Could have France broken the Union blockade?

Fewer ads. Lots of American Civil War content!
JOIN NOW: REGISTER HERE!

Saphroneth

Captain
Joined
Feb 18, 2017
I suspect that Rhea has seen part of Milne's note of 24 Jan:

"War has no doubt its horrors and its evils, but to make war felt it must be carried out against the Enemy with Energy, and Every place made to feel what war really is. In a former letter I mentioned to your Grace my intention in the first instance and as the best security to our Commerce, to cut off or capture the American blockading squadrons... The question of Coaling the Blockading Ships would of course be a matter of some difficulty, and the daily use of Steam would be a measure of necessity. I have been looking round into the resources of the States in regard to Coal, and at which places or Ports I might be able to seize on Depots but as yet I am somewhat in the dark.
The defence of St Johns, Halifax, Newfoundland, the Sydney and Pictou Coal Mines, [and] the West India Islands made me anxious, for I have not sufficient Ships for extensive demands, nor do I consider that fortified Military Stations should look to Naval Squadrons for defence... of course I would not neglect sending ships when absolutely necessary.'

Now, Milne is the naval commander. He is outlining a cohesive strategy for the use of the Navy, not the integrated defence:

- Firstly, cut off or capture the American blockading squadrons.
- Secondly, blockade the American coastline.
- He does not want to send ships to defend British possessions unless necessary, because that will diminish his striking power.

Halifax in particular has significant defences - eight batteries of modern garrison artillery, which means rifles, firing from a citadel 150 feet above the water.
 

wausaubob

Major
Joined
Apr 4, 2017
Location
Denver, CO
The French could have broken the blockade. But if they do that on their own, they are pushing the US towards Britain. In addition, neither the German states, Prussia, or Russia, viewed the Confederacy favorably. And Garibaldi and the republican movement in Europe were serious problems. They would be gambling on the Confederacy winning, because if the US wins, the French would have permanently ruined their relationship with the US.
As it was, within 3 years of the end of the US Civil War, the French incursion into Mexico ended, and Maximillian was executed by Mexicans. There was no long drawn out struggle to preserve imperialism. Within 6 years of the end of the Civil War, Germany invaded France and US observers watched from the German side. The US and Britain stood aside and let Napoleon III fail.
The risks to France were enormous, and France was not stable enough to take those risks.
 

Rhea Cole

First Sergeant
Joined
Nov 2, 2019
Location
Murfreesboro, Tennessee
The book Dreadnaught/Dreadnought covering "the last quarter of the 19th century" would be ten to fifteen years off from the Civil War, so it's not appropriate as a source. As for hurricane season, the British used Bermuda as their winter base and Halifax as their summer one; of course, it's not like the Union could exactly hope to capture Bermuda in the middle of a hurricane!

In an actual war there'd be a close blockade of the US coast.



Citation.
The British absolutely thought they could hold Halifax; the place was both well fortified and well defended.


Really? Name the ironclads and monitors.
For the record, I can name several British ironclads built for coastal waters. The British could also base their heaviest ships out of Bermuda and Halifax, or just coal their vessels on the blockade station.



This is frankly extremely false and betrays a lack of understanding of the true situation.

Firstly, privateering was illegal. The US had agreed to abide by the Treaty of Paris for the duration of the Civil War, and that rendered privateering tantamount to piracy.
Secondly, there were almost no ships suitable for conversion to privateers and almost no guns to fit them, because the existing US war effort had already snapped up all of both. They were even historically taking up sail ships and fitting them with one or two cannon, and had none to spare; an effective privateer this is not, not when so much of the British merchant fleet is steam.
Thirdly, the British had successfully protected their commerce in 1812 with the use of convoy; there is no reason the same would not happen here.

And fourthly... name the ports. The British planned for blockades on the mouth of the Chesapeake, at the mouth of the Delaware, in New York Bay, covering Long Island Sound, at Boston, at Portsmouth and at Portland; out of where are the privateers going to "swarm" where they won't promptly run into a blockading force?

(For context Boston had exactly one coast defence gun; if you divert guns to fix that you're not fitting out privateers!)
I am content to accept the judgement of the Royal Navy admirals & have nothing to add.
 
