King Cotton Diplomacy: Foreign Relations of the Confederate States of America. By Frank Lawrence Owsley Sr. (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, c. 1931. Pp. xxv, 614, ISBN 978-0-8173-5526-5.)

             Owsley’s King Cotton Diplomacy: Foreign Relations of the Confederate States of America analyzes Southern diplomacy during the Civil War. Today his work is remembered more for the avenue of inquiry it pursued rather than the arguments it asserted. However, those arguments maintain a lasting influence within Civil War scholarship into the present. As his title would seem to suggest, Owsley argued that the Confederacy’s international relations centered on King Cotton Diplomacy. Such an argument was by no means new information by the time Owsley made it considering the preeminence of cotton in the South, however Owsley did not rely on common sense but instead assembled a well-researched thesis utilizing new sources from the various Confederate overseas adventure in diplomacy to great effect.

            Owsley’s arguments very much betray him as a Southern apologist. At every turn the reader sees honorable Southerners foiled despite their best efforts to achieve independence. His analysis never contradicts itself, but the reader seems perpetually subjected to air-tight Confederate strategies that never pay out.

            Owsley divides his book in two to address his thesis. The first component identifies Southern efforts to promote King Cotton diplomacy in other nations while the second component identifies Southern efforts to prevent Northern interdiction of that diplomacy. In regards to the first component, Owsley identifies both the major players in the international network of Southern trade partners and the key historical figures mediating that network. In regards to the second, he describes Southern efforts to invalidate, undermine, or even destroy the Union blockade of Southern ports. Owsley largely describes Northern efforts as ineffectual but also simultaneously spends many chapters discussing how Southerners repeatedly fought the blockade with every means at their disposal. His data and his analysis once more contradict as the Southerners he studied seemed to ascribe far greater significance to the blockade than he conceded.

            Like many historians, Owsley interpreted his topic in the light of the times in which he lived. The first World War seems to have shaped his thinking about Confederate foreign relations. Owsley saw European neutrality, Confederate incompetence, and Union meddling as the key factors in perpetuating a bloody conflict. Such a lens creates a unique image but maybe not an accurate one. This is especially true in that Owsley’s own faith in King Cotton diplomacy would mean that Europeans should have been compelled to meet Southern demands rather exploiting the conflict for their own ends. As the war dragged on the need for Confederates to get cotton out of Southern ports became far greater than the European need to bring cotton into their textile mills.

            Owsley presents a compelling argument about Southern diplomacy, but the legacy of King Cotton Diplomacy lies in the general historiographical trend it inspired rather than the particular thesis it asserted. He presented a seminal study that had to be answered by the profession at large and included in any further meaningful analysis of Confederate foreign policy even if only to be refuted. The data he presents throughout the work is remarkably interesting and should have sparked considerable dialogue, but the conclusion he draws from it is one that he would like to believe rather than one that he proves.

            Owsley’s King Cotton Diplomacy succeeded in igniting interest in his topic even if it did not unanimously win converts of its readers. The work also more accurately defined and the boundaries of the South’s belief in the salvific qualities of cotton. Owsley shifts the discussion from popular myth towards a well-defined economic and political theory about the global economy’s dependence on cotton during the Civil War.

Andrew Klooster

King Cotton Diplomacy: Foreign Relations of the Confederate States of America. By Frank L. Owsley.       Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1959. 

Published in 1931 and again in 1959, Frank L. Owsley’s King Cotton Diplomacy: Foreign Relations of the Confederate States of America offers one of the first full scale works on Confederate diplomacy and foreign relations during the Civil War.  His study thoroughly investigates and covers the entirety of Southern diplomatic efforts beginning with the popular King Cotton Strategy, to blockade and embargo attempts, followed by efforts at gaining international recognition and finally, reasons on why Europe refused to support the nascent Confederate States.   Meticulously researched and well written, Owsley’s work presents two objectives: the first delivers a thorough synthesis of the events and issues of the period, and the second examines the measures taken by the Confederate States to secure recognition and support from various European countries.  Additionally, he expounds upon the coercive measures used by the South – the King Cotton Strategy – to encourage European allegiance, particularly Great Britain and France, and their subsequent reasons for rejecting the new nation.    Ultimately, Owsley argues that despite Southern confidence in King Cotton, economic coercion could not force Great Britain and France to acknowledge the Confederacy.  Furthermore, the author argues that England’s indifference towards the South had less to do with traditional reasoning and more to do with economic advantages gained during the Civil War, particularly ammunition sales and the destruction of the American naval and maritime superiority.

