Author Interview--Evan Rothera (Civil Wars and Reconstructions in the Americas) Part 1

Niels Eichhorn's picture

Hello H-CivWar Readers:

Today we feature Evan C. Rothera to talk about his new book, Civil Wars and Reconstructions in the Americas: The United States, Mexico, and Argentina, 1860–1880, published by the Louisiana State University Press in September 2022.

Evan C. Rothera received his Ph.D. from Penn State University. He is assistant professor of history at the University of Arkansas–Fort Smith. He is co-editor of The War Went On: Reconsidering the Lives of Civil War Veterans.

Evan, how did you come to write a book comparing Argentina, Mexico, and the United States?

ECR: It all goes back to my time at Gettysburg College! I spent the Fall 2008 semester studying abroad in Mendoza, Argentina. While there, I came across a brief reference to Domingo F. Sarmiento’s biography of Abraham Lincoln. I knew a bit about Sarmiento, but I had no idea that he had published a biography of Lincoln – less than a year after Lincoln’s assassination, no less! I discovered, as I spent more time researching Sarmiento and his Lincoln biography, that one of his goals was to create a usable Lincoln for Latin Americans. After I returned to Gettysburg College, I continued my research about Sarmiento. Thus, when I began by PhD program at Penn State, I initially envisioned a project that analyzed reconstructions in the United States and Argentina in comparative perspective. However, Bill Blair suggested that I include Mexico in my project. At that point, my comparative study of the U.S. and Argentina turned into a broader project that examines the U.S., Mexico, and Argentina, their respective violent conflicts (the War of the Reform and the French Intervention in Mexico, the final stages of the Wars of Unification in Argentina, and the U.S. Civil War), and the periods of reconstruction that followed each of these conflicts. Finally, I would also like to add that the support and guidance I received from my mentors, friends, and family played an important role in helping me bring this endeavor to fruition.

What do you argue in Civil Wars and Reconstructions in the Americas?

ECR: Civil Wars and Reconstructions in the Americas advances three arguments. First, I argue that the period the book covers, 1860–1880, was a Pan-American moment that featured extensive cooperation among the people of the U.S., Mexico, and Argentina. Second, that people understood their world in hemispheric terms and privileged cooperation over conflict. Moreover, that the violent conflicts examined in the book were part of a much larger struggle pitting democracy and republicanism against monarchy, aristocracy, oligarchy, conservatism, and other forms of reaction. Third, I contend that placing the violent conflicts alongside each other reveals a common search for order in the three nations, how each nation faced similar problems of violence and disorder, and how each county arrived at a similar type of order by 1880.

You have three examples and you talk extensively about the influence of France on Mexico, however, I wondered about Spain as well since it occupies the Dominican Republic during this era and then we get that brief intermezzo between Spain and Peru/Chile—what impact did that imperial experiment have?

ECR: A good question! On April 1, 1861, Secretary of State William Henry Seward sent President Abraham Lincoln a memorandum entitled “Some thoughts for the President’s consideration.” Among other points, Seward urged Lincoln to consider declaring war on either Spain or France. His reasoning was that this would cause a surge in nationalism in the seceded states and the rebels would come running back to rejoin the U.S. in order to participate in a war against Spain or France. Thankfully, Lincoln did not listen to Seward! However, this episode does help us remember that Spain’s actions in the Americas alarmed contemporaries as much as the machinations of Great Britain and France.
It is also helpful to remember that the French Intervention in Mexico began as a Tripartite Intervention. That is to say, Spain, France, and Great Britain initially intervened in Mexico to secure payment for debts. When it became obvious that France intended to march on Mexico City, overthrow President Benito Juárez, and proclaim the nucleus of a French New World empire on the ruins of the Mexican republic, Britain and Spain left in disgust. Indeed, General Juan Prim withdrew the Spanish army and, on his way back to Spain, stopped in the U.S. Prim strongly supported the Union in the war against the rebels.
Other Spanish officials, however, determined that the U.S. Civil War was an opportune moment for their own imperial schemes and ambitions. Spain reannexed and occupied the Dominican Republic. Interestingly, just as the French worked with local collaborators in Mexico, so, too, did the Spanish find allies in the Dominican Republic. They also flexed their muscles in the Pacific. Spain, like France, gambled that the U.S. Civil War would distract and weaken the U.S. to the point where both powers could violate the Monroe Doctrine. In 1865, when it became clear that the U.S. forces were going to win, the Spanish began to cut their losses and, as I illustrate in my book, France did so as well. 
In the book, I do not argue that the U.S. saved the day singlehandedly in Mexico. Rather, U.S. assistance (in the form of men, money, and weapons) to Mexico, coupled with dogged Mexican resistance, doomed the French attempt to destroy the Mexican republic. The U.S. provided considerably less aid to the Dominican Republic, Chile, and Peru, but the Spanish faced equally dogged resistance in all three countries. More and more people in the U.S. began to speak of enforcing the Monroe Doctrine and Mexicans urged the U.S. to do so as well. This talk was usually aimed at the French in Mexico, but the Spanish could read the writing on the wall as well as anyone.
Ultimately, the Spanish had an important impact on the Americas during this period. Furthermore, this example offers another illustration of one of the main arguments in my book. Namely, that the republics of the new world faced concerted challenges from the forces of reaction. Also, anyone interested in reading a detailed account of how Dominicans defeated the Spanish should consult Anne Eller’s
We Dream Together: Dominican Independence, Haiti, and the Fight for Caribbean Freedom (Duke University Press, 2016). 

