Seward vs Toombs: British and French Recognition of the Confederacy

William

William H. Seward

As an amateur historian of the American Civil War, I believe myself to be well schooled in the military aspects of that war. Recently, a good friend gave me the book: Statesmen of the Lost Cause: Jefferson Davis and his Cabinet which he purchased at an estate sale for $0.50. Published in 1939, the book offers biographic sketches of these political leaders and draws out their characters through examples of their statesmanship. It sat in my To Be Read pile for several months because it appeared to be an academic tome written to conform to the publish-or-perish mandate of university professors between the World Wars. Frankly, I did not have a great deal of interest in the civilian side of the Confederate government. It was much more fun to do the final edits of Harper’s Rescue and get that in to Sundown Press.

Eventually, I did crack the front cover of the book and discovered a wonderful world of political farce nearly equivalent to the American political campaign of 2016 but for far more lethal stakes.

The book was written by Burton J. Hendrick, a Pulitzer-Prize winning biographer of politicians and other great men. It is written in the literary style of its time and reflects the prejudices of that time as well.  Hendrick also published a companion title: Lincoln’s War Cabinet in 1946.

Moving past the venerable nature of the prose, I was actually able to get into the stories of these men and I continue to learn of the political half of the War Between the States. For example, Jefferson Davis was not the first choice for most of the delegates to the Confederate Convention in Montgomery, Alabama. That honor goes to Robert A. Toombs, a former U.S. senator from Georgia. Davis himself felt he was better suited to the role of Secretary for War or Army Commander-in-Chief because of his military background and by virtue of be the Secretary of War during the Franklin Pierce administration.

Robert A. Toombs

Robert A. Toombs

In the event, however, Toombs’ candidacy was destroyed by late-night rumor that, instead of Toombs, the Georgia delegation would nominate Howell Cobb for the Presidency, a man under much suspicion for having sided with Unionists during a brief attempt to secede in 1850. The rumor was not true, however, the delegates from the other seceding states had voted for Davis before the error became known. As a consolation, Davis selected Toombs for the prestigious position of Secretary of State. It is this position that Toombs came against the Federal Secretary of State William H. Seward, best known for “Seward’s Folly”, the purchase of Alaska in 1867.

The greatest conflict between Seward and Toombs was the attempt by the Confederate government to achieve recognition of their independence from Great Britain, France, and Mexico. This was the most delicate task facing the new Confederate government. Success might mean immediate triumph for the Secession, since it would have involved the Federal government in war with Great Britain and France which would lift the blockade and open European markets to cotton, the Confederacy’s “white gold”. Continuation of sales of cotton to the European powers would give the Confederate government a financial strength which could have secured the Southern cause.

I’ve always know that recognition never happened and after reading this book, I now know why. For a political junkie, this is a fascinating story.

201701 Yancy Photo

William L. Yancy

From the outset, Confederate orthodoxy held that the loss of cotton imports from the Gulf states posed such an economic threat to France and, especially, Great Britain that these countries would become natural allies despite their avowed hatred of slavery. Toombs selected a legation of three representatives for the mission. Of the trio, William Lownes Yancy of Alabama, a former U.S. congressman and long-time pro-slavery man was the only man who possessed the essential reputation and distinction.

201701 Rost Photo

Pierre A. Rost

Pierre A. Rost of Louisiana, was a lawyer and judge, not known on the national stage. His chief recommendations were his French origin and a supposed familiarity with the Gallic tongue. Both of these supposed assets actually worked to his detriment. His broken creole-French became the object of ridicule in Paris and led to a second criticism that the Confederacy had sent him to patronize the French rather than send an “authentic” American.

 

A. Dudley Mann

A. Dudley Mann

Nor did A. Dudley Mann prove any acceptable to British diplomats. Here we see the hand of Seward who injected into the reports being sent from the British minister to the U.S. the notion that Mann was of low family origins and a man of bad character. These allegations were untrue, however, Mann’s actions in England showed that he lacked judgement and good sense and was too unobservant to understand events occurring around him.

 

Napoleon III of France

Napoleon III of France

In addition to the threat of loss of cotton to mills in Normandy, the Confederate approach to France included pandering to the ambitions of Napoleon III for an empire in the Americas. At that time, Mexico was in a state political disorder as a result of revolution. However, by attempting to conspire in a French invasion of Mexico, the duplicitous nature of the envoy revealed itself when the French learned of the Confederacy’s parallel mission to ally with Juarez’ government. The final, fatal flaw in the Confederate strategy to France was Yancey’s out-spoken advocacy and defense of slavery in the parlors of Paris, which most Frenchmen found abhorrent seventy years after the French Revolution.

