Book Review of Caution and Cooperation: The American Civil War in British-American Relations

Phillip E. Myers. Caution and Cooperation: The American Civil War in British-American Relations. New Studies in U.S. Foreign Relations series. Kent: The Kent State University Press, 2008. ISBN 978-0-87338-945-7. Illustrations. Notes. Bibliography. Index. Pp. xi, 332. $55.00.

Dr Phillip E. Myers, Director of Administration at the Western Kentucky University Research Foundation, examines Anglo-American relations after the War of 1812 to the Treaty of Washington (1871).  The author focuses on Anglo-American relations during the American Civil War and puts it into the larger context of overall relations between the two states during the nineteenth century.

Myers argues against the traditional view that Britain and the United States had tense relations that could have easily resulted in foreign intervention or an Anglo-Union war during the American Civil War.  Instead, the author stresses that Britain and the United States employed caution and cooperation, rather than conflict, in their wartime relations.  Myers shows that both states had used caution and cooperation in their relations before the conflict that resolved border issues in the Rush-Bagot Agreement (1817), Convention of 1818, Webster-Ashburton Treaty (1842), and Oregon Treaty of 1846.  He writes: “The four treaties showed that caution and cooperation were the leading British-American aims” (p.23).

After the outbreak of the American Civil War, Myers stresses that Britain and United States worked to avoid an Anglo-American conflict, and that neither side seriously wanted war against the other.  The North had its hands full with the war against the South.  Britain was more worried about Napoleon III and the French threat to the British Isles and the European Balance of Power.  Britain declared neutrality in the American conflict, resulting in British recognition of belligerent status for the South.  Tension was evident over British trade with the South and the Union blockade.  Myers stresses that the Trent Affair (1861), traditionally thought to be a crisis moment when Britain and the United States might to go war against one another, was less serious than previously believed.  Neither power wanted war.  Private diplomacy quickly brought the two states back to cooperative relations that avoided a crisis for the rest of the American conflict.  He points out that the Palmerston Cabinet opted for cooperation with the Union in the Intervention Debate of 1862, and relations continually improved for the duration of the war.  The author states that, “by the end of 1862 the British-American peace was stronger than at any time since the beginning of the Civiil War . . .” (p.139).

Myer’s argument contrasts sharply with previous historians, such as Howard Jones’ Union in Peril: The Crisis over British Intervention in the Civil War (1992), that stress tense Anglo-American relations and crisis moments between Britain and the United States that could have led to foreign intervention in the American Civil War.  Myers’ work is based on archival research in Britain, the United States, and Canada.  The study is valuable for depicting Anglo-American relations in a different light.  Is his thesis of Anglo-American caution and cooperation overstated?  This reviewer recommends this study for students and scholars to read and make up their own minds.

Dr William Young
University of North Dakota
Grand Forks, North Dakota

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About William Young

Dr William Young is the Associate Director of International Programs and Adjunct Professor of History at the University of North Dakota. He is the author of German Diplomatic Relations, 1871-1945 (2006), International Politics and Warfare in the Age of Louis XIV and Peter the Great (2004), and European War and Diplomacy, 1337-1815 (2003). Dr Young is a former historian for the United States Air Force and the recipient of three Air Force Historian of the Year awards. He is the author of forty-two volumes of Air Force history as well as numerous special studies and monographs. His service included thirteen years in the United Kingdom, The Netherlands, Germany, and Saudi Arabia.

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