Watson on Gleeson and Lewis, 'The Civil War as Global Conflict: Transnational Meanings of the American Civil War'

David T. Gleeson, Simon Lewis, eds. The Civil War as Global Conflict: Transnational Meanings of the American Civil War. The Carolina Lowcountry and the Atlantic World Series. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2014. viii + 308 pp. $49.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-61117-325-3.

Reviewed by Samuel Watson (United States Military Academy)
Published on H-SHEAR (June, 2016)
Commissioned by Monique Bourque

“Looking at the war in a transnational perspective and as part of a broader sweep of global history draws attention to the ways in which the pre-1861 world differs massively from the post-1865 world” (p. 2). Efforts to link the Civil War and the American West tend to focus as much on continuities, particularly of racism and capitalist expansion, as on change. By contrast, the editors of The Civil War as Global Conflict begin with the belief that “without a Union victory the consolidation of ‘Western’ faith in democracy and individual freedom made manifest in eighteenth-century revolutions ... might well have stalled, halting the seemingly inevitable onward march” of rights discourses (p. 3). To some, this assumption may suggest a slight naiveté, but I think it captures a central (though obviously not the sole central) development in nineteenth-century world history.

The dozen essays in The Civil War as Global Conflict, drawn from a 2011 conference at the College of Charleston, go well beyond the main purpose of the college’s Program in the Carolina Lowcountry and the Atlantic World that sponsored them. The three more high profile of the essays deal with Civil War causation, while six essays focus on the consequences of the war from a variety of perspectives. Two more explore international relations during the war, and the last plus a roundtable examine popular memories, where, sadly, continuities have been as evident as change. None of the essays are more than twenty pages of text, and most are around fifteen pages, so most contain themes and conclusions that deserve to be fleshed out at greater length in future monographs.

Edward Rugemer leads off with a comparison of the United States with Brazil and Cuba in “Why Civil War?” His ultimate argument for why the United States was compelled to fight a civil war to end slavery will be familiar to most readers: a combination of the presence of both slave and non-slave economies in the United States and of white democracy and what Bernard Bailyn once called “the libertarian legacy” of the American Revolution fueled northern opposition to the slave power. In contrast, Brazilian slavery collapsed from within, as slaves resisted, elites debated, and the army refused to uphold the institution. On the other hand, the Ten Years’ War for Cuban independence was perhaps more like a civil war than Rugemer admits, and the war that was revived in 1895 was very much so. It strikes me that a conflict over so profound a difference as slavery was certainly more likely to produce civil war in a large economically diverse nation not economically dominated by or under the political hegemony of slaveholders, sovereign (unlike Cuba) but federal in political organization (unlike Brazil). But “civil war” might have different meanings in these different situations: what Rugemer really means by civil war is a war of (or against) secession by a geographic section, ultimately an interstate conflict. Although I might argue that the massive flight of Brazilian slaves, or the engagement of slaves on both sides in Cuba’s Ten Years’ War, amounts to the equivalent of civil war, I think valuable distinctions can also be made in the role that nation-state authority played not only in the precipitation and the conduct of the wars and emancipation but also in the emancipation settlement. In other words, a fuller comparison will extend to comparing reconstructions.

Matthew Karp opposes the interpretation that southern slaveholders sought secession because of anxiety (whether over the growth of northern antislavery or fears that non-slaveholders might abandon the institution within the South). In effect, he returns us to the King Cotton interpretation of slaveholder confidence, but with an emphasis on slaveholders’ recognition of British advocacy of free trade, and continuing British employment of bound and indentured labor, which was perhaps as powerful a trend, closely tied to European imperialism, including the “imperialism of free trade,” as emancipation for the nineteenth century as a whole. Karp concludes with two astute observations, though neither is fully fleshed out: that the slaveholders’ confidence was ultimately due to “the larger ideological power of Emperor Slavery” and that the slaveholders were wrong about the economic as well as the political future, which “did not, in fact, closely resemble the actual course of international economic development in the decades to come” (p. 48). I would link these by suggesting both the limits to which slavery was fully capitalist and the limits to the South’s ability to maintain the share of commodity markets it held during the 1850s, in the face of British entrepreneurship and the world economic depression of the 1870s and beyond.

The other essay that addresses Civil War causation, to some extent, is James McPherson’s contribution on ethnic nationalism in the Confederacy. McPherson contrasts the belief of southern nationalists (or secessionists) in ethnic nationalism with northern civic nationalism, though his short essay is really more didactic, both for postbellum American nationalism and for the present, than explanatory of Civil War causation. David Gleeson takes up the role of civic nationalism to explain how middle-class British immigrants in the North successfully asserted their loyalty to the United States, as a source of progress and reform despite the difference between monarchy and republic. Similarly, Jane Schultz shows that American women saw in British nursing reformer Florence Nightingale an exemplar of progress, connecting themselves with public life and purpose. Aaron Marrs continues the theme of civic nationalism by observing that the first volume of what eventually became the Foreign Relations of the United States series was issued during the Civil War because of congressional demand—the working of constitutional checks and balances—and a desire to communicate the administration’s message to the American people, both forms of executive (or state) accountability to the citizens (or society) of the republic.

