While Seward was meeting regularly with diplomats in Washington and, after Lincoln's inauguration on 4 March 1861, sending elaborate instructions to American ministers abroad, Confederate leaders—confident that foreign support would be forthcoming with little or no effort on their part—had a casual attitude toward foreign affairs. Thus, Jefferson Davis chose Robert Toombs of Georgia as his first secretary of state, despite the fact that Toombs had no experience and little interest in foreign affairs. After six months Toombs resigned to become a general in the Confederate army. Davis then replaced Toombs with Robert M. T. Hunter of Virginia, who also lacked experience and had previously declined appointment as secretary of state when it was offered by Franklin Pierce and James Buchanan. Hunter remained in office only seven months. Finally, on 17 March 1862, Davis appointed his close personal friend, former attorney general, and current secretary of war Judah P. Benjamin of Louisiana to the post. Benjamin, who had had limited experience dealing with international legal disputes regarding slavery, served ably until the end of the Confederacy. Neither Davis nor any of these secretaries of state, however, ever attempted to develop a cohesive or imaginative foreign policy program.
Confederate officials did not develop a foreign policy program chiefly because they were confident they did not need one. Committed to the notion that "cotton is king," they were certain that Britain, France, and the other industrial nations of Europe could not tolerate a destructive civil war in the United States that would weaken or destroy the cotton culture. Neither, Confederates believed, would Europeans tolerate interference in their North American commerce. Furthermore, for decades Southerners had demanded free trade and had resisted the high, protective tariffs favored by Northern manufacturing interests. Confederates reasoned that the prospect of free trade with the Confederacy would also win British approval and ensure support. And surrounding these economic considerations, Confederate leaders were certain that the European elite felt a special affinity to the planter class. All that was needed, therefore, was to explain why the Southern states had seceded, to convince European governments that the Confederacy had an effective government, and to assure European governments that the Confederates were determined to preserve their independence.
On 25 February 1861, Davis and Toombs dispatched A.B. Roman, Martin J. Crawford, and John Forsyth to Washington to negotiate a peaceful separation and the evacuation of all federal property in the Confederacy. Two days later, Toombs sent William Lowndes Yancey, Pierre A. Rost, and Ambrose Dudley Mann to Europe to secure de jure recognition of the Confederate States of America and treaties of amity and commerce. No thought was given to establishing permanent missions in Washington or any European capital.
Not surprisingly, Roman, Forsyth, and Crawford—who arrived in Washington in early March—had no success there. Seward refused to meet with the commissioners or to arrange a meeting with Lincoln, which they had requested. Unwilling, however, to antagonize the agents, Seward maintained contact through a third party. He assured the Confederates that the Union would not attempt to coerce the seceded states into returning to the Union and still hoped that a peaceful reunion was possible. On 8 April, after a month of waiting impatiently and distrusting Seward's assurance of Lincoln's commitment to the maintenance of peace, Crawford informed Davis of rumors that Lincoln was committed to war. A few days later the three Confederates returned home.
The Confederate mission to Europe began with considerably more promise than the mission to Washington. Russell and French foreign minister Edouard Thouvenel both received Yancey, Rost, and Mann unofficially, as was common practice in dealing with nonaccredited agents. Toombs had instructed the Confederate agents to visit Britain first, and then continue on to France, Russia, and Belgium. They were to explain that the secession of Southern states was provided for by the U.S. Constitution, and was necessary to prevent Northern social, political, and economic domination of the Southern states. Toombs had instructed the commissioners to avoid mention of slavery and emphasize the economic benefits to Europe of an independent Confederacy.
Meeting with the British and French foreign ministers was all that the commissioners accomplished. Russell expressed sympathy for the Confederacy but refused either to discuss treaty negotiations or to grant de jure recognition without a treaty. The British neutrality proclamation was already forthcoming when he spoke with the Confederate commissioners on May 3 and May 9. Russell had also reached an agreement with France that the two nations would act jointly on American affairs and instructed his minister in Washington, Lord Lyons, to coordinate policy and work closely with his French counterpart, Henri Mercier. In France, Thouvenel also expressed sympathy for the Confederacy but would go no further than Britain.
Britain's proclamation of neutrality did not address the question of whether the Union blockade was effective and therefore legal. Confederate agents understood that access to Southern ports was essential for the import of war material legitimized by belligerent status, and that the ability of the small Union navy to blockade all Southern ports and the extensive Southern coast was implausible at the least. Britain was divided on the issue. Commercial interests, legal purists, Southern sympathizers, and Confederate propagandists insisted the blockade was ineffective and demanded that Britain, with its powerful navy, confront the United States; the Admiralty and several in the government, however, understood that a loose interpretation of effectiveness could be most useful to the British navy sometime in the future.
The consequence of this division was that Russell never challenged the legality of the Union blockade, which became more effective as the war continued. Initially, the appearance of effectiveness was inadvertently enhanced by the decision of Southerners to impose a voluntary cotton embargo of their own. The Confederates reasoned that the sooner Britain and France felt the effects of the loss of fresh supplies of cotton, the more rapidly the former would demand the end of the Union blockade and come to the aid of the South. Southerners stated that no cotton would leave the Confederacy until the Northern blockade ended and Europe provided recognition and support. Their policy created the illusion that the blockade was more effective than it was, which Union agents and propagandists abroad used to their advantage; it also opened the Confederacy to charges of blackmail and hypocrisy.
Yancey, Rost, and Mann, having failed to secure de jure recognition from either Britain or France, saw no reason to continue their mission on to Russia and Belgium. They returned to Britain and began an intensive propaganda campaign in association with a number of other Southerners whose goal was to strengthen and expand support for the Confederacy among sympathetic members of Parliament and the upper classes, journalists, and conservatives generally. Yancey was confident that the upper classes and those in power in both Britain and France supported the Confederacy, but he understood that positive sentiment was not enough. Only a decisive Confederate military victory and a deprivation of fresh cotton would move both nations to act.