What if . . . the Confederacy had survived

With his visit to the United States overshadowed by his slip about Anglo-American relations in 1940, David Cameron will doubtless be hoping that his second visit to the New World, which begins next week, will be rather more successful. At least his trip to Washington meant a break from the incessant interrogation about the BP pollution scandal; by contrast, he is likely to face some tough questions when he arrives in the Confederacy's capital, Richmond. Downing Street insiders, however, remain confident, pointing out the close links between the Conservatives and the CSA's ruling Democratic Party. "Since 1861," a Tory minister with a taste for history tells me, "only one special relationship has really counted, and it's this one."

Mail trouble

What she is referring to is the famous Trent affair - a central moment in the history of the Confederacy, perhaps even a turning point in world history. In November 1861, months after the outbreak of the short-lived American civil war, two Confederate diplomats made their way to Havana and took passage on the British Royal Mail steamer Trent, which was heading back home. But only a day later, the ship was seized by the Union navy and the two men were hauled off into captivity.

By any standards, this was a breach of Britain's neutrality and the press, unsurprisingly, was ­outraged. It was time, said the ­London Chronicle, to quash "that spirit of senseless egotism which induces the Americans, with their dwarf fleet and shapeless mass of incoherent squads which they call an army, to fancy themselves the equal of France by land and Great Britain by sea."

Britain had already begun building up reinforcements along the Canadian border, worried that the conflict might spill north. All forces in North America were placed on a war footing. Even at this late stage, adept diplomacy might have averted disaster. Sadly, the Union's relatively obscure and untested president, Abraham Lincoln, has gone down in history as a terrible judge of men and motives. Convinced that Britain would not intervene, he refused to release the two prisoners and instead sent a highly offensive note to London. That was too much for the ultra-patriotic Whig prime minister, Viscount Palmerston. Britain, he told Queen Victoria, proposed to "inflict a severe blow upon and to read a lesson to the United States which will not soon be forgotten".

The war was over in six months. With so many troops tied up on its southern border, the Union struggled to hold back the 60,000 British forces pouring across the Canadian border, while the Royal Navy's blockade of the east coast meant that starving mobs were soon demonstrating in Boston and New York. By the spring of 1862, Union morale was cracking. When Lincoln collapsed under the strain, the vice-president, Hannibal Hamlin, conceded the inevitable and sued for peace.

In July 1862, British, Union and Confederate negotiators met near the front line in the obscure Pennsylvanian town of Gettysburg and hammered out a deal. The Confederacy became an independent nation. Its victory, as the new president, Jefferson Davis, told his people, marked "a new birth of freedom".

White wash

These days, revisionist historians often argue that the war was really about slavery, pointing out that the plantation system lasted until the 1950s and that the last Confederate slave did not die until 1992. That runs counter, however, to everything that textbooks used to tell us about Britain's role in winning liberty for the Confederates. Indeed, slavery is not mentioned at all on the Whitehall memorial to the fallen, just as the word never appears in any of the memorials in the booming city of Richmond. The last prime minister, Gordon Brown, made a point of visiting a former plantation during his final visit to the CSA, even shaking hands with anti-segregation activists, but Downing Street insists that this time there will be no repeat.

“The Confederacy has its problems and we don't want to exacerbate them," a spokesman says smoothly. When the microphones are off, the message is even clearer. The Confederacy, he points out, is one of Britain's closest allies: "Its men are fighting alongside ours in Central America, for goodness sake." Although the credit-fuelled boom has stalled, the Confederate Tiger economic miracle means the links between Richmond and London have never been closer or more important. "Sure, they have a few racial issues," the Downing Street man says. "But who doesn't?"

Dominic Sandbrook is a historian and author. His books include Never Had It So Good: A History of Britain from Suez to the Beatles and White Heat: A History of Britain in the Swinging Sixties. He writes the What If... column for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 09 August 2010 issue of the New Statesman, The first 100 days