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The outcome of the Civil War resulted in a strengthening of U.S. foreign power and influence, as the definitive Union defeat of the Confederacy firmly demonstrated the strength of the United States Government and restored its legitimacy to handle the sectional tensions that had complicated U.S. external relations in the years before the Civil War. The end of the War allowed the United States to resolve the Alabama claims against Great Britain for providing ships to the Confederacy that destroyed Union ships.
The Alabama claims were a diplomatic dispute between the United States and Great Britain that arose out of the U.S. Civil War. The peaceful resolution of these claims seven years after the war ended set an important precedent for solving serious international disputes through arbitration and laid the foundation for greatly improved relations between Britain and the United States. The renewed strength of the U.S. Government led to the defeat of French intervention in Mexico and hastened the confederation of Canada in 1867.
Union victory also ensured continuing support for the international abolishment of racial slavery. As the Confederacy collapsed, U.S. leaders were able to shift resources to resisting French intervention in Mexico and to deploy troops along the Texas-Mexico border. U.S. pressure, combined with Mexican resentment and military success against Emperor Maximilian ultimately compelled French Emperor Napoleon III to end his imperial venture in Mexico.
The Alabama Claims
The controversy began when Confederate agents contracted for warships from British boatyards. Disguised as merchant vessels during their construction in order to circumvent British neutrality laws, the craft were actually intended as commerce raiders. The most successful of these cruisers were the Alabama, which was launched on July 29, 1862. It captured 58 Northern merchant ships before it was sunk in June 1864 by a U.S. warship off the coast of France. In addition to the CSS Alabama, other British-built ships in the Confederate Navy included the Florida, Georgia, Rappahannock, and Shenandoah. Together, they sank more than 150 Northern ships and impelled much of the U.S. merchant marine to adopt foreign registry. The damage to Northern shipping would have been even worse had not fervent protests from the U.S. Government persuaded British and French officials to seize additional ships intended for the Confederacy. Most famously, on September 3, 1863, the British Government impounded two ironclads, steam-driven “Laird rams” that Confederate agent James D. Bulloch had surreptitiously arranged to be built at a shipyard in Liverpool.
The United States demanded compensation from Britain for the damage wrought by the British-built, Southern-operated commerce raiders, based upon the argument that the British Government, by aiding the creation of a Confederate Navy, had inadequately followed its neutrality laws. The damages discussed were enormous. Charles Sumner, Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, argued that British aid to the Confederacy had prolonged the Civil War by 2 years, and indirectly cost the United States hundreds of millions or even billions of dollars (the figure Sumner suggested was $2.125 billion). Some Americans adopted this argument and suggested that Britain should offer Canada to the United States in compensation. Such proposals were not taken seriously by British statesmen, but they convey the passion with which some Americans viewed the issue.
The Ratification of the Treaty of Washington
After years of unsuccessful U.S. diplomatic initiatives, a Joint High Commission meeting in Washington, D.C. during the early part of 1871 arrived at the basis for a settlement. The British Government expressed regret for its contribution to the success of Confederate commerce raiders. This agreement, dated May 8, 1871, and known as the Treaty of Washington, also established an arbitration commission to evaluate the merit of U.S. financial claims on Britain. In addition, the treaty addressed Anglo-American disputes over boundaries and fishing rights. The arbitration commission, which issued its decision in September 1872, rejected American claims for indirect damages but did order Britain to pay the United States $15.5 million as compensation for the Alabama claims.
Agressive Expansion of United States territory by Secretary of States - William Seward
In the north, fears of a resurgent United States and calls by some U.S. politicians for the annexation of British North American territory allowed Canadian politicians to overcome their own sectional differences, while also spurring British parliamentary leaders to urge a stronger central government in British North America, especially after Irish-born civil war veterans launched several unsuccessful raids into Canada. This resulted in the British North America Act of 1867, which united Ontario, Quebec, Nova Scotia, and New Brunswick. Subsequently, in 1870, Canadian Prime Minister John MacDonald successfully convinced the British Government to cede the lands of the Hudson’s Bay Company to Canada, crushing the hopes of U.S. expansionists who hoped to acquire those lands for the United States.
The renewed international image of the United States also helped Secretary of State William Seward in his attempts to acquire additional territory in the postwar period. In 1867, Seward succeeded in purchasing Alaska from the Russian Government. Seward also sought to acquire territories in the Caribbean and to negotiate permission to build the Panama Canal. The postwar period also saw attempts by U.S. political leaders, including Seward, to resettle freed slaves abroad in either Mexico or Brazil, but the governments of those countries dissuaded Seward from these efforts. However, Brazil, where slavery remained legal until 1888, did become a magnet for disaffected Confederates angered by the end of slavery in the United States.
Between 3,000 and 20,000 former Confederates resettled in Brazil, although a considerable number returned to the United States. However, William Lidgerwood, the U.S. Chargé d’Affaires in Brazil, recommended that passports be denied for those who had renounced U.S. citizenship. By doing so, Lidgerwood created a class of stateless people, because some former Confederates had renounced their Brazilian citizenship in order to return to the United States. Although many former Confederates were eventually able to return, some remained in Brazil and continued to advocate the proslavery cause.
Confederate loss resulted in the gradual abolition of Western Slavery
The end of the Confederacy generally signaled a defeat for pro-slavery advocates as the international abolitionist movement gained strength in the 1860s and 1870s. Increasingly, abolitionists pressured European and American governments to end slavery and other forms of bondage in their territories. The Russian empire had already announced the end of serfdom in 1861, and the Dutch government abolished slavery in its colonies in 1863. The Spanish Government abolished slavery in Puerto Rico in 1873, although slavery would remain legal in Cuba until 1886. Brazil also took measures toward gradual abolition in 1871, although slavery would not be fully abolished there until 1888.
In 1867, the U.S. nearly doubled its holdings with the purchase of the territory of Alaska from the Russians. During this period, U.S. economic power grew, driven by new inventions in communication and transportation that closed the distance from coast to coast, and by a massive influx of immigration that sparked an explosion of industrialization and urbanization throughout the country. The combination of high productivity and the industrial revolution resulted in a production rate that vastly outstripped that which people in the United States could consume. Following two devastating economic recessions, U.S. foreign policy leaders focused on finding foreign markets to absorb excess goods. This renewed emphasis on exploring international business opportunities resulted in a buildup of U.S. naval forces to protect commercial shipping and overseas interests.
- Republished from Office of the Historian, United States Department of State
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