As we get into the first part of your book, where you look at a number of individuals and many of them traveling around gaining experiences, I was intrigued by your notion of the transnational warrior and I want to start with how do you separate these individuals from mercenaries—after all the transnational warrior is not doing military serves out of the kindness of their heart?

ECR: Several people have asked me whether the transnational warriors were mercenaries in another garb. My answer is always no! They might look like mercenaries in the sense that the jumped from conflict to conflict, but they are not. Mercenaries are more interested in money than in ideology. They want to get paid and will offer their services to the highest bidder. Transnational warriors, on the other hand, were driven by ideology, a point I illustrate in the first chapter of the book. Mercenaries will fight for anyone who can pay, but transnational warriors were not indiscriminate joiners and did not fight in just any conflict. Indeed, some of them rejected opportunities to fight in different wars because these wars did not meet their particular standards. Hugo Hillebrandt, for example, fought with Kossuth in Hungary, with Garibaldi in Italy, and for the Union in the U.S. Civil War. He rejected an offer to join the armed forces of the Ottoman Empire and had no interest at all in participating in the Crimean War or for the rebels during the U.S. Civil War. A mercenary would not have rejected opportunities to serve for pay. Edelmiro Mayer, likewise, fought with Buenos Aires against the Argentine Confederation, served the Union during the U.S. Civil War, and then fought with Juárez in Mexico. These are two examples and people should definitely consult the first chapter of the book to see some of the fascinating trajectories the transnational warriors took. In sum, transnational warriors were very particular about the conflicts they joined, not because they sought opportunities that paid well, but because they were driven by ideology. Furthermore, they saw these individual battles as part of a much larger struggle.

Since you bring up the notion of a larger struggle, I want to pivot to your argument of a Pan American Movement. Obviously, we had instances of this as early as the 1820s, but I wonder especially about the impact of the Mexican War, which created significant bad blood in Latin America. I also seem to remember that coming out of Peru there was an alliance proposal geared in part against imperialism and included the United States—how widespread was this desire for inter-American cooperation?

ECR: Yes, the 1810s and 1820s definitely saw considerable Pan-American cooperation. Caitlin Fitz offers a very good overview in Our Sister Republics: The United States in an Age of American Revolutions (Liveright, 2016). Fitz argues, and I agree, that the cooperation evident throughout the Spanish-American Revolutions basically fall apart in the late 1820s, during the debates about whether the U.S. should send representatives to the Panama Congress. In the following decades, U.S. citizens flooded into Texas, people in the U.S. colluded with revolutionists in Texas to help them win independence, and the U.S. provoked a war with Mexico that resulted in Mexico losing half of its territory. Some people in the U.S., Abraham Lincoln among them, opposed President James K. Polk’s war as illegal, unjust, immoral, and unconstitutional. Still, however broad this antiwar movement, it could not stop the war. Mexicans reacted with disgust and a deep sense of betrayal. In a world where republics were under siege by the forces of reaction, it was a particularly cutting blow that one republic chose to make war on another one. So, yes, the U.S. War with Mexico just about killed any remaining cooperative spirit and dramatically increased bad feeling between the two nations.
Also complicating matters during the 1850s were filibustering expeditions – armed expeditions that attempted to wrench away portions of territory from various Latin American nations and bring them into the orbit of the United States. I include some particularly evocative examples in the third chapter of the book illustrating how anger against the U.S. persisted for years. This anger often manifested, especially in some of Mexico’s northern states during the 1850s, in violent episodes directed against U.S. citizens or diplomatic officials residing in Mexico. Thus, if you surveyed the situation in the 1850s, you would see very little cooperation and a significant amount of anger, bitterness, hatred, and xenophobia, as well as feelings of deep sadness and betrayal among many Latin Americans that the U.S., a republic, was behaving so badly towards some of the other republics of the New World.
This is all important context in order to understand the dramatic transformation that occurred during the 1860s. All of the sudden, the language of sister republics came back into vogue and Pan-American cooperation roared back to life. One important transformation was the fact that Abraham Lincoln was elected president in 1860. Lincoln’s opposition to the U.S. War with Mexico may have hurt him during his 1858 senatorial campaign against Stephen A. Douglas (Douglas did his best to bring the issue up), but it certainly distinguished Lincoln from Democrats like James K. Polk, Franklin Pierce, and James Buchanan. Many Mexican Liberals saw Lincoln and Republicans as kindred spirits. President Benito Juárez sent Matías Romero to Springfield to meet with President-Elect Lincoln and assure him of the good feeling that should exist between the U.S. and Mexico. As I discuss in the second chapter of the book, there are many dramatic manifestations of cooperation, from people crossing the border to fight alongside the Juaristas against the French to people in the U.S. raising money and munitions to U.S. soldiers and diplomatic officers refusing to stay neutral and putting their thumbs on the scale to help the Liberals. People in Mexico and in the U.S. constantly invoked the language of sister republics. Moreover, they began to redefine the Monroe Doctrine together. After the war, both Mexico and Argentina celebrated the Fourth of July, another demonstration of the increased cooperation and goodwill among the three nations. Indeed, consider this point. In 1847, General Winfield Scott bombarded the city of Veracruz into submission and staged his army there before marching overland and eventually occupying Mexico City. Twenty years later, in the immediate aftermath of the execution of Maximilian and the defeat of the French schemes, Veracruz celebrated the Fourth of July. That amazing transformation captures the point that cooperation, while certainly not universal, was much broader during the 1860s and beyond than it has been portrayed in the historiography.