H-Diplo Article Review 630 on “Lincoln’s Gamble: Fear of Intervention and the Onset of the American Civil War.” Security Studies 24:3

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Article Review
No. 630
15 July 2016

Article Review Editors:  Thomas Maddux and Diane Labrosse
Web and Production Editor: George Fujii
Commissioned for H-Diplo by Thomas Maddux

Paul Poast.  “Lincoln’s Gamble: Fear of Intervention and the Onset of the American Civil War.”  Security Studies 24:3 (2015): 502-527.  DOI:  10.1080/09636412.2015.1070621.  http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/09636412.2015.1070621

URL:      http://tiny.cc/AR630

Review by Don H. Doyle, University of South Carolina

Paul Poast’s article on “Lincoln’s Gamble” frames his case study of President Abraham Lincoln’s decision to attack at First Bull Run within a broader theoretical question: to what extent are nations facing civil war compelled to preemptory military aggression in order to discourage foreign intervention? Other case studies will be necessary to make the larger point, but Poast has made a persuasive case for paying closer attention to the often-neglected diplomatic motives for what appear to be purely military or political policies.

Lincoln’s decision to attack in late July 1861, Poast argues, escalated a long simmering ‘phony war’ into an actual war, the bloodiest conflict in the Euro-American world between the Napoleonic Wars and World War I. Beyond the battlefields was a diplomatic duel between the Confederacy, which sought international aid and recognition, and the Union, which did all it could to dissuade and intimidate third parties from intervening in the contest. 

Civil wars, especially those fought over secession, often embroil the warring parties in protracted armed struggles that seem insoluble, in part because matters of national sovereignty are so difficult to compromise. Existing nations cannot negotiate with rebel governments without, in effect, acknowledging their legitimacy, and rebel leaders cannot surrender without subjecting themselves to criminal prosecution as traitors. Rebel separatists do not always have to win militarily in order to succeed. They need only hold out, demonstrate their will and capacity to defend themselves, and hope to be rescued by intervention from abroad. Especially when civil wars threaten to upset world commerce, as the U.S. debacle certainly did, foreign intervention, whether by recognition, military alliance, or mediation, becomes a common path to peace, and often on terms that favor the rebel party. Wherever public opinion has influence, such strategies of passive delay eventually come into conflict with impatient political leaders and civilians who want nothing more than quick victory and an end to war.

Poast describes the long lull between the attack on Fort Sumter April 12 and the first major battle Bull Run, July 21, as an eerie period of delay and uncertainty. On April 15, Lincoln issued a call to arms, but for only 75,000 troops to serve three months (a limit imposed by federal law). Those troops were about to go home when the Union struck at Bull Run, and that presented one obvious impetus for the President to act. In addition, there was the rising clamor of the northern press and public who wanted to put down the rebellion immediately. Poast turns our attention to another, less familiar, motivation: the growing concern over foreign intervention. 

The evidence he presents, however, indicates that concern about the foreign danger spiked in May with news that Britain had declared neutrality and extended belligerent rights to the Confederacy. Poast identifies no new developments in June or July to suggest that the foreign threat had heightened before Bull Run. The Union’s delay in taking military action made Europeans wonder if the Union had the will to put down the rebellion. It was to answer this question, as Poast suggests, that Lincoln chose to attack.

To ask why Lincoln acted in late July, is also to question why he delayed so long. One answer is that Lincoln and his Secretary of State, William Henry Seward, continued to harbor hopes that, once it came down to actual armed conflict, a groundswell of Union sentiment among Southerners would stay the dogs of war. “We must not be enemies,” Lincoln implored in his first inaugural address. “Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”[1] 

This was something more than patriotic sentimentality; Lincoln was playing a shrewd game, casting the Southern secessionists as the aggressors and as revolutionary hotheads, rebels without legitimate cause—except the perpetuation and expansion of slavery. There was diplomatic purpose to Lincoln’s initial strategy of delay and nonaggression as well, for Europe’s major powers, whose empires ruled dissident populations in such places as Ireland, Africa, India, and the Far East, had every reason to be cautious about siding with rebel insurgents, whatever their cause. 

Poast is right to draw attention to Lincoln’s, and especially Seward’s, preoccupation with the ‘foreign danger’ of intervention. Offers to mediate peace came later, couched in humanitarian concerns about fratricidal slaughter in America and distress among cotton-mill workers in Europe. At this early stage in the war, mere recognition of the ‘so-called Confederacy’ (Union officials refused to so much as recognize the government by name) as a sovereign nation was enough to alarm Seward, for it transformed the civil war into an international conflict. Among other things, this would mean that the blockade Lincoln had issued in April would have to be ‘effective’ for foreign powers to honor it, and the Union was a long way from being capable of enforcing a real maritime blockade.  

