An International History of the American Civil War

The Cause of All Nations: An International History of the American Civil War
Don H. Doyle
Basic Books   382pp   £20

This tour de force stunningly reconceives the American Civil War. It shows how European public opinion impelled the North to free slaves; how transatlantic responses to the conflict clinched Union victory; and how both outcomes quashed French and Spanish imperial ventures in Latin America and fostered political liberty in Europe. Against entrenched monarchical and clerical rule – Habsburg, Bourbon, Napoleonic, papal – that dominated post-1848 Europe, the outpouring of antislavery sentiment empowered liberal democracy in Britain, France and Italy. 

European support was crucial to both American combatants, the South to legitimate secession, the North to scuttle it. The Confederacy ultimately forfeited European recognition because it failed to break the Union blockade of Southern cotton exports and armament imports, because its self-serving emissaries proved inept diplomats and because slavery and self-government came to seem antithetical. 

European antislavery feeling made foreign recruitment a vital asset to the Union. The 1862 emancipation proclamation triggered massive enlistment abroad, notably from Germany and Ireland, that produced over 40 per cent of Union forces. While Confederate armies bled and dwindled, fresh recruits sustained Northern armies despite heavy losses.

However, until late 1862, Northern victory seemed highly unlikely. Before hostilities began, Southern states established a de jure government and lobbied their cause through envoys and consuls in Europe. Lincoln's diplomats began to replace them only in 1861 and some Confederate sympathisers remained in US legations and consular offices. To dissuade border slave-states from joining the rebellion, Lincoln's narrowly legalistic first inaugural disclaimed any notion of ending slavery. The embargo of Southern cotton idled European factories and impoverished their workers. British-based blockade-runners defied official neutrality with impunity and in July 1862 the Confederate warship Alabama was launched from Liverpool to terrorise Union shipping. Meanwhile, disastrous Union battlefield defeats suggested that the Confederacy might be invincible. 

In a spellbinding chapter, Doyle recounts the rise and fall of foreign support for the South. In August 1862 Confederate forces routed the Union army and prepared to surround and capture Washington. In September the British prime minister Palmerston proposed joint mediation with France, based on Confederate recognition. His rival Gladstone went further: 'The South have made an army; they are making a navy [made by Britain]; and what is more than either – they have made a nation.' Lincoln's rumoured emancipation proclamation initially furthered intervention, European leaders feared 'exciting the passions of slaves' and cotton economy chaos. The Emperor Napoleon III thought 'the time has come to recognise the South'. 

All this was confounded by fortuitous events in Italy, a nation newly uniting just as the United States, the Italian Risorgimento's role-model, was fragmenting. Italian unification begun by Garibaldi's famed exploits was now being consummated by his march on the Roman papal states, which were protected by Napoleon III's troops. But on August 28th, 1862, at Aspromonte, Garibaldi confronted the regular Italian army, compelled by Italy's king and cabinet to appease France, and was wounded and imprisoned. The widely beloved hero's uncertain fate – from fatal wound or court-martial – sent shock waves north and west. One hundred thousand Garibaldi supporters demonstrated in Hyde Park. George Perkins Marsh, the US minister to Italy, persuaded Italian officials to grant amnesty and offered asylum in America for Garibaldi, who had previously declined a Union army generalship, unless the North would free the slaves. 

Just then came timely notices of Lincoln's emancipation proclamation. This enabled Garibaldi to save the Union, 'my second home', without leaving Italy. Thanking Marsh, he appealed 'to all the democrats of Europe to join us in fighting this holy battle' against conjoined papacy and Confederacy. 'All tyrannies sympathize', remarked Marsh, as Pope Pius IX endorsed the South; 'the slave-driver and the priest are twin brothers.' With Napoleon III disconcerted by Garibaldian fervour and England, like France, shrinking from war against the revitalised North, foreign support of Southern sovereignty collapsed. That the emancipation proclamation brought no race riots doomed Southern recognition.

Lincoln brilliantly cast America's Civil War as no mere domestic cause but all humanity's, 'that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from this earth'. Old World monarchical statesmen marvelled that the American republic had raised a citizen's army and weathered traumatic loss without a break in mandated succession from one elected regime to the next. Union victory, won in substantial measure by European popular sentiment, virtually rescued democracy from global extinction.

David Lowenthal is Emeritus Professor of Geography at University College London. 


Get Miscellanies, our free weekly long read, in your inbox every week