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'King Cotton' topic of Civil War roundtable

| Saturday, Nov. 3, 2012, 9:29 p.m.
Zac Cowsert was California University of Pennsylvania’s Civil War Roundtable's featured speaker Thursday.
Zac Cowsert was California University of Pennsylvania’s Civil War Roundtable's featured speaker Thursday.

Perhaps it was separation anxiety coupled with a slight case of homesickness, or perhaps simply a matter of “now it's time,” but Zac Cowsert, California University of Pennsylvania's Civil War Roundtable featured speaker Thursday, referred to it as “like having an itch that (he) needed to scratch.”

During his five-month stay in Denmark during his junior year at Centenary College of Louisiana, Cowsert, 22, a lifelong Civil War enthusiast who referred to his long-standing interest in the conflict as a hobby, said, “Being in Europe got me thinking. I was jonesing for the Civil War.”

Whatever the reason, Cowsert, currently a graduate student at West Virginia University, focusing on 19th-century United States history, including obviously the Civil War, but with a broader focus, was looking for connections, especially direct connections between Europe and the United States during the Civil War. He had been writing a paper on Union foreign policy with Great Britain but, in one of those “eureka” moments, realized that his paper took him to Confederate foreign policy, which was not surprising, considering the complexities involved with examining the four-year-long conflict.

“My interest in this topic emerged from there,” he said, “the issue of American – Union and Confederate — foreign policy with both Great Britain and France.”

Reading about and studying the Civil War, and visiting battlefields all his life, led to a degree in history and political science and summer employment as a seasonal historian for Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park in Fredericksburg, Va. Cowsert will visit the California University campus to present his topic, “King Cotton Failed: Confederate Foreign Policy with Great Britain.”

“Lifeblood of the Southern economy, the Confederacy relied on King Cotton, to help leverage independence,” Cowsert explained. “Confident of recognition by the British government, the Confederacy crafted a presumptuous and arrogant foreign policy that actually lessened the likelihood of British intervention on the South's behalf.”

Cowsert explained that it is simply natural, from Civil War devotees to those with even a mild interest in the war, to naturally associate cotton with the South and the Confederacy. As the South produced tons and tons of cotton, he understated intentionally, demand for the product was high in Great Britain, as long as one considers 80 percent of Britain's cotton supply coming from the South. That same demand was evident worldwide.

In drastic need of weapons, ammunitions, shoes and manufactured supplies of all kinds, the South, prior to becoming the Confederacy, had been trading its valuable product for those supplies. This led the Confederate administration of Jefferson Davis to devise a strategy of a self-imposed embargo of American – Southern — cotton, a plan designed to cause economic disaster abroad and force Britain to both recognize the South and intervene in the war on the South's behalf. Davis and the Confederacy assumed that Britain would intervene in the Civil War on behalf of the South in exchange for our cotton.

But, Cowsert added, chuckling, “Britain was angry at this point. ‘Who does the South think she is?' was Britain's attitude.”

Instead of exporting cotton, for several years Southerners burned a portion of their crop, denying European textile manufacturers the cotton they needed during the early years of the war. That policy ended in 1863-64. However, by that time the Northern blockade was proving effective; Adding fuel to the fire of Civil War historians and amateur strategists was the Union's attempt to establish a blockade of Southern ports and cut off Southern foreign trade. However, the Union Navy early in the war amounted to around 40 warships, Cowsert noted, and any attempt by the Union to control the extensive Southern coastline was not effective and would not prove effective until 1863. But because of the Confederacy's self-imposed embargo, the early blockade appeared more successful that it actually was.

“Ultimately the Confederacy realized its mistake,” Cowsert emphasized. “The one major resource the South had they mismanaged. Lacking access to Confederate cotton led to a sizeable economic crisis in Britain (and France), resulting in many jobs lost throughout the textile industry. Had the South exported its cotton to overseas markets, the Confederate states would have been better off early in the conflict.”

In the unintended consequences category, this strategy adversely affected the relationship between Britain and the Confederacy. Britain came close to intervening in the Civil War late in 1862, proposing stepping in and having the Union and Confederacy resolve their differences by becoming two independent nations.

But following the Union victory at the Battle of Antietam, any British plans of intervening ended, Cowsert noted.

Adding another thread, pun intended, to the millions of threads intertwining every aspect of the Civil War, Cowsert will count himself among published authors this fall when North Louisiana History Magazine will publish what he says is a polished version of his thesis about Confederate Major Gen. Prince Camille Polignac, who hailed from France. Polignac's official title was ‘Prince' and he was the only foreigner to attain the rank of major general in the Confederate army.

Cowsert used Polignac's wartime diary to explain his experiences. His family was related to French queen Marie Antoinette, thus he boasted of an aristocratic bloodline, but he was an accomplished and competent general, as well.

“Finding and researching that aspect – about Polignac's background and role in the Civil War - added to the foreign policy link I was searching for,” Cowsert said.

But not only has Cowsert been successful with the discovery of Polignac's role in the conflict, he is also in the early throes of investigating the role played by a great uncle — Cowsert, laughing, said he is unsure about how many “greats” would be needed to explain their relationship — George Washington Cowsert, a sergeant in 6th Illinois Cavalry.

“But with a name like that, he had to be important,” Cowsert said, chuckling.

As the United States celebrates and honors the memory of the sesquicentennial of the Civil War, on Nov. 8, 1862, from the Civil War Interactive Blue Gray Daily website, “US Gen. Benjamin Butler had the unenviable job of administering the occupied city of New Orleans, where he had employed some creative, if unorthodox, methods to induce the population to comply with Union orders…including padlocking some newspapers, and confiscating others to produce more Union-oriented journalism…The last straw, though, was an order closing all breweries and distilleries in the town. He was sacked and replaced with Gen. Nathaniel Banks, who was told to worry about the campaign to reopen the Mississippi River, not the liquor market.”

Cowsert, incidentally, will address Civil War enthusiasts in the Kara Alumni House on the California University campus from 7 to 9 p.m. Thursday. Doors will open at 6:30 p.m. For additional information, email or call 412-417-1516.

Les Harvath is a freelance writer.

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