THE COVERT CONFEDERACY ABROAD
Historians refrain from asking counterfactuals, for their job is to explore what actually happened. But asking “what if” questions is a beneficial exercise that helps identify key events and turning points. Wondering what might have happened, for example, if Britain or France had officially recognized the Confederate States of America reveals the importance of both Union and Confederate diplomats during the Civil War. Award-winning historian and Virginia Tech professor William C. Davis has contributed greatly to American diplomatic historiography by compiling and editing this postwar reminiscence of the always opinionated and somewhat pompous Confederate diplomat, Edwin De Leon.
Revealing nothing substantively new, this firsthand account bolsters Frank Owsley’s long-standing argument in King Cotton Diplomacy (1931) that Confederate leaders erroneously believed official diplomatic recognition would result from Europe’s need for cotton. De Leon, however, realized as early as 1862 that official recognition would never occur. While the Columbia, South Carolina native highly praised Jefferson Davis, he harshly criticized what he considered an overall ineffective and old-fashioned leadership that not only mismanaged the Confederacy’s finances, but also rejected his plausible diplomatic strategy. If the Confederate diplomat had been in charge, the Confederacy would have distanced itself from Vice-President Alexander Stephens’ “Cornerstone” speech and separated arguments for Southern independence from justifications for the perpetuation of slavery. To win European support, De Leon also believed the Confederacy should implement gradual emancipation, downplay the effectiveness of the Union naval blockade, and curry French public favor by subsidizing popular magazines to print propaganda.
According to Professor Davis, De Leon’s inflated view of his importance, his overconfidence in his diplomatic skill, and his constant criticism and jealousy of fellow diplomat, John L. Slidell, were counterproductive. In 1863, Northern presses published a revealing correspondence in which De Leon called the French greedy and Slidell incompetent. (The Union Navy found the letter after capturing a blockade runner.) In December, 1863, Confederate Secretary of State Judah P. Benjamin relieved De Leon of his duties before the proud and reckless diplomat did more harm.
Secret History contains many juicy stories regarding the professional relationships among Confederate diplomatic corps and European leaders. In particular, De Leon’s meetings with Lord Palmerston and Napoleon III entertain and inform . De Leon’s account makes clear why the prospects of international recognition were greater in France than in Britain. It also makes conjectures regarding the effect of French intervention. In doing so, De Leon identifies those international events–including Italian nationalist Giuseppe Garibaldi’s “Rome or Death” march in 1862–which distracted Napoleon III and prevented the French emperor from granting official diplomatic recognition to the Confederacy. His discussion of the Confederate Cotton Loan to Paris and the secret negotiations in Vichy are especially intriguing.
An extraordinary primary source, this volume contributes much to the study of U.S. foreign relations. As the first known postwar account of a Confederate agent, it is a must-read for American diplomatic historians. The volume of De Leon’s wartime writing, however, will never be known, for he often wrote anonymously or used pseudonyms. Therefore, Davis has done a great service by including as appendices three letters that have not been published since they first appeared in European papers; one has been translated from French into English for the first time. In them, De Leon showcases “all the weapons of propaganda.”
Professor Davis’ introduction includes a brief biography of De Leon, a summary of his varied diplomatic and literary careers, and a pertinent account of Secret History‘s publication in 1867-68. He also places De Leon’s work in the context of larger developments, but in doing so, he may have criticized his subject too much and fostered a critical interpretation of his work and personality. Avoiding unnecessary commentary while providing further explanation when needed, Davis’ editorial treatment of this valuable source is largely exemplary.
The general public as well as seasoned scholars will enjoy reading this valuable chapter in the history of the Civil War. Historians will be reminded that the often neglected history of Civil War diplomacy should be reexamined without a hindsight that makes history seem inevitable.
Dr. Troy Kickler is the Director of the North Carolina History Project sponsored by the John Locke Foundation. A specialist in nineteenth-century U. S., Cvil War, Reconstruction, religious, and African American history, he has taught at Central Carolina Community College and the University of Tennessee where he received his doctorate. A past editorial assistant for the Journal of East Tennessee History, his work has appeared in The Journal of Mississippi History and The Tennessee Historical Quarterly.