American Civil War: The Confederacy’s ‘King Cotton’ Diplomacy

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES: THE AMERICAN CIVIL WAR

By Gary W. Gallagher, Ph.D., University of Virginia

Besides the battlefield, diplomacy played a big role in the Civil War. A formal recognition from Europe and the key powers—Britain and France—was important for both the Confederates and the Federals. In fact, the Confederacy also hoped to get military and financial aid from them. So what was the Confederacy’s ‘King Cotton’ strategy?

A cotton field in Arkansas.
The South went into the war believing that its cotton was absolutely necessary to the British economy. (Image: PhotoStock-Israel/Shutterstock)

Britain’s Dependency on Southern Cotton

The South went into the war believing that its cotton was absolutely necessary to the British economy. The Confederate leaders knew that 80% of England’s cotton came from the South and that England manufactured about $600 million worth of goods from that cotton each year.

The Confederates believed that if that supply were denied, then a big portion of the British economy, which was tied up with the textile industry, would be disrupted.

This is a transcript from the video series The American Civil War. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

The Confederate Game Plan

The photo shows a Confederate blockade runner ship during the American Civil War.
The Union blockade of Confederacy ships was a strategy to prevent it from trading. (Image: U.S. Naval Historical Center/Public domain)

If indeed the Confederacy did cut off Britain’s cotton supply, there would be such pressure on the British government to get that cotton flowing freely to England again that it would take whatever steps necessary, including breaking the Union blockade of the Confederate coastline.

This, in turn, would alienate the North, which would be compelled to go to war with Britain. And so they may just have the best of all worlds—cotton flowing to England, money coming back to the Confederacy from the sale of that cotton, and the United States and Great Britain at war because the Royal Navy had broken the blockade.

The ‘King Cotton’ Strategy

Therefore, the Confederacy didn’t wait for the Union blockade to cut cotton off from Great Britain. It pursued an embargo of cotton shipments to Britain in the hope of drastically reducing British stockpiles more quickly.

Now this was not an official Confederate embargo. However, it was understood that it would be a good policy, and it was carried out by local committees of public safety in seaports across the Confederacy, which did not allow cotton to ship out.

Learn more about the role US Navy played in the American Civil War.

Slow Result to the ‘King Cotton’ Strategy

In fact, much of the 1861 crop was burned in an effort to produce a faster shortage in Great Britain. But the Confederates didn’t count on a couple of factors.

A major factor was that the 1860 crop, which had been a very large one, had already been shipped and Britain had stockpiles on hand from the late antebellum years. So there was a little bit of a cushion for the British there. Also, bumper crops from the later 1850s had left Great Britain with a surplus at the outset of the Civil War.

‘King Cotton’ Strategy: Britain Feels the Pinch

It wasn’t until the second half of 1862 that a pinch began to be felt in Britain. Britain imported only about one percent as much Southern cotton as it had imported in the last antebellum shipments.

Once the pinch did begin, though, there was real hardship in the British textile industry. It was late summer and fall of 1862 and thousands of British workers were thrown out of their jobs as the shortage of cotton took hold.

The Effectiveness of the King Cotton Strategy

There were people of all classes who supported both the North and the South. But many of these workers who were thrown out of their jobs in the summer and fall of 1862 desperately wanted cotton to begin flowing back to England so they would have their old means of livelihood back.

And, that was the high point of the effectiveness for the ‘King Cotton’ diplomacy. It was also a good time for the Confederates on the battlefield—Robert Lee had his string of victories, the Seven Days Battles, Battle of Manassas.

The Failure of ‘King Cotton’ Diplomacy

But, the strategy was doomed in the long term. First, Britain developed alternate sources of cotton—by 1864, British imports had reached 75% of their antebellum average, most of the new cotton coming from India and Egypt.

And, there was also an increasing volume of American cotton coming into Britain from ports controlled by the United States military as the war went on. Some cotton would come out of ports that the U.S. controlled.

Learn more about the number of men that served in the American Civil War.

Confederacy Fails at Diplomacy

Thus, despite the promise of its effectiveness, the ‘King Cotton’ strategy didn’t work out for the Confederacy, as it had hoped. Along with that, any hopes of it getting recognition from the European powers were also wiped out.

In the end, the North prevailed in the diplomatic arena, and it did so for several reasons. For one, it had very skillful diplomats, for example, Charles Francis Adams, who was the United States Minister to the Court of St. James.

The antislavery sentiments of most Europeans would also be very important in the course of the diplomatic struggles. Fears on the part of Britain and France of the economic and military consequences of a conflict with the United States also loomed large.

Yet, the most important factor in the end was that the Confederacy did not win enough consecutive victories on the battlefield to persuade observers in London and Paris that the South was going to be able to sustain its independence.

Common Questions about Confederacy’s ‘King Cotton’ Diplomacy

Q: What was the ‘King Cotton’ Strategy?

The Confederates’ ‘King Cotton’ strategy involved cutting off cotton supply to Britain, which, in turn, would try to break Union blockades along the Confederate coastline. This would have favorable results for the Confederates: cotton flowing to England, money coming back to the Confederacy from the sale of that cotton, and the United States and Great Britain at war because the Royal Navy had broken the blockade.

Q: Was the ‘King Cotton’ strategy successful?

The ‘King Cotton’ strategy proved to be a failure for the Confederacy.

Q: Why did the ‘King Cotton’ strategy fail?

The ‘King Cotton’ strategy failed majorly for two reasons. After the shortage began to be felt, Britain started getting cotton from India and Egypt. And, Britain was still getting the supply of cotton from the ports controlled by the US military.

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