The Civil War is Not Just For Americans

Most Americans think of the Civil War as a series of battles that mattered most to the U.S. A new book shows that it also mattered a great deal worldwide.

Of all the conflicts that have raged in American history the Civil War remains the bloodiest.

On battlefields such as Shiloh, Antietam, and Gettysburg, the death toll averaged out to 425 men per day. This continued for 1,458 consecutive days, leaving an estimated 620,000 dead when the last shots were fired. But this casualty rate applied to today’s population would stand at around 6 million: making the body count proportionately far greater than the number of fatalities the United States experienced during World Wars I and II combined.

The Civil War left an enormous imprint on the American consciousness in much the same way as World War I did on the European mindset. For both wars, the notion of remembrance is sacrosanct.

But if the Great War is spoken about in terms of regret, failure, and unnecessary loss of human life—where soldiers died for nothing more than violence for the sake of violence—the Civil War, in American culture at least, is seen as a necessary struggle, one that finally solidified the ideas that the Founding Fathers had laid more than 80 years previously when they launched a republic. Put simply, the Civil War is seen as the American Revolution part two.

In recent years the enormous scale of destruction has been the focus of fascinating texts.

This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War by Drew Gilpin Faust is one such example. Many scholars had previously believed that a new phase of violence—in which technological advances made it increasingly possible to slaughter large numbers of people at a time—only became possible during World War I.

But Faust argues that, relative to scale, the Civil War was as violent as anything that followed in the 20th century.

During the Civil War 3½ million men bore arms. This made up almost the entire population of those who were of military age in both the South and North.

The scales of the armies were enormous, too: in a single battle there might be 100,000 men on each side, and casualty rates ran as high as 20 to 25 percent. Cities were razed. Thousands of prisoners of war starved to death. And many were simply shot and left to die on the roadside.

In The American Civil War, John Keegan pays close attention to what can only be described as the sensual elements of horror: delineating how hundreds of thousands of men living in the Gilded Age—despite trying to put the memories of the war to bed—could never forget the horrors of dismembered bodies, decapitations, and the files of corpses ranging so close in roadways or trenches that stepping on them was often unavoidable.

As a result, the Civil War is largely viewed in the minds of Americans in terms of the American experience. It was a war fought on U.S. soil, by U.S. citizens, for the future of the U.S. Yet, the Civil War still remains the only large-scale conflict ever fought between citizens of the same democratic state. What about its impact on the rest of the world? According to John Keegan, “In Europe, the military significance of the war [though] it was the costliest of the nineteenth century, was largely ignored.”

This is a point I suspect Don H. Doyle, a professor of history at the University of South Carolina, would profoundly disagree with. In fact, the underlying argument of his new book, The Cause of All Nations: an International History of the American Civil War, takes the opposite view entirely, arguing that, contrary to conventional historical wisdom, the conflict mattered a great deal to Europe and the world at large. Doyle’s well researched, evenly balanced, if slightly over-optimistic narrative, takes us through the trajectory of the intellectual and diplomatic international debate that continually evolved as each stage of the Civil War progressed.

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Until now, this is an area of Civil War scholarship that has largely been neglected. Doyle’s re-evaluation of the subject is an enormously important contribution to a story that cannot be forgotten, which asks: Where does the American Civil War fit into a grander narrative about universal human freedom —and progressive enlightenment values—in a global context during the 19th century?

Doyle turns his attention predominately to the public debate that was happening in Europe by prominent intellectuals of the day. These thinkers, writers and journalists saw the Civil War as far more than just internal strife between the Confederacy and the Union. They viewed it instead as an epic showdown between democracy and aristocracy. It was a matter of free versus slave labour, where the winners would decide how the capitalist world would progress in tandem with modernity.

Before 1860 the United States had offered aspiring republicans around the globe a template for how a free, self-governing nation might live in peace and prosperity. And America, according to Doyle, though it was far from perfect, and had many flaws— not least because slavery at that stage was still legal in many states—thus automatically became, in many European minds, a model country to aspire to when thinking about progressive ideas such as liberty, equality, and self-rule. And with the Civil War, the U.S. seemed to offer to the rest of the world a literal battle between those values and rights.

The phrase public diplomacy may not have become an official term in the popular press until World War I. But it was during the Civil War that deliberate, state-sponsored programs began attempting to influence the public mind abroad about American foreign policy.

Just one week after Abraham Lincoln assumed office on March 4 1861, he sent his Secretary of State, William Seward, a memo suggesting how he might fill what they anticipated to be four key diplomatic posts. Britain and France were crucial. As two leading naval powers in the world, both were heavily dependent on cotton from the South for their textile industries. Spain, despite being a feeble power, had colonies in Cuba and Puerto Rico, and thus remained a dangerous potential ally of the South. Mexico, meanwhile, remained crucial because of its seaports on the Gulf.

Seward’s initial foreign policy message to the rest of the world contained a firm warning: Any gesture of support to the South that could potentially weaken the Union’s position would be considered an act of war.

The Union won the Civil War, Doyle explains, by executing both soft and hard elements of diplomacy with finesse and brilliant strategic thinking.

Doyle’s greatest asset, as both a historian and writer, is his ability to patiently tell this story with color, verve, and flair, while also weighing in with his own expertise and commentary at crucial periods of the narrative. He explains how the American Civil War is often viewed as a military contest that was decided by major key battles. But propaganda and diplomacy would be equally as important as bombs and bullets in determining which side emerged victorious.

For the first crucial months of the conflict, the Confederacy was able to set the terms of the debate by emphasizing its desire for national determination. Thus the story of free trade, and not slavery, became the narrative with which the South would attempt to legitimize its cause: desperately hoping to win the hearts and minds of the chattering classes back in Europe.

The conflict, they told the wider world, was about the industrial North pushing an issue of protective tariffs, while the agrarian South wanted free trade with the Old World in Europe. To begin with, this seemed like a convincing argument. And momentarily, it looked to most observers that the South would win legal legitimacy as a respected nation of the world in due course.

But both sides, Doyle reminds us, began the conflict denying that slavery was the fundamental issue at stake.

While the U.S. president and commander in chief of the Union army, Abraham Lincoln, may have always held a deep antipathy to slavery, and even abhorred it on a personal level, it was not convenient for him to express those opinions in public when the war broke out.

And so in his first inaugural address on March 4 1861, Lincoln stated that he had no intention to interfere with slavery in those states where it already existed. Such a confusing moral position from the American president left many foreigner intellectuals and thinkers—who feature prominently in this book—with a number of key questions. They began to ask: Was this simply a civil war with a small domestic dispute about tariffs and territory? Or was there, behind the diplomatic quarrelling and posturing, a noble issue at stake that really did concern the whole of humanity?

However, the South’s fundamental principles regarding slavery had already been set in stone after Alexander Stephens, the vice president of the new nation, addressed the issue in his famous Cornerstone speech in Savannah, Georgia, on March 21 1861. There he openly admitted that slavery was to be tantamount to the Confederacy’s ideology and economic position.

Lincoln during the early stage of the war was careful to eschew any passionate pleas about human freedom. Instead, he concentrated on ideas such as universal law, the Constitution, and the power of the Union.

But if thousands of soldiers marched to Washington in the spring of 1861 to save the Union, what exactly did the concept they were fighting for mean to each of them, either collectively, or an individual basis?

Hugh Brogan in the Penguin History of the USA claims that “this crucial question is seldom asked by American historians, and never answered satisfactorily.”

Attempting to properly develop a feasible answer to this complex, but extremely necessary question, is one of the stronger characteristics that Doyle’s narrative possesses.

And, as his thesis continually points out, the more intriguing answers actually came from foreigners, many who had never set foot in America themselves.

Karl Marx, who was living as an exile in London at the time, wrote that “the struggle between the South and North is one concerned with the system of slavery and the system of free labor. It can only be ended by the victory of one system over the other.”

While the French intellectual Agénor de Gasparin was the first notable European to publicly declare that, whatever Americans proclaimed about the Civil War, at the heart of it was the greatest moral issue of the 19th century: slavery.

Other prominent pro-Union voices from abroad included John Bright, a British Quaker reformer, and Édouard de Laboulaye, an outspoken French republican.

For these writers and thinkers—whose wide-ranging political opinions fluctuated from far-left radical utopian thinking, to a more centered worldview that respected constitutional monarchies—America, and indeed the Civil War, embodied something greater than just a geographical landscape or territorial squabble. It was an opportunity, Doyle argues, to prominently declare, in an age of revolution, that democracy and the rule of law were concepts worth fighting and dying for.

Eventually, in the summer of 1862, partly due to pressure from a diverse range of liberal foreigners who expected America to fight a war of liberty, Lincoln concluded that he must act against slavery to legitimize the Union cause. But it would be as commander of chief of the Union, and not as chief executive, Doyle points out, that Lincoln would proclaim emancipation.

Even Marx referred to Lincoln’s September emancipation decree as “the most important document in American history since the establishment of the Union.”

Doyle concludes his thesis with great flair and vigor in his penultimate chapter by giving the reader a number of excellent examples about how Lincoln cleverly used the written word to his advantage by speaking about the Civil War in universal terms.

This enabled the American president to frame the war not just as a showdown between the Union and the Confederacy, but as a trial of democracy that had immense consequence for the world’s future.

At his Gettysburg Address in November 1863, Lincoln used the simple, but extremely effective phrase “any nation so conceived”: thus imbuing America’s war not just with his fellow citizens, but for the entire of mankind.

Lincoln, like Winston Churchill during the Second World War in Britain, had an exceptional ability to craft speeches that crystallized his political rhetoric with a particular style of literary prose that was simultaneously charming, inspiring, heroic, and noble. But we also need to be careful to distinguish between the emotive connotations a politician’s words carry, and their actual significance in the world of Realpolitik. The old cliché that actions speak louder than words seems like the appropriate phrase to pay attention to here.

