The Triumph of Slavery

Vainglorious plans for a multipolar world inspired the Confederacy at war — writes Dr. Adrian Brettle

SINCE THE 1990s, the mania for globalization has influenced a generation of historians to place events in an international context, for example connecting European revolutionary ideas with the 1837-38 Rebellions in the Canadas. Scholars have even linked nationalist movements with secession and the American Civil War. Such a global view raises the question of how close that conflict came to becoming a world war, and how the geopolitical map of North America was in flux. Indeed if victorious, the Confederacy had highly-developed plans for a multipolar postwar world made safe for slavery.


The North’s avowed goal before the outbreak was to reunite the divided republic against its foreign foes. In the April Fool’s memorandum of 1861, William Henry Seward, President Lincoln’s Secretary of State and a former New York senator and governor, called for a declaration of war against Britain, France, and Spain. Lincoln preferred “one war at a time,” a policy that his cabinet reluctantly endorsed during the Trent Affair in November. In that crisis, Anglophobic congressmen and pressmen clamoured for a fight over Britain’s temerity in transporting human contraband in the form of two Confederate diplomats and their families on its steam packet, RMS Trent. The climb-down did not diminish the secretary of state’s threatening language to London and Paris, then on the cusp of recognizing the Confederacy’s independence.

Across the Atlantic, politicians lamented that the Civil War had disrupted what was already by 1860 one of the world’s largest economies. Lord Palmerston, without supporting either side, wanted the conflict settled so that Britain could resume commerce with its largest trading partner. The sudden implosion of U.S. power might even invite French and Russian mischief in North America and elsewhere. However, at least until the shortage of cotton in the summer of 1862, Palmerston faced little domestic pressure to intervene. The opposition parties, whether Lord Derby’s Tories or factions within Napoleon III’s court, decried various missteps that the American war revealed, such as the weak state of defences in Canada and the foolish adventure to install a Habsburg prince as emperor of Mexico.

Perhaps less well-known is the story told in my book, Colossal Ambitions, which shows how leading Confederate politicians and thinkers conceived of their struggle for independence as an event of global significance and expected that the outcome would determine the future of the entire western hemisphere. How, during the war, they planned and took initial steps to prepare for that outcome, and how the events of the war changed these expectations of the future. This dynamic, if misbegotten, vision of the world to come can be seen in Confederate plans for the postwar British West Indies and North America. 

At the outbreak of war the Caribbean had provided the Confederacy with one compelling justification for secession. Confederates saw the islands as places where they could secure the expansion of slavery and further develop their commerce, including with Canada. Their optimism was tempered by anxiety that Colonial authorities were plotting with the United States to hasten the downfall of slavery by means of schemes to settle freed African Americans on the islands. As the war drew on, Confederate planners reconceived of the European presence in North America as a way of balancing power and enabling their nascent Confederate nation to maintain its independence — only to reinvent themselves again in the war’s last months for the opposite purpose: as the main U.S. ally in a bid to rid the western hemisphere of the European presence. 

During the secession crisis, those who wanted to quit the Union in the wake of Lincoln’s election argued that if they stayed in the United States their fate would be similar to that of the planters in the Caribbean or even, as a worst-case scenario, in the former French colony of Haiti. “The scenes of West India emancipation, with its attendant horrors and crimes (that monument of British fanaticism and folly),” would, Alabama’s secession commissioner Stephen Hale warned the Kentucky legislature on Dec. 27, 1860, “be re-enacted in their own land upon a more gigantic scale.” Anxiety about a slave insurrection leading to a bloodbath had been revived by John Brown’s Raid on Harper’s Ferry in 1859. An outbreak of mysterious fires in Georgia and Texas immediately after Lincoln’s election suggested an insurrection plot. Many secessionists feared Lincoln would appoint abolitionist postmasters and judges who would then disseminate incendiary propaganda inciting a class and race war. 

