International Emancipation – Summer 1861

There is a tendency in Civil War studies to see the war through a domestic-only perspective, neglecting its international manifestations except to the extent they affected the war at home. This approach is understandable given the conflict largely was internal, pitting Americans against Americans, and the long tradition in United States history of American exceptionalism. Such parochialism also has affected the study of emancipation as well, although less so as professional historians have internationalized the history of slavery in recent decades, seeing the topic increasingly in the larger context of African slavery in the entire Americas. Fortunately, this trend also has led scholars more and more to see emancipation as part of an international process that started with the Haitian Revolution in the 1790s and lasted until Brazil was the last nation in the Western hemisphere to free its slaves in 1888.

The international aspects of emancipation in the United States can be seen even in the earliest months of the Civil War. For example, the abolitionist leader Wendell Phillips invoked the international context of American slavery in a speech entitled “Slavery and the War,” delivered on August 1, 1861, in Abington, Massachusetts. Phillips’ speech celebrated the anniversary of emancipation in the British Empire on August 1, 1834. Like many other abolitionists in 1861, he took it as an article of faith that the American Civil War would inevitably bring freedom for the slaves, regardless of how doubtful the prospects seemed early on. To Wendell Phillips it was not if the slaves would be freed but how, and he used the history of emancipation in the Americas up to moment to assert that in the case of the United States it would happen by violence. For him the question was only how violent emancipation would be and to illustrate his point he raised the case of the Haitian Revolution. He stated of Haiti:

The races had rushed to arms. Blood flowed in torrents. England was about to invade the island. Government, pushed to the extremity, at midnight, the sovereignty of the realm slipping from its grasp, in despair, as a means of keeping hold of its territory, proclaimed emancipation. It was won in blood and fire. Half the cities were burned; almost every valley floated with blood; the slave wrote the guarantee of his emancipation in the blood of seventy thousand Frenchmen, sent to subdue him. This is the only lesson left for us to-day, — this, how far short of St. Domingo can the Government stop? What is the policy that may save us from that last extremity of bloody emancipation? The British model is gone. The The only question for us is, how far short can we stop of St. Domingo?

So in other words, Wendell Phillips believed by August 1861–correctly–that peaceful emancipation on the British model was no longer possible in the United States. He instead asked what would be the butcher’s bill of blood and treasure to bring freedom to the slaves. But he had no doubt the war, however destructive, could not terminate except with the end of slavery.

Another international aspect of emancipation early in the Civil War was the concern of the foreign press about whether the conflict would end slavery. Nowhere was the interest abroad greater than in Great Britain, which had a vibrant press and genuine interest in the war tearing apart its former colony. Certainly there were elements in Britain hoping for geopolitical reasons that the war would result in a permanent division of the United States into hostile rival powers, so a united American republic would not become a potent international rival in the future. However, there also existed in Great Britain in the 1860s a humane segment of public opinion genuinely horrified that slavery continued in the United States after emancipation in the British Empire and equally upset that the peculiar institution there had resulted in civil war. It was this part of British society that would ultimately keep their government from recognizing the Confederacy and joyful about the war bringing freedom to the American slaves.

An example of this sentiment was an undated article published in London Star, republished in the New York Times on August 8, 1861. The London Star had been founded in 1856 by leaders associated with the English radical movement, which opposed any sort of formal privilege in society–economic, political, or social–and eventually founded the British Liberal Party. The Star‘s article praised the July 9 resolution in the U.S. Houses of Representatives, introduced by Owen Lovejoy, absolving the Union army from the responsibility of hunting fugitive slaves. The article read:

The representatives of the American people have taken a step for which they deserve all honor. By exonerating the National Army from the dirty work of complicity with man-stealers they have established a solid claim to English sympathy. A resolution proposed by Mr. LOVEJOY, stating that in the judgment of the House it is not a part of the duty of the soldiers of the United State to capture or return fugitive slaves, has been adopted by ninety-two votes against fifty-five. This is a significant indication of a wholesome change in public feeling. We have never imagined that the war waged by the North against the South was originally entered upon for the extermination of Slavery. But we have cherished the hope that, as the contest progressed, this object would gradually developed itself into prominence.

