American Civil War: Laird Rams Issue and Napoleon’s Entry in Mexico


By Gary W. Gallagher, Ph.D., University of Virginia

Both the Federals and the Confederates knew that foreign policy might prove crucial in deciding the outcome of the war. And all their efforts went into achieving recognition from European powers, especially Britain and France. However, the Laird rams issue and French intervention in Mexico under Napoleon III threatened the North’s chances of attaining those diplomatic relations. How did it all work out?

A statue of General Robert Lee.
Led by General Robert Lee, the Confederate Army was on a winning spree in the spring and summer of 1862. This made their goal of European recognition almost achievable. (Image: Zack Frank/Shutterstock)

Confederacy: Riding High on Success

The Confederacy had almost won European recognition in the spring and summer of 1862. They did so because of the prowess of Robert E. Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia, the success that Lee had at the Seven Days. Then following up on that at Second Manassas, and then carrying the war north of the Potomac on to the United States territory.

Many leaders in Britain and France had decided that the Confederacy was probably winning the war. And they decided further their point by stepping in. Emperor Napoleon III of France was even ready to move after the Seven Days.

Britain’s View of the Confederacy

On July 18, the British Parliament debated the question of recognition but decided it was a little too soon. This debate convinced Lord John Russell, the Foreign Secretary of Britain, that the majority of the British people wanted recognition, and Chancellor of the Exchequer, William Gladstone, was very much in favor of stepping in, in some way.

In fact, Gladstone gave a very famous speech at Newcastle in October in which he said that Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederate states, and other leaders of the South had made an army, had almost established a navy; and they had made what was more than either—a nation.

This is a transcript from the video series The American Civil War. Watch it now, on Wondrium.

Battle of Antietam Ruins Confederacy’s Chances

On September 17, Lee and George McClellan’s soldiers fought each other at Antietam, and Lord John Russell told Prime Minister Palmerston that Britain and France should try to mediate an end to the conflict. He said that if the North refused, then Britain ought to recognize the South unilaterally.

Palmerston decided to wait and see what happened in Lee’s next round of campaigning—the implication being that recognition would come if Lee were successful.

However, the Northern victory at Antietam dampened European enthusiasm for recognition. Britain and France continued to consider action through the end of the year, but the South’s last great chance for recognition had already slipped away.

Learn more about what happened at Antietam.

Britain’s Position after Proclamation of Emancipation

The United States was still a slaveholding society at the time. There were still four slave states in the Union—Missouri, Kentucky, Maryland and Delaware. But there seemed to be a striking difference between the United States and the Confederacy, which was an overtly slaveholding republic.

Abraham Lincoln chose Antietam as the pretext to issue his preliminary Proclamation of Emancipation. And it became obvious very quickly that antislavery elements in Britain could never side with the slaveholding Confederacy.

Construction of the Laird Rams

The Confederacy’s last slim hope for British and French recognition came in the summer of 1863.

Early in the war, Britain had built and sold to the Confederacy two commerce raiders. Britain said it was legal to build and sell these raiders because they were not outfitted as warships in England. They were sold unarmed to the Confederates, who later outfitted them.

In 1863, however, the North learned that two ironclad ships were being built for the Confederacy at the Laird shipyards. Called the Laird rams, these were clearly warships. These were going to be 1,400 ton vessels, about 225 feet long, powerfully armed.

They were designed to help lift the blockade of the Confederate ports, and then, perhaps, even to carry the war to Northern cities and try to terrorize some coastal areas of the North.

Northern Diplomatic Crisis of 1862

Through the summer of 1863, the United States Minister to Great Britain Charles Francis Adams continuously sent messages to the British government, protesting about the construction at Laird shipyards.

Finally, on 5 September 1863, Adams sent a warning to Lord Russell, which said that if the rams were allowed to leave British ports, then “it would be superfluous in me to point out to your Lordship that this is war.”

It seemed to be a very stirring message, and, at one time, it was thought that that message actually forced the British to back away. But, in fact, his tough message turned out to be unnecessary because two days before Adams sent it, the British had decided to seize the rams.

The Confederacy was very upset at the decision and, in fact, expelled British diplomats from the South and ordered James Mason to go from London to Paris. All hope of help from Britain was dead.

Learn more about the role US Navy played in the American Civil War.

France’s Napoleon III Enters the American Drama

Again, there was some chance that France might have recognized the Confederacy.

A portrait of Napoleon III.
Napoleon III did not recognize the Confederacy. (Image: Alexandre Cabanel/Public domain)

France, Britain, and Spain had sent troops to Mexico in the early 1860s to collect debts owed by Mexico to European creditors. Britain and Spain withdrew later, but Napoleon III kept his French forces in Mexico and eventually reinforced them to a total of 35,000 men in 1863.

These French troops took Mexico City and overthrew the government of Benito Juárez in June 1863. Napoleon III then arranged for the Austrian Archduke Ferdinand Maximilian to be the Emperor of Mexico.

The Confederacy then approached Maximilian and said that it would recognize his regime in Mexico, if France would recognize the Confederacy. But Napoleon III, who was personally very pro-Southern, stopped short of ever agreeing to this kind of a deal.

Napoleon Recalls Troops, North’s Diplomatic Woes End

Long before the end of the war, it was clear that France was unwilling to risk war with the United States by recognizing the Confederacy.

Post-Vicksburg, Lincoln had been worried about it. He had argued for the Trans-Mississippi in part because he wanted the United States military to have a presence in Texas that would send a message to the French, who were then in the midst of this intrigue in Mexico.

At the end of the war, the United States sent about 50,000 troops to the Mexican border—a very strong gesture to the French.

Napoleon, in the end, recalled his troops.

With this, the North would win this round of diplomatic struggle during the war.

Common Questions about Laird Rams Issue and Napoleon’s Entry in Mexico

Q: What were the Laird rams?

In 1863, the North learned that Britain was building two ironclad ships for the Confederacy at the Laird shipyards. Called the Laird rams, these were clearly warships.

Q: What happened in the French intervention of Mexico?

France had sent troops to Mexico in the early 1860s to collect debts owed by Mexico to European creditors. And, in 1863, Napoleon III reinforced them to a total of 35,000 men. These French troops took Mexico City and overthrew the government.

Q: How did the Confederacy react after Britain cancelled the Laird rams?

After Britain cancelled the Laird rams, the Confederacy expelled British diplomats from the South and ordered James Mason to go from London to Paris.

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