Indeed, it is true that the Union’s triumph in the war sent an optimistic message to all radical reformers and keen democrats on both sides of the Atlantic at the time. Had the Confederacy triumphed, it might have meant, as Doyle suggests, a new birth of slavery, possibly throughout the Americas.

But despite Doyle’s book ending on an optimistic high, readers should be warned to treat his narrative with just a slight dose of skepticism.

Anyone looking for a more conclusive analysis of how Lincoln’s emancipation act actually played out for blacks in the United States after the war ended will really need to look elsewhere for answers.

Doyle does give a brief mention at the start of the book about why the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s follows a direct trajectory from Civil War politics. But not much else follows the one sentence he dedicates to this subject. His failure to explore this in any detail whatsoever left me feeling slightly short-changed and disappointed, particularly considering how well the author firmly cements his argument up until this point of the book.

Moreover, it’s common knowledge that blacks obtained far less economic power after emancipation, in the Reconstruction period, than Lincoln had initially foreseen.

As John Keegan—who has a slightly less optimistic view on the Reconstruction period than Doyle—correctly points out in his book The American Civil War:

The South had been beaten but had not been fundamentally changed. Anti-black feeling was a universal emotion and state localism was more powerful than loyalty to the Union. Almost none of the former Confederate States were under the government of men who accepted Congress’s desire for equality and the untrammelled rule of law.

Most readers won’t need reminding just how horrific race relations played out for blacks in the United States in the 90-odd years from the Reconstruction Era to the Civil Rights movement; Jim Crow laws were simply a way of life in Southern states. And a subtle government-legislated system of race-based residential zoning ensured that American cities were continually drawn firmly along lines of color, especially in places like Chicago, New York, Miami, and Los Angeles.

If Doyle’s book suffers from one minor flaw it is this: His thesis is severely restricted by his own myopic and optimistic view of American history.

For example, he claims that:

In the mid-nineteenth century, it appeared to many that the world was moving away from democracy and equality toward repressive government 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 a new life and aggressive new defenders.

Doyle seems to be suggesting here that in the aftermath of the American Civil War a political culture emerged where this all changed: whereby democratic values spread across the Atlantic to the imperial powers back in the Old World.

Clearly this was not the case though. Imperialism was alive and kicking for the duration of the 19th century, throughout the Western World. And it got progressively worse. Any suggestion that the outcome of the American Civil War abetted this seems to me slightly naïve to say the least.

At the Berlin Conference of 1884/85—the entire African continent was shared piecemeal amongst the imperial powers of Europe. If this isn’t a sign that imperialism was on the rise in the Western World, I really don’t know what is.

It’s also worth paying close attention to the common mythology of American democracy, versus the kind of government that was actually envisioned when the republic was founded.

America’s Civil War, Doyle tells us in the introductory chapter, “lies at the heart of the story Americans tells themselves about themselves.” And he concludes his book with a rather simplistic narrative that claims the conflict “shook the Atlantic world and decided the fate of slavery and democracy for the vast future that lay ahead.”

But if we want to comprehend American history, in all of its complexity, we really do need to steer clear of this feel-good-narrative, and take a more critical approach.

In his book The Democracy Project, the American anthropologist and radical thinker David Graeber attempts to dissect and analyse how the myth of democracy has firmly maintained political hegemony in the United States for over two centuries now.

Graeber claims that neither the Declaration of Independence, nor the American Constitution, embody the democratic values that we are still today led to believe they do in popular political discourse. In fact, the model for the Constitution, says Graeber, was based on an autocratic form of government that dates back to antiquity: the Roman Republic.

The Founding Fathers of the United States were very clear about what they were trying to achieve when they founded a Republic: setting up a democratic element of government along with aristocratic and monarchical principles. Where the president is a monarch, and the Senate is the aristocracy.

Without understanding these basic fundamental principles that the United States was founded on, there is a danger of getting swept along into a tornado of American history that blinds and distorts. Scholars such as Doyle tend to get caught up in this without even consciously realizing it.

It would be vituperative, incorrect, and naïve to deny the importance of the main argument that Doyle presents here, for the most part with extreme clarity, precision and skill: just what a Union win in the Civil War meant for the future of democracy in an international context during the middle of the 19th century.

But unless we attempt to figure out exactly what democracy entails—does it simply mean freedom for a white-privileged-property-owning-elite?—then continually celebrating its cause may be a futile and self-defeating task.

In an excellent collection of essays, published three years ago, entitled the Short American Century—which for the most part are critical, rather than celebratory of American democracy over the 20th century—Andrew J. Bacevich, the book’s editor, speaks in the opening pages about why the task of critically assessing a considerable swath of U.S. history should not be to prop up American self-esteem.

Bacevich reminds us that “before history can teach, it must challenge and even discomfit.”

If Western historians aren’t able to face up to the grave prejudices that are contained in numerous epochs of American history, or to continually ask the question—just what is it American democracy has bequeathed to its citizens since the foundation of the United States?— grand metaphoric and poetic descriptions about a shining city resting upon a hill of divine global exceptionalism will remain nothing more than empty mawkish, sentimental, and jingoistic drivel.