Cotton Exportation and the Federal Blockade

July 28, 1862 – Confederates tried currying favor with France, and Great Britain suffered a severe economic downturn due to the lack of southern cotton.

Confederate envoy John Slidell | Image Credit:

On July 16, Confederate envoy John Slidell met with Emperor Napoleon III of France for 70 minutes. Slidell requested that France recognize Confederate independence and use warships to help break the Federal blockade. In exchange, Slidell pledged several hundred thousand bales of badly needed cotton and an alliance with France against Benito Juarez’s regime in Mexico.

Slidell understood that Napoleon favored the Confederacy. However, the emperor was reluctant to provoke the U.S. (which supported Juarez) without Britain taking the lead. Napoleon told Slidell that he would consider the matter. Slidell wrote to Richmond, “I am more hopeful than I have been at any moment since my arrival in Europe.”

By this month, the lack of southern cotton was crippling Britain. The cotton supply was one-third its normal level, and nearly 75 percent of cotton-mill workers were unemployed or underemployed. Poverty spread throughout the working-class sections of the country as it starved for cotton, and this only helped the Confederacy. Thomas Dudley, the U.S. consul in Liverpool, wrote to Secretary of State William H. Seward:

“The current is against us and strong; and threatens to carry everything with it… They are all against us and would rejoice in our downfall… I think at this time we are more in danger of intervention than we have been at any previous period… if we are not successful in some decisive battle within a short period this government will be forced to acknowledge the Confederacy or else be driven from power.”

U.S. Secretary of State William H. Seward | Credit:

Seward sought to help alleviate the cotton shortage by writing to Charles Francis Adams, U.S. minister to Britain at London:

“We shall speedily open all the channels of commerce, and free them from military embarrassments; and cotton, so much desired by all nations, will flow forth as freely as before… The President has given respectful consideration to the desire informally expressed to me by the Governments of Great Britain and France for some further relaxation of the blockade in favor of that trade. They are not rejected, but are yet held under consideration, with a view to ascertain more satisfactorily whether they are really necessary, and whether they can be adopted without such serious detriment to our military operations as would render them injurious rather than beneficial to the interests of all concerned.”

Confederate officials hoped the cotton shortage would compel Britain and France to declare that the Federal blockade was “ineffective,” and thus subject to being broken by foreign powers under international law. But instead, Britain and France asked the Federal government to send them more cotton through northern channels, after it had been seized by Federal forces in areas under military occupation. This not only dimmed Confederate hopes for foreign recognition, but it encouraged Federal forces to seize as much cotton as possible as they advanced into the South.

Meanwhile, a pro-secessionist mob attacked and destroyed the offices of the St. Croix Herald, a newspaper published in St. Stephen, New Brunswick (British Canada), just across the border from Maine. The Herald had consistently supported the U.S., and had been attacked in December as well. This was a rare instance of secessionists destroying a Unionist newspaper, and not the other way around. With the printing press thrown into the St. Croix River, publication was suspended for several months.


References; Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government: All Volumes (Heraklion Press, Kindle Edition 2013, 1889), Loc 17522-38; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 194; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 182; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 240; McPherson, James M., Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (Oxford History of the United States Book 6, Oxford University Press, Kindle Edition, 1988), p. 548, 553; White, Howard Ray, Bloodstains, An Epic History of the Politics that Produced and Sustained the American Civil War and the Political Reconstruction that Followed (Southernbooks, Kindle Edition, 2012), Q362

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