Preventing Diplomatic Recognition of the Confederacy

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Preventing Diplomatic Recognition of the Confederacy: 1861-1865

One of the most important victories won by the United States during the American Civil War wasn't even fought on a battlefield. Rather, it was a series of diplomatic victories that ensured that the Confederacy would fail to achieve diplomatic recognition by even a single foreign government. Although this success can be attributed to the skill of Northern diplomats, the anti-slavery sentiments of the European populace, and European diversion to crises in Poland and Denmark, the most important factor stills rises from the battlefields on American soil. The Confederate states were incapable of winning enough consecutive victories to convince European governments that they could sustain independence.

Southerners began the war effort confident that the cotton their plantations provided European textile manufacturers would naturally ally their governments to the Confederacy, especially Great Britain. After declaring secession, the North would declare a blockade on Southern ports. Any interruption of cotton supply would disrupt the British economy and reduce the workers to starvation, they thought. Britain would have to break the blockade and provoke a war with the North that would allow Confederates to solidify independence and gain international recognition.

When the Union did declare a blockade upon the rebel states in April 1861, however, it did not prompt the response expected from the Europeans. The blockade’s legal and political implications took on greater significance than its economic effects because it undermined Lincoln's insistence that the war was merely an internal insurrection. A blockade was a weapon of war between sovereign states. In May, Britain responded to the blockade with a proclamation of neutrality, which the other European powers followed. This tacitly granted the Confederacy belligerent status, the right to contract loans and purchase supplies in neutral nations and to exercise belligerent rights on the high seas. The Union was greatly angered by European recognition of Southern belligerency, fearing that is was a first step toward diplomatic recognition, but as British Foreign Secretary Lord John Russell said, “The question of belligerent rights is one, not of principle, but of fact.”

Sensitive to any further international recognition of the Confederates as statesmen rather than rebels, Secretary of State William H. Seward instructed Charles Francis Adams, Minister to England and the son of former Secretary of State and President John Quincy Adams, to warn the British not to “fraternize with our domestic enemy,” whether officially or unofficially, or risk an Anglo-American war. But the Union realized that Europe’s declarations of neutrality also constituted official acceptance of the blockade, a position with many long-standing implications. Although international law stated that a blockade must be “physically effective” to be legally binding on neutral powers, the definition was ambiguous. From before the War of 1812, the United States had insisted upon a strict definition in order to maintain trading rights as a neutral. Now, however, the United States was the belligerent and Britain the predominant neutral power. By officially respecting the Union blockade, even if it was not fully “physically effective,” Britain maintained a consistent position on belligerent rights. The U.S. reversal of its traditional position stressing neutral rights set the precedent that it would be obligated to respect the British argument in future naval issues. (See: American Civil War and International Diplomacy and The Trent Affair.)

Sources: U.S. State Department; Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies

Recommended Reading: King Cotton Diplomacy: Foreign Relations of the Confederate States of America. Description: On its initial publication King Cotton Diplomacy was hailed as a definitive study of Confederate foreign affairs. It was most highly acclaimed for its fresh interpretations of the reasons why England and France refused to grant recognition and aid to the Confederacy. Harriet Chappell Owsley presents a new and revised edition . . . and has in many places tightened and improved the literary style, but she has permitted the new volume to retain both the substance and the flavor of the earlier edition. Continued below...

This book is the exhaustive, definitive study of Southern attempts to gain international support for the Confederacy by leveraging the cotton supply for European intervention during the Civil War. Using previously untapped sources from Britain and France, along with documents from the Confederacy’s state department, Frank Owsley’s King Cotton Diplomacy is the first archival-based study of Confederate diplomacy.

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Recommended Reading: Secret History of Confederate Diplomacy Abroad (Hardcover). Description: One of the South's most urgent priorities in the Civil War was obtaining the recognition of foreign governments. Edwin De Leon, a Confederate propagandist charged with wooing Britain and France, opens up this vital dimension of the war in the earliest known account by a Confederate foreign agent. First published in the New York Citizen in 1867-68, De Leon's memoir subsequently sank out of sight until its recent rediscovery by William C. Davis, one of the Civil War field's true luminaries. Both reflective and engaging, it brims with insights and immediacy lacking in other works, covering everything from the diplomatic impact of the Battle of Bull Run to the candid opinions of Lord Palmerston to the progress of secret negotiations at Vichy. Continued below.

