France in the U.S. Civil War

John Slidell
John Slidell

As we head off to France on vacation this week, I have been wondering about France's role in the Civil War. Although officially neutral, France (along with England) was lurking as a possible supporter of the Confederacy. The newspapers covered any possible favoring of one side or the other, especially when John Slidell was appointed by the Confederacy as its ambassador in France. (A northerner by birth, he was living in New Orleans and had a French Creole wife, possibly considered a competitive advantage with those Parisians.) (Photo is a carte de visite, original at Library of Congress.)

Among other ruminations, Julia Wilbur wrote on January 1, 1862, from her home in New York:

The topic of today is the surrender of Mason & Slidell to the English government. This will probably avert a war with England [between the Union and England], at least for the present. The rebels will be jubilant no doubt but who cares? We shall be gainers by it in the end.

A few weeks later, she wrote:

Unless something is done soon to retrieve the aspect of affairs, England & France will probably break the Blockade & open the Cotton ports. The feelings towards Eng. is very bitter & no doubt she will have occasion for war if she wants war.

We know in retrospect that the two countries were not a serious problem for the Union. But, at the time, this was not a foregone conclusion.

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