Lord Palmerston of Great Britain

Lord Palmerston of Great Britain

In Britain, Seward had fouled the water well before the Confederate envoys arrived. In a truly astonishing chapter in American diplomacy considering the state of the United Sates in Spring 1861, Seward was able to convince the British Foreign Secretary that recognition of the Confederacy would mean a war with the United States. As a senator in the later 1850s, Seward had proposed that the United States could reunify a people fatally divided over the issue of slavery by finding a pretext to go to war with some European power. As Lincoln’s Secretary of State, Seward drafted an extremely bellicose statement of position in an open letter to be read by the American ambassador to the Foreign Secretary and posted in British papers. This letter announced under the Monroe Doctrine the intent of the U.S. to declare war on any foreign power which attempted to interfere with the suppression of the domestic enemies of the United States (the secession). Although Lincoln later moderated the tone and directed the U.S. ambassador to deliver it in a more respectful manner, Seward laid the groundwork for this presentation by inviting the British ambassador to a dinner where he read the full text of his original letter. Having been prepared by his ambassador, the foreign Secretary received the American ambassador’s presentation with deference. He had decided to pacify the high-tempered Yankees. Britain cut off all further formal correspondence with the Confederate delegates.

Given the fact that a war with Britain and France concurrent with an internal rebellion might eventually spell total disaster for the Federal government, Seward’s actions were a huge gamble but Seward knew his man. Fortunately, the Liberal government of Lord Palmerston was not prepared to engage in a trans-Atlantic war just five years after the end of the Crimean War, with the Wars of Italian Unification continuing, and nationalist revolts simmering in the Russian and Austrian empires and becoming a force in Germany. Especially, if such a war required an alliance with a rebellious population dedicated to the preservation of slavery.

Having failed in this most important diplomatic ploy, Toombs resigned as the Secretary of State and accepted a commission as a Confederate brigadier general. He led a four regiments of Georgians through the Peninsular and Antietam campaigns until he was wounded at Antietam. At the end of the war, he fled to Cuba and thence to Paris. In 1867, he returned to Georgia but never took the Loyalty Oath, thus ending his public life. He died in 1885 at 75 years.

William H. Seward continued as United States Secretary of State until 1869. He died three years later at 71 years.

Although I love to read about the military history of the American Civil War, I cannot help but be intrigued by these behind-the-scene high-stakes machinations and the subtle and overt factors which affect the outcome. It adds another, huge dimension to the story and begs for a new respect to these little-know personalities.

Now it’s time to speculate about the impact on Jamie Harper and the men of the First Iowa if things had gone differently and to figure out how to shoe-horn some of this information in future Harper’s War Stories.

So thanks, John, for a great read.

Sean Gabhann

Book 1 of the Shiloh Trilogy

Book 1 of the Shiloh Trilogy

Book 2 Harper's Rescue Front Cover

Book 2 of the Shiloh Trilogy, available March 23rd, 2017

 

 

4 Comments

  1. ReaderV
    Jan 24, 2017

    Do you include the background of the political players, such as the above, in your books? I’m interested in this topic.

    • Sean Kevin Gabhann
      Jan 25, 2017

      I try to as much as will fit into the context of the story. For example, in Harper’s Rescue, Grant needs to dispatch cavalry companies to small towns where the Tennessee government is drafting men to fight in that state’s “volunteer” units. I found that little tidbit in Grant’s memoirs and in the Official Records.

      However, my group of protagonists come from the lower end of the societal scale, so they don’t see the Great Men very often.

  2. David
    Jan 24, 2017

    It would be interesting to compare this 1939 work with more modern scholarship. A good read is A World on Fire: Britain’s Crucial Role in the American Civil War by Amanda Foreman out in 2011. As I recall the Confederate bid for recognition was DOA in HM Government and the French would not move without the British. The British were busy with the Prussians and the Russians.

    I chuckled at your sentence, “Statesmen of the Lost Cause: Jefferson Davis and his Cabinet which he purchased at an estate sale for $0.50.” It made it sound like the Confederate cabinet was worth $.50, consistent with many historians’ views.

    Thanks for the blog post.

    • Sean Kevin Gabhann
      Jan 25, 2017

      Ah, the importance of a comma!

      Glad you enjoyed the post. Won’t have much time to follow up with Ms. Foreman’s book while I’m drafting Book 3 Harper’s Shiloh.

      The main theme from Hendrick’s work seems to be that it was the “nouveau riche” from the cotton belt with their natural tendency towards aggressive solutions who were the main fomenters of the Rebellion. He implies that things might have turned out differently if the landed aristocracy of Olde Virginia had become involved earlier, or if, after Secession, Virginians had been given the secretariats in the Cabinet. Sadly for The Cause, according to Hendrick, Davis and the Cabinet had already been selected before Virginia joined the Confederacy.

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