Fewer ads. Lots of American Civil War content!
JOIN NOW: REGISTER HERE!

Poorville

Private
Joined
Jun 21, 2019
The book Dreadnaught/Dreadnought covering "the last quarter of the 19th century" would be ten to fifteen years off from the Civil War, so it's not appropriate as a source. As for hurricane season, the British used Bermuda as their winter base and Halifax as their summer one; of course, it's not like the Union could exactly hope to capture Bermuda in the middle of a hurricane!

In an actual war there'd be a close blockade of the US coast.



Citation.
The British absolutely thought they could hold Halifax; the place was both well fortified and well defended.


Really? Name the ironclads and monitors.
For the record, I can name several British ironclads built for coastal waters. The British could also base their heaviest ships out of Bermuda and Halifax, or just coal their vessels on the blockade station.



This is frankly extremely false and betrays a lack of understanding of the true situation.

Firstly, privateering was illegal. The US had agreed to abide by the Treaty of Paris for the duration of the Civil War, and that rendered privateering tantamount to piracy.
Secondly, there were almost no ships suitable for conversion to privateers and almost no guns to fit them, because the existing US war effort had already snapped up all of both. They were even historically taking up sail ships and fitting them with one or two cannon, and had none to spare; an effective privateer this is not, not when so much of the British merchant fleet is steam.
Thirdly, the British had successfully protected their commerce in 1812 with the use of convoy; there is no reason the same would not happen here.

And fourthly... name the ports. The British planned for blockades on the mouth of the Chesapeake, at the mouth of the Delaware, in New York Bay, covering Long Island Sound, at Boston, at Portsmouth and at Portland; out of where are the privateers going to "swarm" where they won't promptly run into a blockading force?

(For context Boston had exactly one coast defence gun; if you divert guns to fix that you're not fitting out privateers!)
Thanks for that Saphroneth it saves me the trouble of replying to all of Rhea's points.
 

wausaubob

Major
Joined
Apr 4, 2017
Location
Denver, CO
The British power is a separate issue. If the British intervene, the Civil War ends fairly quickly. Then the British are again dependent on a slave economy for the bulk of their cotton, and the US isn't going away and the border issues in Columbia, and control of the upper Great Lakes, are once again at issue.
The gain is not that great for Britain, and the cost is they have ruined trade relations with an emerging market.
 

wausaubob

Major
Joined
Apr 4, 2017
Location
Denver, CO
The British could force an armistice on the Atlantic Coast, but there weren't going to be able to end the armed struggle for control of the Mississippi River.
 
Fewer ads. Lots of American Civil War content!
JOIN NOW: REGISTER HERE!

Saphroneth

Captain
Joined
Feb 18, 2017
I am content to accept the judgement of the Royal Navy admirals & have nothing to add.
Oh, good, so when Admiral Milne estimated that about 65 ships would be required to maintain a blockade of the Union's major ports, you agree with him. Excellent.

When Milne states that "he does not consider that fortified stations should look to naval ships for defence" then you also agree with him.

In other words, as this was the opinion of the Admiralty, you agree that defeating the US Navy and blockading the coastline would be entirely within the means of the Royal Navy - something which would not be done casually, but which could be effectively certain of success.
 

Saphroneth

Captain
Joined
Feb 18, 2017
I am content to accept the judgement of the Royal Navy admirals & have nothing to add.
The Admirals certainly didn't think it'd be impossible to hold Halifax and I dare you to show me otherwise.

They also didn't think they'd be fighting "ironclads and monitors designed for coastal waters" with wooden ships, because the first ironclad to exist in any form west of the Azores was British. It was HMS Terror and was stationed at Bermuda, and it had a shallower draft than the Monitor.

And they really didn't think they'd be fighting "hundreds of privateers", because privateering was now illegal.
 

Greywolf

Sergeant
Joined
Jun 17, 2017
So for now I'll assume the French make the worst-case intervention to break the Union blockade and smash the USN, which is turning up around 24-25 April 1862 in force.