The entirety of Owsley’s work focuses on the war years, and the Confederate’s struggle to gain and maintain autonomy from the United States and with other European powers.   The author examines a great deal of Southern policy, particularly the economic embargo put forth by the southern populace,  efforts at developing foreign friendships, Confederate propaganda, blockade controversy and continual diplomatic endeavors.   Throughout their short tenure as a nation, the Confederacy never obtained the recognition that they desired despite their continual call for assistance.  Withholding cotton, many southerners believed, would quickly bring Europe to swear allegiance to the South.  Unfortunately, though, their ‘King Cotton’ strategy failed to scare these countries, particularly since India provided another avenue to access cotton and a surplus prior to the Civil War left England and Europe with just enough to survive.  Further efforts brought southern diplomats to Mexico to secure a friendship, and Confederate journalists were sent to Europe to garner support.   These efforts, however, proved unsuccessful as no European country wanted to take the first initial steps to involve themselves in this America conflict. Ultimately, Owsley reveals that the Confederacy pushed hard for foreign support but never succeeded in completely convincing their target audience.  

The crux of his book, however, lies in Owsley’s desire to understand why both Britain and France failed to offer either recognition or allegiance to the new nation, even though they continuously flirted with the idea.  Owsley finds that cotton played a tremendous role in the European economy, but did not curtail their livelihood enough for various countries to ally themselves with the Confederacy.  Furthermore, the author finds that these countries refused to support the Confederacy, based less on honor or ethics but rather on self-interests.  France and Great Britain continually wavered on their allegiance to the South, but never fully received them as various factors at home prevented their complete compliance.  France remained divided on this decision. The Emperor desired intervention on the side of the Confederacy but ultimately feared backlash from his subjects and various countries in Europe.  Furthermore, she would not intervene unless Great Britain joined her.  England, on the other hand, supported the Confederacy, believing that a break in the United States would limit their growing power.  Yet, despite this antipathy towards the Northern states, the English abhorred slavery and encouraged its termination; and furthermore, she found herself reaping economic benefits from the Civil War.  Thus, England preferred to witness the decline of American maritime and commercial strengths, and favored the increase economic incentives produced by the conflict.

Despite its years, King Cotton Diplomacy still offers an important contribution to Civil War historiography.  The work is thoroughly researched, and employs a variety of methodologies in determining its conclusions; particularly his use of statistics and charts that provide further understanding. Of course, while this book might explain most everything about Confederate foreign policy, further work on this subject will certainly expand the historians understanding of this period.  A minor critique, that might find itself flushed out in subsequent works, centers on the lack of discourse between the United States and the Confederacy during the war.  For example, the author pays careful attention to the reactions of Europe during the cotton embargo and the Trent affair, but leaves something to be desired regarding the American response towards these events.  Overall, though, Owsley provides an important work to the existing scholarship of the Civil War.  

Amber Surmiller                                                                                                               Texas Christian University



Frank L. Owsley, King Cotton Diplomacy:  The Foreign Relations of the Confederate States of America, (Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1931, rev. 1959), 1-558.

             In King Cotton Diplomacy, Frank L. Owsley demonstrates the reasons why Europe never formally recognized the South as a belligerent nation.  From 1861 through 1865, the Confederacy sought to convince England and France to come to its aid.  Although these two superpowers were almost swayed, they refused to acknowledge that the Confederacy had formed its own country.  Southerners believed that their cotton was the solution to their problem.  If they refused to sell Europe cotton, Southerners contended that Europe would eventually assist the Confederacy in order to obtain this resource for their mills.  England surprised the South, because it eventually had India grow its cotton.  Owsley contends that Europe declined to help the Confederacy, because they did not want to assist people who promoted slavery, and France and England did not want to risk a war with the Union (1-558). 

             The Confederacy placed great stock in its cotton.  Confederates believed that this singular resource would allow them to obtain recognition from Europe.  The Confederate Congress met frequently to discuss whether or not to place an embargo on cotton.  Although these bills did not pass Congress, governors and state legislators prevented their states from sending cotton to Europe.  The South placed limits on the quantity of cotton that farmers could grow and set fire to cotton that was in storage.  According to Owsley, “Thus, we see, in retrospect, that the South believed so firmly in the power of cotton to break the blockade and gain recognition…” (49).

             Although the Confederacy refused to send cotton to France and England, it was noted that these nations were not in desperate need of cotton when the war began.  The British obtained a large supply of cotton from the South in 1859 and in 1860.  The British were also able to utilize cotton from India.  Even though Asian cotton was believed to be inferior, the British found this resource suitable and more ethical than relying on the cotton of slaveholders (1-50). 

