The Civil World: A Global "War Between States"

An Introduction to “The Civil World”

Welcome to The Civil World: A Global “War Between States.” This is my attempt at broadening and reorienting our historical approach to the American Civil War. Before I define the site’s objectives further, allow me to explain its origins.

In The Birth of the Modern World, 1780-1914: Global Connections and Comparisons, C.A. Bayly proposes a new, more international definition of “modernity.” Citing the “uniforming” effect of improved travel and global trade, Bayly argues that “domestic” events had increasingly international implications during this time frame. He also perceives a growing “emulation” taking hold among disparate nations as common ideas about religion, science and philosophy follow global trade routes.  

In the chapter “Between World Revolutions, c. 1815-1865,” Bayly addresses the American Civil War not as a strictly American conflict, but rather as a global event. The most immediate impact, he argues, was economic. As the Union navy began blockading the South’s cotton, Britain, its greatest consumer, needed to find new producers—leading to massive investments in Egypt, Ottoman Anatolia and India. Militarily, Lincoln’s preoccupation with Southern secession created an opening for French intervention in Mexico, previously regarded as firmly within the American sphere.

Bayly frames this chapter by asking the following: is it possible to examine “the ‘war between states’ in the same interpretive framework as the European and Asian events we have been discussing?” (Bayly, 161) This is an excellent question. And it is so compelling because so few historians have truly addressed it. Why do we regard the Civil War as an exclusively American event? What is there to gain by contextualizing this great conflict within Bayly’s interpretive framework? What are we missing by neglecting this approach?

The Civil World: A Global “War Between States” responds to Bayly’s question with a resounding yes. As a source for primary documents, secondary literature and my own analysis, The Civil World will offer a forum—to historians and non-historians alike—for a more international approach to the American Civil War. Of particular interest to me will be political, economic and ideological impact this ostensibly national conflict wrought upon the world. I am also interested in the characters of this period—such as the gentlemen pictured above—and exploring the ways in which they challenged, contradicted or transcended the boundaries of their national identity. 

However—in keeping with Bayly’s integrative approach—this site will ideally transcend even the boundaries I have established as readers challenge, deepen and generally engage the material. Therefore, I will welcome any and all contributions to this humble effort.

I hope you will find The Civil World to be useful, relevant and engaging.

Best,

Henry A. Wiencek

Graduate Student, Department of History

University of Texas-Austin

Comment: Britain, The CSA and Slavery

Here is a comment from user “Fenian” on Britain, the Confederacy and slavery:

"Britain’s neutrality is interesting. Since British factories relied on Southern cotton, why didn’t GB recognize the CSA and lend support? Were British investors heavily involved in financing Northern manufacturing? To what extent did distaste for slavery influence British policy?"

Fenian poses a great question that deserves a lot more analysis than I can provide. My sense is that Britain hedged on the question of Confederate sovereignty mostly because they were unsure of the war’s outcome. As James McPherson notes in this video, they were ready to recognize the Confederacy as a sovereign nation in 1862 until their defeat at Antietam. There is clear evidence that British officials—as well as members of the press—were quite sympathetic to the Confederacy, at least in theory. Many perceived Lincoln, and his naval blockage in particular, as despotic overreaches against the self-determination of states. To be sure, there were great economic interests at stake—the lack of American cotton was devastating to the British economy—but that does not suggest that material concerns were the only impetus. I don’t have a good answer with respect to British investment in the North.

Slavery presented a unique challenge to Britain’s sympathy for the Confederacy. The language that British individuals applied in their support of the confederacy tended to be abstract—harping on notions of “self-determination,” “independence” and “free trade” over the concrete issue of human slavery. I think this is indicative of a broader cognitive dissonance that preceded the Civil War. Although Britain abolished slavery in 1833, their manufacturing economy remained highly dependent on slave-produced cotton. I would argue this emphasis on abstract political ideals over the reality of slavery reflects a pre-existing self-justification—an effort to reconcile Britain’s abolitionist ideals with its reliance on liberalized trade networks.

This is a YouTube clip of James McPherson—you can find another clip of McPherson here—briefly discussing the international diplomacy surrounding the Civil War, especially as it relates to Great Britain and Europe.  What is particularly compelling is the moment of 1862, in which Britain, France and likely the rest of Europe was prepared to step in and mediate with the presumption of a sovereign Confederate state. However, following the Confederate loss at Antietam, the Lord Palmerston and his British cabinet reoriented their policy as the possibility for Confederate victory diminished.

This presents a fascinating counterfactual that illustrates not only the centrality of international diplomacy, but also the incredible prospect of the American Civil War becoming a trans-Atlantic conflict—a possibility, as McPherson states here, that Lord Palmerston believed to be very real.

Article: The “Mexicanization” of American Politics

Gregory P. Downs has written a fascinating piece in April’s American Historical Review in which he chronicles the 1870s discourse of “Mexicanization.” Within the context of Reconstruction, this rhetoric expressed a deeply held anxiety over post-bellum “instability” and, more specifically, a fear that America would descend into a “Mexican” state of constant civil war and political volatility. Many Americans perceived the state of national affairs through a distinctly trans-national lens—a “hemispheric age of republican crisis.” (Downs, 392) The attached cartoon, printed in Harpers Magazine on January 13, 1877, satirizes this attitude by placing a flimsy “Mexican scarecrow” against the firm, American “ROCK OF JUSTICE.”

Although Downs’ article only indirectly relates to the Civil War, the methodology he advocates is highly relevant. The author makes the essential point that forgoing a trans-national approach to history not only reduces the international connections of economics and politics, but also the full extent of that era’s historical consciousness: the “world that contemporaries experienced.” (Downs, 392)

Sources:

 ”A ‘Mexican’ Scarecrow,’” Harp Week; Text and Cartoons from the Pages of Harper’s Weekly, http://elections.harpweek.com/09ver2controversy/cartoon-Medium.asp?UniqueID=6&Year=1876

Downs, Gregory P., “The Mexicanization of American Politics: The United States’ Transnational Path from Civil War to Stabilization.” The American Historical Review, Vol. 117, No. 2 (April 2012), pgs. 387-409