More sober-minded secessionists considered Haiti an extreme example and looked to the British Caribbean, especially Jamaica, as a more realistic warning. Secessionists considered that emancipation had ruined the export economy of these islands: the colonies lost their planter class with their plantations and consequently faced ruin. All that remained, according to this narrative, were the former slaves who eked out a miserable existence as dependents upon the British taxpayer. Such thinking overlooked the significance of the abolition of imperial preference as part of the repeal of the Corn Laws in 1846, the effect of which was to leave the main export, cane sugar, struggling to retain its market share in the home market against continental beet imports. Secessionists, however, blamed emancipation and predicted the same fate for themselves in Lincoln’s America: slaves would be freed, transitioned to pauperdom, and migrate northward as “wage slaves” of Northern factories. (The northern states, of course, had been free to manumit their chattel slaves on their own terms and at their own pace.) In due course the entire South would become an economic backwater as tariffs would crush their vital agricultural exports. The threat of such an economic death-spiral, of course, made a compelling case for secession.

The main southern periodical, De Bow’s Review, invoked the Caribbean’s fate to justify slavery and secession. “Without the institution of slavery,” the Review editorialized on Dec. 5, 1860, “the great staple crops of the south would cease to be grown and the immense annual results which are distributed among every class of the community would cease.” They added that “the world furnishes no instance of these products grown by free labor.” As proof, “the British West India colonies have now ceased to be a source of revenue, and opulence has been reduced by emancipation to beggary.” Using a “northern authority” as a source the paper provided a table showing exports from Jamaica in 1805 and 1857 with hogsheads of sugar declining from 150,352 to 30,459, rum from 93,950 to 15,991 and coffee falling from 24,137,393 to 7,095,623 pounds. A journalist for the Richmond Examiner concluded that for a thriving economy in the Caribbean, “the fact is slavery is necessary.” The Richmond Dispatch asserted that “British capital, enterprise and ingenuity can accomplish a great deal but it cannot instill in the African constitution the love of or capacity for productive industry.” Jamaica possesses “equivalent land to the South” to grow cotton; what it lacked “is laborers,” for “the population is listless and idle (as southern Italy) and will only produce items that require little [effort] such as plantains.”

Some secessionists worried that emancipation in the British West Indies undermined slavery at home by spreading noxious ideas. Planter John B. Thrasher saw abolitionism, characterized by both “fanaticism” and “infidelity,” as transmitted from the French Revolutionaries to Haiti and thence to be “propagated” in the West Indies. More often prominent secessionists simply pointed to Jamaica. Judge Henry L. Benning sought to frighten the Georgia convention with a prediction that “the black race will take possession of our goodly land, and convert it into another Jamaica.” Dr. William Holcombe solemnly pointed out that southerners had been warned, for “St. Domingo is before us with its bloody teachings and Jamaica with its silent monitors of pauperism and decay.” 

The more radical secessionists had long argued that there was an Anglo-American abolitionist conspiracy to emancipate southern slaves, which needed to be preempted by conquest. In North Carolina during the month of Lincoln’s election, the secret society the Knights of the Golden Circle gathered in convention and issued a pamphlet, authored by former filibuster George Bickley, alleging that it had uncovered a plot by the British and Americans for “free soil states to be erected to the south of us.” The Caribbean would be set up as a magnet to attract escaped and freed slaves. To stop this encirclement, and in order to participate in the “vast trade with China, Japan, and all the Pacific Isles,” the Confederacy must expand. Therefore, in order “to secure these advantages to the South,” Bickley concluded, “the Gulf of Mexico must be commanded” and that meant “owning Mexico and the West Indies.” In short, Confederates must have an empire of their own in the Caribbean.

With independence, Confederate planners believed forcible conquest would not be necessary and that white West Indians would request peaceful admittance into the expanding slaveholders’ republic. Joining the victorious new nation, they could turn their sights on maximizing production of commodities for export. “A gulf confederacy may be established in the South which may well enjoy almost a monopoly in the production of cotton, sugar, rice, coffee, tobacco, and tropical fruits,” delegate Lewis Stone told the Alabama secession convention. “The trade of all tropical America,” he continued, “combined with that of the cotton states, would make our confederacy the wealthiest, the most progressive, and the most influential power on the globe.” 


"A victorious and reinvigorated Confederate slave empire would help Canada, Mexico, and the Caribbean to contain U.S. aggression."


