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King Cotton Diplomacy: Foreign Relations of the Confederate States of America by Frank L Owsley

Reviwed by Dave Bradley

The first edition of this book was published in 1931 and the second version (amended by the author's wife) in 1959.


The importance of cotton to the southern states is well known and many in the South believed that it, or rather the deprivation of it, would force the European powers especially the UK and France to recognise the Confederacy’s independence or at least to compel the North to a mediated acceptance of the same.


One of the first things the author looks at is the widely held belief the Confederate government imposed an embargo on the exportation of cotton to force the European hand. This is not quite the case. Initially it was Southern newspapers who called for the ban. Several southern states and many cotton producers and cotton factors refused to export it but, although the Confederate government either introduced or passed nearly 30 bills relating to the export of cotton, they always stopped short of an embargo. The man behind this was Jefferson Davis who realised that such a heavy-handed approach would be likely to backfire.


The fact that there had been bumper cotton crops in the two years prior to the war at first mitigated the effects of the lack of cotton. However, matters did get hard, causing mass unemployment and poverty. The belief in some senior southern circles that those hard-hit Lancastrian mill workers would revolt thus forcing the Great Britain to intervene simply did not happen. We don't do revolutions in this country.


Frank Owsley takes a very detailed look at the Union blockade of the southern coastline.

His very in-depth research shows that the blockade was very ineffective and almost certainly did not meet international criteria for a successful blockade and was thus illegal.

Nonetheless, Lord Russell, the foreign secretary, felt that the blockade was sufficiently effective to be accepted.


Despite the many attempts to persuade the French and British (and sometimes the Spanish, the Vatican and the Russians) neither recognition nor intervention ever came. Why? The author gives many reasons - fear of war against the USA; a hatred of slavery; the fact that we and the French were soon able to obtain cotton elsewhere; the French affection for the United States - they had won the revolution for them after all - and

Emperor Napoleon III's unpopularity with his own people being amongst them. The author feels that the mere fact that the South had slavery, regardless of whether it caused the war or whether it was a war to free the slaves was the primary reason.


Mr Owsley also examines very close the production and sale of ships made in Liverpool and Glasgow to the Confederacy. His view is that whereas this may have been against British law it was not against international law. After all, nations including the UK had always sold arms and ammunition to belligerents so why should warships be different?

Another very interesting side of affairs and one rarely covered is the role of Mexico in the war and the import and export of goods through that country. At one point, there was a possibility that some of the northern states of that fractured country could even join the Confederacy.


Having written his opus magnus on Southern diplomacy Frank Owsley moved to Winchester, England to study Northern diplomacy in foreign lands. Tragically he got killed in a car crash in Winchester and so never got the chance to write his book.

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