Identity and international relations are connected in Hugh Dubrulle’s discussion of British attitudes toward African Americans, which concludes quite baldly that “the great material interests that always shape discourses largely determined the extent to which racism was both powerful and limited in Victorian Britain” (p. 76). Thus, like the British policymakers dealing with Karp’s slaveholding free traders, Victorian “judgments were characterized by contradiction,” combining uncertainty about the new freedpeople with a desire for “docile dependents” that inhibited intervention in the American Civil War while encouraging continued imperialism, in all its many forms (p. 77). Christopher Wilkins presents the other side of the coin, exploring the efforts of African American colonists in Santo Domingo to win annexation by the United States, in order to extend the benefits of Reconstruction to the island. Here we see the complexity of colonization, as an imperial project and a case of black agency, in pursuit of the multifaceted gemstone the nineteenth century labeled “progress.”

Niels Eichhorn continues the theme of conflict limitation by examining international tensions within Europe during the late 1850s and the Civil War, addressing crises from the 1859 war between France and Piedmont (northwestern Italy) against Austria to the Polish uprising against Russia in 1863. His centerpiece is Napoleon III’s ambition to reshape Europe, and the danger of general war in Germany, whether over Schleswig-Holstein (where Prussia and Denmark fought in 1864) or with Napoleon along the Rhine. Eichhorn argues convincingly that the principal focus of European policymakers, particularly British ones, was the European balance of power, not the American Civil War, complementing the argument he made in “North Atlantic Trade in the Mid-Nineteenth Century: A Case for Peace during the American Civil War,” against the likelihood of significant European intervention.[1] Eichhorn’s essay demonstrates how a non-American perspective can make a great difference on a crucial topic. In contrast, Alexander Noonan’s equally detailed look at period comments and the historiography about the visit of the Russian fleet to the United States does more to question Cold War perspectives (that the visit was incidental or an effort at manipulation) than to explain Civil War dynamics. Yet Noonan reminds us of Anglo-Russian antagonism, another factor (though less naval than Central Asian) restraining any potential British intervention in North America.

Besides Eichhorn’s essay, I think the most important contribution in The Civil War as Global Conflict is Aaron Sheehan-Dean’s, “Lex Talionis in the U.S. Civil War: Retaliation and the Limits of Atrocity.” Exploring the debates between the United States and the Confederacy over retaliation for egregious violence, and comparing Civil War violence against noncombatants with that in the Taiping Rebellion and the War of the Triple Alliance (between Brazil, Argentina, and Uruguay and Paraguay, 1864-70), Sheehan-Dean reinforces the arguments for comparative restraint made by scholars like Mark Neely, Mark Grimsley, and Robert Mackey. “A global framework ... helps explain why the U.S. conflict, while quite destructive, was not worse still” (p. 172). Indeed, Sheehan-Dean observes that the threat of retaliation, made within forms and boundaries laid out in international custom and law, actually served to limit retaliation and escalation. This essay challenges the emphasis on irrationality that has burgeoned in Civil War studies since Harry Stout’s Upon the Altar of the Nation (2006) took up themes presented in Charles Royster’s The Destructive War (1991) amid the more critical climate of the US occupation of Iraq. Sheehan-Dean does not go as far in questioning the “dark history” perspective on the Civil War as Yael A. Sternhell and Wayne Wei-Siang Hsieh have done in their (also internationally comparative) Journal of the Civil War Era essays in 2011, 2013, and 2015, but he contributes a valuable corrective to those prone to overstate violence because it is violence, so abnormal and abhorrent to us today.[2]

The Civil War as Global Conflict closes with an extended essay by Lesley Marx on the memory of the American Civil War in South Africa, as mediated by Hollywood through Gone with the Wind (1939), and a roundtable on the memory of the Civil War today. Both point to the extent to which essential truths about the conflict have been obscured by the Lost Cause and reconciliationist narratives. The editors observe that the defeated side needs to be able to forget some of its bitterness in order for true reconciliation to occur. To make this possible, the victorious side has to avoid “rubbing it in,” but surely this has been rare in the United States. The long-belated wave of calls for taking down rebel flags, moving monuments, and renaming streets (or perhaps West Point barracks) follows nearly 150 years of forgetting by northern whites, and postbellum mental secession throughout the border states and in some conservative circles beyond. As South Africans and many others around the world have found, approaching true reconciliation (rather than biding one’s time awaiting opportunities for revenge) requires truth, hence the “truth and reconciliation commissions” created by many modern nations rent by atrocity and civil war. As Orville Burton concludes his contribution to the roundtable, it was “Jefferson Davis’s not knowing the North,... more than Lincoln’s not knowing the South, that brought on the Civil War” (p. 285).


[1]. Niels Eichhorn, “North Atlantic Trade in the Mid-Nineteenth Century: A Case for Peace during the American Civil War,” Civil War History 61, no. 2 (June 2015): 138-172. 

[2]. Wayne Wei-Siang Hsieh, “Total War and the American Civil War Reconsidered: The End of an Outdated ‘Master Narrative,’” Journal of the Civil War Era 1 (September 2011): 394-408; Yael A. Sternhell, “Revisionism Reinvented?: The Antiwar Turn in Civil War Scholarship,” Journal of the Civil War Era 3 (June 2013): 239-256; and Wayne Wei-Siang Hsieh, “‘Go to Your Gawd Like a Soldier’: Transnational Reflections on Veteranhood,” Journal of the Civil War Era 5 (December 2015): 551-577.

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Citation: Samuel Watson. Review of Gleeson, David T.; Lewis, Simon, eds., The Civil War as Global Conflict: Transnational Meanings of the American Civil War. H-SHEAR, H-Net Reviews. June, 2016.
URL: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=46277

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