De Leon discusses, among other things, the strong stand against slavery by the French and a frustrating policy of inaction by the British, as well as the troubling perceptions of some Europeans that the Confederacy was located in South America and that most Americans were a cross between Davy Crockett and Sam Slick. With France's recognition a priority, De Leon published pamphlets and used French journals in a futile attempt to sway popular opinion and pressure the government of Napoleon III. His interpretation of the latter's meeting with Confederate diplomat John Slidell and the eventual mediation proposal sheds new light on that signal event. De Leon was a keen observer and a bit of a gossip, and his opinionated details and character portraits help shed light on the dark crevices of the South's doomed diplomatic efforts and provide our only inside look at the workings of Napoleon's court and Parliament regarding the Confederate cause. Davis adds an illuminating introduction that places De Leon's career in historical context, reveals much about his propagandist strategies, and traces the history of the Secret History itself. Together they open up a provocative new window on the Civil War.

Recommended Reading: The Real Lincoln: A New Look at Abraham Lincoln, His Agenda, and an Unnecessary War. Description: It hardly seems possible that there is more to say about someone who has been subjected to such minute scrutiny in thousands of books and articles. Yet, Thomas J. DiLorenzo’s The Real Lincoln manages to raise fresh and morally probing questions, challenging the image of the martyred 16th president that has been fashioned carefully in marble and bronze, sentimentalism and myth. In doing so, DiLorenzo does not follow the lead of M. E. Bradford or other Southern agrarians. Continued below...
He writes primarily not as a defender of the Old South and its institutions, culture, and traditions, but as a libertarian enemy of the Leviathan state. DiLorenzo holds Lincoln and his war responsible for the triumph of "big government" and the birth of the ubiquitous, suffocating modern U.S. state. He seeks to replace the nation’s memory of Lincoln as the “Great Emancipator” with the record of Lincoln as the “Great Centralizer.”


Recommended Reading: One War at a Time: The International Dimensions of the American Civil War. Review: One War at a Time - Lincoln's axiom for Union diplomacy- refutes the opinion of most historians and biographers that Lincoln played only a minor role in U.S. foreign relations. It reveals his continuing efforts to avoid a war with England or France while using the threat of war to prevent European recognition of Confederate independence. Mahin covers Confederate efforts to obtain diplomatic recognition, the construction of warships for the Confederacy in Britain, the British role in the blockade-running operation, and the postwar "Alabama claims" against Britain. Mahin also provides the first full analysis of U.S. and Confederate reactions to the French intervention in Mexico and to the efforts to establish an imperial government in Mexico.


Recommended Reading: Union in Peril: The Crisis over British Intervention in the Civil War. Review: The Lincoln administration feared that Great Britain would officially recognize the Confederacy during the Civil War, thereby granting legitimacy to secession and undermining the U.S. Constitution. What did happen, and why, is brilliantly described by Howard Jones in Union in Peril: The Crisis over British Intervention in the Civil War. Continued below…

“An attractively written, cogently argued study that merits a prominent place on the bookshelves of Anglo-American and Civil War scholars.”—Journal of American History

(Journal of American History)

“Jones offers a fresh revision . . . on why England failed to intervene in the American fratricidal struggle. . . . [His] book combines a delightful writing style with excellent bibliography and footnotes. It is based on solid research, primarily in original sources. It is a work that will serve well both the scholar and the general reader.”—American Historical Review (American Historical Review)

“Thought-provoking . . . Jones does a laudable job of presenting both the British arguments for and against intervention and the foundations of the crisis in the relationship between [Great Britain and the United States].”—Library Journal

(Library Journal)

About the Author: Howard Jones, University Research Professor in history at the University of Alabama, is the author of numerous books, including To the Webster-Ashburton Treaty: A Study in Anglo-American Relations, 1783–1843 and Course of American Diplomacy: From the Revolution to the Present.


Recommended Reading: Civil War High Commands (1040 pages: Hardcover). Description: Based on nearly five decades of research, this magisterial work is a biographical register and analysis of the people who most directly influenced the course of the Civil War, its high commanders. Numbering 3,396, they include the presidents and their cabinet members, state governors, general officers of the Union and Confederate armies (regular, provisional, volunteers, and militia), and admirals and commodores of the two navies. Civil War High Commands will become a cornerstone reference work on these personalities and the meaning of their commands, and on the Civil War itself. Errors of fact and interpretation concerning the high commanders are legion in the Civil War literature, in reference works as well as in narrative accounts. Continued below...

 The present work brings together for the first time in one volume the most reliable facts available, drawn from more than 1,000 sources and including the most recent research. The biographical entries include complete names, birthplaces, important relatives, education, vocations, publications, military grades, wartime assignments, wounds, captures, exchanges, paroles, honors, and place of death and interment. In addition to its main component, the biographies, the volume also includes a number of essays, tables, and synopses designed to clarify previously obscure matters such as the definition of grades and ranks; the difference between commissions in regular, provisional, volunteer, and militia services; the chronology of military laws and executive decisions before, during, and after the war; and the geographical breakdown of command structures. The book is illustrated with 84 new diagrams of all the insignias used throughout the war and with 129 portraits of the most important high commanders.

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