Michigan War Studies Review
Reviews, surveys, original essays, and commentary in the field of military studies.
11 December 2015
Review by Donald R. Shaffer, Chandler, AZ
The Cause of All Nations: An International History of the American Civil War
By Don H. Doyle
New York: Basic Books, 2014. Pp. xviii, 382. ISBN 978–0–465–02967–9.
Descriptors: Volume 2015, 19th Century, US Civil War Print Version

The Cause of All Nations is a valuable addition to the literature on the US Civil War. Distinguished historian Don H. Doyle (Univ. of South Carolina) states in his introduction that he has not written merely another diplomatic history of the conflict. Rather, his focus is the battle to shape public opinion abroad, particularly in Europe, where, in the wake of the failed revolutions of 1848, the supporters of both revolution and reaction saw America's civil war as inseparably linked to their own struggle. European aristocratic elites saw the United States' tribulations as proof that its republican experiment was doomed from the start, while revolutionaries saw the preservation of the American Union as validating their own republican aspirations.

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Doyle asserts that the first European reaction to the events of spring 1861 in America was confusion, especially since both Union and Confederate leaders initially denied that slavery was the cause of the conflict. Dissatisfied with this lack of clarity, Europeans formulated explanations that suited their own political goals. Conservative forces, in particular, wishing to check any resurgence of the revolutionary zeal of 1848, welcomed what appeared to be the inevitable failure of republican governance in the United States and, by extension, elsewhere. They perceived the Confederacy's new government, dominated by slaveholding planters, as sympathetic to privilege and caste, and, in the case of France, hastened to take advantage of the Americans' distraction by seeking to install a French-backed monarchy in Mexico.

For their part, both the Abraham Lincoln and Jefferson Davis administrations recognized the need to engage European powers through what Doyle calls "public diplomacy": "The American Civil War … witnessed the first organized, sustained government programs in which each side fielded special agents whose sole aim was to mold the public mind and, thereby, affect the foreign policy of other governments" (71). The Confederates attempted to sway popular opinion toward formal recognition of their government and to encourage European economic and even military assistance in support of their independence. Union representatives sought to thwart these efforts and to delegitimize the rebels in European eyes.

Both sides invested heavily in their transatlantic diplomacy, especially in Great Britain and France, which had the greatest potential to affect the outcome of the war. Besides regular diplomatic representatives, the Union and Confederate governments both deployed private citizens to influence popular opinion in Europe. US Secretary of State William Seward pioneered this approach in October 1861 by sending

religious leaders, literary figures, financiers, businessmen, and politicians whose job it was to address the foreign public as well as meet with government officials, and in every way "enlighten" the public mind about the "true nature" of the conflict in America…. Union agents abroad learned a vital lesson early on: they would need to enlist foreign intellectuals, journalists, reformers, and politicians who were eager to tell their people in their own language—and tell Americans—what they thought this war was really about, or ought to be about. (74, 132)

The tactic of enlisting friendly foreigners was especially valuable in France, where public intellectuals like Agénor de Gasparin and Édouard Laboulaye discussed the American conflict in French and framed it in cultural terms that favored the Union cause. Indeed, Doyle observes, advocating for the Union reinvigorated Europe's republicans, still in disarray over the failure of 1848.

While Northern agents made extensive use of friendly local sympathizers in public diplomacy, the Confederates' representatives, Doyle finds, preferred to conduct their own advocacy. They had discovered that, though some Europeans might enthusiastically prefer a Southern victory, they did not necessarily condone the slave system in the American South. Henry Hotze, an early public diplomacy agent of the Confederacy learned this hard lesson early on in his dealings with James Spence. A Liverpool businessman, Spence defended the right of secession in his own writings and warned against too much democracy, but he also advocated emancipation. After the fiasco with Spence, Hotze established a weekly newspaper in London as a semiofficial organ of the Confederacy to ensure tight control of its public diplomacy message in Europe. The South's official representatives were increasingly frozen out of regular diplomatic channels, as opposition to slavery, Confederate battlefield defeats, and Seward's threats of war with nations abetting the rebel cause deterred more aggressive interference with the American republican experiment.