Example French wooden steam line of battle:

Bretagne (130)
Arcole (90)
Redoutable (90)
Ville de Nantes (90)
Napoleon (90)
Fontenoy (90)
Tilsitt (90)
Charlemagne (80)


Plus ironclad frigate Gloire
And ironclad batteries
Congreve
Devastation
Foudroyante
Lave
Tonnante

And half a dozen or so screw frigates, plus smaller vessels (corvettes) in proportion.


The USN has nothing that can fight this fleet.
Great info, thank you sir
 
Fewer ads. Lots of American Civil War content!
JOIN NOW: REGISTER HERE!

Saphroneth

Captain
Joined
Feb 18, 2017
Great info, thank you sir
You might be interested to know why I picked that date?

It's because it completely zaps the Army of the Potomac, which at that time was still not yet through the Yorktown line. It has no realistic hope of escape, and the French arrival leads to the capture of something not far off a quarter of the entire Union army in the field.
 

Poorville

Private
Joined
Jun 21, 2019
The British could force an armistice on the Atlantic Coast, but there weren't going to be able to end the armed struggle for control of the Mississippi River.
I agree, any intervention by Britain had to be early. Once there was serious conflict on the Mississippi it would be too late.
 

Saphroneth

Captain
Joined
Feb 18, 2017
I agree, any intervention by Britain had to be early. Once there was serious conflict on the Mississippi it would be too late.
I'm not so sure. I do think the most likely "intervention" by Britain is nothing of the sort (and is more of a concurrent war, the Trent) but if the British really did decide to get involved in mid-late 1863 (say) then their first priority is the security of Canada and their second course of action is a blockade; in particular a saltpetre embargo combined with supplying it to the South would be a significant change.
 
Fewer ads. Lots of American Civil War content!
JOIN NOW: REGISTER HERE!

DanSBHawk

Sergeant Major
Joined
May 8, 2015
Location
Wisconsin
This is frankly extremely false and betrays a lack of understanding of the true situation.

Firstly, privateering was illegal. The US had agreed to abide by the Treaty of Paris for the duration of the Civil War, and that rendered privateering tantamount to piracy.
Secondly, there were almost no ships suitable for conversion to privateers and almost no guns to fit them, because the existing US war effort had already snapped up all of both. They were even historically taking up sail ships and fitting them with one or two cannon, and had none to spare; an effective privateer this is not, not when so much of the British merchant fleet is steam.
Thirdly, the British had successfully protected their commerce in 1812 with the use of convoy; there is no reason the same would not happen here.

And fourthly... name the ports. The British planned for blockades on the mouth of the Chesapeake, at the mouth of the Delaware, in New York Bay, covering Long Island Sound, at Boston, at Portsmouth and at Portland; out of where are the privateers going to "swarm" where they won't promptly run into a blockading force?

(For context Boston had exactly one coast defence gun; if you divert guns to fix that you're not fitting out privateers!)
There is no doubt that the US would have sent privateers after British ships. The US never signed the Declaration of Paris in 1856.

Here is one source:
The De-Privatization of American Warfare: How the U.S. Government Used, Regulated, and Ultimately Abandoned Privateering in the Nineteenth Century, by Nicholas Parrillo


The Union threat against Britain in 1863 shows that privateering was still a serious possibility at that time. Further, if the Union actually had gone to war with Britain during the Civil War, there is no question that the Lincoln administration would have licensed privateers, since Britain had a superior navy and a large merchant marine. In the event of such a war, declared Welles in 1863, "We could, with our public and private armed ships, interrupt and destroy [Britain's] communication [i.e., trade] with ... her colonies, on which she is as dependent for prosperity as they on her."
 

BuckeyeWarrior

Corporal
Joined
Jan 1, 2020
Location
Ohio
I'm not so sure. I do think the most likely "intervention" by Britain is nothing of the sort (and is more of a concurrent war, the Trent) but if the British really did decide to get involved in mid-late 1863 (say) then their first priority is the security of Canada and their second course of action is a blockade; in particular a saltpetre embargo combined with supplying it to the South would be a significant change.
I thought once Lincoln issued the emancipation proclamation the European powers lost all interest in intervening on behalf of the confederacy?
 

