The Milne Papers Vol.3, The Royal Navy and the American Civil War 1862–1864

Vol 170 (2023), John Beeler

This collection covers the period February 1862-March 1864, which constituted the final two years and one month that Rear-Admiral Sir Alexander Milne commanded the Royal Navy’s North America and West India Station.  Its chief focus is upon Anglo-American relations in the midst of the American Civil War.  Whilst the most high-profile cause of tension between the two countries — the Trent Affair — had been resolved in Britain’s favour by January 1862, numerous sources of discord remained.  Most turned on American efforts to blockade the so-called Confederacy, efforts that often ran afoul of international law, not to mention British amour-propre.  As commander of British naval forces in the theatre, Milne’s decisions and actions could and did have a major impact on the state of affairs between his government and that of the US.

While noting in one private exchange with the British ambassador to Washington, Richard, Lord Lyons, that he had been “enjoined to abstain from any act likely to involve Great Britain in hostilities with the United States,” Milne added ominously, “yet I am also instructed to guard our Commerce from all illegal interference” and it is plain from his correspondence that both he and the British government were prepared to use force in that undertaking.  Thus, between apparently high-handed behaviour by the US Navy and Milne’s and the Palmerston government’s resolve not to be pushed beyond a certain point, the ingredients for a major confrontation between the two countries existed.  Yet most of Milne’s efforts were directed toward preventing such a confrontation from occurring.  In this endeavour he was joined by Lyons and by the British government.  No vital British interest was at stake in the conflict raging between North and South, and thus the nation was unlikely to become directly involved in it unless provoked by rash US actions.

Yet there was no shortage of such provocations: the seizure of British merchant vessels bound from one neutral port to another, detaining such ships without first conducting a search of their cargo for evidence of contraband of war, the de facto blockade of British colonial ports, apparent violations of British territorial waters, the seizure of British merchantmen off the neutral port of Matamoros, Mexico, and the use of neutral ports as bases of operations by US warships among them.  In responding to these and other sources of dispute between the US and Britain, Milne proved adept at pouring oil on troubled waters, so much so that in a late 1863 letter to Foreign Secretary Lord Russell, Lyons lamented his impending departure from the station: “I am very much grieved at his leaving….No change of admirals could be for the better.”

This collection centres upon Milne’s private correspondence, especially that between him and Lyons, First Lord of the Admiralty the Duke of Somerset and First Naval Lord Vice Admiral Sir Frederick Grey.  It also includes private letters to and from many of Milne’s other professional correspondents and important official correspondence with the Admiralty.

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