Most Americans did not see a new era of European Empires on the horizon, let alone the New Imperialism of the late 19th century. They even assumed that Britain’s Colonial Office was simply tasked with preparing its various possessions for independence. While the Lincoln administration slowly moved toward recognizing the independent black nations of Haiti and Liberia, Confederates looked forward to recognizing pro-slavery regimes, which would then federate with Richmond as the capital to form “a vast opulent happy and glorious slave-holding republic throughout tropical America.” 

In this process, the West Indies would be regenerated by a rejuvenated slavery and Confederates would be welcomed with open arms by beleaguered planters. In May 1861, De Bow’s Review reviewed William G. Sewell’s book, The Ordeal of Free Labor in the British West Indies, concluding that “after a fair trial, which reasonable people might think a third of a century had given the emancipation scheme, it seems that the planters are far from satisfied, and reasonable men still look back on the old fleshpots of prosperity.” The return of slavery would usher in a peaceful, gradual Confederate annexation. For not only did Jamaica need slaves, it also required southern slaveholders — because, he wrote, “you need the white intelligence, skill, and experience directing and controlling slave labor.”

The president-elect of the Confederacy welcomed the addition of new slave states to an independent republic. On Feb. 16, 1861, on his way from Mississippi to the capital of Montgomery, Jefferson Davis paused to give a speech in Atlanta. According to a journalist present, Davis declared that “he had no fears about expansion; there were the West India Isles, which under the old Union, were forbidden fruits to us.” 

Privately Davis also hoped the United States would refocus its energies on expansion to the north into Canada, and leave the Confederacy unmolested. He believed that popular democracy would lead the colonies of British North America to join the northern States, which might mollify the resentment of federals and stave off war. On Mar. 1, 1861 he urged a unionist friend, Anna Ella Carroll, to move on from the old debates since “now we have to deal with the present and the future.” A win-win settlement was possible. “The north has wanted Canada and the South wants Cuba,” the president continued, “the expansion of both may have been restrained by the narrow views of each, let them be left freely to grow …” Only a few weeks later that dream of peaceful coexistence and mutual expansion, which the expulsion of Britain from North America would make possible, was scotched by the outbreak of war. 

Lincoln’s May 17, 1861 proclamation of a blockade of Confederate ports led planners to envisage a more collaborative approach toward British possessions. The rise of a thriving blockade-running industry informed ambitions for future commerce. Blockade-runners mainly plied between Bermuda, the Bahamas, and the Confederate ports of Charleston and later, Wilmington, but activities reached throughout the Caribbean and extended to Halifax. These “new channels of trade” could be expected to continue after the war, assisted by subsidies, telegraph-lines, and steam-packets. Finally, a Confederate deepwater navy would be needed to protect a large merchant marine from both pirates and residual Union aggression. 

Confederates urged common cause, if not with Britain itself, then at least with the West Indies. Both feared the rise of slave insubordination. A correspondent reported to the Confederate newspaper in London, The Index, on the mood in the island of St. Vincent: “They (the negroes) say they will make it a second Hayti [sic] — life and property are daily becoming less and less secure in the British West India Islands.” Confederate sailors sensed the suspicion among the white community of their expansionist intentions. “On our arrival at the Port of Spain,” reported the crew of the C.S.S. Sumter on May 6, 1862, “the people were somewhat alarmed, having never seen our flag before and hearing, through the Northern papers, that we were pirates.” The visitors protested they were no lawless adventurers. “After finding out the true character of the vessel,” they related, “we were received with every hospitality we would wish” from both sailors on a Royal Navy vessel and the Trinidadians. 

More than the presence of Confederate warships, it was the growing trade — in spite of the blockade — that southern planners hoped would hasten independence and boost their postwar relations and reach. “There is a strong feeling at this place that the European powers must shortly recognize the Confederate States,” reported The Nassau Guardian on Apr. 12, 1862. “Our merchants are particularly struck with the inefficiency of the blockade. It does not close southern ports, and running the blockade has long ceased to be an adventure.” Nearly a year earlier, on Jul. 22, 1861, Robert Toombs, the first Confederate secretary of state, had extended the credentials of their state department’s agent in Havana to include the Danish and British West Indies. Charles Helm needed to establish a network of depots once he had secured “friendly commercial relations.” A year later, the appointment appeared successful as a correspondent from St. Thomas noted “the importance of trade that has recently grown up, and which, if properly fostered, may attain much wider proportions. It is a notable circumstance that the arrivals from the Southern States are far more numerous than those from the north.” 

