- The Washington Times - Friday, September 1, 2006


Edited by William C. Davis

Conventional wisdom holds that Confederate efforts to gain diplomatic recognition from European governments, especially after the Battle of Antietam, were futile.

That this judgment, exercised in hindsight, was not shared by most officials in the Union and Confederacy, at least before the summer of 1864, is made vividly clear by Edwin De Leon, who penned the earliest known account by a Confederate agent sent abroad to court England and France during the Civil War.

Indeed, as De Leon shows, a war of words nearly as dramatic as the clash of swords on the American battlefields was raging in Europe over Confederate prospects for independence. The Confederate hope and the Union apprehension was that if the South could gain European diplomatic recognition, the North’s resolve to continue the war would weaken and the Confederacy surely would achieve independence.

First published in serial form in the New York Citizen from 1867 to 1868, De Leon’s memoir went unnoticed until recently brought to light by William C. Davis. Its value, of course, is to provide a contemporary account of the diplomatic impact of Confederate policy, the effect abroad of Southern success or failure on the battlefield, and a candid assessment of the private opinions of the international players of the day, most notably France’s Napoleon III and British Prime Minister Viscount Palmerston.

What sets this account apart from others, however, is that De Leon is unusually forthcoming (some might say he is a gossip) in his criticism of Confederate foreign policy and President Jefferson Davis’ uncanny ability to send the wrong people abroad.

As Mr. Davis, the editor of this volume, tells us elsewhere, Jefferson Davis probably had little expectation that foreign powers would recognize the Confederacy until it had proved that it could win and maintain independence on its own. Nevertheless, at the behest of the Confederate Congress, Davis sent an inexperienced diplomatic mission to England and France in the charge of William Yancey, one of the South’s most radical politicians, thus fueling the perception that the Confederates were no more than revolutionary upstarts.

At least three problems doomed the Confederacy’s diplomatic efforts. A major goal of Confederate diplomacy in 1861 was to persuade Britain to declare the blockade illegal as a prelude to intervention by the Royal Navy to safeguard British trade with the South. International law at the time said that in order to be binding, blockades must be “effective.” Southern diplomats argued, therefore, that the ease of running the blockade proved its ineffectiveness so no nation need respect it. Once the blockade gained momentum, this argument lost buoyancy.

The second problem was Davis’ stubborn reliance upon “king cotton” as a diplomatic weapon. This strategy rested on the belief that the mere risk of cutting off the cotton supply would cause England and France to challenge Union ships in order to keep open the supply lines. De Leon savages this policy, telling us that the only country to benefit was Egypt, which until then was an untapped source of cotton.

Finally, and this is an undercurrent throughout De Leon’s account, the anti-slavery sentiment in Europe stood in the way of any foreign alliance — yet he refuses to concede that the South ought to have sacrificed principle simply to gain a diplomatic advantage.

Against these odds, De Leon was named as a confidential agent of the Confederate Department of State (which, in theory, allowed him to speak of matters and go places that diplomats could not), charged with the task of swaying public opinion in favor of the Confederate cause. A self-styled “ambassador to public opinion,” De Leon, a writer of talent, was a propagandist whose job was to create “a public opinion in Europe favorable to the South, through the medium of the foreign press, and by special publications adopted to that end.”

Although De Leon emphasizes that he did not receive a salary, editor Davis, in one of his many informative footnotes, sets the record straight: De Leon received $25,000 for expenses, a princely sum at that time.

No doubt De Leon was as effective as could be under the circumstances (the appendices contain examples of his strategically placed correspondence) but his decidedly undiplomatic criticism of Confederate officials, inflated opinion of himself, and gossipy banter finally caught up to him. On Sept. 30, 1863, he dispatched two pieces of correspondence — one to Secretary of State Judah P. Benjamin and one to Jefferson Davis — that, among other things, implied that the French government could be bribed and sharply insulted John Slidell (who led a successor delegation to England).

Ignoring Benjamin’s protocol to use a safer route, he sent the dispatches through a blockade runner that was captured by Union naval forces. Published in the New York Daily Tribune (and “to the world” said an angry Benjamin), the dispatches undermined Slidell and future Confederate efforts abroad.

Dressed down by Benjamin, De Leon was no longer allowed to speak for the Confederacy and was told to return any unused funds. We discover this not from De Leon, but from the editor’s introduction.

For its part, Confederate diplomacy probably was doomed. Palmerston and Foreign Minister Lord Russell had long resolved to avoid involvement in the war, and inexperienced Confederate diplomats simply were unable to counter efforts by U.S. Secretary of State William H. Seward to persuade (some say bully) Britain that recognition of the South meant war with the United States.

Moreover, the Confederate thinking that French Emperor Louis Napoleon would act without England was, in the words of one historian, “remarkably naive.” Besides, France was preoccupied at the time with dreams of an empire in Mexico; the most it would promise was the possibility of mediation.

Thus, the best the Confederacy could hope to achieve was recognition as a belligerent, a status that simply gave it the right to contract loans and purchase supplies from neutral nations and to exercise belligerent rights on the high seas.

In fact, De Leon’s tendency is to exaggerate British and French sympathies; though both may have been content to see North and South permanently separated, neither was about to involve itself in a costly and delicate contest with the Union to achieve that end.

Nevertheless, De Leon is a keen observer of these events, and his opinionated walk through the Confederacy’s diplomatic struggle offers an insider’s view of the British and French reaction to the Southern cause. Mr. Davis’ introduction and careful annotation place De Leon in his historical context and provide an informative road map of the Confederate strategy, such as it was, for gaining international recognition as an independent nation.

Ken Kryvoruka is a Washington lawyer who also teaches writing at the George Washington University Law School. His new book, “Courage in Blue and Gray: Tales of Valor From the Civil War,” will be available soon.

Copyright © 2018 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

The Washington Times Comment Policy

The Washington Times welcomes your comments on Spot.im, our third-party provider. Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide