The International PR Battle That Won the Civil War

To an outsider, the American Civil War (1861-5) can seem impenetrable. A bloody “war of brothers” between North and South, there’s little to distinguish the two sides apart from whether they wore blue or gray, or spoke in a Bostonian twang or a Louisiana drawl — at least until Lincoln’s 1862 Emancipation Proclamation supposedly turned the war into a fight for freedom.

This idea of a home-grown struggle, the sole preserve of battle reenactors and History Channel specials, is blown apart by Don. H. Doyle’s The Cause of All Nations: An International History of the American Civil War. Doyle offers a meticulously researched 402-page reminder that, away from the gory fields of Gettysburg and Antietam, Confederate and Union diplomats were engaged in an equally desperate struggle for aid and recognition in European courts, newspapers, beer halls, and churches.

Doyle, the McCausland professor of history at the University of South Carolina, explains that the war was soon perceived as a battle for global freedom, regardless of its origins. The question, he suggests, was whether the American “experiment” in popular rule would be vindicated, or if an aristocratic, slave-owning model would spread its grip over the earth.

Don H. Doyle explores how the American Civil War was driven by global public opinion and foreign recruits. (Library of Congress)

The Empires Strike Back

Such a scenario nearly became a reality. In 1861, the United States was one of a handful of republics to have ever existed. Nor was democracy necessarily seen as the future. Instead, following a wave of failed revolutions in 1849, monarchies were tightening their grip in Europe, and capitalized upon the failure of “extreme democracy” in the Americas to relaunch imperial schemes overseas.

Spain recaptured the modern-day Dominican Republic within a week of Lincoln’s inauguration in 1861, while Napoleon III‘s France ruled Mexico at bayonet-point for three years, installing the Hapsburg Archduke Maximilian as Emperor in 1864. France envisioned a “Latin Catholic empire that would … embrace all the failed Spanish American republics and include an alliance with the Empire of Brazil.”

Both North and South toyed with submitting to European rule — and even installing a French prince in Louisiana — if it prevented their defeat.

Northern envoys in Europe struggled to prevent the formal recognition of the South, and stave off the prospect of British intervention, either of which would have spelled an end to the Union. Ultimately, Doyle suggests, the Union’s survival was due to its skillful management of the international press, and use of local voices to spread its message.

Hearts and Minds

They had their work cut out. British aristocrats delighted in the failure of the “once United States,” with some arguing for the division of the country into four parts, while in France the prognosis was worse. “Your Republic is dead, and it is probably the last the world will see,” a French politician told an North American visitor. “You will have a reign of terror, and then two or three monarchies.”

English and French rulers delighted in the Union’s collapse (Library of Congress)

Yet it was ordinary European citizens, not their rulers, who rescued the Union cause abroad. Mary Louise Booth’s translation of two pro-Union pamphlets by Agénor Gasparin and Édouard René de Laboulaye helped Lincoln’s North discover the sense of purpose that it lacked: it wasn’t just fighting for its survival, but for global freedom.

Radical leader John Bright channeled pro-Union sentiment to prevent British intervention; Lincoln later kept a portrait of the cotton manufacturer in the Oval Office as a reminder of his services. A impoverished correspondent in London named Karl Marx was paid by the New York Daily Tribune to bring pro-Union commentary to audiences on both sides of the Atlantic.

Doyle is unsparing, perhaps unfairly, of the Confederate ambassadors, several of whom are rendered as hapless by his portraits. James Murray Mason, envoy to Britain, described as “gross” and “vulgar looking” by one contemporary, was mocked for spitting industrial quantities of tobacco on the floor at dinner parties and in Parliament alike.

Yet beyond ad hominem attacks on prominent Confederate figures, Doyle doesn’t offer a deconstruction of the South’s legitimate pre-war grievances, nor allow for noble motivations on the part of members of the Confederacy — a weakness in an otherwise strong work. Yet his chief argument stands: that global perceptions, rather than necessarily reality, were key, and by 1863 these had turned decisively against the South.

“The Dregs of Europe”

Post-war narratives of reconciliation tended to emphasize that the Civil War was an all-American affair, a tragic struggle between an otherwise unified people. But as Doyle explains, this narrative does a disservice to the contribution of immigrants, and the sons of immigrants, who were “absolutely essential” to Union victory.

One of them was Doyle’s own great-great-grandfather, a German “Forty-Eighter” who fled a failed uprising to command the all-German 9th Wisconsin Volunteers. Some 43 percent of the 2.2 million men who served in the Union army were made up by first- and second-generation migrants, two thirds of whom were German or Irish.

The immigrant contribution was decisive, Doyle explains, because of the huge losses in the war, with some 750,000 dead on both sides out of a population of 30 million. While the Union could draw on huge immigrant populations of the North, the Confederacy failed to attract comparable numbers of foreign volunteers.

The New York 39th Regiment had volunteers from over 14 nations. (Wikimedia)

Doyle explores the intriguing example of the New York 39th Regiment, named after Italian revolutionary Giuseppe Garibaldi. Soldiers from Germany, Hungary, Spain, Cuba, South America, and Armenia, among others, swore their allegiance to the flag in no fewer than 14 languages, fired by pro-democracy fervor.

In the course of the winding narrative, the author praises the vital role of Lincoln’s Secretary of State William H. Seward in advising his former presidential rival, whom he initially dismissed as a “little Illinois lawyer.” Doyle also provides an important revision of the Monroe Doctrine‘s origins, which was initially “defensive and pro-republican, more a shield than a weapon” for Latin America’s fledgling republics against European invasion.

This British reviewer, writing on the road from South America, has one complaint to make. In his claim that the United States was one of the world’s first republics, home to the first calls for popular government, he overlooks Britain’s 11-year republic (1649-1660) that followed its own Civil War, and the calls for popular suffrage that briefly surfaced.

Yet this omission is perhaps illustrative of Doyle’s point. Democratic systems are now — with important exceptions — taken for granted worldwide. But, he suggests, it was only through the sacrifice of thousands who heeded the Union’s call to arms that government “of the people, for the people, by the people,” avoided being wiped from the pages of history. This, at least, was the narrative the victors were able to impose.

Edited by Fergus Hodgson.

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