A world war on American soil: How the Civil War became a global struggle

When the Union and the Confederacy charged into battle in 1861, the whole world was watching — and waiting

Published January 4, 2015 3:00PM (EST)

A detail from "Battle of Spottsylvania" by Thure de Thulstrup     (Wikimedia)
A detail from "Battle of Spottsylvania" by Thure de Thulstrup (Wikimedia)

Excerpted from “The Cause of All Nations: An International History of the American Civil War”

"So it seems your Republic is going to pieces?” an unnamed high officer of the French imperial government snidely remarked to the American guest attending a concert at Emperor Napoleon III’s residence in the Tuileries Palace. It was early March 1861, and the news coming over by steamship that winter all pointed toward the rupture of la Grande République. “Oh, no, I hope not yet,” the flustered American answered. “Yes, but it will,” the French official replied. “No Republic ever stood so long, and never will. Self-government is a Utopia, Sir; you must have a strong Government as the only condition of a long existence.”

Four years later in April 1865, thousands of students gathered in Paris’s Latin Quarter in defiance of government bans on political demonstrations. They planned to march en masse past the Tuileries Palace and out the Champs-Élysées to the home of John Bigelow, the US minister to France. “Malakoff,” nom de plume of Dr. William E. Johnston, the New York Times correspondent in Paris, described what happened next. Gendarmes poured out of the police station near Pont St. Michel, unsheathed their swords, broke up the crowd, and arrested several students. Some managed to get away and make their way through the back streets of Paris toward Bigelow’s house. It was nearly three miles away, and they arrived “tired, heated, excited, and covered with dust,” only to find a line of police barricading the front door.

Emboldened by their own defiance, the students broke through the cordon of police and were admitted into the home of the astonished American ambassador. one of the young men stepped forward, pulled a paper from his pocket, and read an address expressing profound sorrow for the death of Abraham Lincoln and undying solidarity with the American republic. In his best French, Bigelow graciously thanked the students, who burst into cheers: Vive Lincoln! Vive la Grande République américaine!

During the previous four years, no one had worked harder than John Bigelow to cultivate exactly the kind of sympathy these young men evinced, but he was astonished by their daring demonstration. “I had no idea that Mr. Lincoln had such a hold upon the heart of the young gentlemen of France,” he wrote Secretary of State William Seward later that night.

Not long after the students left, a deputation of opposition republicans and liberals arrived in front of Bigelow’s home. As Malakoff reported, more than two dozen police rushed forward to stop them and then, seeing who descended from the carriages, stood back. Like the students, the liberal politicians had decided to convert an occasion of bereavement into a political demonstration of solidarity with their friends in America.

“You cannot see, because it is your every day life,” Malakoff told American readers, “the magnitude of the events through which you are passing in the light of their influence on the rest of the world.” Those who took cruel delight in predicting the breakup of America, he mused, “are naturally vexed to find that the republic is the strong government, and the monarchy the weak one.” Far from proving the inherent frailty and failure of the democratic experiment, four years of ferocious rebellion, devastating internecine war, and even assassination left the world with an unexpected lesson in the resilience of self-government.

These two Parisian vignettes at the beginning and end of America’s Civil War illustrate much of what this book is about. The smug satisfaction of aristocratic governing classes who thought they were witnessing the demise of the democratic experiment was answered four years later by a resurgence of hope and defiant spirit among its adherents everywhere.

While the war was being fought on the battlefields of Bull Run, Antietam, and Gettysburg, another contest was waged overseas. The Confederacy sought international recognition and alliances to secure independence, and the Union was determined not to let that happen. “No battle, not Gettysburg, not the Wilderness,” one historian claimed, “was more important than the contest waged in the diplomatic arena and the forum of public opinion.” The history of Civil War diplomacy—that is, the formal negotiations among governments and the strategies surrounding them—has been told and told well. This book turns to the less familiar forum of public opinion, which was filled with clamorous debate for four years. It took place in print (in newspapers, pamphlets, and books) as well as oratory (in meeting halls, pubs, lodges, union halls, and parliaments). Wherever free speech was stifled, as it was in France, the debate continued over private dinner tables and at cafés. Whatever one’s views, there was general agreement that the American question mattered greatly to the world and to the future.

