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King Cotton: Cotton Diplomacy & the Civil War

Instructor: Matthew Hill

Matthew Hill received Bachelor of Arts in Religious Studies and Psychology from Columbia International University. Hill also received an M.A. and Ph.D. in History from Georgia State University. He has over 10 years of teaching experience as a professor and online instructor for courses like American History, Western Civilization, Religious History of the United States, and more.

King Cotton Diplomacy was the Confederate strategy during the Civil War to withhold cotton from Europe to draw them into war. This study looks closely at the effects of such a policy.

White Gold

After the invention of the cotton gin in 1793, which allowed the seeds to be easily separated from the fiber, cotton began yielding large profits. It soon became a highly coveted commodity and was often referred to as 'white gold'. By the 1860s, the U.S. was exporting more than two-thirds of the world's cotton supply. England and France were especially dependent on Southern cotton - they imported most of their supply from the Deep South, and an estimated 20-25% of the English population worked in textiles during this time period.

Cotton production created a very powerful planter class in the American South, but it also created a single-crop dependency that undermined economic diversity. The hope was that a European power would assist the Confederacy militarily in its war against the North. The South did not expect ground forces, but they did hope for naval attacks against the Union blockade, weapons, and assistance in constructing warships. The Confederacy did achieve the latter as several warships were built in English shipyards. The assumption, however, that Southern cotton would remain in high demand and that it could be leveraged in international relations turned out to be poorly mistaken.

Eli Whitney, inventor of the Cotton Gin
Eli Whitney

King Cotton Diplomacy

When the Civil War broke out, the Union established a blockade of major southern ports, which seriously limited its imports and exports. This was part of U.S. Army General Winfield Scott's larger Anaconda Plan to subdue the southern states. However, the South thought it had an ace in its sleeve with cotton. Two years before, South Carolina Senator James Hammond declared to New York Senator William Seward, 'No, you dare not make war on cotton! No power on earth dares make war upon it. Cotton is King!' The Confederacy wanted the blockade busted up, and it reasoned that winning international diplomatic recognition was essential for achieving independence. The hope was that if England or France got involved, it would include breaking up the Union blockade.

South Carolina Senator James Hammond
James Hammond

Southern Blackmail

To add more leverage, the South began intentionally withholding cotton exports. Even though the Union blockaded southern ports, the blockade was never completely effective, and ships sometimes slipped through the wall of Union ships. The general assumption about cotton diplomacy was that cotton was such a valuable commodity that it could be leveraged for diplomatic recognition. The hope was that since Europe needed Southern cotton so much, it would have no choice but to intervene on the side of the Confederacy. The Confederate president, Jefferson Davis strongly supported this strategy, which basically amounted to blackmailing Europe into extending diplomatic recognition. In fact, an estimated 2.5 million bales of cotton were torched in the South to create an intentional shortage. With a forced shortage, cotton prices spiked to unprecedented levels in global markets. Davis assumed that even if foreign governments held out, textiles businesses would demand Confederate recognition. He was not far off the mark here; by late 1862, English textile industries were short of cotton.

Confederate President Jefferson Davis
Jefferson Davis

European Response

Beginning in February 1861 and continuing throughout the course of the war, the Confederacy began sending its own diplomats to Europe to meet with high-ranking officials, including the British Prime Minister Lord Palmerston and French Emperor Napoleon III, to negotiate for European assistance. The idea was not unthinkable; British business interests wanted the government to negotiate for cotton. For humanitarian reasons, however, both the British and French were shocked at the horror of the war and offered several times to mediate a resolution. It was fruitless though, as President Lincoln rebuffed any outside interference in what he considered a domestic matter, and the Confederacy would accept nothing short of complete independence, which the Union would never concede to.

Confederate Diplomat William Lowndes Yancey attempted to negotiate a deal with France and Britain
William Lowndes Yancey

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