The United States Foreign Minister to Great Britain, Charles Francis Adams, sends an angry letter to the British government warning that war between the two nations could erupt if it allows a pair of powerful ironclad ships, designed to help the Confederates break the Union naval blockade, to set sail.
In the early stages of the war, the British toyed with the idea of recognizing the Confederacy. But Southern hopes of such support were dashed by the end of 1862, when President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation converted the war from one of reunification to a war to abolish slavery. British politicians would be hard pressed to explain to the British people why they were forming an alliance with a slave-holding nation.
But in 1863 another thorn appeared in the side of Anglo-American relations. Throughout the war, Confederate agents in England acquired ships from British shipyards that were later used in the Confederate navy. This seemed to be in violation of Britain’s own Neutrality Act of 1819, which forbade the building, equipping, or arming of warships to be used against any nation with which the British were at peace. During the American Civil War, the British argued that selling ships to the Confederates was not a violation of the law so long as they were not armed. So the Confederacy simply purchased the ships and then took them to another port before adding the armament.
Confederate agent James Bulloch contracted the Laird Shipbuilding Company to construct two ironclads with large iron spikes attached to their prows in order to ram wooden Union blockade ships. In the summer of 1863, Union spies delivered the details of their construction to Adams, who then sent a series of angry and threatening letters warning the British of the consequences of allowing the ships to sail. On September 5, Adams concluded a letter to British Foreign Secretary Lord Russell with the words: “It would be superfluous of me to point out to your Lordship that this is war.”
Adams became a hero in the United States, but the British government had already made the decision to hold the ships in England. A major foreign crisis was averted, and any glimmer of Confederate hope for British recognition vanished.