"Mr. Seward... is exerting himself to provoke a quarrel with all Europe, in 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." - The London Chronicle
In November 1861, the American Civil War was still a relatively young conflict, and both sides were still jockeying for the upper hand. The Confederates had won the First Battle of Bull Run in July, and there had not been any major battles in the West, but the Union had also pushed the Confederates out of West Virginia and George McClellan was about to organize the Army of the Potomac for an offensive against Richmond.
Months before then, Confederate President Jefferson Davis had sent out diplomatic agents to Europe in attempts to win recognition among major European powers, and to place even further pressure on the status quo, Southern merchants actually refused to export cotton, hoping the sheer weight of economics would compel them to help. As historian Charles Hubbard pointed out, "Davis left foreign policy to others in government and, rather than developing an aggressive diplomatic effort, tended to expect events to accomplish diplomatic objectives. The new president was committed to the notion that cotton would secure recognition and legitimacy from the powers of Europe. One of the Confederacy's strongest hopes at the time was the belief that the British, fearing a devastating impact on their textile mills, would recognize the Confederate States and break the Union blockade."