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Trading with the Enemy: Cotton Permits, Smuggling, and Speculation in the Civil War

Dublin Core


Trading with the Enemy: Cotton Permits, Smuggling, and Speculation in the Civil War


Throughout the Civil War, President Lincoln and his administration were vexed by the issue of cotton. An essential raw material for industrial enterprise, cotton (and its sudden scarcity) threatened the Union war effort. The letters, newspaper articles, and government records in this collection reveal an administration grappling with the simultaneous need to starve the Confederacy of resources and increase the available supply of cotton. The ultimate solution, a "cotton permit" system, was vulnerable to cronyism and abuse, leading Congress to declare that "it is believed to have led to the prolongation of the war, and to have cost the country thousands of lives and millions upon million in treasure."


Alison Burke and Phyllis Plitch



Collection Items

Cotton Report [With Endorsement by Lincoln], February 16, 1863
In this report from 1863, an unknown advisor wrote to Lincoln outlining the benefits of continuing to trade for cotton, as well as precautions that would minimize the risk to the war effort. Lincoln endorsed the back of the report as "A. cotten…

Are We to Recognize the Southern Confederacy
Newspaper editorial published in the Liverpool Mercury raising the specter of potentially siding with the Confederacy if the Union didn't end its war with the South.

Cotton vs. Currency
Editorial written in 1864 by Edward Atkinson, a cotton mill executive and abolition activist. He argued that the current cotton trading system is inefficient and rife with corruption. Since it did not prevent money and goods from getting back to the…

Relief for Starving Thousands
In this leaflet, Pennsylvania philanthropists solicited charitable donations for unemployed British textile workers. The sudden decline in the cotton supply created by the Civil War led to widespread reports of "actual or impending starvation" in…

Cotton Permit for Fergus Peniston
This permit authorized Fergus Peniston, a Louisiana cotton merchant, to transport and sell the cotton he possesses. In order to obtain this permit, Peniston wrote several petitions to Lincoln and enlisted friends of the administration to write on his…

Curtis' Cotton Crimes. The Cotton Speculations as Developed in the Trials before General McDowell
The Crisis, an Ohio newspaper sympathetic to the Confederacy, published this editorial excoriating Major General Curtis for using his authority to confiscate and sell cotton. The editorial is followed by a transcript of Major General Steele's…

Letter from Abraham Lincoln to William Kellogg, Monday, June 29, 1863 (Cotton permit for Amos Babcock)
Abraham Lincoln to William Kellogg, rejecting his attempts to secure a cotton permit for former Illinois legislator, Amos Babcock. Lincoln scolded Kellogg for his single-minded pursuit of a permit and observed the corruption already associated with…

Excerpts from Washburne’s Report on Trade with the Rebellious States
38th Congress Committee on Commerce Investigative Report to accompany Bill H. R. No. 805; Investigating Trade with Confederate States.

South Carolina Senator James Henry Hammond "Cotton is King" speech on floor of Senate
Excerpts from a speech delivered in the senate before the civil war, South Carolina senator James Henry Hammond warned of dire consequences if the south was unable to deliver cotton to the world.

Samuel R. Curtis to Richard McAllister, Wednesday, July 01, 1863
Major General Samuel Curtis flatly denied any speculation, profiteering, or abuse of power in his letter to Commissary of Subsistence Richard McAllister. Curtis attributes the charges to "an infernal conspiracy" and is adamant that he never sold any…
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