Saphroneth

Captain
Joined
Feb 18, 2017
There is no doubt that the US would have sent privateers after British ships. The US never signed the Declaration of Paris in 1856.
No, but they did agree in 1861 to abide by the Declaration of Paris for the duration of hostilities, and also tried Confederate privateers as pirates (despite that the Confederacy had not agreed to abide by the Declaration of Paris in the same manner).

If the US tried to renege on their agreement to abide by the Declaration of Paris, it would have gone down terribly.

The Union threat against Britain in 1863 shows that privateering was still a serious possibility at that time. Further, if the Union actually had gone to war with Britain during the Civil War, there is no question that the Lincoln administration would have licensed privateers, since Britain had a superior navy and a large merchant marine. In the event of such a war, declared Welles in 1863, "We could, with our public and private armed ships, interrupt and destroy [Britain's] communication [i.e., trade] with ... her colonies, on which she is as dependent for prosperity as they on her."
I mean, I suppose it is possible that the Union would manage to accidentally provoke a war with every other maritime power, but I've been assuming they take the more sensible option.

Of course, the US also had nowhere for privateers to send prizes, because they'd just finished getting all neutral powers to agree not to act as prize ports. This means not just privateers but Navy cruisers out raiding would have to either burn their prizes (seeing no profit, which means privateers wouldn't bother going out raiding) or bring their prizes into US ports for sale; in the latter case a small prize crew has to bring the ship inwards through the British blockade.
 
Fewer ads. Lots of American Civil War content!
JOIN NOW: REGISTER HERE!

Saphroneth

Captain
Joined
Feb 18, 2017
I thought once Lincoln issued the emancipation proclamation the European powers lost all interest in intervening on behalf of the confederacy?
There are two issues being conflated here: interest and ability.

The British were not at any point truly interested in intervening on behalf of the Confederacy (there wasn't anything worthwhile in it for them and they never intervened in that sort of thing anyway) though they were willing to fight over Trent and they might have sanctioned either a multilateral intervention to broker peace or just told France that it wouldn't be a war issue if the French got involved.

The British retained the ability to seriously intervene in the Civil War for more or less the whole war, though. I think it's 1865 before a British intervention would have no chance of swinging the outcome of the war - even in December 1864 they can cut off the supplies for both Grant and Sherman's armies.
 

Saphroneth

Captain
Joined
Feb 18, 2017
To quote a lengthy analysis from Cerebropetrologist:




It was a univerally recognised principle of maritime law that captains did not have the authority to judge prize cases and condemn ships on his own authority. If you doubt this, bear in mind that the very war that we are talking about [could be] provoked by Captain Wilkes judging the case of the Trent by himself. This war was avoided because the US government realised it had no leg to stand on and chose to take the humiliating climb-down instead.

For a seizure to be legal, every prize case had to be submitted to an Admiralty court, which would consider the merits of the case and decide if the ship was lawful prize or if compensation was due to its owners. However, it was not always necessary to bring the ship to the port in which the Admiralty court would sit. Ships could, in principle, be brought into a neutral port and sold or released there when news of the judgment arrived. It is here, however, that two major and interconnected Union foreign policy blunders become pertinent.

In 1856, with the close of the Crimean War, the major European powers organised a multilateral initiative to abolish privateering. The United States, with an eye to its large merchant navy and its small establishment of purpose-built warships, refused to accept the treaty unless all non-contraband private property was protected from capture. This was a win-win situation for the United States: in the event of war with Britain, either they would be allowed to create a vast fleet of privateers to prey on British trade, or their own trade would be safe from the Royal Navy. When the rest of Europe rejected the American proposal, the United States rejected the treaty. This first blunder was not recognised as a blunder at the time, however, and the United States continued on happily until the outbreak of the Civil War.

When the Confederacy seceded, the United States realised with horror the blunder that they had committed. Because they had not signed the Treaty of Paris, there was absolutely nothing preventing the Confederacy from raising a monster fleet of privateers and sweeping Union commerce from the oceans. The Union government therefore hurriedly proclaimed its conversion to the Treaty of Paris, and pleaded with European governments to allow it to accede to its terms.

