One of the South’s greatest rallying cry for war was that they would be supported by foreign countries that had a vested interest in the flow of southern cotton. If the South had known they would receive no help from any other countries, they may not have been so eager to leave the union. They believed that countries such as England depended so heavily on their cotton that there would be no choice but to assist in defeating the abolitionist north.
So why did king cotton fail them? Why did the British armies not descend from the heavens to liberate the cotton fields from the tyranny of the North? In the beginning at least, there was not a bad chance of foreign aid for the South. The North still seemed like it could have been defeated after a series of losses, the war was about the union rather than slavery, England knew they would need more cotton to run their mills, and many aristocratic Englishmen appreciated the semi-aristocratic lifestyle of the south. If it had not been for the Southern loss at the battle of Antietam, European nations were likely to have supported the South in hopes that the cotton would continue to flow into their ports. After the battle, chances of foreign aid to the Southern cause plummeted like dead brick.
The battle of Antietam not only proved to other nations that the North was still a force to be reckoned with, but also gave Lincoln his chance to give the Emancipation Proclamation. Until that point, Lincoln had stated that slavery would not be interfered with if the South rejoined the union. Because of this, there was no moral obligation to fight on either side, because slavery would still exist regardless of who was victorious. After Lincoln changed the name of the game to Emancipation rather than preservation, assisting the South meant assisting slavery, and helping the North meant helping freedom. If a country intended to help the South, they would do so knowing that they were perpetuating the peculiar institution. It eventually proved that countries detested slavery more than they needed Southern cotton.
The South’s war strategy relied upon the English textile industry forcing the English to act. However, there were several factors that prevented this from happening. Many of the people who worked in the factories were opposed to slavery and did not want to see it cling on the earth any longer. The English did not want to break the North’s blockade, because the primary form of English naval warfare was blockading. There was still enough cotton in English warehouses to last them for a while. The North supplied England with food so that the jobless workers did not starve. Other places such as Egypt supplied England with cotton once the demand rose.
Once the South began to lose, and the fight became over slavery, there was really no hope that anyone would come to their aid. For England, helping the South would not be worth it if the North won, and it would be a fight for something illegal and immoral. In the end, cotton was not as necessary to the world economy as the South thought, and that was all they had going for them.
Source: American Pageant 11th edition