James Mason, the "Confederate Lobby" and the Blockade Debate of March 1862

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THE CIVIL WAR was from the beginning an international event affecting the views and attitudes of nations around the world. Some governments supplied arms and munitions to both combatants. The disruption of commercial shipping threatened the economies of Great Britain, France, Belgium, and Spain; and the manufacturing areas of Europe lost access to raw materials, particularly cotton, from the South. Europe's merchants were confronted with closed and blockaded ports. The higher tariffs and increased insurance costs cut deeply into profit margins.

The war required governments to reassess their interests and adjust foreign policy to accommodate the changing international environment. The Confederate States of America sought international recognition and legitimacy and sent representatives to Europe to pursue those objectives. The initial Confederate mission, led by William Yancey, met with little success; and he was recalled in the fall of 1861.(1)

On January 26, 1862, a new representative, James Murray Mason, arrived in London. The day after his arrival, he penned a note to Confederate secretary of state Robert M. T. Hunter, expressing an overly optimistic view of the diplomatic potential in Great Britain; "my impressions decidedly are that, although the ministry may hang back in regard to the blockade and recognition through the Queen's speech at the opening of Parliament next week, the popular voice through the House of Commons will demand both."(2) Also identified in Mason's message is the subtle, but important, shift away from a diplomatic strategy relying completely on "King Cotton," in favor of a campaign to have the British declare the naval blockade of Southern ports illegal under international law.

The failure of the Confederacy's initial strategy demonstrated to the Richmond government the need for a more indirect approach. Southerners believed, not without some justification, that recognition was inevitable if cotton was withheld from the textile manufacturers of England.(3) If the shift in strategy obtained a denunciation of the blockade, events and confrontations similar to the Trent affair might produce intervention. The new strategy did not abandon King Cotton but was more subtle in that it blamed the Union blockade, not the Confederacy, for economic depression in the textile regions. In fact, Mason and his friends failed to appreciate completely the opportunity presented in this transfer of responsibility to the Union. Regardless of the side that caused the shortage, the Confederates believed that international recognition would necessarily follow the loss of manufacturing profits. The parliamentary debate in March 1862 over the blockade was a direct result of the cooperative effort of the Southern agents and their British supporters. Members of Parliament sympathetic to the Southern cause saw the blockade issue as an opportunity to restore some military advantage to the Confederacy. The overriding goal of Confederate diplomatic initiatives in Europe was to obtain international recognition. In fact, recognition possibly accompanied by intervention was the only diplomatic goal that could have affected the outcome of the war.(4)

The so-called Confederate Lobby emerged from the blockade debate as a relatively cohesive group. From the Confederate perspective, it was vital for the British to declare the Federal blockade illegal. From the British point of view, the outcome would not only affect the policy of the Palmerston government, it was also likely to set a precedent that would further define international law, particularly regarding the use of naval power by belligerents and the rights of neutral commercial shipping.

Aligned against Mason and the Confederate Lobby were several very able diplomats and a number of influential members of Parliament. Charles Francis Adams, U.S. minister to Great Britain, and William Lewis Dayton, Lincoln's ministerial appointment in Pads, proved extremely effective in rallying opposition to the Southern efforts. …