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The War Behind the Lines

34b. Wartime Diplomacy

'John Bull Makes a Discovery' political cartoon
A Northern commentary on foreign relations, this political cartoon shows England (John Bull) forsaking its stand against slavery when tempted by Southern cotton.

Rebellions rarely succeed without foreign support. The North and South both sought British and French support. Jefferson Davis was determined to secure such an alliance with Britain or France for the Confederacy. Abraham Lincoln knew this could not be permitted. A great chess match was about to begin.

Cotton was a formidable weapon in Southern diplomacy. Europe was reliant on cotton grown in the South for their textile industry. Over 75% of the cotton used by British came from states within the Confederacy.

By 1863, the Union blockade reduced British cotton imports to 3% of their pre-war levels. Throughout Europe there was a "cotton famine." There was also a great deal of money being made by British shipbuilders. The South needed fast ships to run the blockade, which British shipbuilders were more than happy to furnish.

<i>Emily St. Pierre</i> blockade runner
The Emily St. Pierre a blockade runner operated by a firm specializing in importing supplies to the Confederacy, was the one of the first ships to fly a Confederate flag in Liverpool, England. It also flew the Confederate flag while docked in Calcutta, India.

France had reasons to support the South. Napoleon III saw an opportunity to get cotton and to restore a French presence in America, especially in Mexico, by forging an alliance.

But the North also had cards to play. Crop failures in Europe in the early years of the war increased British dependency on Union wheat. In 1862, over one-half of British grain imports came from the Union. The growth of other British industries such as the iron and shipbuilding offset the decline in the textile industry. British merchant vessels were also carrying much of the trade between the Union and Great Britain, providing another source of income.

The Trent Affair
The capture of Confederate diplomats aboard the British ship, the Trent by the U.S.S. Jacinto was at first celebrated by Congress. When it became evident that the action nearly caused an international incident, the prisoners were released.

The greatest problem for the South lay in its embrace of slavery, as the British took pride in their leadership of ending the trans-Atlantic slave trade. To support a nation that had openly embraced slavery now seemed unthinkable. After the Emancipation Proclamation, Britain was much less prepared to intervene on behalf of the South.

The key for each side was to convince Europe that victory for its side was inevitable. Early Southern victories convinced Britain that the North couldn't triumph against a foe so large and so opposed to domination. This was a lesson reminiscent of the one learned by the British themselves in the Revolutionary War. Yet, despite all its victories, the South never struck a decisive blow to the North. The British felt they must know that the South's independence was certain before recognizing the Confederacy. The Southern loss at Antietam loomed large in the minds of European diplomats.

Yet efforts did not stop. Lincoln, his Secretary of State William Seward, and Ambassador Charles Francis Adams labored tirelessly to maintain British neutrality. As late as 1864, Jefferson Davis proposed to release slaves in the South if Britain would recognize the Confederacy.
On the Web
Blockade Running
The Union tried to stop all ships from entering or leaving Southern ports, but the Confederate Navy and owners of private ships had different ideas. This webpage is devoted to blockade running during the Civil War.
The Company That Went to War 1861-1865
This webpage is devoted to an excerpt of a book about George Trenholm and the Charleston shipping firm which was alleged to have imported hundreds of millions of dollars of war material into the Confederacy. Interesting reading and some good pictures, too.
Washington Star Reports on the Trent Affair
A series of articles in the Washington Star reported on the Union capture of a British Mail Packet, the Trent which was carrying Confederate emissaries, John Slidell and James Mason, to England, and the tense weeks of diplomatic wrangling that followed to avoid an American war with England. Click on the link at the end of the articles for an essay on the Trent Affair from the Confederate Military History.
The Diplomats and Diplomacy of the American Civil War
Americans aren't the only Civil War buffs in the world, this paper came all the way from Ireland! One Irish college student has put together an in-depth analysis of the foreign policy of both the North and the South during the American Civil War. Dive in for a look at the strenghts and weaknesses of both sides, including resources, experience, and personality. The research on diplomatic policy contained within is top-notch, although it lacks illustrations. Watch out for the domestic policy info, though — some of it is flawed.
The American Question Abroad in the Civil War
This four-part essay is a yawner if you don't read it slowly, but a careful read reveals how Britain and France reacted to the Union and Confederate positions in the Civil War. It underscores the point that foreign relations are a delicate dance where single mis-steps or near mis-steps give politicians and historians lots to crow about.
Europe and the American Civil War
Here's another related article from Civil War Potpourri. (This one is a little easier on the word budget, too!)
In 1861, only 1 in 9 ships bringing supplies to the South was caught by the Union Navy. In 1862, it was still only 1 in 7. By 1863, it was 1 in 4, but the profits were so great, it was worth the higher risk to many.
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