The term public diplomacy did not come into common usage until World War I, but America’s Civil War witnessed what were arguably the first deliberate, sustained, state-sponsored programs aimed at influencing the public mind abroad. Diplomats for the North and South understood the enormous power the press had gained, thanks to vast improvements in print technology and the expansion of literacy, which made cheap publications and mass-audience journalism possible. They also grasped the key role that journalists, intellectuals, reformers, dissident political leaders, and other opinion leaders had in influencing popular sentiment. Not since Benjamin Franklin’s residence there, US diplomat Henry Sanford wrote to Secretary of State William Seward from Paris in August 1861, had there been such an occasion for attention to cultivating public favor abroad. “We ought to spend money freely in the great centers in forming public opinion.”

The Union and Confederacy each hired special agents, who usually operated under cover of some kind. They were typically veteran journalists and political operators whose job it was, as one of them deftly put it, to give “a right direction to public sentiment” and correct “erroneous” reports that favored the other side. Some bribed editors and hired journalists, while others published their own pamphlets, books, and even newspapers. Few were above planting rumors or circulating damaging stories, and some of what they produced can only be described as propaganda and misinformation. But that was only part of the story of what was more often a sophisticated appeal to ideology and values.

Union and Confederate agents alike complained to their home offices that the other side had more funds, more men, and more of the foreign press and government leaders in their pockets. Each side was feeling its way in a new arena of combat, often experimenting without clear evidence as to which tactics were working. one concept the Union seemed to grasp more willingly and adopt more nimbly was the lesson that efforts to “educate” the foreign public on their own usually failed and often backfired. Success in this battle over public opinion seemed to reward those who enlisted native authors and public figures on their side. The most effective of these were not hired pens but volunteers who wrote and spoke with conviction and appealed to the fundamental values, ideals, prejudices, and fears of their people in their own idiom.

In today’s parlance the diplomatic duel that took place during America’s Civil War can be understood as a contest of smart power, the adroit combination of hard-power coercion with soft-power appeals to basic values. Hard-power diplomacy typically involves the threat or use of military force, but can also include economic coercion (blockades, embargoes) and inducements (low tariffs, commercial monopolies). The employment of soft power involves persuasion and information, but the underlying strategy is to appeal to the fundamental values and interests of the foreign country, to demonstrate that the two countries in question share common aspirations. Soft power resides in “the power of attraction,” not in crude propagandizing.

The Union won and the South lost this diplomatic duel abroad not because the Union possessed an obviously more appealing message. To the contrary, at the outset many foreigners found the South’s narrative of valiant rebellion against the North’s oppressive central government far more attractive. Slavery had never disqualified a nation from acceptance into the family of nations. The United States and most European powers had at some point sanctioned slavery with no loss of status under international law. Confederate emissaries abroad were nonetheless instructed to avoid discussion of slavery as the motive for secession, and they happily pointed to Lincoln’s own promises to protect slavery in the Southern states as proof that this was not the issue. Southern diplomats crafted an appeal that evoked widely admired liberal principles of self-government and free trade. The conflict, they told the world, was one arising naturally between industrial and agrarian societies, not freedom and slavery. The industrial North wanted high protective tariffs, while the agrarian South wanted free trade with Europe. It was a winning argument.

The tariff contention dovetailed perfectly with the main economic thrust of Southern diplomacy, for Europe had become heavily dependent upon the South’s cotton. European anxiety over the disruption of the cotton trade went far beyond fear of lost profits, for the prospect of a cotton famine threatened massive unemployment and social unrest, if not revolution. Southern leaders had rehearsed their foreign policy for years, and they began their rebellion fully confident that Europe would bow to “King Cotton.” “What would happen if no cotton was furnished for three years?” South Carolina’s James Henry Hammond asked in 1858. “England would topple headlong and carry the whole civilized world with her, save the South. No, you dare not make war on cotton. No power on earth dares to make war upon it. Cotton is king.”

