Civil War Diplomacy

There have always been leaders and citizens of the United States who have preferred an isolationist approach to foreign affairs, and that sentiment has ebbed and flowed throughout our history. Colonial North America was often a battleground for European powers jockeying for influence in the western hemisphere and around the globe, with Great Britain, France, and Spain spending enormous amounts of blood and treasure in their attempts to secure an American empire. George Washington in his Farewell Address counseled that “it must be unwise in us to implicate ourselves by artificial ties in the ordinary vicissitudes of her [Europe’s] politics or the ordinary combinations and collisions of her friendships or enmities.”[1] Even today there are those who would prefer to disengage from an increasingly interconnected world, and there is strong grass-roots appeal to solving our domestic problems before we attempt to solve the world’s problems. Unfortunately for the isolationists, the world has rarely been ready or willing to disengage from the United States and despite our best efforts to remain neutral and aloof we invariably find ourselves drawn into international relationships and alliances. The Civil War era was not immune to these disparate impulses, and the chaos here drew European interest that was by turns repelled by the violence or tempted to intervene by either humanitarian or imperialist ambitions. The United States and the Confederacy were both forced to realize that they existed within a wider Atlantic world, with all its commercial, strategic, and political entanglements.  

The diplomacy of the Confederate government was often a haphazard affair, as some constituencies within the South clamored for British and French recognition and others maintained that the Confederacy needed no outside assistance to accomplish its twin goals of winning the war and gaining independence.[2] Those who longed for European recognition of the Confederacy believed that the decrease in cotton exports caused by the Union blockade would force Britain and France to recognize the importance of the commercial interests that stitched the Atlantic world together. When the Europeans still hesitated to get involved, the Davis administration instituted a cotton embargo in an attempt to force the issue.[3] Europe, however, did not feel the sting of withheld cotton shipments since “bumper crops in the two years previous to the war had allowed the two chief benefactors of that trade, Britain and France, to stock huge surpluses that freed them from economic pressure.”[4] Thus, as Europeans began to procure cotton from elsewhere in their empires and Confederate military losses compounded, Britain and France chose to withhold both recognition and direct aid.[5]

The Lincoln administration, recognizing the importance of keeping European powers out of the conflict, attempted to achieve its diplomatic goals primarily by assuring the world that the war was a purely internal matter and that the Confederacy was not a legitimate government that deserved to be recognized by outside observers. The Union made some key missteps that nearly derailed its diplomatic efforts, with perhaps the most important one being the blockade it imposed on southern ports. In Allen Guelzo’s words, Lincoln was “burned” by this blockade attempt because “according to the ‘law of nations’ and the Paris Convention, he could only ‘close the ports’ of the rebels; blockades, with all the rights of prize and capture, could only be imposed on nations.”[6] When Charles Wilkes boarded the British ship Trent and seized two Confederate emissaries, the sensation it caused on both sides of the Atlantic further hampered Lincoln’s diplomacy and threatened to draw Great Britain into the war. Wilkes was feted in the United States while sabers rattled in London, and for a moment “the American people lost their senses and approved an act that was clearly a violation of neutral rights on the high seas.”[7] In the end, cooler heads in the administration prevailed and the two Confederate diplomats were released. Through skillful diplomacy, the threat of European intervention receded and Lincoln was free to suppress the rebellion.

In the end, the great powers of Europe chose not to intervene directly in the war, and it could be argued that this nonintervention was in fact an intervention for the Union. France’s Napoleon III wanted an end to the war, “but he refused to act unless England took the lead.”[8] He continued to meddle in affairs in North America, installing a puppet monarch on the Mexican throne in 1863, but British, Union, and Confederate distrust of Napoleon’s motives ensured that France’s diplomatic overtures bore little fruit.[9] As the war dragged on, the Confederacy lost ground, both literally and diplomatically. Southern hopes for European intervention faded, and the Union was free to act unrestrained by outside interference.


[1] George Washington, “Farewell Address (September 19, 1796),” Miller Center, University of Virginia, http://millercenter.org/scripps/archive/speeches/detail/3462.

[2] Charles M. Hubbard, “James Mason, the ‘Confederate Lobby’ and the Blockade Debate of March 1862,” Civil War History 45, no. 3 (September 1999): 223, http://search.proquest.com.ezproxy2.apus.edu/docview/208240312?accountid=8289; Henry Blumenthal, “Confederate Diplomacy: Popular Notions and International Realities,” The Journal of Southern History 32, no.2 (May 1966): 151, http://www.jstor.org/stable/2204555.

[3] Blumenthal, “Confederate Diplomacy,” 152.

[4] Jones, Howard, “Union and Confederate Diplomacy during the Civil War,” Essential Civil War Curriculum, (August 2010): 2, http://www.essential.civilwar.vt.edu/assets/files/ECWC%20TOPIC%20Union%20and %20Confederate%20Diplomacy%20Essay.pdf.

[5] Blumenthal, “Confederate Diplomacy,” 159.

[6] Allen C. Guelzo, Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation: The End of Slavery in America (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2004), 43.

[7] Victor H. Cohen, “Charles Sumner and the Trent Affair,” The Journal of Southern History 22, no. 2 (May 1956): 207, http://www.jstor.org/stable/2954239.

[8] Jones, “Union and Confederate Diplomacy,” 3.

[9] Ibid., 10-12.

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