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France and the American Civil War

France and the American Civil War: A Diplomatic History

Translated by Jessica Edwards
Foreword by Don H. Doyle
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  • Book Info
    France and the American Civil War
    Book Description:

    France's involvement in the American Civil War was critical to its unfolding, but the details of the European power's role remain little understood. Here, Steve Sainlaude offers the first comprehensive history of French diplomatic engagement with the Union and the Confederate States of America during the conflict. Drawing on archival sources that have been neglected by scholars up to this point, Sainlaude overturns many commonly held assumptions about French relations with the Union and the Confederacy. As Sainlaude demonstrates, no major European power had a deeper stake in the outcome of the conflict than France.

    Reaching beyond the standard narratives of this history, Sainlaude delves deeply into questions of geopolitical strategy and diplomacy during this critical period in world affairs. The resulting study will help shift the way Americans look at the Civil War and extend their understanding of the conflict in global context.

    eISBN: 978-1-4696-4996-2
    Subjects: History, Political Science

Table of Contents

  1. Foreword
    (pp. xi-xviii)
    Don H. Doyle

    America’s Civil War was much more than a military conflict between the North and South. From the outset the American Question, as foreign powers called it, involved multiple European empires and the young nations of Latin America in matters of diplomacy, commerce, and geopolitical strategy. It soon became apparent to foreign observers that the insurrection of Southern slaveholders was not going to be easily put down and would become a protracted conflict. Though they remained officially neutral, most of the European powers were betting on the South to win, not by military prowess so much as sheer determination to outlast...

  2. Introduction
    (pp. 1-10)

    At the same time that the American Civil War, dubbed the “War of Secession” by the French, was tearing the Union apart, French diplomacy also had to deal with European troubles. As events in Italy, Poland, and Denmark caused turbulence across the Continent, the fratricidal drama unfolding in the New World captivated not only Napoléon III and his government but also many other European observers. They stayed abreast of events with information from multiple sources, transmitted to Western capitals through several channels of communication.¹ The Parisian elite, engrossed by the tragedy, scrutinized the fits and starts of this heroic duel...


    • 1 The Implementation of Neutrality
      (pp. 13-27)

      Though an internal conflict, the American crisis took on an international dimension very early. Alerted by the first signs of discord, European governments closely monitored the violent antagonism that erupted in the wake of Lincoln’s election. They had in mind the crises that had shaken the Union in the previous decade and were not surprised by the tensions that were arising over the slavery issue. They deliberated over which position to adopt. From the Quai d’Orsay, until the spring of 1861, Foreign Minister Edouard Thouvenel observed the splintering of the American federation with caution. He warned his agents not to...

    • 2 The Emperor Gets Involved in the War
      (pp. 28-59)

      Napoléon III had always been fascinated by the New World. He was better informed about American life and affairs than most of his contemporaries. Along with King Louis-Philippe, he was one of the few French leaders of the nineteenth century to have visited the United States. However, Napoléon’s knowledge of the country had not endeared it to him. He considered the Americans to be amoral. He scorned their mercantile spirit and mocked the nation’s immaturity. He was particularly worried about their “manifest destiny” and suspected them of constantly wanting to push back their border by maintaining the idea that their...

    • 3 The Entente Cordiale and American Policy
      (pp. 60-76)

      Most U.S. historians consider that between 1861 and 1865, France could not have intervened alone in American affairs. The French government set too much store by the United Kingdom’s foreign policy to act at variance with the British position. If France relinquished its aim of recognizing the government in Richmond, they maintain, this was due to Britain’s refusal to depart from neutrality.¹ However, there are several major objections to this argument. First, the emperor’s plan to return France to its former standing made any subordinate relationship unthinkable. The policy of grandeur was incompatible with such dependence, if not trusteeship. Second,...


    • 4 Myth and Reality
      (pp. 79-98)

      Southern propagandists hoped to rally the cream of French society to their cause. To do so, they sought to turn several factors to account. They stirred up the memory of French Louisiana, highlighted the North’s stubborn refusal to let its rival leave the federation, recalled the South’s adherence to free trade, seized upon the principle of national self-determination to present the South’s struggle as that of an emerging nation that the North was attempting to suppress, and painted a picture of an aristocratic Dixie of European culture and customs. Yet these campaigners had to reckon with resolute opponents and the...

    • 5 The Weight of the “Peculiar Institution” in Diplomatic Relations
      (pp. 99-109)

      In France, slavery had been definitively abolished on April 27, 1848, with the issue of a decree by the provisional government of the Second Republic. Under the impetus of Victor Schoelcher, undersecretary of state for the navy and colonies, 248,500 slaves were suddenly freed. Consequently, it was difficult for observers at the time to imagine that in the United States, just a few miles from the French sugar islands, a practice could live on which they found hard to reconcile with the Americans’ self-proclaimed democratic values. To the informed public, the slave system in the American South appeared both an...

    • 6 Napoléon III’s “Grand Design” and the Confederacy
      (pp. 110-126)

      In 1862, Napoléon III sent an expeditionary force to occupy Mexico with the aim of establishing a Latin and Catholic empire in the region. Two years later Eugène Rouher—a significant figure of the Second Empire referred to by some as vice-emperor—described the speech before the legislature as the grande pensée du règne (the grand thought of the reign, commonly translated in English as the Grand Design).¹ This formulation makes clear how central this large-scale geostrategic plan was to the Second Empire’s foreign policy.

      The American Civil War, which ran parallel to this episode, served Napoléon III’s purposes in...


    • 7 The Future of the Disunited States
      (pp. 129-139)

      As tensions in the United States came to a head in the winter of 1860–61 with the secession of several states, observers showed little surprise. Since the Nullification Crisis—South Carolina’s initial attempt to use secession for blackmail—and the events of the 1850s that had widened the gap between the two sections of the Union, they had been expecting a break in the federal ties. This scenario had been envisaged so often by fire-eaters from the slave states that the republic seemed fated to split. French agents had long been alerting their government to the risk of separation,...

    • 8 The South, a Trade Partner?
      (pp. 140-158)

      A major source of wealth for the United States, North American cotton was also crucial for Europe, representing over 80 percent of its total cotton purchases in 1860.¹ The old continent had neglected to diversify its suppliers to meet the demands of its growing textile industry, to the extent that the South had become its almost only supplier. France had the second-largest cotton industry in Europe, though well behind Britain, and was more dependent than Britain for its imports on the South’s “white gold.”

      Cotton dependency gave the slave-owning elites leverage. In 1855, the title of a book by journalist...

    • 9 The Imbalance of Power
      (pp. 159-183)

      From the very start of the war, the French agents in the United States compared the two enemies. Their efforts clearly demonstrated the North’s demographic, economic, financial, and technological superiority. However, faced with the staunch determination of the enemy troops, the Union’s military superiority remained to be demonstrated. The question for the South, then, was whether a warlike predisposition and unshakeable resolve would be enough. From the beginning, Consul Alfred Paul in Richmond replied in the negative. His analysis—which today would be judged far too deterministic—gradually shaped the view of the Tuileries cabinet on the overall military situation....

  6. Conclusion
    (pp. 184-190)

    One might legitimately be surprised that the imperial government focused solely on French national interests in determining its policy on the American crisis. Nowadays, democratic nations cannot define their foreign policy without taking into account public opinion. No such obligation existed during the Second Empire, where the antidemocratic nature of the regime meant that decision-makers discussed external affairs in the closed sphere of the Quai d’Orsay or the Tuileries Palace. It was only toward the very end of his reign, on May 11, 1868, that Napoléon III granted newspapers greater latitude by doing away with prior authorizations and warnings. The...