However, as so often happens, the first blunder led to a [potential] second. The Union government also begged governments which were issuing declarations of neutrality to prohibit Confederate ships from bringing prizes into their ports for adjudication. This was a reversal of previous US policy, as during their own rebellion American privateers had relied on the ability to bring prizes into neutral ports for adjudication. However, most European governments were happy to oblige the Union. In Britain, for instance, the first proclamation of neutrality on 13 May 1861 was quickly followed by a letter from Lord John Russell on 1 June 1861:

addressed, by Her Majesty's commands, to the Admiralty, Colonial, War, and India offices... interdicting the armed ship and privateers, both of the United States and of the so-called Confederate States, from carrying prizes made by them into the ports, harbours, roadsteads, or waters of the United Kingdom, or of any of Her Majesty's Colonies or Possessions abroad.
Under the influence of the American minister, the King of Hawaii similarly announced in August 1861 that 'no adjudication of prizes will be entertained within our jurisdiction'. In July 1861, the Portugese government also prevented 'the entrance of privateers and of the prizes made by privateers, or by armed vessels'.

During the American Civil War as it progressed historically, this policy was a giant boon to the Union. One only has to read Semmes' memoirs to feel his frustration, as he found the ports of Britain, Spain, and even Venezuela closed to him. This was why the Alabama had to burn her prizes rather than condemning and selling them. Moreover, when Semmes converted one of his prizes into a Confederate commerce raider under the name CSS Tuscaloosa, the British seized it on arrival in Cape Town because it had not legally been condemned as a prize. Moreover, Semmes acknowledged that this was the correct treatment of a prize when he petitioned the government to release the ship. Reversing many of its existing stances on maritime rights, and pressuring neutral governments to adopt strict interpretations of neutrality, was exactly the right approach for the Union to adopt in attempting to prosecute the American Civil War.

However, this is alternate history we are dealing with. In the event of a Trent War, the Union's stance on the admission of prizes into neutral ports would have been absolutely catastrophic to its commerce raiding efforts. Only a few enlightened individuals were able to recognise this at the time, one of them being the Union minister in Portugal James E. Harvey. He explained to Seward how, on being read a draft version of the Portguese proclamation:
I expressed my acceptance of its general scope and spirit, but expressedly demurred to the declaration... by which armed vessels are placed in the same category as privateers in regard to prizes. Although I knew it was of no practical importance to the United States under present circumstances, it was easy to foreseee that in the event of war with England or France, and with their ability to blockade our ports, that prizes taken by American ships-of-war would thus be excluded from Portugal and her possessions.
This would have been bitter irony indeed. The Union had spent most of 1861 persuading neutral powers to ban Confederate prizes from their harbours. In 1862, as a direct result of its own diplomatic efforts, British ships captured by Union commerce raiders would have been similarly banned from neutral harbours.

The Union would almost certainly prevail upon neutral powers to open their ports to prizes. However, the British request to keep them closed to both powers, as a manifestation of true neutrality, would undoubtedly have been the more persuasive appeal. When coupled with a promise to close its own ports if the neutral power found itself at war, and a sorrowful shaking of the head at how dramatically the Union had changed its diplomatic tune in a mere matter of months, it is probable that the British could close almost every neutral port in the world against prizes.
 

DanSBHawk

Sergeant Major
Joined
May 8, 2015
Location
Wisconsin
No, but they did agree in 1861 to abide by the Declaration of Paris for the duration of hostilities, and also tried Confederate privateers as pirates (despite that the Confederacy had not agreed to abide by the Declaration of Paris in the same manner).

If the US tried to renege on their agreement to abide by the Declaration of Paris, it would have gone down terribly.


I mean, I suppose it is possible that the Union would manage to accidentally provoke a war with every other maritime power, but I've been assuming they take the more sensible option.

