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Response to Review of Cause of all Nations: An International History of the American Civil War

I was gratified to read Martin Crawford’s review of my book, The Cause of All Nations, obviously because he offers generous praise for my effort to tell a new story about the US Civil War, but also because his astute historiographical sketch made me think more about why that story has remained neglected by so many historians for so long. I welcome this opportunity to comment on his review.

I enjoyed Martin Crawford’s comment that I have eschewed voguishness, but am nonetheless ‘fully attuned to the intellectual currents sustaining this renewed interest in the Civil War’s international history’. He and I have both been around long enough to know that what are exuberantly heralded as brave new ‘turns’ in scholarship, often appear like showy pirouettes in retrospect. Adopting a different metaphor, the eminent sociologist Charles Tilly wryly observed of the social science history craze that ‘what looked like the wave of the future in the late 1960s began to resemble spent foam on a littered beach only a decade later'.(1a)

Though I had an abiding interest in comparative history, originating in my graduate studies with George Fredrickson at Northwestern University, my interest in the international history of the Civil War was sparked almost accidentally. Years ago, while serving as a Fulbright professor in Italy, I learned the remarkable story of the Lincoln administration’s invitation to Giuseppe Garibaldi to take command of a Union army. Rumors that Garibaldi was coming to America absolutely electrified the international press, but the story soon became all but lost to historians who became obsessed for decades with arguments over causation. It occurred to me that the Garibaldi story was much more than just another exotic curiosity of the forgotten past. Even the most cursory review of the press, at home and abroad, during this period demonstrated the huge importance of international affairs in the US conflict. My task, I realized, was not to impose some au courant international reframing of the US Civil War, but instead to retrieve a commonplace understanding of the conflict at the time.

As Professor Crawford gently reminds us, long before the recent ‘international turn’ in Civil War studies numerous pioneering historians over 50 years ago had laid a sturdy foundation of basic knowledge on foreign relations and foreign public opinion, at least for Britain and France. This ought to have inspired a generation of exciting research and debate, but with rare exception, such as the controversy over the attitude of British workers toward the war, the international history of the Civil War somehow failed to challenge the boundaries of what remained an enclosed American story.

The early interest in the international aspects of the Civil War seemed to peak around the time of the centennial celebrations of the 1960s. It was telling that so many of the important contributions to the international history of America’s Civil War Martin Crawford mentions came from outside the American academy, including works by D. P. Crook, Brian Jenkins, Amanda Foreman, Richard Carwardine, and Jay Sexton (who, though a native Kansas Jayhawker, brandishes an Oxford affiliation).(2a)

Some of the most important insights came from outside the academy altogether. Among the books that influenced my own thinking was Lincoln and the Emperors, by A. R. Tyrner-Tyrnauer, a Hungarian refugee and journalist. Drawing on his extensive language skills and deep knowledge of European history, Tyrner-Tyrnauer provided a compelling view of the American crisis as a contest pitting European imperial monarchists against republicans in both the Old and New Worlds. Philip Van Doren Stern, another non-academic, demonstrated the potential for popular historical writing on the international Civil War with his sweeping 1965 epic, When the Guns Roared: World Aspects of the American Civil War.(3a)

I must add in this vein that Professor Crawford’s own work was of immense help to me in understanding the important role of the London Times and one of the key interpreters of the American crisis. I refer to William Howard Russell, special correspondent for the Times, whose penetrating dispatches from the North and South gave Europeans (and Americans) their first indelible impressions of what the American crisis was about and what it would mean to the world.(4a)

By the 1970s numerous other historical works had been added to the foundation of historical knowledge on the international context of America’s Civil War. When we consider how Atlantic World studies dramatically transformed historical scholarship on early America, it leads one to contemplate that the historiography of the Civil War era might have led, instead of lagged, the international turn about to captivate the historical imagination in coming years.(5a)

Instead, Civil War historical scholarship remained firmly bound within the national narrative. In 1968, in an essay for C. Vann Woodward’s pioneering volume of essays on The Comparative Approach to American History, David Potter wrote a brilliant and highly suggestive essay on the global significance of the Civil War. In a later publication of this essay Potter lamented the provincialism that had encased Civil War historical writing: ‘Some of our worst navel-gazing has occurred in connection with the Civil War – a conflict all our own, as American as apple pie.(6a)

More than any other episode in the nation’s history, with many important exceptions noted by Martin Crawford, Civil War historical writing seemed to grow ever more introspective following the centennial. The compelling relationship between the history of the Civil War and the black civil rights struggle was part of the reason. It also had to do with the advent of new social and cultural history subjects, which vastly enriched the field of Civil War studies. Foreign affairs remained almost entirely the property of diplomatic historians, and except for the obligatory nod to King Cotton diplomacy or the Trent affair, the standard textbook narrative of the Civil War treated the war as a purely American conflict, originating in peculiarly American circumstances, fought by American soldiers, on American soil, with consequences confined almost entirely to the United States, with perhaps some notice of its post-war rise as a world power. As I wrote, ‘America’s Civil War lies at the heart of the story Americans tell themselves about themselves’, a story that, since the 1950s, has gone from a tragic and unnecessary ‘brother’s war’ to the ‘unfinished revolution,’ and as such it serves as a prelude to the civil rights movement and the nation’s ongoing reckoning with the legacy of slavery.

