By Gary W. Gallagher, University of Virginia
The example of French aid to the colonies during the American Revolution was much on the minds of both United States and Confederate leaders, and the Confederacy directed its diplomatic efforts towards securing recognition, especially from Great Britain, but France stood a close second in that regard, in terms of what the Confederacy wanted.
During the Civil War, diplomacy was an arena dominated by the Confederacy to secure formal recognition from Great Britain and France, and the Lincoln administration’s countermoves.
Southern cotton fueled the looms of Great Britain and—to a lesser degree—of France, and the Confederacy expected that its cotton was so necessary to British economic well-being that the British would certainly intervene in the war. The Confederacy hoped Britain would ensure that there was an uninterrupted flow of cotton from the Confederacy to Europe.
If the British intervened to make sure that this cotton continued to flow without the Confederates, the Union blockade would be broken, and perhaps even war would come between the United States and Great Britain. If that happened, thought the Confederates, prospects for their independence would shoot up dramatically.
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King Cotton Diplomacy
To make England feel the pinch, the Confederate government encouraged an embargo on cotton sales in Europe. Many English workers were thrown out of work by the autumn of 1862.
The embargo did have some effect, not as an official embargo, but as a de facto embargo. There was considerable pressure on the British government to do something to make sure that the cotton would flow more freely to Great Britain.
Failure of the Embargo
The policy of withholding cotton failed in the end for the Confederacy, though, for several reasons.
- The first was that an enormous crop on the eve of the war had already been shipped, so there were stockpiles of cotton in Great Britain just at the time that the Confederacy was hoping that there would be a shortage.
- The second was that in the course of the conflict, Great Britain developed new sources of cotton. Its cotton wasn’t as high in quality, but it was good enough.
- A third factor was that jobs lost in the textile industry in Great Britain were made up in industries that produced iron, munitions, and other goods that both the United States and the Confederacy imported during the war. So the jobs went from one sector of the British economy into another sector, although more were lost in textiles than were found in these other areas.
Wool and linen production also went up as cotton production went down. In the end—with all of these factors coming together, Great Britain weathered this crisis, and king cotton diplomacy must be reckoned a complete failure.
Union’s Blockade of Confederate Ports
The northern blockade of the Confederacy caused tension between the United States on the one hand, and Great Britain and France and—to a lesser degree—other European nations on the other. This made the Confederate believe that the Great Britain would challenge the legality of the United States blockade, thereby pushing the Union into an unfavorable position. The key players here, however, were the United States and Great Britain.
Consequently, for a selfish reason, Great Britain accepted the legality of the federal blockade, much to the Confederacy’s discomfiture.
Did Britain and France Approve the Confederacy?
The closest that Britain and France came to recognizing the Confederacy was in the early autumn of 1862. It came as a result of Robert Lee’s great successes on the battlefield in the eastern theater. His victories at the Seven Days battles at the end of June and in early July, and at Second Bull Run in late August, convinced many observers in Europe that the Confederacy was winning the war.
Emperor Napoleon III of France was urging recognition, but he wouldn’t move unless Great Britain did as well. We, therefore, come down to the time of the Maryland campaign—of Lee’s movement across the Potomac River in September—as a very critical moment, in terms of the diplomatic equation.
What Changed Their Minds?
On September 17, the day that the battle of Antietam was waged in western Maryland, the British foreign secretary, Lord John Russell, told Prime Minister Palmerston that Great Britain should try to mediate an end to the American war. If mediation failed, then Britain would recognize the southern states as an independent state.
News of the battle of Antietam, however, changed minds in London. It must be noted that there was no Atlantic cable yet; it took 10 or 11 days for news to travel across the Atlantic, so the last news that Palmerston and Russell had when this message was delivered, was news of the battle of Second Bull Run, Lee’s victory.
Why Was Britain Unwilling to Recognize the Confederacy?
The South’s last real chance for recognition evaporated in the wake of the Antietam campaign, and especially of the preliminary proclamation on September 22, and of the final proclamation, which took effect on January 1, 1863.
After Lincoln’s proclamation went on the books, it became obvious that antislavery Britain would never ally itself with the overtly slaveholding republic, the Confederate States of America. And, with that, the North won the diplomatic struggles during the Civil War.
Common Questions about Confederacy’s Diplomatic Efforts
The Confederacy expected that its cotton was so necessary to British economic well-being that the British would certainly intervene in the war. Hence, the Confederate government encouraged an embargo on cotton sales in Europe. Many English workers were thrown out of work by the autumn of 1862.
The closest that Britain and France came to recognizing the Confederacy was in the early autumn of 1862. It came as a result of Robert Lee’s great successes on the battlefield in the eastern theater.
The South couldn’t get Britain’s favor in the wake of the Antietam campaign, and the final emancipation proclamation, which took effect on January 1, 1863.