France and the Confederate Navy

Author: John Slidell  | Date: 1888

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Interview with Napoleon Third (1863)


ON Wednesday I received from the Duke de Bassano, First Chamberlain, a note informing me that the emperor would receive me at the Tuileries on the following day at ten o’clock. The emperor received me with great cordiality. He said that he had read the memorandum presented to him by the Count de Persigny . . . that he was more fully convinced than ever of the propriety of the general recognition by the European powers of the Confederate States, but that the commerce of France and the success of the Mexican expedition would be jeopardized by a rupture with the United States; that no other power than England possessed a sufficient navy to give him efficient aid in war on the ocean, an event which, indeed, could not be anticipated, if England would co-operate with him in recognition.

I replied that I was well satisfied that recognition by France and other Continental powers, or even by France alone, would not lead to a war with the United States, as they already found ample occupation for all their energies at home; that he could count on the co-operation of Spain, Austria, Prussia, Belgium, Holland, Sweden, and Denmark. He remarked that none of those powers possessed a navy of any consequence. I suggested that Spain had a very respectable navy and was daily increasing it. I adverted to the instructions in your despatch No. 16, of the 9th of May, and that I was authorized to give the adhesion of my government to the tripartite treaty for the guarantee of Cuba to Spain; and I thought it was probable that such an adhesion might induce Spain, if assured in advance of the concurrence of France, to take the initiative of our recognition. Would the emperor be willing to give such an assurance? He said he would. I asked, will the emperor authorize me to say so to the Spanish Ambassador, Mr. Isturitz, to whom I had already communicated the substance of my instructions. He replied that he was willing that I should do so. . . .

. . . He, however, after a little reflection, added, "I think that I can do something better; make a direct proposition to England for joint recognition. This will effectually prevent Lord Palmerston from misrepresenting my position and wishes on the American question." He said, "I shall bring the question before the cabinet meeting to-day. . . ."

I then said it may, perhaps, be an indiscretion to ask whether your majesty prefers to see the Whigs or Tories in power in England, and he said, "I rather prefer the Whigs." I remarked that Lord Malmesbury would under a conservative administration probably be the Secretary for Foreign Affairs, and that I had always understood that intimate relations existed between the emperor and him. He said, "That is true; personally we are excellent friends, but personal relations have very little influence in great affairs where party interests are involved." He playfully remarked, "The Tories are very good friends of mine when in a minority, but their tone changes very much when they get into power."

He then spoke of the different spirit in which the news of the fall of Puebla had been received North and South; that the Northern papers showed their disappointment and hostility, while Richmond had been illuminated on the occasion. This is reported by the newspapers. I, of course, did not express any doubt of the fact, although I considered it somewhat apocryphal. I said that there could be no doubt of the bitterness of the Northern people at the success of his arms in Mexico, while all our sympathies were with France, and urged the importance of securing the lasting gratitude and attachment of a people already so well disposed; that there could be no doubt that our Confederacy was to be the strongest power of the American continent, and that our alliance was worth cultivating. He said that he was quite convinced of the fact, and spoke with great admiration of the bravery of our troops, the skill of our generals, and the devotion of our people. He expressed his regret at the death of Stonewall Jackson, whom he considered as one of the most remarkable men of the age.

I expressed my thanks to him for his sanction of the contracts made for the building of four ships-of-war at Bordeaux and Nantes. I then informed him that we were prepared to build several iron-clad ships-of-war, and that it only required his verbal assurance that they would be allowed to proceed to sea under the Confederate flag to enter into contracts for that purpose. He said that we might build the ships, but it would be necessary that their destination should be concealed. I replied that the permission to build, equip, and proceed to sea would be no violation of neutrality, and invoked the precedent of a ship built for the Chilian government under the circumstances mentioned in my despatch No. 32, of April 20. The emperor remarked that there was a distinction to be drawn between that case and what I desired to do. Chili was a government recognized by France.

The conversation then closed. The audience was shorter than the two previous occasions of my seeing the emperor. It lasted half an hour, but I did not think it discreet again to go over the ground covered by my note, and the points discussed in the former interviews, although they were occasionally brought into the conversation. . . .

John Bigelow, (London, 1888), 135–138 passim.

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Chicago: John Slidell, France and the Confederate Navy, ed. John Bigelow in American History Told by Contemporaries, ed. Albert Bushnell Hart (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1903), Original Sources, accessed May 23, 2022,

MLA: Slidell, John. France and the Confederate Navy, edited by John Bigelow, in American History Told by Contemporaries, edited by Albert Bushnell Hart, Vol. 4, New York, The Macmillan Company, 1903, Original Sources. 23 May. 2022.

Harvard: Slidell, J, France and the Confederate Navy, ed. . cited in 1903, American History Told by Contemporaries, ed. , The Macmillan Company, New York. Original Sources, retrieved 23 May 2022, from