In the last two posts of the series, I examined possible reasons for British intervention in the American Civil War and Union efforts to prevent such an intervention. This post, however, explores Confederate attempts to incur British intervention and help secure Southern independence. The South relied far too much on the empty promises of “King Cotton”, and ultimately their hopes for intervention would prove ill-founded.
Surprisingly, many Southerners possessed a seemingly odd, relaxed attitude toward British recognition and intervention, seeing it as a foregone conclusion. Historian Henry Blumenthal helps explain this by outlining two prevailing attitudes amongst the Confederate leadership and populace regarding foreign recognition and intervention.
First, Blumenthal notes the existence of a vague, common perception among many Confederates that Britain and the South had more in common culturally than did Britain and the North, who was in fact a commercial rival. Essentially, this view held that Britain’s interests and cultural ties lay in siding with the South. Second, Blumenthal highlights the common belief that Great Britain was so economically dependent upon Southern cotton that she would recognize the Confederacy in order to ensure future shipments of the crop. “King Cotton” would secure Southern independence, as Britain needed to secure “King Cotton”. This belief would shape Confederate foreign policy significantly. Both of these attitudes, however, were united by their belief in both quick foreign recognition and victory.
There were two early strategies used by the Confederacy to try and induce British recognition. First, the Confederacy attempted to use “King Cotton” to force the issue of recognition, leveraging the British into aiding the South. Second, the Confederacy held that the Union blockade was ineffectual and thus, according to international law the time, illegal and could be broken by the British Royal Navy. These two strategies shaped Confederate diplomacy with Britain.
In 1858, prior to the outbreak of the Civil War, Great Britain exported approximately roughly 78% of its cotton from the American South. Nearly 900,000 English workers worked in either cotton mills or the textile industry; combined with affiliated workers and all their dependents (roughly three dependents per worker) it is estimated that nearly 4,000,000 British were dependent upon the cotton trade and its manufacture for survival. Out of a population of 21 million, this means nearly 1 in 5 Britons depended upon cotton for their livelihood, and 78% of that cotton came from the South. When these figures are reviewed, it becomes easier to understand the widespread Southern belief that “King Cotton” would force Britain to recognize the South. As the Times of London stated forebodingly, “so nearly are our interests intertwined with America that civil war in the States means destitution in Lancashire [ and its cotton mills].”
Southern leaders saw cotton as independence insurance. The Confederacy expected prompt recognition from Great Britain at the start of the war. They expected the specter of a British cotton shortage to force recognition. They expected recognition following Britain’s declaration of neutrality and granting of belligerent status. Yet it didn’t come. The Confederate leadership decided to force Britain’s hand to speed up the recognition process. The Confederate Congress announced an embargo on all cotton exports except through Southern ports. Further, an effective yet unofficial embargo of cotton to Europe came into existence. One Southerner boasted to a British reporter, “Why, sir, we have only to shut off your supply of cotton for a few weeks and we can create a revolution in Great Britain. There are four millions of your people depending on us for their bread, not to speak of the many millions of dollars. No sir, we know that England must recognize us.”
The unofficial Confederate embargo of cotton upon Europe and Great Britain in the late summer of 1861 was a political-power play. The Southerners were playing hard-ball diplomacy, and they thought the sooner the British felt the economic pinch for cotton, the sooner the British would offer recognition and break the Union blockade. Indeed, it was the issue of the blockade that created the second great Confederate foreign policy in the early war years.
In April of 1861, the same month President Lincoln announced his blockade, the United States had 40 steamer ships (3 immediately available for duty) and 50 antiquated sailing ships in commission. It was with this puny and outdated force that the United States was expecting to blockade over 3,500 miles of Confederate coastline. International law at the time declared that for a blockade to be legal, it had to be real and effective; with a few dozen unavailable and antiquated sea vessels, the Union’s announcement of a blockade was certainly the perfect definition of a non-existent “paper blockade” and thus, illegal. The Confederacy fully expected the British to refuse to recognized the paper blockade and commence trade with the South. Confederate officials continually noted the ineffectiveness of the blockade. In the spring of 1862, Confederate official Edwin De Leon pointed out directly to Prime Minister Lord Palmerston that the paper blockade was “defied with impunity by the blockade runners, who earn millions of money by breaking through its paper meshes.” As far as the Confederacy was concerned, the Union blockade was ineffective and illegal.
