At the height of Southern success in September 1862, French banker Emile Erlanger suggested a $25 million loan to the Confederacy through John Slidell, Confederate commissioner in Paris. Erlanger would raise the money in gold, in exchange for Confederate bonds at eight percent interest. For every dollar received the Confederate government would pledge its only source of wealth – cotton. Erlanger and his investors envisioned themselves upon Confederate victory the owners of $10 million worth of cotton, acquired for only one-fifth that amount.
Bernhard Thuersam, Circa1865.com
French Bankers Fleece the Confederacy
“Cotton on Southern plantations or in Southern warehouses hardly possessed the value that inhered in the same material deposited in Europe – that fact was recognized; yet the proffered security was very real and, at a sufficiently low price, might tempt adventurous foreigners. On this basis arose the so-called cotton bonds.
The plan was simply one to borrow money, giving as mortgage cotton lying un-transported in Southern States, owned by the Confederate Government. The plan met with indifferent success. Still, this distant cotton, — distant, that is, in European eyes, — even though it found little favor with conservative investors, presently made a strong appeal to the speculator.
A combination of events in the fall and winter of 1862-1863 gave zest to this gambling instinct. The first of these was the high price of cotton in Europe and the comparatively low price in the Confederacy. Textile areas in in Lancashire and in the northern region of France had reached an appalling depth of unemployment and misery, and millions of English workers were . . . in a state of impending or actual starvation.
The “famine” had forced cotton up to fifty cents a pound, or $200 a bale in the European market. Yet in the Southern States this same product was offered at ten or twelve cents a pound. Such possible profits would obviously justify great risks.
One preeminent fact, in the winter of 1862-1863 . . . Europe confidently believed that the war was approaching its end. The military events of 1862 . . . soon turned the balance in favor of the South. The collapse of McClellan’s Peninsular campaign, the second battle of [Manassas], and the tragedy of Fredericksburg indicated to the average Englishman and Frenchman a quick Confederate victory.
Lord Palmerston openly joked about the discomfiture of the Yankees; Gladstone made his famous speech, declaring Jefferson Davis had “created a nation”; and now, for the first and, as it proved, the only time, Great Britain seemed to be planning to recognize the Davis Government.
At this crisis – 1862 and the early part of 1863 – the Confederacy stood at its peak. If money was to be made in cotton speculation, the time to act had come. If the Union, as English observers said, was as dead as the Anglo-Saxon Heptarchy, its end would bring to the lucky holders of cotton a great increase in wealth. The eyes of European speculators dazzled at the prospect.
Out of this combination of circumstances – Federal defeats, the impending recognition of the Confederacy by Great Britain and France, the anticipated early end to the war, the low price of cotton in the South, and its extremely high price in Europe – came into being the celebrated Erlander loan. For the important fact to be kept in mind is that this was not a loan, as such governmental transactions are usually understood, but a huge speculation in cotton.”
(French Bankers Fleece the Confederacy; Statesmen of the Lost Cause: Jefferson Davis and His Cabinet, Burton J. Hendrick, Literary Guild of America, Inc., 1939, excerpts, pp. 217-219)