Of course, the US also had nowhere for privateers to send prizes, because they'd just finished getting all neutral powers to agree not to act as prize ports. This means not just privateers but Navy cruisers out raiding would have to either burn their prizes (seeing no profit, which means privateers wouldn't bother going out raiding) or bring their prizes into US ports for sale; in the latter case a small prize crew has to bring the ship inwards through the British blockade.
Actually, Congress passed a bill, which Lincoln signed on March 3rd 1863, which authorized the President to license privateers if necessary. That spooked the British so much that they suddenly became more cooperative: a month later they seized a confederate warship being built in England.
 
Fewer ads. Lots of American Civil War content!
JOIN NOW: REGISTER HERE!

Saphroneth

Captain
Joined
Feb 18, 2017
Actually, Congress passed a bill, which Lincoln signed on March 3rd 1863, which authorized the President to license privateers if necessary. That spooked the British so much that they suddenly became more cooperative: a month later they seized a confederate warship being built in England.
What seems improbable about this to me is the idea that the British would be spooked by the Americans passing a bill allowing them to break a treaty they'd agreed to follow.

There are two options here.

Either the British think the Americans consider themselves bound by the treaty, in which case they consider the bill to be basically a PR stunt.
Or the British think the Americans don't consider themselves bound by the treaty, in which case they wouldn't need the bill to show them.

There is the possibility that the British would consider this a signal by the Americans that they wouldn't abide by the treaty, but I don't think the timings line up for this causing the British to want to sieze Confederate warships being built in England as they were already going to a lot of effort to catch them; the Alexandria and the Oreto are seized, but the seizures are overtuned on a lack of evidence.
 

DanSBHawk

Sergeant Major
Joined
May 8, 2015
Location
Wisconsin
What seems improbable about this to me is the idea that the British would be spooked by the Americans passing a bill allowing them to break a treaty they'd agreed to follow.

There are two options here.

Either the British think the Americans consider themselves bound by the treaty, in which case they consider the bill to be basically a PR stunt.
Or the British think the Americans don't consider themselves bound by the treaty, in which case they wouldn't need the bill to show them.

There is the possibility that the British would consider this a signal by the Americans that they wouldn't abide by the treaty, but I don't think the timings line up for this causing the British to want to sieze Confederate warships being built in England as they were already going to a lot of effort to catch them; the Alexandria and the Oreto are seized, but the seizures are overtuned on a lack of evidence.
The threat to authorize privateers was a threat aimed at Britain. From the article I linked above:

"Seward and his allies offered various official explanations for why the Union might need privateers, such as chasing the Confederate raiders or aiding the blockade. But as we have seen, privateering was not suited to such missions. According to both Adams and the more recent authoritative study by historian Brian Jenkins, the Union privateers' actual but unspoken purpose, which most Senators recognized, was to prey on Confederate commerce via the capture of the British merchant vessels that carried it, with the expectation that these privateers would "commit all sorts of indignities and interferences with British merchant ships whether on a blockade-running trip [to the South] or engaged in ordinary trade between non-belligerent ports." In other words, the Union understood that privateers would harm British commerce not only through ordinary legal means (such as capturing blockade runners and generally searching British merchantmen for Confederate cargo and hauling them into port when such cargo was found) but also illegal means (such as capturing or otherwise harassing British merchantmen without probable cause to believe they were engaged in Confederate commerce). The Union knew of the tendency of privateers to engage in harassment without official authorization, and it deliberately exploited that tendency to add unofficial force to its threat against Britain. In an assurance that was less comforting than menacing, Seward promised the British ambassador that the Union would warn Britain before it licensed any privateers whose activities might "'incidentally or indirectly affect[]" British shipping. Seward was prepared to carry out the threat: he submitted proposed regulations to the Cabinet, investigated the willingness of New York merchants to fit out privateers, and received some applications for licenses.
On April 5, 1863, the British government seized one of the Confederate warships under construction, sending a positive signal to the Union; thus, the Union never had to carry out its threat to commission privateers. Historians differ on whether the British seizure constituted a sharp reversal of policy in response to the privateering threat or was instead part of a gradual shift that was occurring for other reasons. In any case, these events confirm that in 1863 the U.S. government continued to view privateering as an important military option."​
 
Fewer ads. Lots of American Civil War content!
JOIN NOW: REGISTER HERE!
Top