'King Cotton' Topic of Civil War Roundtable

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Perhaps it was separation anxiety coupled with a slight case of homesickness, or perhaps simply a matter of "now it's time," but Zac Cowsert, California University of Pennsylvania's Civil War Roundtable featured speaker Thursday, referred to it as "like having an itch that (he) needed to scratch."

During his five-month stay in Denmark during his junior year at Centenary College of Louisiana, Cowsert, 22, a lifelong Civil War enthusiast who referred to his long-standing interest in the conflict as a hobby, said, "Being in Europe got me thinking. I was jonesing for the Civil War."

Whatever the reason, Cowsert, currently a graduate student at West Virginia University, focusing on 19th-century United States history, including obviously the Civil War, but with a broader focus, was looking for connections, especially direct connections between Europe and the United States during the Civil War. He had been writing a paper on Union foreign policy with Great Britain but, in one of those "eureka" moments, realized that his paper took him to Confederate foreign policy, which was not surprising, considering the complexities involved with examining the four-year-long conflict.

"My interest in this topic emerged from there," he said, "the issue of American - Union and Confederate -- foreign policy with both Great Britain and France."

Reading about and studying the Civil War, and visiting battlefields all his life, led to a degree in history and political science and summer employment as a seasonal historian for Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park in Fredericksburg, Va. Cowsert will visit the California University campus to present his topic, "King Cotton Failed: Confederate Foreign Policy with Great Britain."

"Lifeblood of the Southern economy, the Confederacy relied on King Cotton, to help leverage independence," Cowsert explained. "Confident of recognition by the British government, the Confederacy crafted a presumptuous and arrogant foreign policy that actually lessened the likelihood of British intervention on the South's behalf."

Cowsert explained that it is simply natural, from Civil War devotees to those with even a mild interest in the war, to naturally associate cotton with the South and the Confederacy. As the South produced tons and tons of cotton, he understated intentionally, demand for the product was high in Great Britain, as long as one considers 80 percent of Britain's cotton supply coming from the South. That same demand was evident worldwide.

In drastic need of weapons, ammunitions, shoes and manufactured supplies of all kinds, the South, prior to becoming the Confederacy, had been trading its valuable product for those supplies. This led the Confederate administration of Jefferson Davis to devise a strategy of a self-imposed embargo of American - Southern -- cotton, a plan designed to cause economic disaster abroad and force Britain to both recognize the South and intervene in the war on the South's behalf. Davis and the Confederacy assumed that Britain would intervene in the Civil War on behalf of the South in exchange for our cotton.

But, Cowsert added, chuckling, "Britain was angry at this point. 'Who does the South think she is?' was Britain's attitude."

Instead of exporting cotton, for several years Southerners burned a portion of their crop, denying European textile manufacturers the cotton they needed during the early years of the war. That policy ended in 1863-64. However, by that time the Northern blockade was proving effective; Adding fuel to the fire of Civil War historians and amateur strategists was the Union's attempt to establish a blockade of Southern ports and cut off Southern foreign trade. …