King Cotton and Confederate Diplomacy

The Confederate government continued trying to garner support from Great Britain, even if it had to hold the British economy hostage to get it. The British consul in Charleston, South Carolina, informed British Foreign Minister Lord John Russell that “an embargo (on cotton) in actuality was really the will of the people,” even though the Confederate Congress had not approved a bill prohibiting the exportation of cotton to Britain. Some Confederate legislators had urged starving the British of cotton until they recognized Confederate independence while others, including President Jefferson Davis, had opposed such a measure.

The British press had been critical of U.S. Secretary of State William H. Seward’s “bullying,” but now they also started criticizing the Confederacy for withholding cotton. An article in the London Times stated that if Confederates “thought they could extort our cooperation by the agency of king cotton from us,” they were wrong. Lord Russell declared that intervening on the Confederate side “because they keep cotton from us would be ignominious beyond measure… No English Parliament could do so base a thing.”

Meanwhile, President Davis and Secretary of State Robert M.T. Hunter were growing more and more dissatisfied with the performances of their three European envoys. Hunter recalled William L. Yancey while reassigning Dudley Mann to Belgium and Pierre Rost to Spain. For the top two posts, Davis selected James M. Mason as envoy to Great Britain and James Slidell as envoy to France.

Mason was the grandson of George Mason and a former U.S. congressman and senator from Virginia. He was also one of the authors of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. Slidell was a former congressman and senator from Louisiana with diplomatic experience as an envoy to Mexico, where he had unsuccessfully tried to negotiate establishing the Texas border at the Rio Grande River.

U.S. officials feared that these diplomats, the weak blockade, and the poor Federal army performance thus far would encourage European nations to recognize Confederate independence.


  • 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.
  • Thomas, Emory M., The Confederate Nation. HarperCollins e-books, Kindle Edition, 1976.
  • Time-Life Editors, The Blockade: Runners and Raiders. Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983.

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