evil industry, the arming and equipping of vessels to cruise against our commerce is going on with increased energy, and with such lack of disguise that we are forced to consider the councils of that country as wanting in capacity of good faith. The sequel will enable us to decide upon which horn of the dilemma to locate the probability.  

[[{"type":"media","view_mode":"media_large","fid":"6642","attributes":{"alt":"","class":"media-image","height":"314","style":"float: left;","typeof":"foaf:Image","width":"191"}}]]Some Casual Papers upon the “Alabama” and Her Commander (1864)
By Gideon Nye

This work provides a foreign perspective on the U.S. Civil War and the application of international law in regard to the role of the Alabama and her commander Raphael Semmes.

This item from the Friend of India and reprinted by the Hongkong Daily Press notes:

The Madras Athenaeum in a very sensible article on the Alabama, apropos of her possible appearance in those seas, puts Captain Semmes in his proper position and dubs him, pirate. To all interests and purposes a pirate he is, and should he appear at Madras is not likely to be received with that distinction which met him at the Cape of Good Hope. A remarkable feature in this American War is the sympathy which we as a people have all along shewn to the Southern cause. Enemies of Slavery, we have constantly patted a would-be gigantic Slave Power on the back, and men like Semmes who go filibustering all round the globe, are put into our gallery of heroes. A curious inconsistency.

An editorial from the Hongkong Daily Press presents a decidedly different perspective of Captain Semmes and, more specifically, his detractors:

Considering the dreadful condition into which the United States are plunged by the present disastrous war, we can so far sympathise with a Northerner as to respect any opinions he may express, no matter how violent and ultra they may appear. But we look upon an unprejudiced man who maintains that Captain Semmes is a pirate, as a goose, and neither capable of arguing, nor worthy of being argued with.

[[{"type":"media","view_mode":"media_large","fid":"6643","attributes":{"alt":"","class":"media-image","height":"314","style":"float: right;","typeof":"foaf:Image","width":"191"}}]]Some Casual Papers upon the American Question and Incidentally upon National Amenities (1864)
By Gideon Nye

In this additional collection of papers, Gideon Nye puts the principles of neutrality and piracy in historical perspective through another editorial from the Hongkong Daily Press:

We take from the Calcutta Phoenix an account reproduced by that paper from a Cape Journal, of the high handed seizure of the British vessel, by the Federal War steamer Vanderbilt. We commend this to the perusal of our astute, and respected correspondent E.P.U. We ask him what would have been said had the Alabama acted in this manner? We ask him to view the occurrence from the same stand point as that which induced him to pronounce Capt. Semmes a pirate. Should he adopt our suggestion, we shall really feel obliged to him to apply his principles to the conduct of Capt. Roderick Dew of Her Majesty’s ship Encounter, during his career at Ningpo, who after coalescing in a most sneaking underhand manner with the notorious pirate Apak slew a number of people who courted his friendship and towards whom Her Majesty’s government had declared themselves neutral. Nay more, —contrary to express orders, Capt. Dew used the armament and the men belonging to the ship under his command, to invade Chinese territory, breaching the walls of Shaoushing, simply because the Imperialists could not do so themselves. If such acts can be justified, then England stands in the same position as the Dey of Algiers did.

As the Alabama and the Vanderbilt are on the tapis in special reference to illegal acts at sea, in common fairness we must bring in the Encounter. The murder of Gray was a brutal act, but a paltry retail one in comparison to what Capt. Dew has committed.

For more information about The American Civil War Collection, 1860-1922, or to request a trial for your institution, please contact

Back to top