A trade network required infrastructure — what the Davis administration on Aug. 28, 1862 called “the establishment of independent telegraphy to draw the South nearer to Europe.” A few months earlier, on May 13, Georgia cotton planters had gathered in Americus to consider a proposal for a southern telegraph to run across the southern Atlantic to Brazil and along the Windward and Leeward islands to Cuba and thence to Florida. Diplomats in Europe reported on the progress. The cause was championed by the famed oceanographer and Confederate propagandist, Matthew F. Maury. Planners heralded the emergence of a southern world, which Maury named in a speech in Britain in Jun. 1863, “a transatlantic revolution” with a southern orientation in trade routes and connections. This future appeared to be unfolding as, by the summer of 1863, trade to both Wilmington, N.C. and Charleston peaked.

While Confederate planners believed that economic interdependence would reduce antislavery sentiment, they also worried that the success of slavery implicit in their bid for independence would encourage the development and spread of alternative contract labour systems. The Richmond Examiner detected “a diabolical scheme ... to bring coolies in from China to work the cotton fields after slavery emancipation.” The rumour appears to have come from the private correspondence of a prominent Virginian politician. Robert Hunter, soon to be Confederate secretary of state, had received an alarming report from a private colonization society in Apr. 1861 on the need for “disciplined laborers” to work on Central and Southern American plantations. The correspondent added: “It is my opinion that the Emperor of China would permit his Hong merchants to export from his dominions twenty-five millions of his Chinese subjects.” Hundreds of Chinese contract labourers had already arrived in Callao, Peru and were being traded at $300-$400 per head, enslaved in all but name.

In the face of this threat from Asia, Confederates sought to unite the remaining slaveholding powers of the western hemisphere in a proslavery alliance with Brazil and Spain. These powers were “alike interested in their preservation from the fanatical spirit of the age.” On Mar. 21, 1862, Pierre Rost, the Confederate commissioner in Madrid, told the Spanish foreign minister, Calderon Collantes, that the Davis administration “deem it in its interest that Spain would continue a slave power. The two, together with Brazil, would have a monopoly of the system of labor, which alone can make inter-tropical America and the regions adjoining it available to the uses of man, and to a great extent, of the rich products of that labor.” 


"The scheme meant ‘owning Mexico and the West Indies’ — Confederates must have an empire of their own in the Caribbean."


Confederates were fearful of yet another scheme to revive the Caribbean economy — one which promised to undermine southern slavery even more than the threat of Chinese labour. After the Union’s military offensives in Tennessee and Virginia in the first half of 1862, about 200,000 slaves had escaped across the lines to Union contraband camps. Under the newly-passed congressional Confiscation Acts they would not be returned to Confederate owners. On Aug. 5, 1862, the former acting U.S. secretary of state and informal negotiator on behalf of the Davis administration, William H. Trescot, wrote to the new secretary of state, Judah P. Benjamin, about his suspicions regarding Union plans for these “captured enslaved people.”  He noted en passant “various propositions to make settlements in Liberia, in Central America, in Mexico.” More than these, Trescot held that “the most serious move” involved the Danish Virgin Islands, with “the agreement by Denmark to receive all the Africans taken by the U.S. slavers, as apprentices at St. Croix.” 

Under an agreement with Britain ratified by the U.S. Senate earlier in the year on Apr. 25, the United States had resumed its participation in the international effort to stamp out the Atlantic Slave Trade. Trescot was not worried about Africans intercepted in the middle passage because he believed the plotters had another source in mind.  “I am satisfied that nothing would be more desirable for these islands than just such an importation of labour as would be furnished by the confiscated negroes now in possession of the U.S. forces.” Former slaves from the Confederacy would constitute “a supply of educated and docile laborers far superior to the African and peculiarly adapted to the agricultural wants of the islands.” Benjamin swiftly instructed his commissioner in Brussels, Dudley Mann, to proceed to Copenhagen to protest to the Danish government. On Jan. 17, 1863 Benjamin was able to report to Mann “of the satisfaction of the President with the result of your mission to Denmark and to hear that there is no danger of unfriendly complications with that power.” 