In this context, Doyle sees the Emancipation Proclamation as a masterstroke of public diplomacy that finally aligned the Union cause with the position of Europe's republicans, who had been puzzled and troubled by the Lincoln administration's failure to embrace emancipation from the very outset of the war. Although Europe's conservative elites initially criticized the proclamation, fearing a bloody American race war akin to that at French colonial Saint-Domingue in 1791–1804, the efforts of the Palmerston government in Great Britain to arrange an Anglo-French mediation on behalf of the Confederacy in fall 1862 floundered in the face of growing popular enthusiasm for the Emancipation Proclamation. After the Italian revolutionary Giuseppe Garibaldi, inspired in part by events in America, began a march on Rome, neither Great Britain nor France felt it could act without the other in regard to the American Civil War: "Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation had done nothing to discourage the Great Powers from privately wishing to bring the war to an end or from hoping for the ultimate success of the South. But with public opinion apparently turning against intervention, none had the spine to try using a rejected offer of mediation as an excuse to recognize the South" (237).

The expulsion of the Confederacy's envoys from Great Britain in August 1863 left public diplomacy as the South's sole means of influencing British opinion. In France, although Southern diplomats remained in place, growing popular disapproval of the Confederacy and its own problematic Mexican adventure made Emperor Louis Napoleon wary of assisting the South in any way. Even Pope Pius IX's seemingly supportive letter to Jefferson Davis in response to entreaties from Confederate envoys offered no formal recognition. During his meeting with Southern representatives, the pope advised the Confederacy to improve conditions for its slaves and prepare them for emancipation.

As Doyle points out, in its European public diplomacy efforts, both formal and informal, "The cornerstone of slavery … hung like a millstone around the neck of the Confederacy" (270). Indeed, Harold Hotze's pro-slavery writings in his London newspaper had become counterproductive in 1864, as the Union made inexorable progress toward victory and Lincoln was reelected. At the same time, secret initiatives by Southern leaders to trade emancipation for foreign recognition of the Confederacy came too late as Union victory became all but certain.

Doyle's study of public diplomacy in Europe puts France's misadventure in Mexico in a new light as an opportunistic imperial project undertaken to capitalize on American disarray in the early days of the Civil War. Louis Napoleon and his supporters believed the apparent unraveling of the United States made the Monroe Doctrine a dead letter and opened new geopolitical possibilities in the Americas for Europe's conservative governments.

Doyle also has a fascinating chapter on the recruitment of immigrants and foreigners from Europe for service in the Civil War. He debunks Confederate claims that these recruits were essentially mercenaries in the Union cause and argues instead that they joined the North's forces in the conviction that the American war was an extension of the longstanding conflict between republican and conservative forces at home. The Confederacy represented to them an American manifestation of the forces of reaction in Europe, while the Union was a beacon of hope to Europe's republicans. "For them, [the war] was part of an ongoing struggle that they, or their parents, had fought and lost in the Old World …. The ability of the North to attract enlistees from abroad during the war meant that, in striking contrast to the South, the potential expansion of its military population was almost limitless" (160, 168). Doyle overstates his case here, since many countries, particularly Great Britain, actively discouraged and even outlawed the enlistment of their nationals in foreign armies. And, too, a significant number of immigrants served with Confederate forces. The author does not indicate whether they sympathized with conservative forces in Europe, embraced the prewar ideology of the South, or sought to solidify white privilege in the Confederacy's Herrenvolk (master race) democracy.

Despite these relatively minor shortcomings, The Cause of All Nations breaks significant new ground in the international history of the American Civil War, chiefly by moving beyond the confines of traditional diplomatic history. Don H. Doyle is to be congratulated for his compelling demonstration that even in European aristocratic societies the sentiments of the masses still mattered and could be influenced by the efforts of American agents.

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