France and the American Civil War

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The Second French Empire remained officially neutral throughout the American Civil War and never recognized the Confederate States of America. The United States had warned that recognition meant war. France was reluctant to act without British collaboration, and the British rejected intervention. Emperor Napoleon III realized that a war with the U.S. without allies "would spell disaster" for France.[1] However, the textile industry needed cotton, and Napoleon III had imperial ambitions in Mexico which could be greatly aided by the Confederacy. At the same time, other French political leaders, such as Foreign Minister Édouard Thouvenel, favored the United States.

Public opinion

Philippe and his brother Robert d'Orléans served as officers for the Union.

The 22 political newspapers in Paris reflected the range of French public opinion. Their position on the war was determined by their political values regarding democracy, Napoleon III, and their prediction of the ultimate outcome. Issues such as slavery, the Trent affair (which involved Britain), and the economic impact on the French cotton industry did not influence the editors; instead their positions on the war determined their responses to these issues.[citation needed] The Confederacy was supported by Conservative supporters of Napoleon III, Bourbon legitimists, and Roman Catholic interests. The Union had the support of republicans and Orléanists (those who wanted a descendant of Louis Philippe on the throne).[2]

Between 1861 and 1865, the Union blockade cut off most cotton supplies to French textile mills, causing the "famine du coton" (cotton famine). Mills in Alsace, Nord-Pas-de-Calais and Normandy saw prices of cotton double by 1862 and were forced to lay off many workers. As a result, many French industrialists and politicians were rather favorable to a quick Southern victory.

Government policy

The French government considered the American war a relatively minor issue at a time when France was engaged in multiple diplomatic endeavors in Europe and around the world. Emperor Napoleon III was interested in Central America (trade and plans of a transoceanic canal). He knew the United States strongly opposed, and the Confederacy tolerated, his plan to create a new empire in Mexico, where his troops landed in December 1861.

William L. Dayton, the American minister to France met the French Foreign Minister, Édouard Thouvenel, who was pro-Union and was influential in dampening Napoleon’s initial inclination towards diplomatic recognition of Confederate independence. However, Thouvenel resigned from office in 1862. The possibility of war with the U.S. opened up the risk of a war with Prussia, such as indeed happened in 1870.

The Confederate delegate in Paris, John Slidell, was not officially received. However, he made offers to Napoleon III that in exchange for French recognition of the Confederate States and naval help sent to break the blockade, the Confederacy would sell raw cotton to France.[3] Count Walewski and Eugène Rouher agreed with him, but British disapproval and, especially, the Union capture of New Orleans in spring 1862, led French diplomacy to refuse this plan. In 1864, Napoleon III sent his confidant, the Philadelphian Thomas W. Evans, as an unofficial diplomat to Lincoln and U.S. Secretary of State William H. Seward. Evans convinced the Emperor that Southern defeat was impending.

Slidell succeeded in negotiating a loan of $15,000,000 from Erlanger and other French capitalists. The money was used to buy ironclad warships, as well as military supplies that came in by blockade runners.[4]


In keeping with its official neutrality, the French government blocked the sale of the ironclad CSS Stonewall prior to delivery to the Confederacy in February 1864 and resold this ship to the Royal Danish Navy, renamed the Stærkodder (after the mythical hero Starkad). The ship left Bordeaux on its shakedown cruise with a Danish crew in June 1864. However, the Danes refused to accept the ship due to price disagreements with the shipbuilder L'Arman.[5] L'Arman subsequently secretly resold the ship by January 1865 to the Confederacy while it was still at sea.

France regained normal diplomatic relations with the United States in 1866, when the threat of American intervention forced Napoleon III to withdraw his troops from Mexico; his puppet emperor there was subsequently defeated and executed.

See also



  1. Howard Jones (1999). Abraham Lincoln and a New Birth of Freedom: The Union and Slavery in the Diplomacy of the Civil War. U of Nebraska Press. p. 183.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  2. George M. Blackburn, "Paris Newspapers and the American Civil War," Illinois Historical Journal (1991) 84#3 pp 177-193.
  3. Pierre Renouvin, Histoire des relations internationales, t.5, Paris, Hachette, 1994, II, pp. 601-606.
  4. Judith Fenner Gentry, "A Confederate Success in Europe: The Erlanger Loan," Journal of Southern History (1970) 36#2 pp. 157-188 in JSTOR
  5. Southern Historical Society Papers Volume VII, Number 6. Richmond, Virginia: 1879. Pages 263–280.

Further reading

  • Blackburn, George M. "Paris Newspapers and the American Civil War," Illinois Historical Journal (1991) 84#3 pp 177-193. online
  • Blackburn, George M. French Newspaper Opinion on the American Civil War (1997).
  • Blumenthal, Henry. A Reappraisal of Franco-American Relations, 1830-1871 (1959)
  • Blumenthal, Henry. France and the United States: Their Diplomatic Relations (1970)
  • Case, Lynn M., and Warren E. Spencer. The United States and France: Civil War Diplomacy (1970); the standard scholarly study.
  • Doyle, Don H. The cause of all nations: An international history of the American civil war (Basic Books, 2014).
  • Hanna, Alfred Jackson, and Kathryn Abbey Hanna. Napoleon III and Mexico: American triumph over monarchy (1971).
  • Hardy, William E. "South of the border: Ulysses S. Grant and the French intervention." Civil War History 54#1 (2008): 63-86. [1]
  • John, Rachel St. "The Unpredictable America of William Gwin: Expansion, Secession, and the Unstable Borders of Nineteenth-Century North America." The Journal of the Civil War Era 6.1 (2016): 56-84. online
  • Jones, Howard. Blue & Gray Diplomacy: A History of Union and Confederate Foreign Relations (2010). online
  • Jordan, Donaldson, and Edwin J. Pratt. Europe and the American Civil War (2nd ed. 1969). chap. 13
  • Owsley, Frank L. King Cotton Diplomacy: Foreign Relations of the Confederate States of America (1931), chap. 9.
  • Peraino, Kevin. "Lincoln vs. Napoleon" in Peraino, Lincoln in the World: The Making of a Statesman and the Dawn of American Power (2013) pp 224-95.
  • Pinkney, David H. "France and the Civil War," in Harold Hyman, ed. Heard Round the World (1969)
  • Sainlaude, Stève. The French Government and the Civil War, 1861-1865. The diplomatic action (2011)
  • Sainlaude, Stève. France and the Confederacy, 1861-1865 (2011)
  • Sears, Louis Martin. "A Confederate Diplomat at the Court of Napoleon III," American Historical Review (1921) 26#2 pp. 255-281 in JSTOR on Slidell.
  • Wahlstrom, Todd W. The Southern Exodus to Mexico: Migration Across the Borderlands After the American Civil War (U of Nebraska Press, 2015).
  • West, W. Reed. Contemporary French Opinion on the American Civil War (1924).