The Transnational Significance of the American Civil War: A Global History

Sep 15, 2011 - Sep 17, 2011

Conference at the Friedrich-Schiller-University at Jena, Germany | Conveners: Jörg Nagler (Friedrich Schiller University, Jena), Marcus Gräser (GHI), Ian Tyrrell (University of New South Wales, Sydney)

Participants: Sven Beckert (Harvard University), Richard Blackett (Vanderbilt University), Robert Bonner (Dartmouth College), Amanda Brickell-Bellows (University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill), Leslie Butler (Dartmouth College), Richard Carwardine (Oxford University), Enrico Dal Lago (National University of Ireland, Galway), Don Doyle (University of South Carolina), Paul Finkelman (Albany Law School), Stig Förster (University of Bern), Susan-Mary Grant (Newcastle University), Nicholas Guyatt (University of York), Mischa Honeck (University of Heidelberg/GHI), Axel Jansen (University of Frankfurt), Hartmut Keil (University of Leipzig), Axel Körner (University College London), Nicola Miller (University College London), Paul Quigley (University of Edinburgh), Evan C. Rothera (Pennsylvania State University), Brian Schoen (Ohio University), Zachary Sell (University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign), Jay Sexton (Oxford University), Aaron Sheehan-Dean (University of North Florida), Nimrod Tal (Oxford University), Andrew Zimmerman (George Washington University).

Since this conference took place in Jena, Friedrich Schiller's famous lecture "What Is, and To What End Do We Study Universal History" generated the conference's main question: why, and to what end, do we study the global history of the American Civil War? Participants of the conference thus did not shy away from offering new perspectives on seeing the Civil War in a global context and from responding to the tendency of some historians to "deprovincialize" the war and its implications. The papers posed questions regarding nation-building and its relationship to the transformation of the character of labor, as well as the economic, political, social, and cultural impact of the war around the world. At the same time, they paid heightened attention to networks of people and ideas that came to shape the outcome and perception of the American Civil War.

The first panel of the conference, chaired by Jörg Nagler, was dedicated to the dialectical relationship between nationalism and universalism. Richard Carwardine's paper revealed that Lincoln came to be perceived as both a nationalist and internationalist by advocating a romantic nationalism fused with "a conviction that the hope of all humankind lay in his country's republican principles and practices." Axel Jansen then discussed the 1863 founding of the National Academy of Sciences and claimed that the law implementing a national academy should not only be interpreted as a symbol of the nation's acceptance of the logic of science, but also as a tool for helping Americans consolidate their emerging nation and national state.

Stig Förster then held the public keynote address on "Global Warfare and the American Civil War." Förster argued that the American Civil War was not a global war, but, as its very name implies, merely a civil war between the Union and Confederacy. Although it was an isolated affair, however, the conflict exhibited tendencies of a total war and can be interpreted as a return to the "people's war," similar to the Napoleonic wars but under the changed condition of industrialization. A reception followed in Schiller's summer house in the evening, allowing for historical debates in a historical atmosphere and giving participants the opportunity to visit the house of one of universal history's early advocates and world famous poets.

On Friday, the conference continued with the second panel, chaired by Nicola Miller, addressing the issue of nation-building, war, and the question of inclusion in the era of the American Civil War. First, Aaron Sheehan-Dean showed how a "rough typology of non-combatant treatment" emerged during the conflict without any explicit policy being developed for it. Furthermore, he revealed that the military options of both North and South were severely limited by their functioning as autonomous nations that were eager to impress fellow nations with their modern state-like behavior. In her paper "Civil War Cybernetics," Susan-Mary Grant then repositioned the "wounded soldier" as central to the nationalist forces that emerged in the nineteenth century. She urged historians not to downplay the corporeal costs of the war and portrayed the nineteenth century as the age of the emergence of a "war machine" with both technological as well as human elements. Paul Quigley continued the panel with a re-evaluation of the question of citizenship in the United States in a transatlantic context, demonstrating how wartime needs caused governments to make new demands upon the governed, while material hardships increased people's expectations of their leaders. Enrico Dal Lago concluded the panel by comparing processes of nation-building, civil war, and social revolution in the American South and the Italian South (Mezzogiorno) from 1860 to 1865. He showed how both regions played important roles in the respective processes of national consolidation during this time.

The afternoon then began with panel three, chaired by Jay Sexton, which discussed the impact of the American Civil War on the global economy and looked at the Civil War era through the prism of cotton in different ways. The first panelist, Brian Schoen, offered new insights into a familiar theme: that cotton's central place in the modern nineteenth-century global economy critically informed a Deep South sectional identity and contributed to secession. Sven Beckert then looked at the American Civil War as one of the most important events in the history of global capitalism. He argued that one of the principle outcomes of the Civil War was the rearrangement of the nation's political economy, which, in turn, had a dramatic impact on America's place in the world and thus on global capitalism more broadly.

