Lincoln Prepares to Issue an Important Executive Order on the Rights of Neutrals in the War

A Rare Letter Relating to the War's Diplomatic History and Showing Lincoln's Personal Involvement in Military Policy .

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Send copies of all your general instructions to Naval commanders

The importance of diplomacy in the Civil War cannot be overstated, as the successful side in that aspect of the struggle would likely emerge victorious. The Confederacy initially sought to gain recognition from European nations, and even to draw them into the...

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Lincoln Prepares to Issue an Important Executive Order on the Rights of Neutrals in the War

A Rare Letter Relating to the War's Diplomatic History and Showing Lincoln's Personal Involvement in Military Policy .

Send copies of all your general instructions to Naval commanders

The importance of diplomacy in the Civil War cannot be overstated, as the successful side in that aspect of the struggle would likely emerge victorious. The Confederacy initially sought to gain recognition from European nations, and even to draw them into the war if possible. The Union needed to keep these nations (and particularly Great Britain) out, as it would have been untenable to fight the both British and the Confederates at the same time. The Trent Affair (regarding a U.S. naval vessel taking Confederate commissioners to Europe off a British flag ship) in 1861 brought the U.S. and Britain close to a conflict, but prudent actions by Lincoln and Secretary of State William Seward, and the intervention of Prince Albert, avoided that. But throughout the war, the Confederacy used Europe as an arsenal, shipyard and supply depot, and without all this it would have been unable to maintain the conflict.

The Confederate modus operandi for getting these materials through the Union blockade was to use neutral ports like the Bahamas for a staging area, and to have papers indicating that they were headed to other neutral ports as destinations. Sometimes they would be flying a neutral flag and sometimes the colors of the Confederacy. Between March and June 1863, the U.S. consul at Nassau wrote Seward that he was personally aware of 28 vessels from that place that left to run the blockade. Some would have flown the British flag, some not, and all would have been ostensibly headed for destinations like Havana or Martinique. For its part, the U.S. Navy tried to enforce the blockade by stopping as many of these ships as possible, boarding them even when they flew the British flag, and seizing them whenever possible. By 1863, Navy captains had developed a tactic of waiting right at the international water line right outside the neutral ports, ready to pounce on suspect vessels as soon as they crossed that line.

This tactic of U.S. ships lying in wait to board ships leaving British ports caused a diplomatic incident. On June 16, 1863, British Ambassador to the U.S., Lord Lyons, filed a protest with Seward on behalf of his government demanding an end to the practice of “United States war vessels following neutral vessels out of the port of St. Thomas and capturing them.”?  On June 25, Lyons added a protest about U.S. vessels following Confederate flag ships “out of a neutral harbor, except after a lapse of 24 hours.” Seward was concerned that little was to be gained and much lost by continuing practices that riled up the British, but he and his views were not unopposed in the Cabinet, as Navy Secretary Gideon Welles had little sympathy with what he saw as the weak-kneed policy Seward was advocating. President Lincoln thought Seward’s policy best under the circumstances, but before deciding what ought to be done, he first needed to determine what present Navy policies were. And he had to do this without offending Welles, whom Lincoln felt was doing a fine job overall.

Autograph Letter Signed as President on Executive Mansion letterhead, Washington, July 21. 1863, to Welles, initiating his management of the situation. “If you conveniently can send copies of all your general instructions to Naval commanders, for me to read and return, I shall be obliged. Yours as ever A. Lincoln.”

These Lincoln reviewed, and four days later he issued an Executive Order. It stated that he had something “to add to the general instructions given to our Naval Commanders…1st. You will avoid the reality, and as far as possible, the appearance, of using any neutral port, to watch neutral vessels, and then to dart out and seize them on their departure. Note: Complaint is made that this has been practiced at the Port of St. Thomas, which practice, if it exist, is disapproved, and must cease. 2nd. You will not…detain the crew of a captured neutral vessel, or any other subject, of a neutral power on board such vessel…” He then added his political assessment, and some balm for Welles’ wounded feelings. “My dear Sir, it is not intended to be insinuated that you have been remiss in the performance of the arduous and responsible duties of your Department, which I take pleasure in affirming has, in your hands, been conducted with admirable success. Yet while your subordinates are, almost of necessity, brought into angry collision with the subjects of foreign States, the representatives of those States and yourself do not come into immediate contact, for the purpose of keeping the peace, in spite of such collisions. At that point there is an ultimate, and heavy responsibility upon me. What I propose is…unobjectionable; while if it do no other good, it will contribute to sustain a considerable portion of the present British Ministry in their places, who, if displaced, are sure to be replaced by others more unfavorable to us.”

Today we see Lincoln’s policy as a wise one, but Welles’ Diary on August 12 records his displeasure. “The proposed instructions are in language almost identical with certain letters which have passed between Mr. Seward and Lord Lyons, which the former submitted to me and requested me to adopt. My answer was not what the Secretary and Minister had agreed between themselves should be my policy and action. The President has therefore been privately interviewed and persuaded to write me,—an unusual course with him and which he was evidently reluctant to do. He earnestly desires to keep on terms of peace with England and…to sustain the present Ministry,…hence constant derogatory concessions. In all of this Mr. Seward’s subservient policy, or want of a policy, is perceptible. He has no convictions, no fixed principles, no rule of action…We injure neither ourselves nor Great Britain by an honest and firm maintenance of our rights, but Mr. Seward is in constant trepidation lest the Navy Department or some naval officer shall embroil us in a war, or make trouble with England.”

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