             The Confederacy sent various men to Europe to argue that the South required formal recognition.  Among those sent were James M. Mason and John Slidell.  Mason traveled to England to negotiate with Parliament, and Slidell went to France to convince Napoleon III to acknowledge the Confederacy.  Owsley contends that Napoleon desperately wanted to help the Confederacy and to recognize that the South had formed a nation.  Yet, France refused to take action unless England also agreed to acknowledge the Confederacy.  Once the South realized that their informal cotton embargo was not working, they relied on their cotton as a tradable commodity and as a form of credit.  Europe built the Confederacy’s naval rams (51-426). 

             Owsley believes that Northern Secretary of State William H. Seward prevented Europe from giving recognition to the Confederacy.  According to Owsley, “Napoleon could not act alone, for Seward had made it all too clear that intervention meant war [with the North]” (464).  Owsley notes that Europeans did not want acknowledge the Confederacy as a belligerent nation, because they were morally against slaveholders.  Although the South expressed that they would do away with slavery, Europeans believed that they could not aid the Confederacy, because the South had not won any crucial victories (427-558). 

            Owsley’s King Cotton Diplomacy is an excellent work for those who seek to understand how Europe shaped the Civil War.  At times, France and England wanted to assist the Confederacy.  Because the Confederates desperately clung to slavery, England and France soon realized that they could not help the South.  Throughout his work, Owsley notes the diplomatic mistakes that the South made.  King Cotton Diplomacy should be read in conjunction with his earlier work States Rights in the Confederacy (1925).  Both provide convincing reasons for why the South lost the Civil War. 

 Andrea Ondruch                                                                                   Texas Christian University


King Cotton Diplomacy: Foreign Relations of the Confederate States of America. By Frank Lawrence Owsley. (University of Chicago Press, Chicago Il. 1931)

             “If slavery was the cornerstone of the Confederacy, Cotton was its foundation.” In 1860-61 when the Southern states seceded from the Union, they considered cotton to be their most prized diplomatic and economic asset. As Frank Owsley explains in the first chapter of King Cotton Diplomacy, Europeans helped create this impression by their open dependence on Southern cotton for large parts of their economies, and their inability to replace it with cotton from India. The Confederacy believed so completely in the ability of cotton to break the blockade and gain recognition from Europe that they placed an airtight embargo on the export of cotton. This embargo was not put in place by the Confederate government or state governments but by private individuals. This was the first effort of the Confederacy at diplomacy, a power play to coerce the European states to come in on their side.

            The first envoy sent to Europe by the Confederacy was the Yancy-Rost-Mann Mission in early 1861. Their goal was to obtain recognition for the Confederacy. Though these three men tried everything from playing the cotton card to trying to insist that the war was not about slavery, they could not budge England from her position. Napoleon was ready to intervene, provided that the British led the way. England, though temporarily shaken by the Trent Affair, still refused to do anything. The British public was sympathetic to the South, but unwilling to intervene. In 1862 the Southern cotton embargo began to take effect on British manufacturing, but it was not enough to force recognition as the cotton industry slowly recovered in 1863-65.  

            To the South, Confederate relations with Mexico met with mixed results. John T. Pickett was appointed by the Confederate government to go to Mexico City and try to negotiate recognition with the liberal Benito Juarez government which was then in power. Pickett failed miserably, partly because of his personality and partly because of the machinations of Thomas Corwin, United States envoy to Mexico City. In the end Pickett accomplished nothing but did no real harm either. However, the Mexican border states were friendlier toward the Confederacy. Jefferson Davis dispatched Juan A. Quintero to negotiate with Governor Santiago Vidaurri who governed the states of Nueve Leon and Coahulia from Monterrey. Quintero did a masterful job and kept the border states open to trade with the Confederacy for the rest of the war.

            The Confederates also employed propaganda, particularly in France to try and achieve their means. The French people favored the unity of the United States as a bulwark against the arrogance of maritime Britain and as a symbol of a free society, which they also longed to be. Napoleon himself favored the Confederacy as a way to weaken America, but he dared not intervene and risk war with the U.S.

            James Mason and John Slidell, who had escaped capture during the Trent Affair, proceeded to London to plead with the British government to intervene and lift the blockade. Parliament refused to take this step, though they did make a great deal of public show of support for the Confederacy. King cotton had again failed. However, Owsley succeeds in showing that the blockade was a very tenuous and porous undertaking from the start. He maintains that it did little to hamper Confederate war efforts despite Confederate diplomatic protestations to the contrary.

