The Confederacy continued efforts to gain foreign recognition. If foreign nations would recognize the Confederacy as an independent government, then they could form alliances and provide military aid that the Confederates could use to win the war. Confederates particularly hoped to gain recognition from two of the top world powers, Great Britain and France. Both the British and French economies were suffering due to a lack of southern cotton, and the Confederates continued to withhold the valuable commodity in hopes that it would force the powers to side with the Confederacy.
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 the French to overthrow 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, 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.”
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 could thus be 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.
- Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government: All Volumes. Heraklion Press, Kindle Edition 2013, 1889.
- Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day. New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971.
- 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.