Iron lion or paper tiger? The myth of British naval intervention in the American Civil War
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AbstractWhen it comes to the thought-provoking subject of foreign intervention in the Civil War, especially by Great Britain, much of the history has been more propaganda than proper research; fiction over fact. In 1961, Kenneth Bourne offered up a fascinating article on “British Preparations for War with the North, 1861–1862” for the English Historical Review. While focusing largely on the military defense of Canada during the Trent Affair, Bourne also stressed that Britain’s “position at sea was by no means so bad,” though he potentially confused the twentieth-century reader by referring to “battleships” rather than (steam-powered, sail, and screw-propelled) wooden ships-of-the-line, for example. This blurred the important technological changes that were certainly in play by 1861—and not necessarily in Britain’s favor. The Great Lakes the British considered to be largely a write-off as there were no facilities in place for building ironclads, much less floating wooden gunboats up frozen rivers and canals during the long winter season. American commerce and industrialization in the Midwest, on the other hand, had led to booming local ports like Chicago, Detroit, Toledo, and Cleveland—all facilitated by new railroads. Of course, Parliament had not seen to maximizing the defense of the British Empire’s many frontiers and outposts over the years. If anything, the legendary reputation of the Royal Navy continually undermined that imperative. That left the onus of any real war against the United States to Britain’s ability to lay down a naval offensive. And while Bourne was content to trust the judgment of an anonymous British officer in Colburn’s United Service Magazine that “1273 guns” were available to Vice Admiral Sir Alexander Milne’s North American and West Indies naval forces during the Trent crisis, the same publication also went on to warn its contemporary British readers that “in calculating the power of the Northern States at sea, we must not be deluded by the ships actually in existence, but must reckon on those that may be built.” The author might have added that of the 86 guns of Milne’s flagship, HMS Nile, for example, or the 91 guns of the newer Agamemnon (launched in 1852 and reinforcing the British naval base at Bermuda from Gibraltar), no more than a third were 8-inch (65 cwt. ) shell-firing guns, the rest being 32-pounders in use since the Napoleonic era. In fact, the more deep-draft, screw-propelled ships-of-the-line the Admiralty dispatched to Milne, the more nervous he became. The 101-gun Conqueror ran aground in the Bahamas on December 13, 1861, a total loss. The British admiral pleaded for more shallow-draft paddle steamers, like those in use by the Union navy. Indeed, it was the lighter craft of the Yankees which proved better adapted for warfare in American waters.
CitationFuller, H. (2015) Iron lion or paper tiger? The myth of British naval intervention in the American Civil War, in Stearns, P. N. (ed.) The American Civil War in a global context. Richmond: Virginia Sesquicentennial of the American Civil War Commission.
TypeChapter in book