When Britain and France inexplicably (in Confederate eyes) hesitated to recognize the Confederacy in late 1862, planners attributed that hesitancy to their own colonial ambitions to destroy slavery and rescue their moribund Caribbean colonies. On Oct. 4, ironically at just the time when Lords Palmerston and Russell were secretly on the verge of recognizing the Confederacy, the Richmond-based Southern Illustrated News questioned “why we are not yet recognized by Great Britain.” The desire to cement their Empire with cotton production was the answer: “This she hopes to accomplish by destroying the [cotton] culture in this country, which can only be done by destroying the labor that produces it.”

Therefore, the correspondent, John Esten Cooke, continued, “the abolition of slavery in her West Indian possessions was but the preliminary step to the abolition of slavery in this country. That she cares anything about the negro, no one can believe who is at all acquainted with her history or her policy … All her sympathy is reserved for the slave in the Southern States of the Confederacy, who cultivates the products of which she wishes to preserve a monopoly.” 

This conspiracy to replace southern cotton with imperial cotton and Confederate slaves with British quasi-slaves extended to all levels. Not only London and Paris but local administrators wished to suborn these freedmen. On Feb. 6, 1863, the Confederate commissioner in Paris, John Slidell, reported to Benjamin about a letter circulating there from Martinique that “local authorities were considering a plan for the introduction of negroes from the United States.” In Napoleon III’s cabinet, the minister of marine and colonies “had been disposed to entertain it favorably.” Slidell went to the foreign minister and added “that the same idea had been started by the authorities of some of the British West Indies colonies,” although at least the Palmerston government had “refused at least at present to entertain it.” 


On Apr. 3, 1863 Edward Cushing, in Houston, was not reassured. Citing the London Illustrated News, he argued that the Palmerston government “has been and is now and will continue to be in negotiation for the captured negroes in possession of Lincoln’s government.” Apart from the usual explanation that the British had “tried West Indies emancipation and found it a failure,” the publicist argued that the Lincoln administration pressed for this transfer to appease northern racial prejudice. African Americans had to leave due to “jealousy of northern whites to black labor competition” and they “can never become American citizens.” Cushing cited Lincoln’s support for colonization: Given that “transportation to Liberia would be an enormous expense,” the Caribbean alternative was more affordable. 

Confederate diplomats and journalists conceived of a climactic meeting between the U.S. minster in London and the British foreign secretary to agree on a policy to settle former Confederate slaves in the Caribbean. Charles Francis Adams “actively broached the idea to Earl Russell and has intimated the readiness of the United States to enter into a convention.” Only “fear of offending the Confederacy” led to the British government demurring. Cushing suspected that Russell and his colleagues were no longer sure of the merits of abolition. “Britain desires to raise cotton as cheap as the South and wrest the monopoly which climate and nature has given us.” At the same time, Cushing continued, “English statesmen, who are more interested in knowing all about this subject than any other people, have become satisfied that cheap cotton cannot be raised in any other way than by the labor of slaves.” Materialism or “cupidity” meant that despite their support of abolition, the British authorities were “willing to see our negroes change masters and then in the West Indies cotton can be produced to supply her wants.” After all, premium long staple or sea island cotton could be grown there and “large quantities of these islands lie idle, and transportation is easy.” 

The Confederate defeats at Vicksburg and Gettysburg in the summer of 1863 form the backdrop to a change in the planners’ tone. Instead of paranoia about the end of slavery, Confederates suggested that their achievement of independence would help Canada, Mexico, and the Caribbean to contain U.S. aggression. The prospect of domination by the United States, even with Confederate independence, appeared to be increasingly likely. That rising U.S. power might threaten Europe’s colonies and the Confederacy alike. 