Later, the article continued:

We are far from supposing that the remorse of the North has yet been fully awakened. The day has yet to come — though possibly it is not so far distant us some may imagine — when the demand for the eradication of the accursed system will be ultered by so overwhelming a majority that resistance to it will be in vain. The noble band of heroes were have struggled manfully amidst, opprobrium and contempt — the brave martyrs who have shed their blood in behalf of negro freedom — may rest assured that their toils and their sufferings have not been in vain. The fructifying smile of God has shone upon the seed which they have sown, and in good time humanity will reap the precious harvest. Meanwhile we may note with rejoicing this significant fact — noteworthy if it be regarded only as a wafted straw, indicating the current of the breeze. The National soldier is not to soil his hands by becoming the tool of the kidnapper. This is equivalent to a proclamation to the negroes of the seceded States that, wherever the troops of the Union set foot, they are free to run away, and need not fear that the invaders will impede their flight.

So the London Star correctly saw hope in Lovejoy’s July 9 resolution that the U.S. Congress and northern public opinion was beginning to see emancipation as a logical outcome of the war. That if the United States had to fight a bloody and costly civil war it made sense to end the institution–slavery–that ultimately lay behind the conflict.

Lastly, emancipation in the Civil War is significant because just as foreign events could not help but influence what was happening with the coming of freedom in the United States, likewise emancipation in this country could not help but have an impact abroad, especially other places in the Western Hemisphere where slavery continued to flourish.

The effect of events in the United States on emancipation in the rest of the Americas early in the Civil War was not positive. A significant mission of the U.S. Navy in the decades before the Civil War was suppressing the international slave trade, which continued to operate despite multinational efforts to the contrary since the early 19th century. However, with the need to blockade southern ports after the outbreak of the Civil War, navy ships detailed to slave trade suppression were reassigned to the blockade. An unintended result was an increase in the volume of African slaves imported into the Caribbean starting in Spring 1861. For instance, the Shreveport Daily News in Louisiana reported the following in its issue of July 30, 1861.

The Cuban slave trade, since the withdrawal of the United States squadron from the coast of Cuba, is said to be carried on with redoubtable vigor. Six cargoes have been landed on the “ever faithful lise” since the 24th of March. The British Admiral Minle, is said to have relaxed his vigilance, and does not hesitate to say to American merchants that he is not going to do double duty, slaves hunting, as he has been compelled to do since the withdrawal of the Yankees.

Certainly in the long run, emancipation in the United States furthered ending slavery throughout the Western Hemisphere. But in the short run the American Civil War proved an opportunity for the international slave trade. But in any case, emancipation in the United States did not occur in a vacuum both being influenced from abroad and in turn having an effect there as well.

Sources: Shreveport Daily News, 30 July 1861,;words=slave+30+1861+slaves+JULY+July; New York Times, 6 July 1861,; New York Times, 8 July 1861,

About Donald R. Shaffer

Donald R. Shaffer is the author of _After the Glory: The Struggles of Black Civil War Veterans_ (Kansas, 2004), which won the Peter Seaborg Award for Civil War Scholarship in 2005. More recently he published (with Elizabeth Regosin), _Voices of Emancipation: Understanding Slavery, the Civil War, and Reconstruction through the U.S. Pension Bureau Files_ (2008). Dr. Shaffer teaches online exclusively (i.e., a virtual professor). He lives in Arizona and can be contacted at
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2 Responses to International Emancipation – Summer 1861

  1. Margaret D. Blough says:

    I’ve longed believed that among of the worst mistakes that secessionists made were in not judging the extent to which the tide had turned against slavery in the Western world, particularly in Great Britain, and in refusing to acknowledge even the possibility that British anti-slavery beliefs had become such a formidable counterbalance to King Cotton that it would help to prevent Great Britain from coming to the aid of secession. There were some Southern slavery advocates who recognized this and warned against a secession that counted on foreign support. They were ignored.

  2. Pingback: Western Mass Civil War Sesquicentennial

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