It is this American conversation with itself that Martin Crawford refers to with his comment on the Cooper and McPherson volume. He echoes Potter’s observation that Civil War historiography continues to be confined by American exceptionalism, if not provincialism. That enclosed national narrative of the Civil War will, I predict, continue to serve an important and necessary role in explaining the nation to itself. The recent flurry of outrage that followed the massacre of black churchgoers in Charleston that led, rather unpredictably, to the long overdue removal of the Confederate battle flag from the South Carolina statehouse grounds, reminded all of us of just how heavily the past weighs upon the present, especially in the American South.

But America’s past has never been isolated from the rest of the world, as I tried to demonstrate for the Civil War. It seems high time that historians, whatever passports they might carry and whatever geographic specialties they are trained in, engage the exciting new conversation that is currently compelling professors and their students to cross often formidable, but always traversable, boundaries that separate nations and their histories. I shall be gratified to think that The Cause of All Nations might help illuminate the way toward an understanding of America’s secession crisis as part of a much greater contest over the future of slavery and the survival of democracy. I thank Martin Crawford and Reviews in History for this opportunity to engage in this conversation.

Notes

  1. Quoted in Kenneth A Scherzer, The Unbounded Community: Neighborhood Life and Social Structure in New York City, 1830–1875 (Durham, NC, 1992), p. 6.Back to (1a)
  2. D. P. Crook, The North, the South, and the Powers, 1861–1865 (New York, NY, 1974); D. P Crook, Diplomacy During the American Civil War (New York, NY, 1975); Brian Jenkins, Britain and the War for the Union, 2 vols. (Montreal, 1974); Richard Carwardine and Jay Sexton, The Global Lincoln (New York, NY, 2011); Richard Carwardine and Jay Sexton, et al, 'Interchange: the global Lincoln', Journal of American History 96, 2 (September 2009), 462–99; Jay Sexton, Debtor Diplomacy: Finance and American Foreign Relations in the Civil War Era, 1837–1873 (New York, NY, 2005).Back to (2a)
  3. Philip Van Doren Stern, When the Guns Roared: World Aspects of the American Civil War (New York, NY, 1965).Back to (3a)
  4. William Howard Russell’s Civil War: Private Diary and Letters, 1861–1862, ed. Martin Crawford (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1992); Martin Crawford, The Anglo-American Crisis of the Mid-Nineteenth Century: The Times and America, 1850–1862 (Athens, GA, 1987).Back to (4A)
  5. To mention only a few: Heard Round the World: The Impact Abroad of the Civil War, ed. Harold Hyman (New York, NY, 1969); Donaldson Jordan and Edwin J. Pratt, Europe and the American Civil War (Boston, MA, 1931); Lynn Marshall Case and Warren F. Spencer, The United States and France: Civil War Diplomacy (Philadelphia, PA, 1970); Serge Gavronsky, The French Liberal Opposition and the American Civil War (New York, NY, 1968); Warren Reed West, Contemporary French Opinion on the American Civil War (Baltimore, MD, 1924); Alfred J. Hanna and Kathryn A. Hanna, Napoleon III and Mexico: American Triumph over Monarchy (Chapel Hill, NC, 1971); James W. Cortada, 'Spain and the American Civil War: relations at mid-century, 1855–1868', Transactions of the American Philosophical Society 70, 4 (1 January, 1980), 1–121; Kathryn Abbey Hanna, 'The roles of the South in the French intervention in Mexico', The Journal of Southern History, 20, 1 (1 February 1954), 3–21; Thomas D. Schoonover, Dollars Over Dominion: The Triumph of Liberalism in Mexican-United States Relations, 1861–1867 (Baton Rouge, LA, 1978); Thomas D. Schoonover, Mexican Lobby: Matías Romero in Washington, 1861–67 (Lexington, KY, 1986); Nathan L. Ferris, 'The relations of the United States with South America during the American Civil War', Hispanic American Historical Review, 21, 1 (February 1941), 51–78; Nancy Nichols Barker, 'Monarchy in Mexico: harebrained scheme or well-considered prospect?', The Journal of Modern History, 48, 1 (1March 1976), 51–68; Robert W. Frazer, 'Latin-American projects to aid Mexico during the French intervention', The Hispanic American Historical Review, 28, 3 (1948), 377–88.Back to (5a)
  6. David M. Potter, 'The Civil War in the history of the modern world: a comparative view', in The South and the Sectional Conflict (Baton Rouge, LA, 1968), 287.Back to (6a)