The South’s primary foreign policy objective was to secure international recognition as a legitimate member of the family of nations, and it seemed to be well on the way to winning that prize before any major battles had even taken place. In May 1861 the government of Great Britain recognized “certain States styling themselves the Confederate States of America” to be engaged in what it characterized as a “regular war” between “two contending parties,” and it extended “belligerent rights” to both sides. This abruptly nullified the Union position that the conflict was nothing more than a “domestic insurrection” and a “causeless rebellion.” France and six other nations quickly followed Britain’s lead, and it looked to everyone that the South would win full recognition in due time.

Separatist movements do not always have to win on the field of battle to win independence. Nationalist liberation struggles are frequently decided by third-party intervention, military or diplomatic. Had the South won international recognition, the Confederacy would have been vested with sovereignty under international law and empowered to make commercial treaties, guarantee loans, and form military alliances. Recognition would have meant Southern independence.

At the beginning of the war, Union envoys were forced to answer the South’s impassioned appeal to liberal principles of national self-determination with rather tedious legalistic arguments to the effect that the Union was permanent, secession was illegal under the Constitution, and the “so-called Confederacy” (as Union officials insisted on calling it) was nothing more than treasonous rebellion. The United States, Secretary of State Seward explained, was fighting for national self-preservation. This left foreigners to contrast the North’s fight for conquest with the South’s for independence. It looked as though the North was mimicking the monarchical empires of the old World, while the South was aligning its cause with liberal nationalist aspirations for liberty and independence. Underscoring this, Seward adopted a classic hard-power strategy by threatening war against any nation that dared to recognize or aid what he insisted was a domestic insurrection within one sovereign nation.

The Union also sought to demonstrate that the South’s rebellion was without legitimate cause. Toward that end, Lincoln in his first inaugural address affirmed the right of states to preserve slavery. He not only denied the president’s constitutional power, but disclaimed any personal intention to interfere with slavery in the states where it already existed. He was extending an olive branch to moderate Southerners, especially in the border states, but this was also intended to assuage foreign powers. Lincoln and Seward, crafting this strategy together, sought to delegitimize in the eyes of the world any claim that the Lincoln government threatened the South with wholesale abolition and racial mayhem. But it cost them dearly, and over the next four years, the Union’s greatest challenge overseas would be to retrieve the valuable moral capital that had been sacrificed to this early argument for a causeless rebellion.

Thus, both sides began the war by denying slavery to be at issue. This left foreign observers wondering: Just what were the Americans fighting over? Was this only a civil war, a domestic dispute over territory and tariffs? Just another quarrel within a factious democracy? or were there, behind the rhetoric and posturing, vital principles at stake that really mattered beyond America’s borders?

While Union and Confederate agents set out to tell the world their versions of the cause and purpose of the war, foreigners began answering these questions for themselves. Foreign politicians, journalists, reformers, and intellectuals joined a lively debate on what they called the American question and what it meant to them. Both liberals and conservatives began framing the American conflict as part of a much larger social and ideological struggle that went back to the American and French Revolutions. The American contest, in this rendering, was a decisive showdown between the forces of popular versus hereditary sovereignty, democracy versus aristocracy, free versus slave labor, all rolled into one grand epic battle taking place in the distant American arena. It was the final test of what both sides referred to as the republican experiment.

Among skeptics the term experiment carried the inference that democracy and republicanism were unproven. Government by the people, the theory went, was destined, sooner or later, to descend into anarchy or tyranny, especially under the strain of war. America’s Great Republic was only the latest in a string of examples of failed republics that went back to ancient Rome. Among democracy’s defenders, in contrast, the word experiment suggested that the world was awaiting a crucial verdict and that friends of freedom must stand with America in its hour of trial. Both uses of the term also implied momentous change in the future. The American war, many observers came to believe, would decide the destiny of democracy and free labor for generations to come.

