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London: Saturday, October 8, 1864

The Illustrated London News, vol. 45, no. 1281, p. 354-355.

October 8, 1864

London: Saturday, October 8, 1864.

We entirely approve of the remonstrances that have lately been offered by a portion of the London press against the tone which has been much too generally adopted by public speakers and writers in discussing the events of the American war, and we desire to lose no opportunity of protesting against any kind of "utterances," literary or verbal, that may tend to embitter the relations between ourselves and our Transatlantic brethren. Without the slightest assumption of credit to this Journal for having done anything beyond its duty in abstaining from cynical or hostile comment upon the frightful struggle in the West, we may fairly assert that at no period of the war have we permitted ourselves to be irritated into printing aught that, on its re-perusal when the contest shall be over, can properly give offence to American readers. We could heartily wish that partisans on both sides would remember that the exasperating interference of bystanders in a quarrel is much more slowly forgiven by combatants than the wrongs which each supposes himself to have sustained from his enemy.

It would be absurd to deny that the supposed weakness of the Confederates, and the gallant fight which they have made against a force which England no less than the North originally believed would be irresistible, have enlisted on the side of the South a very large share of British sympathy. Nearly all the leading newspapers of this country have seemed delighted to chronicle the successes of the Confederates, to make the most of the deeds of their Generals, and to speak slightingly of the efforts of the Unionists. Journals which at the outset of the war described the resistance of the South as hopeless, and were almost as ready as Mr. Seward himself to fix dates for the utter subjugation of the "rebels," have long abandoned that view of the disruption, and now chronicle the story of the combat with warm admiration and treat each campaign as a new step towards Southern independence. For all this we submit that the Federals, whatever may be the issue of the war, will not be entitled to complain of us. They have certainly been at least as much astonished as ourselves. When the Sumter guns fired, it was almost impossible to believe that the mighty nation then defied would not make short work with the separatists, and the vindication of English journalism is to be found in the printed despatches of American statesmen. It is clear that both London and Washington were deceived as to the power and resolution of the South; and it is not too much to say that could a three years' war have been foreseen it would have been entered on by the North in a different spirit from that which marked the earlier portions of the struggle. If the Federals knew so little of the will and of the resources of provinces with which they were in daily and hourly communication, it was scarcely to be expected that we, at a fortnight's distance from New York, should be better informed. We all believed that the North, with its enormous population, its command of the sea, and its governmental prestige, would coerce the South into speedy submission. We were mistaken. We saw the Federals beaten in the field, and, for a long time at least, impotent at sea; while the Confederates grew stronger and stronger, and addressed themselves to their work with what Northern writers call desperation, but which calmer judges regard as the earnestness necessary to military success. The South held its own, and holds it still; and the very fact that it does so in the face of all the power and bravery of a gigantic enemy is an irresistible proof that, apart from the merits of the contest, it must have been nobly conducted by the weaker party. Hereafter, the Federals will, we imagine, be ashamed of the language in which they have permitted their organs to revile the Southern combatants, who have shown themselves so worthy of the name of Americans.

Let it be admitted, therefore, that the English had a right to be surprised at the events of the war. Let it be said, too, that it is an English habit, in which we occasionally indulge to excess, to give our sympathy to the weaker side in any quarrel. A small nation gallantly struggling against a great one is almost certain to find favour in England, almost without reference to the original quarrel. And there is no denying that the South, which at first was not thought to have a chance, has acquitted itself nobly in this unhappy fray. If we have given too strong expression to our admiration of the pluck of the Confederates, we have erred; but the sentiment is not one with which the North would, in presence of other circumstances, find much fault, for it is too English a sentiment not to be American. But beyond this point we have nothing to say in favour of any Englishman who has insulted the Federal combatants. They must have fought well, or the South needed not to have fought so hard. In fact, it would be worse than childish to allege that the great body of the English people did injustice to the efforts of the Federals, although the character of the war necessarily attracted attention to the resisting rather than to the assailing champions. If foolish words have been used amid the excitement of so strange and ghastly a spectacle, they were assuredly not the expression of the feelings of the people of England.

It is not unfair, nor is it unkind, however, at this stage of the war, to say that we in England had considerable provocation to speak somewhat frankly on American affairs. For ten years, at least, before the war the leading American journals were full of abuse of this country. We are now told, and we believe with considerable truth, that the greater portion of this abuse proceeded from writers in the pay of the slave-owners, who could never forgive England for having turned the tide of the world's opinion against slavery, and for having made it certain that the destruction of the domestic institution must come, sooner or later. But it was scarcely for England to know that the minority ruled in the United States, and that the cherished and applauded organs of American opinion were expressing only the feelings of the dealers in a certain commodity called human flesh. We are only too happy to learn that such is the truth; but we could not know it by instinct. Then the war came, and the Federals, not very reasonably, became enraged with us for not instantly understanding the whole case and joining them enthusiastically against their enemies. The storm of abuse continued; but it thundered, and rained, and hailed from a new quarter of the heavens. The New York people all but hanged the principal vituperator of this country; but as he and his accomplices preferred conversion to execution, they were thenceforth permitted to rail against us from another platform, and England was denounced as a hypocrite because she was not, heart and soul, for an anti-slavery war. But, unluckily for our assailants' logic, the war was declared by their own Government not to be an anti-slavery war, and, on the contrary, Mr. Lincoln repeatedly offered to put the domestic institution on a firmer footing than ever for those who would abandon the idea of independence. Consequently, what could England, herself anti-slavery to the backbone, do but remain neutral, and leave the combatants to settle what it was that they were fighting for. Now, in the fourth year of the war, the question is yet unsettled, for a large part of the sovereigns of America are for the Union at any price, while another large portion will have no Union without the extinction of slavery. And, up to the very last mails, England is still abused and menaced for a neutrality which has been sternly preserved under the most difficult circumstances which ever complicated the relations of those who ought to be the firmest friends.


Page 355

But, all this said, simply as a record of fact, scarcely as an extenuation of any acerbity on the part of the English press, we revert to our original protest against any bitter words touching the American struggle. Let us try to be as impartial in language as we have been in act; let us do all we can towards humanising a fratricidal war, and let us write nothing in the hour of strife which we shall regret to read in the hour of peace. Soon may it strike!

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