With the fall of Fort Sumter and the European recognition that a civil war was actually under way in America, a large number of new and vexing problems was presented to Russell. His treatment of them furnishes the subject matter of later chapters. For the period previous to April, 1861, British official attitude may be summed up in the statement that the British Minister at Washington hoped against hope that some solution might be found for the preservation of the Union, but that at the same time, looking to future British interests and possibly believing also that his attitude would tend to preserve the Union, he asserted vehemently the impossibility of any Northern interference with British trade to Southern ports. Across the water, Russell also hoped faintly that there might be no separation. Very soon, however, believing that separation inevitable and the disruption of the Union final, he fixed his hope on peaceful rather than warlike secession. Even of this, however, he had little real expectation, but neither he nor anyone else in England, nor even in America, had any idea that the war would be a long and severe one. It is evident that he was already considering the arrival of that day when recognition must be granted to a new, independent and slave-holding State. But this estimate of the future is no proof that the Russian Ambassador’s accusation of British governmental pleasure in American disruption was justified. Russell, cautious in refusing to pledge himself to Dallas, was using exactly such caution as a Foreign Secretary was bound to exercise. He would have been a rash man who, in view of the uncertainty and irresolution of Northern statesmen, would have committed Great Britain in March, 1861, to a definite line of policy.
On April 6, Russell was still instructing Lyons to recommend reconciliation. April 8, Dallas communicated to Russell an instruction from Seward dated March 9, arguing on lines of “traditional friendship” against a British recognition of the Confederacy. Russell again refused to pledge his Government, but on April 12 he wrote to Lyons that British Ministers were “in no hurry to recognize the separation as complete and final.” In the early morning of that same day the armed conflict in America had begun, and on the day following, April 13, the first Southern victory had been recorded in the capture of Fort Sumter. The important question which the man at the head of the British Foreign Office had now immediately to decide was, what was to be England’s attitude, under international law, toward the two combatants in America. In deciding this question, neither sentiment nor ideals of morality, nor humanitarianism need play any part; England’s first need and duty were to determine and announce for the benefit of her citizens the correct position, under International law, which must be assumed in the presence of certain definite facts.