Seward was obsessed with the idea that aristocratic European monarchies despised America’s ‘Great Republic,’ as foreign admirers called it, in part because of its prosperity and rising power, but also because it presented an example of republican success to the European masses. He was convinced the great powers of Europe would see the rebellion as an opportunity to strike a fatal blow against America. Seward devised a hard line foreign policy designed to make European powers think twice before recognizing the South. It insisted that the ‘so-called Confederacy’ was nothing more than a treasonous domestic insurrection and should any foreign power dare to recognize the rebels, or aid the rebellion in any way, the U.S. would consider it an act of war. Seward was furious when Britain effectively repudiated his domestic insurrection theory by declaring neutrality in a regular war and extending belligerent rights to both parties. Soon after Britain’s neutrality proclamation, France, the Netherlands, Spain, Belgium, and Portugal followed; the rest of the world awaited the verdict of the battlefield.

That summer Seward began escalating his threats of world war, making bellicose pronouncements in front of astonished journalists and diplomats, while waving his cigar, and blowing smoke into the air. Many thought he was drinking too much, or possibly breaking down under the strain. On July 4, he made a point of telling William Howard Russell, special correspondent for the Times of London, that if Britain dared lend aid to the insurrection “We will wrap the world in fire.” Russell silently mused to himself: “I could not but admire the confidence . . . of the statesman who sat in his modest little room within the sound of the evening's guns in a capital menaced by their forces who spoke so fearlessly of war with a Power which could have blotted out the paper blockade of the Southern forts and coast in a few hours and with the Southern armies have repeated the occupation and destruction the capital” as in 1814.[2]

Russell’s reference to the menacing guns outside the U.S. capital reminds us that Lincoln’s decision to engage rebel forces that July was made in the face of a major Confederate advance to within a few miles of the capital. All the blood shed by both sides trying to besiege and capture Richmond and Washington during four years of war was driven in no small degree by the same diplomatic concerns that Poast highlights. Lincoln and his advisors believed that Washington was surrounded by slave states and infested with hostile Confederate sympathizers. The Confederacy had moved its capital to Richmond to be within striking distance of Washington. Of course, Washington had no strategic value, except for being the capital. Rebel strategy was to capture Washington, make it their own capital, and humiliate the Union in the eyes of the world in the bargain. To lose Washington would have been a severe blow to Union morale and a terrific boost to the Confederacy’s claim to membership in the family of nations. It was not only Lincoln and his cabinet that had diplomatic ends in mind at Bull Run.

The Union decision to attack Confederate forces at Bull Run turned out to be a major disaster, and not only for military and civilian morale at home but also for diplomatic fortunes abroad. William Howard Russell reports to the London Times were horrifying to Union sympathizers in Britain. Russell had arrived at the scene of battle in time to witness a humiliating defeat of Union forces, who ran in panic from advancing Confederate troops, straggling into Washington late that day in complete disarray. Had the Confederacy pursued them, Russell told the world, the Union capital was theirs for the taking.[3] Confederate envoys in London cheered the news, and fully expected recognition was at hand. Seward was terrified that this defeat would give Britain and France the excuse they were waiting for.

Instead, the lesson Europe’s Great Powers took from Bull Run was this was going to be a protracted Civil War. They waited for the fortunes of war to decide the outcome before intervening. The first major move to intervene came a year later, at the end of a summer of further disastrous setbacks to the Union campaign to take Richmond, capped off by a second defeat at Bull Run and the invasion of Maryland by the Confederate army led by Robert E. Lee. By that time Lincoln had escalated the moral force of the war by proclaiming emancipation. With public sympathy in Britain and elsewhere in Europe generally on the side of abolition, the political cost of intervention escalated. Now the contest would be decided by the fortunes of war and the will of civilians to carry on the fight.

Thanks to Paul Poast for this stimulating investigation of a fascinating episode in the history of America’s Civil War and civil wars in general.


Don H. Doyle is McCausland Professor of History at the University of South Carolina. He earned his Ph.D. at Northwestern University. Professor Doyle is author of The Cause of All Nations: An International History of the American Civil War (Basic Books, 2015); Secession as an International Phenomenon, ed. (Georgia University Press, 2010); Nations Divided: America, Italy, and the Southern Question (Georgia University Press, 2002), and editor or two forthcoming volumes on the international history of the American Civil War: American Civil Wars: The United States, Latin America, Europe, and the Crisis of the 1860s, ed. (University of North Carolina Press) and The Transnational Significance of the American Civil War, ed. with Jörg Nagler and Marcus Grässer (Palgrave-Macmillan). He is currently working on a sequel to Cause of All Nations, called Viva Lincoln!, that examines the international response to Lincoln’s assassination and its galvanizing effect on the resurgence of international republicanism after 1865.


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[1] “Second Inaugural Address,” March 4, 1861, Avalon Project: http://avalon.law.yale.edu/19th_century/lincoln2.asp

[2] William Howard Russell, My Diary North and South (Boston: Burnham, 1863), 381.

[3] Russell, 477.