Matthew Osborn: How Egypt won the American Civil War


With the one-year anniversary of the Egyptian uprising having recently passed, fresh protests are in store as many Egyptians continue to protest the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces-run government. Violence marred the first round of elections and, as the results became known, the major victory of Islamist parties became apparent. While this may be a source of concern for some Americans, it is also important to remember that Egypt is a reason why the United States managed to survive its own period of civil strife.

One week after Confederate (Southern) forces attacked the Union (Northern)-held Fort Sumter in South Carolina, in 1861, President Abraham Lincoln ordered a blockade of the South in order to cut off supplies from entering or leaving Southern ports. The blockade, however, resulted in mass shortages of cotton in Europe’s economy, as the Confederate states had been their chief suppliers. In less than a year’s time, Southern cotton exports would plummet by more than 50 percent and the European superpowers needed to quickly find a new source. It was then that the Ottoman Governor of Egypt, Said Pasha (who supported the Union and would follow the Ottoman policy of barring Confederate ships from Ottoman waters), saw an opportunity and ordered that his vast holdings of land in the Lower Nile be turned towards the production of cotton. Washington, delighted by the prospect, went so far as to send an official to Egypt to urge Said Pasha to produce even more cotton. Egypt, which previously accounted for only 3 percent of cotton exports to Europe, saw its profits boom from $7 million to $77 million in just four years. With Egyptian cotton flooding the European market, the demand for Southern cotton disappeared, as did European support for the Confederacy that was based, in part, on a need for the South’s cotton. This, in turn, crippled the Southern wartime economy that relied heavily on a demand for cotton, thus hastening the end of the war.

While the production of cotton was an indirect way for Egypt to aid the Union, the Egyptian government would take a more direct approach in 1865. In fact, one could make the point that the war truly ended in Egypt.

Following the assassination of President Lincoln on April 14, 1865, by John Wilkes Booth, a national manhunt began for the assassin and his co-conspirators. Of the conspirators, all would be captured within months save for one, John Surratt, Jr., who evaded U.S authorities and fled to Canada. Determined to leave North America, he sought to get as far away from the U.S. as possible and planned to escape to Egypt. He then passed through Europe with the intent of taking a ship to Alexandria. However, the American Consul General in Alexandria, Charles Hale, was tipped off to Surratt’s plan and was given a description of Surratt by his co-conspirators. When the ship finally arrived in Alexandria, Egyptian authorities quarantined Surratt and his fellow passengers while Hale searched. Surratt was caught on November 11, 1865, and was sent back to the U.S. for trial. Following Surratt’s deportation, the U.S. praised the “considerate and friendly disposition” of the Egyptians. In fact, a grateful U.S. government would then present a portrait of Lincoln to the Egyptian government for its role in capturing Surratt. With the trial of the final conspirator, the US was able to finish the last outstanding episode of the Civil War era thanks to the cooperation of the Egyptians.

One could make the case that the Union might not have survived if it weren’t for Egypt. With its mass production of cotton, Egypt ensured that the European powers would not intervene in the American Civil War on the basis of an economic good. Also, the Egyptian government’s aid in ensuring that Surratt would not get through customs before Hale could apprehend him put to rest the hunt for Lincoln’s assassins.

Today, the tables have turned, as Egypt is the country that is crippled by internal conflict and we are the ones in a position of strength. Given that Egypt aided the U.S. when we needed help, Americans would do well not to overlook the plight of Egyptians today

(Matthew Osborn is an intern in Al Arabiya’s Washington bureau. He can be reached at [email protected].)