It was difficult to deny that between 1776 and 1860, the experiment in government by the people had not fared well around the world. Britain enjoyed freedom of speech and assembly, a constitutional monarchy, and strong parliament, but in continental Europe France and many other nations muzzled the press and drove free speech and public demonstration from the public square. Republicans and radicals met in secret, sometimes in fraternal lodges or at public banquets, and employed symbols and coded language to veil their protests. Journalists and intellectuals learned to make clever, oblique criticisms of autocratic regimes and, even then, did so at great risk. Suddenly, in 1861 the American question created new opportunities for liberals, republicans, and radicals to engage in public debate. In talking about America, they could talk about their own future. America’s war became theirs, too.

Before 1860 the United States had offered republicans everywhere a working model of how a free, self-governing people might live in peace and prosperity. It was an imperfect society, flawed not least by slavery, which mocked its claims to equality and liberty. But the Great Republic served as proof that people could govern themselves without a king, aristocracy, or established church and that republicanism was far more than a fantasy entertained by intellectuals in their salons. Following the Napoleonic Wars, a stream of migration began to flow across the Atlantic, and after the famines and failed revolutions of the late 1840s that stream grew to flood tide. The attraction went beyond economic opportunity; America became firmly linked in the European imagination to ideals of liberty, equality, and self-rule.

No wonder so many aristocrats were absolutely gleeful in pronouncing the American debacle as proof that the entire experiment in popular government had failed. European government leaders welcomed the fragmentation of the ascendant American republic. American poet Walt Whitman hardly exaggerated when he wrote in 1864 that “there is certainly not one government in Europe but is now watching the war in this country, with the ardent prayer that the United States may be effectually split, crippled, and dismembered by it. There is not one but would help toward that dismemberment, if it dared.”

The American crisis not only heartened the enemies of democracy; it also emboldened them to invade the Western Hemisphere, to topple governments, install European monarchs, and reclaim lost American empires. Suddenly, the Civil War rendered the Monroe Doctrine toothless. Republican regimes in Mexico, the Dominican Republic, Peru, Chile, Uruguay, Paraguay, and, not least, the United States were suddenly vulnerable to imperialist aggression, including nefarious plots to install European princes and recolonize their lands.

The most audacious of European schemes was Napoleon III’s Grand Design for a Latin Catholic empire. It began with an allied invasion of Mexico late in 1861 and led to the installation of the Hapsburg archduke Maximilian as emperor of Mexico in 1864. The Grand Design went far beyond Mexico to envision the unification of the “Latin race” in America and Europe, under the auspices of the French, and to reverse the advances of Anglo-Saxon Protestantism and egalitarian democracy in the Western Hemisphere.

As its bid to win support in Britain foundered, some thought due to popular antislavery sentiment, the Confederacy sought to align itself with Napoleon III by adopting a Latin strategy that would make common cause with the French and the Catholic Church against the “Puritan fanatics” of the North. The Confederacy sent emissaries to the vatican, appealing to Pope Pius IX, the archenemy of republicanism, to bless their “holy war” against the “infidels” of the North. They also contrasted the North’s “mobocracy” to the traditions of patrician rule among the South’s European-style gentry. Southerners even encouraged Europeans to think the Confederacy might prefer a monarchical form of government, perhaps under a European prince. on several occasions Southern leaders proposed some kind of permanent league with, or protectorate under, France, Britain, or Spain. All this portended far more than mere separation under a new flag.

Southerners also took pains to emphasize they were sympathetic with European designs to restore monarchy and Catholic authority in Latin America. Confederate diplomats were instructed to repudiate the South’s earlier imperialist ambitions for a tropical empire in Latin America. They assured Europeans that with an independent South, expansion would no longer be necessary.

The Confederacy’s gravitation toward antidemocratic alliances helped sharpen perceptions of the North and South abroad. Learning from the transatlantic dialogue on the American question, Union advocates put aside their legalistic arguments against secession and fashioned an appeal to ideals of human equality and liberty against those of aristocracy and slavery.

Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address in late 1863 masterfully summarized the new message the Union broadcast to the world. The war was now defined as a trial of democracy for “this nation, or any nation so conceived.” Lincoln promised a “new birth of freedom,” and not only for America’s slaves, for the Union’s survival would mean that “government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”

At the end of the war, Eugène Pelletan, a leading French republican, expressed eloquently what the American question had meant to the world: “America is not only America, one place or one race more on the map, it is yet and especially the model school of liberty. If against all possibility it had perished, with it would fall a great experiment.”

Some readers may feel such unqualified admiration of America was undeserved. The Union, everyone knows, had been painfully slow to embrace emancipation, and America’s deeply ingrained racial prejudice would long outlast slavery. These were only some of the egregious flaws in the nation foreign admirers hailed as the Great Republic.

Yet we miss something vitally important if we view Pelletan and other foreigners who saw America as the vanguard of hope as naive or misguided. Foreign admirers typically regarded the United States not as some exceptional city upon a hill, but as exactly the opposite: an imperfect but viable model of society based on universal principles of natural rights and theories of government that originated in Europe but had thus far failed to succeed there. In the 1860s they were horrified to see government of the people seriously imperiled in the one place it had achieved its most enduring success. Abraham Lincoln was hardly boasting when he referred to America as the “last best hope of earth.” His was a forlorn plea to defend America’s—and the world’s—experiment in popular government.

In the mid-nineteenth century, it appeared to many that the world was moving away from democracy and equality toward repressive govern- ment and the expansion of slavery. Far from being pushed off the world’s stage by human progress, slavery, aristocratic rule, and imperialism seemed to be finding new life and aggressive new defenders. The Confederate South had no intention of putting slavery on the road to extinction; its very purpose in breaking away was to extend and perpetuate slavery— forever, according to its constitution. Had the Confederacy succeeded, it would have meant a new birth of slavery, rather than freedom, possibly throughout the Americas, and it would have been a serious blow to the experiment in egalitarian democracy throughout the Atlantic world.

Long after the defeat of the Confederacy, enemies of liberal, egalitarian society had every reason to look back on America’s Civil War with regret. In 1933, during an after-dinner discussion in Munich, Adolf Hitler bemoaned the South’s defeat in chilling terms: “The beginnings of a great new social order based on the principle of slavery and inequality were destroyed by that war, and with them also the embryo of a future truly great America that would not have been ruled by a corrupt caste of tradesmen, but by a real Herren-class that would have swept away all the falsities of liberty and equality.” Hitler’s reading of America’s history might have been grotesquely flawed, but his outburst echoed the same refrains against the evils of “extreme democracy” and “fanatical egalitarianism” heard in the 1860s.

America’s Civil War lies at the heart of the story Americans tell themselves about themselves. A century after the war, one historian complained that it had inspired “some of our worst navel-gazing” and that most historians seemed content to portray the war as “a conflict all our own, as American as apple pie.” At its 150th anniversary, the story of “our” Civil War continued to be told within a tightly bound national narrative of fratricidal war, sectional conflict, and a troubled reconciliation that came at the expense of racial justice. Beginning in the 1960s, the Civil War became frequently interpreted as the prelude to the civil rights movement, America’s “unfinished revolution,” and an important step forward in the nation’s painful and reluctant reckoning with race.

This book tells the story of a conflict that mattered greatly to the wider world. At stake were nothing less than the fate of slavery and the survival of the “last best hope” for the embattled experiment in government by the people. America’s Civil War shook the Atlantic world, and its rever- berations at home and abroad shaped the world we inhabit today. Nothing Lincoln said proved more prescient than his observation that “the struggle of today, is not altogether for today—it is for a vast future also.”

Excerpted from “The Cause of All Nations: An International History of the American Civil War” by Don H. Doyle. Copyright © 2014 by Don H. Doyle. Reprinted by arrangement with Basic Books, a member of The Perseus Books Group. All rights reserved.

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