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File:Edouard Manet 056.jpg

The Battle of Cherbourg (1864), by Édouard Manet.

France remained officially neutral throughout the American Civil War and never recognized the Confederate States of America. However, several major industries in France and the then French leader Louis Napoleon III had economic interests or territorial ambitions which favored dealings with the Confederacy. At the same time, other French political leaders, such as Foreign Minister Edouard Thouvenel, favored the United States.

Between 1861 and 1865, the Union blockade caused a significant decreasing of the French cotton importation, leading to the "famine du coton"(cotton hunger) : textile industries of Alsace, Nord-Pas-de-Calais and Normandy suffered from this shortage of raw material (which doubled in price in 1862) and were forced to dismiss many workers.

As a result, many French industrialists and politicians were rather favorable to a quick Southern victory. French Emperor Napoléon III was also interested in Central America (trade and plans of transoceanic canal) and wanted to create a new empire in Mexico, where his troops landed in December 1861. A Confederate victory would have likely made this plan easier.


William L. Dayton, who was appointed minister to France by President Lincoln, met the French Foreign Minister, Edouard Thouvenel, who was perceived to be pro-Union and was influential in dampening Napoleon’s initial inclination towards diplomatic recognition of Confederate independence. However, Thouvenel resigned from office in 1862. The Southern delegate in Paris, John Slidell, made offers to Napoléon III : in exchange for a recognition of the Confederate States and naval help sent in New Orleans to break the blockade, the Confederacy would sell raw cotton to France[1]. Count Walewski and Eugène Rouher agreed with him, but British disapproval and, especially, the first Union military victories forced French diplomacy to refuse this plan. In 1864, Napoléon III sent his own dentist and confidant, the philadelphian Thomas W. Evans, as an unofficial diplomat to Licoln and Seward. Evans convinced the Emperor that South defeat was impending.

In keeping with its official neutrality, the French government blocked the sale of the ironclad CSS Stonewall prior to delivery to the Confederacy in February 1864 and resold this ship to the Royal Danish Navy as the Stærkodder. The ship left Bordeaux on its shakedown cruise with a Danish crew in June 1864. However, the Danish refused to accept the ship due to price disagreements with the shipbuilder L'Arman[2] and L'arman subsequently secretly resold the ship by January 1865 to the Confederacy while still at sea.

France regained normal diplomatic relations with the United States in 1866, when Napoléon III decided to withdraw his troops from Mexico.

See also[]

  • Second French Empire
  • Trent Affair
  • French intervention in Mexico



  1. Pierre Renouvin, Histoire des relations internationales, t.5, Paris, Hachette, 1994, II, pp. 601-606.
  2. ^ Southern Historical Society Papers, Volume VII, Number 6. Richmond, Virginia: 1879. Pages 263–280.


  • Milza, Pierre (2004). Napoléon III. Perrin. p. 533. ISBN 2702893996. 

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