Even before their summer setback, when U.S. General Joseph Hooker and his army of 135,000 were advancing in Virginia, Benjamin mused to Slidell about the need for a change of tack: 

Having learnt from the experience of this war the perils to which we will be exposed by the excessive eagerness of the U.S. Govt. to extend its territorial possessions, we cannot fail to foresee attempts of that power to seek elsewhere for acquisitions which it has failed to wrest from us. 



The Confederacy would therefore be a useful ally to constrain Union power, especially as complaints from American politicians about France in Mexico had increased that summer after the arrival of French troops in Mexico City and with it a revival of rhetoric about the Monroe Doctrine. In that threatening situation for Britain and Spain as well as France, European powers should welcome “an alliance [with] a people whose proximity to those colonies would render practicable the promptest assistance in a sudden emergency, while its ability to render such assistance has been amply proven during the pending struggle.” Confederate veterans might be useful both in defending from Union attack and suppressing servile insurrection. 

From 1863 and especially in 1864, Confederate planners tried to rationalize European inaction as less about slavery and more about the balance of power. Lucius Lamar, a close friend of President Davis and his nominee to be commissioner at St. Petersburg, was much more familiar with history and international relations than earlier generations of Confederate diplomats had been. Lamar gave an assessment of the Concert of Europe to Benjamin during his outbound journey. “The nations of Europe constitute a federative league, a commonwealth of nations … so intimate and elaborate as to subject the action [of one power] to surveillance and intervention on the part of all the others …” As a result, “action in reference to foreign matters is constantly liable to constant modification.” He concluded that Palmerston “is far more deeply engrossed with the … jealousies and rivalries between the leading powers of Europe than with the fate of constitutional government in America.” What Confederates needed to do was to extend this system across the Atlantic and connect the Civil War with what looked to be an imminent great power conflict in Europe stemming from Bismarck’s schemes, first over the Polish uprising in 1863 and then, especially, concerning the fate of the then Danish provinces of Schleswig-Holstein in 1864. 


The Confederate gambit to draw European alliances, intrigue, and diplomacy into the western hemisphere was an emphatic repudiation of the north’s Monroe Doctrine. The influential superintendent of schools in North Carolina, Calvin Henderson Wiley, paved the way in 1863 with a moral condemnation. Before the war, he thundered, “we shared in the abomination that it was the manifest destiny of this one power to swallow the continent [and] that Europe had no right to interfere in any way in the internal affairs of the new world.” This policy was not only a “delusive hope,” it was also “an unholy lust for universal control.” He added: “We must therefore repudiate the doctrine of one dominion for America.” A balance of power would be more suitable since “now the Confederate States[,] when in the infancy of their existence and without a navy[,] belongs temporarily to the weaker powers.” While they did not put their nation in the same category as, for example, Belgium, that kingdom did confront a uniquely powerful and aggressive neighbour. 

A triple entente between Britain, France, and the Confederacy could unite to contain an expansionist United States. In Jan. 1864, Benjamin asked General William Preston, the newly appointed Confederate minister plenipotentiary and envoy extraordinary to Mexico (chosen because he had been U.S. minister to Madrid before the war) to communicate to the Mexican Regents that the federals’ “purpose is, if successful in their designs on us, to extend their conquests to the annexation of Canada to the North and Mexico to the South.” Envoys needed to bluntly tell the British, French, and Mexicans that “The Confederacy is alone in this fight, but she does not fight alone,” as Henry Hotze, commercial agent and propagandist in London wrote in the Index on Mar. 24, 1864 because “her independence will secure the independence of Mexico and the peace of Canada.”


"Confederates looked forward to federating with others in ‘a vast opulent happy and glorious slave-holding republic throughout tropical America’." 


The Confederacy, he added, had “barred them against one opening to conquest and aggrandizement.” However, the slave-republic’s resources were “not sufficient” to protect Canada as well: hence the need for British involvement. The defensive Confederate strategy would draw the two powers closer together. Additionally, French policy in Mexico converged with the goals of Confederates and Canadians with “the erection of a stable government by the armies of France,” which had “placed the third power on the northern continent of North America to assert there the existence of public law and national equality.” 