            Beginning in March 1862 until October of that year, a very real possibility of recognition for the Confederacy from France and or England existed. William Lindsay, a British shipbuilder, met with Emperor Napoleon III and urged him to begin mediation proceedings “between the combatants in North America.” Lord Sir John Russell, British Secretary of Foreign Affairs, though he opposed the South, was forced to at least entertain the notion because of the effect a lack of cotton was having on the English economy. Napoleon, for reasons already stated, strongly favored mediation proceedings. But Russell seized on Lee’s defeat at Antietam on September 17 and talk of intervention in the British cabinet eventually died. Without British support Napoleon was left out on a limb and refused to proceed any further with the idea.

            The Confederacy was also hampered in her efforts at foreign credit through cotton and the building of a navy in France and England. The Confederate government didn’t put cotton or tobacco export under their control until 1864, a measure that Owsley compares to “locking the stable when the mare has already fled.” The Confederacy failed to use their cotton effectively as a tool for international trade because of the self-imposed embargo of 1861-62. Had they sold all they could on the European market in these years, the story of cotton as a Confederate commodity in foreign ports might have been a very different one. The Confederacy’s efforts to establish a navy in Britain and France also failed, largely because of the reluctance of the Europeans to be antagonistic toward the United States in case they needed American aid at some future date and in response to outright threats of war from Secretary of State William Seward.

            In 1863 Mason and Slidell continued to try and work with Britain and France to effect recognition. They enlisted the help of a Member of Parliament, John Roebuck, who introduced a motion for Confederate recognition. This action came in the wake of promising reports of Lee’s invasion of Pennsylvania and defeat of Hooker at Chancellorsville. Roebuck had conversed personally with Napoleon on the matter and the emperor assured him that he was as anxious as ever to intercede. When Roebuck gave his speech in Parliament, he revealed too much of his conversation with Napoleon, indicating that the French emperor had accused England of betraying him during earlier attempts at intervention. This gaffe hardened the position of Russell and the pro-Union men and England did nothing. Mason, however, was withdrawn from London to Paris by the Confederate State Department, ending most diplomatic discourse between Richmond and London. Pro-English sentiment in the Confederacy had turned to resentment by 1863 and Secretary of State Judah Benjamin expelled all British consuls, bringing an end to attempts for recognition from Britain.

            Dudley Mann also embarked on a diplomatic mission to the Vatican in Rome. His chief purpose was to convince the Pope to issue a decree discouraging good Catholics from enlisting in Union armies. The Pope did so, and also praised the South while vilifying the North, all the while encouraging peace. This episode represents perhaps the most successful Confederate diplomatic effort undertaken during the war.

            With England out of the way, Confederate hopes turned to France. With Maximilian set up as puppet dictator in Mexico in 1863, the Confederate government decided to approach Napoleon through Maximilian. Napoleon propagated rumors that he would not recognize the Confederacy if the United States would in turn recognize Maximilian as legitimate ruler of Mexico. Seward refused to play into this trap, obviously knowing that the U.S. would not invade Mexico until after the Civil War was settled, and then they could deal with Maximilian and Napoleon. Thus the Confederacy’s attempt to use Mexico as a pawn had disintegrated by 1865 because of Napoleon’s unwillingness to take any further action.

            With all other hope gone, the Confederacy turned to the freeing of the slaves as a diplomatic tool. The Confederate effort, made by envoy Duncan Kenner, Senator from Louisiana, came too little too late. It is doubtful if the British would have intervened even had this offer been made early on. The fact that it was a last act of desperation in the winter of 1864-65 merely confirmed its uselessness. Earlier it might have disarmed much of the French opposition to recognition, but it is still doubtful as to whether or not this would have produced any meaningful results.

            In conclusion, the European powers did not intervene on behalf of the Confederacy for several reasons. Napoleon was never willing to go it alone, and would only follow the lead of the British. In England, cotton, as it turned out, was not king after all. Even considering the cotton famine from 1862 onward, the British economy was not affected hardly at all except in the district of Lancashire, the heaviest of the cotton milling districts. “So we may conclude with regard to the economic motive for intervention: it did not exist.” The British never doubted, until it was too late, that the Confederacy would gain her independence and thus England could have her cake and eat it too as the saying goes. She would still be able to reap profits from Southern cotton; all she had to do was outlast the tempest. Cotton was never the king it was thought to be.

            Frank Owsley’s work stands out as one of the greatest pieces of Civil War literature ever written. With clear, concise prose and impeccable research, it has remained a classic since 1931 and will continue to do so well into the Twenty-First Century.

 John R. Lundberg