Both of these Confederate strategies, to force British recognition via cotton shortages and to challenge the legality of the Union’s paper blockade, failed. Why? King Cotton diplomacy failed for several reasons. First, Confederate attempts to coerce recognition via a cotton embargo did not sit well with most British. The Economist was incredulous, wondering how Southerners could believe that Great Britain would really “interfere in a struggle between the Federal Union and revolted states…simply for the sake of buying their cotton at a cheaper rate.” The Confederate attempts to force recognition were almost offensive. Second, when the cotton embargo came into place in the summer of 1861, there were already significant surpluses of cotton in Britain. These surpluses helped Britain survive the cotton shortages until late into 1862. By the time cotton shortages became serious in Britain, the Union was set to win the Battle of Antietam and issue the Emancipation Proclamation; my last post highlighted how these events would ultimately ruin any chance of British intervention. Lastly, Great Britain was able to rely on Russia, China, but most especially India for alternate sources of cotton. By the end of the Civil War in 1865, 85% of English cotton was coming from India (as opposed to 78% coming from the South prior to the war); while Indian cotton could not entirely replace Southern cotton, it provided an alternative source during the war years. Thus, King Cotton failed to force recognition. The British had cotton surpluses and alternate sources that allowed them to ride out the cotton famine, which didn’t even arrive until late 1862, by which time the war was shifting in the Union’s favor.
Regarding the blockade, it cannot be doubted that in the early months of the war, the Union did not possess the ability to effectively blockade the entire Southern coast. Yet over time, especially by 1863, the blockade was becoming effective and straining the Southern economy. Perhaps the most damning argument in favor of the blockade was the lack of Southern goods and cotton coming into European ports. If the blockade was so porous, where were Southern goods? The unofficial cotton embargo instigated by Southern leaders lent credibility to the blockade’s effectiveness. Essentially, the Confederate policy of European cotton embargoes crippled and undermined its arguments that the paper blockade was illegal and ineffective. The Confederacy shot itself in the foot with these conflicting policies.
Further, the Union’s aggressive policy of threatening conflict should Britain interfere played a role; Great Britain was keen to avoid naval entanglements that might drag them into the war. Worse, the Confederate’s cotton embargo hurt their own cause financially; the thousands of bales of cotton that went to waste could have purchased tremendous amounts of rifles, ammunition, machinery, etc. at a time early in the war when the blockade was ineffective and these supplies were desperately needed. Such commerce early in the conflict would have boosted Confederate claims that the Union blockade was ineffective. Instead, despite constant (and perhaps legitimate) Confederate complaints, Great Britain respected the legality of the Union blockade.
Thus, early Confederate foreign policy failed to induce recognition or break the blockade. By 1863, it was clear that King Cotton diplomacy had failed, and the Union blockade was ever-tightening and more effective. Beyond 1863, Confederate foreign policy was haphazard and increasingly despondent. Union victories at Gettysburg and Vicksburg were nails in the coffin for their foreign diplomacy. By 1864, the Confederacy had largely given up on the idea of provoking British intervention in the war, focusing instead on the remote possiblity of intervention by France.
Zac Cowsert received his Bachelor of Arts Degree in History and Political Science from Centenary College of Louisiana, a small liberal-arts college in Shreveport. He is currently a graduate student at West Virginia University focusing in U.S. History and the American Civil War. His studies and research often explore the Trans-Mississippi Theater. ©
Further Reading and Sources
“America’s Bloodiest Day.” America’s Civil War 20.4 (Sept., 2007):26-29.
Anderson, Stuart. “1861: Blockade vs. Closing the Confederate Ports.” Military Affairs 41.4 (Dec., 1977): 190-194.
Blumenthal, Henry. “Confederate Diplomacy: Popular Notions and International Realities.” The Journal of Southern History 32.2 (May, 1966): 151-171.
Brauer, Kinley J. “British Mediation and the American Civil War: A Reconsideration.” The Journal of Southern History 38.1 (Feb., 1972): 49-64.
James, Lawrence. The Rise and Fall of the British Empire. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1994.
Jenkins, Philip. A History of the United States. 3rd ed. Ed. Jeremy Black. Willshire, U.K.: Palmgrave Macmillan, 2007.
Jones, Howard. Blue and Gray Diplomacy: A History of Union and Confederate Foreign Relations. Eds. Gary W. Gallagher and T. Michael Parrish. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2010.
Lancashire Cotton Famine. Historic UK.
Lincoln, Abraham. Abraham Lincoln: A Documentary Portrait Through His Speeches and Writings. Ed. Don E. Fehrenbacher. New York: Signet, 1964.
Owsley, Frank Lawrence. King Cotton Diplomacy. 2nd ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1959.
Reid, Brian Holden. “Power, Sovereignty, and the Great Republic: Anglo-American Diplomatic Relations in the Era of the Civil War.” Diplomacy and Statecraft 14.2 (June, 2003): 45-76.
Temple, Henry John (Third Viscount Palmerston). The Letters of the Third Viscount Palmerston to Laurence and Elizabeth Sullivan 1804-1863. Ed. Kenneth Bourne. London: Royal Historical Society. 1979.
“Trent Affair.” Colombia Electronic Encyclopedia. 6th ed. 1 July 2010.
*This series of posts emerged from a research paper I wrote at Aarhus University in Aarhus, Denmark in the spring of 2011.
All cartoons in these posts came from cartoonist John Tenniel who worked for the British magazine Punch during the Civil War. His fantastic cartoons can be viewed here!