The Confederate propagandist in London presented the vision of a multipolar continent, securing the future of slavery. The Government “fights to found a balance of power that will make America free and prosperous and a source of wealth and security.” The new geopolitical map would not only avert U.S. dominance, but enable Europe to focus on economic development at home and grow markets abroad. Looking toward the breakup of the rump U.S., Hotze believed that “there may well be sufficient room on the American continent for at least six … nations — all prosperous, peaceful and content; all of them strong enough to hold their own and none of them powerful enough to have any temptation to bully their neighbors.” The relations between the countries would not be scarred by rival nationalisms. At the same time, he concealed from his British readers that if all went according to plan,  effective hemispheric leadership would devolve upon the Confederacy as the strongest power on the continent. Hotze’s vision for North America corresponded with what his colleagues and superiors were working towards back in Richmond and presented what they believed to be the most advanced state of international relations, an example for Europeans to follow.

Confederates fully embraced this “realist” posture by the summer of 1864, as independence appeared tantalizingly near with a collapse in northern support for the war. Canada became increasingly important to Confederate planners as a place of refuge for would-be midwestern secessionists seeking to establish one of the envisioned six nations, a midwestern confederacy based on the states of Illinois, Indiana, and Ohio. California was also on the verge of secession and would become the basis of a Pacific Ocean confederacy. Lincoln, even if he prevailed in a contested Republican Party convention to be renominated for president, still faced all but certain defeat at the polls in November. 


All of these plans, especially the Democrats’ success in the elections, rested on one thing: the ability of Confederate armies to hold off Union forces in Georgia and Virginia for long enough. In that crucial summer of 1864, waiting in Havana for his credentials to be accepted by the new Mexican emperor, William Preston reflected on the much wider stakes of the war that appeared so unmistakable then. Not only did Confederate independence and the future of slavery depend on General Lee’s resistance, but also the Spanish retention of Cuba together with the survival of Emperor Maximilian’s shaky regime in Mexico. Furthermore, only the Confederate armies stood in the way of Union aggression in Canada and the Caribbean. Meanwhile the prospect of a European war over Denmark held out a chance for the Confederacy to range itself on the side of the status quo powers of Britain, France and Austria against the aggression of Prussia, Russia, and Washington. 

THE FALL OF Atlanta in September and Lincoln’s re-election two months later ended these hopes for a multipolar America with its continental balance of power. Nevertheless, even after Nov. 1864, Confederate planners did not let go the illusion that they still had some control over their future. The meaning of independence would have to be qualified now that the Union’s bid for universal empire seemed at the point of realization. The best means to secure slavery and a prosperous future would be by alliance with the northern colossus.

Indeed, to promote that very aggression and expansion that Wiley had shortly before deplored, Confederate planners hoped for a future U.S. administration focused on expansion, conquest, empire, and revenge abroad. Such a government would have little time to meddle in the domestic affairs of Confederate States, even if the latter had to join some form of customs area or even a loose reunion. To the very end of the war, Confederates made offers of pacts and alliances and offered wholehearted support — including a military expedition with perhaps Davis as commander — for any project to now forcibly implement the Monroe Doctrine and expel the entire European presence from the western hemisphere. In these final plans, the Mexican Empire, British North America, Spanish Cuba, and the colonies in the West Indies — one-time allies of the Confederacy — would all be expunged from the continent. 

A few dissident voices protested that if Confederates ended up as conscripts in this great new revolutionary war for the fate of the continent, they would be fighting alongside African American soldiers. Did this vision of the future not threaten to culminate precisely in the kind of Haiti-style uprising, race war, and bloodbath which they had seceded to prevent in the first place? 

In any case, with the end of the war, the imposition of Reconstruction, and its failure, the former Confederate states took a different path.

Adrian Brettle lectures at Arizona State University and is the author of Colossal Ambitions: Confederate Planning for a Post-Civil War World (University of Virginia Press, 2020). He has a BA and MA from Cambridge and a doctorate from the University of Virginia. “Southern Ambitions,” an exhibit based on his dissertation, is currently on view at American Civil War Museum in Richmond, Virginia. This article first appeared in the Spring-Summer 2021 print edition of The Dorchester Review.

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