Who did the Confederates turn to for help during the Civil War?

Expert Answers
athenaia86 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The Confederacy turned to both France and the British Empire for assistance in the early years of the American Civil War. Their primary leverage was cotton: the Confederate states dominated the global cotton market, and the British and French textile industries depended on Southern cotton to function. It was the Confederates' hope that access to cotton could be used as a bargaining chip to secure alliances with these foreign powers and gain official recognition as a sovereign government from them.

Britain was the primary aim of the Confederates' diplomatic efforts; they had tried to court France, but the French were reluctant to commit themselves to the Confederacy unless Britain took the lead. Britain's textile industry formed a major part of its economy in the 1860s, so the threat of a "cotton famine" was a serious one, and the British government did consider intervention in the American war—even going so far as to supply the Confederacy with warships. In 1861, Queen Victoria issued a proclamation of Britain's neutrality with regard to American affairs, but there was much support for the Confederacy among wealthy British citizens, who sent money and supplies through the Union naval blockade to the Confederate government.

As the Confederate army advanced into Northern territory and repeatedly emerged victorious from battles with the Union, there was real concern in Europe that the United States would not survive the war. Tentative arrangements were put into place for a Confederate victory, and for a period the Confederate government entertained serious hopes of gaining official assistance from the British.

Those hopes were dashed in 1863 when Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, reframing the Civil War as a conflict over the ethics of slavery rather than “states’ rights." British Empire had abolished slavery in all of its territories in 1833, after decades of protracted and often ugly debate, and public sentiment was strongly anti-slavery. The British government could not, therefore, be seen to take the side of the Confederacy, either explicitly through treaties (as the Confederates had hoped) or implicitly through supplying money and materiel. The British dropped all further involvement with the Confederacy and in fact publicly condemned it for its continued use of slavery. The French, who were only tangentially interested in intervening in the war, followed Britain's lead and withdrew all support from the Confederacy.

You may find the following resources useful:

British Involvement in the American Civil WarThe Response from Overseas to the American Civil War