International Context of the War
International Context of the War
England. At the beginning of the war, the Confederate government eagerly anticipated European assistance. France and England viewed the war with keen interest due to the large amount of cotton both countries imported from Southern plantations. In addition, ruling classes from both world powers hoped the war would weaken American business interests since the United States had emerged as a viable competitor in the world market. On 13 May 1861 England raised the Confederacy’s hopes by proclaiming its neutrality in the conflict following Lincoln’s decision to blockade the Southern coastline. The neutrality declaration did not grant recognition to the seceded states as an independent nation. It
did, however, identify the Confederacy as a legitimate and equal belligerent, ignoring Union claims that the conflict merely represented a domestic insurrection. For the Confederacy, England’s declaration meant that it was one step away from acknowledging Southern independence. Moreover, the status of legitimate belligerent gave the Confederate government bargaining power overseas to negotiate loans and purchase military supplies. In addition, the status granted its navy international recognition and protection as a belligerent under international maritime law.
Disappointments. Unfortunately for the Confederate government, European powers would never intervene to secure Southern independence unless the Confederate army appeared likely to win. Although early Southern victories kept Europe interested, Northern resolve to keep fighting held England and France back. Without assurances of a possible Union surrender, European nations wanted to avoid antagonizing the Union government and jeopardizing diplomatic relations with the United States following the war. Furthermore, Europe looked upon the Civil War in terms of its impact on the European balance of power. England and France were reluctant to intervene without the approval of Russia, which strongly supported the Union. Nevertheless, the Confederate government looked to apply economic pressure on England to coax it to side with the Southern revolutionaries.
King Cotton Diplomacy. Southern leaders hoped to counter European hesitancy by disrupting English and French textile production. In 1861 Southern newspapers called upon plantation owners to hold their cotton from export for one year. Confederate officials reasoned that the ensuing cotton shortage overseas would depress the British economy and force England to side with the South. “King Cotton diplomacy,” as it was called, failed miserably. Southern officials did not recognize that large cotton harvests in 1859 and 1860 had produced a surplus of American cotton in France and England. Both countries could withstand a temporary decline in Southern imports. When the surplus did run out, European textile manufacturers turned to Egyptian and Indian planters to keep their cotton mills open. Thus, as the war progressed, Europeans saw no incentive to recognize the Confederacy. In addition, English antislavery societies moved popular support behind the Union cause, forcing Parliament to keep British soldiers at home. England also maintained trade relations with the Union and risked hurting other British industries, such as the export of iron rails, if it entered on the Southern side. The maturing industrialization of England placed these industries at the forefront of British prosperity, relegating the textile industry to a secondary status in British economic affairs.
The Trent Affair. Confederate frustration in obtaining European recognition was highlighted by the Trent Affair. In early November 1861, two Confederate diplomats, James Mason and John Slidell, sailed to Cuba and boarded a British steamer, the Trent. They planned to sail to Europe to request diplomatic recognition for their new nation. As the ship sailed from Cuba to Saint Thomas, Virgin Islands, a boarding party from a Union naval frigate, the U.S.S. San Jacinto, stopped the Trent, arrested the diplomats, and carried them to Boston. Furious, England prepared for war. The British navy strengthened its North Atlantic fleet while the British army readied for an overseas landing in Canada. Since a war between England and the United States was not in the best interests of either country, both sought to end the crisis peacefully. President Abraham Lincoln released the two diplomats and stated that the naval commander acted without proper authority. England accepted this indirect apology, and relations between the two countries remained intact. As a result the Union averted war with a second country while thwarting the Confederacy’s best and perhaps only opportunity to bring a European power into the war.
Robert E. May, The Union, the Confederacy, and the Atlantic Rim (West Lafayette, Indiana: Purdue University Press, 1995).