Chaired by Susan-Mary Grant, the fourth panel addressed the impact of the American Civil War on the international state system. While most historians agree that the Confederacy's slaveholding status in itself was no barrier to international recognition, Robert Bonner elaborated the ways that the Confederacy's perceived "piratical tendencies" undermined its reputation as a responsible potential sovereign. Jay Sexton then talked about the Civil War's impact on international finance, arguing that the Civil War constituted a key moment in the international history of nineteenth-century finance by fundamentally disrupting and altering existing financial relationships, institutions, and the flow of capital. He underlined his argument by showing that the decision of (most) British financiers not to invest in war bonds of either war party fueled financial innovation in the United States. Afterward, Richard Blackett analyzed African American efforts to win British public opinion for the Union. He was able to demonstrate that these efforts definitely had a profound impact on British public opinion and helped keep the causes of the war alive within it, even though the extent to which they influenced British policy remains unclear.

Panels five and six were both titled "The American Civil War and Transnational Ideological Currents." The fifth panel, chaired by Leslie Butler, began with Don Doyle's examination of the efforts of Union agents in charge of propaganda operations in Europe, such as John Bigelow. This analysis illustrated how the transatlantic exchange and its impact on the popular imagination engendered the interpretation of the Civil War as an "epic battle" with international significance for the "entire democratic experiment." Mischa Honeck's paper then emphasized the bonds of companionship, mutual interests, and converging print cultures that drew abolitionists of differing backgrounds together. By appreciating abolitionists' dual role as "selfless humanitarians and self-interested nation-builders," Honeck argued, one is able to understand the intertwined nature of their devotion to emancipation and their search for belonging. Paul Finkelman followed with a discussion of how the American Civil War effectively changed the nature of world slavery. Had it not been for the Civil War, he argued, the Brussels Act of 1890, which formally condemned slavery for the entire Atlantic community for the first time, would not have been adopted.

The sixth panel, moderated by Don Doyle, began with Leslie Butler's paper "Assuming ‘A Democracy Can Think'," which elaborated the transatlantic contexts of Civil War liberalism by illuminating how liberals on both sides of the Atlantic perceived the American Civil War as an "educative moment of sorts." Hartmut Keil followed with an examination of one person actively engaged in the cause of abolition and national unity: the German-born political philosopher Francis Lieber. If one is familiar with his background, however (he had been living in the South for more than twenty-one years prior to the Civil War), one wonders why he actually entertained such strong liberal and nationalist ideas. Keil identified two sources of Lieber's activities during the war, namely, his German background, which accounted for his nationalist views, and his experience in the slaveholding South. The last panelist Axel Körner looked at the influence of works of literature and music on the Italian image of America. Negative portrayals of slavery that were widely received in Italy, such as those in Uncle Tom's Cabin or Verdi's Un Ballo in Maschera, helped shape Italian public opinion such that Italians did not regard American federalism as a proper model for the country's own unification.

Hartmut Keil chaired the seventh panel, which was concerned with contemporary (self-) perceptions and analyses of the American Civil War. Amanda Brickell-Bellows compared post-emancipation literary portrayals of peasants in the American South with those of freedmen in Russia. She demonstrated that Russian and Southern elites responded to the abolition of serfdom and slavery by producing divergent post-emancipation cultural myths. While Russian nobles idealized the peasants in an effort to define and understand what it meant "to be a Russian," white Southerners promoted the illusion of harmonious antebellum race relations in order to secure political order after Reconstruction. The second panelist, Nimrod Tal, analyzed the memorialization of the Civil War in the twentieth century, particularly within British and Irish projections of the Civil War from 1870 to 1922. From 1870 onward, Tal maintained, the Civil War became an "ideological acid test" for both the Irish and the British with which they examined Ireland's place within the British union. Nicola Miller then discussed the impact of the Civil War on Latin America. Looking at the roots of transmission and the lessons of nation-building that Latin Americans drew from the conflict, she sees the Civil War as an oscillation in the history of intra-American relations.

Panel eight, chaired by Marcus Gräser, addressed the issues of slavery, emancipation, and racism that are vital to our understanding of the transnational impact of the American Civil War. Andrew Zimmerman launched the panel by revealing how the American Civil War was part of a unique mid-nineteenth-century Atlantic history and an important theater in the "(second) age of revolution." Considering the relationship between slavery and slave rebellion ("the Black Atlantic") and the workers' uprisings in Europe and the United States ("the Red Atlantic"), Zimmerman found that abolitionism and communism were indeed deeply intertwined and that the fight against slavery served as an important impetus for formulating critiques of capitalism. Nicholas Guyatt then considered the impact of the American Civil War on the Caribbean by testing the prophecies that Tocqueville had made about these islands in the 1830s. Tocqueville had predicted that, if slaves were to be emancipated, a race war would break out both on the mainland and in the Caribbean. Guyatt showed that this vision resonated in the Civil War period and influenced the debate about whether to expand emancipation to encompass the former colonies of the Caribbean. Zachary Sell's paper, "From Ormond to Regalia," used the example of the white South Louisiana sugar planter Samuel McCutchon, who relocated to British Honduras in the aftermath of the Civil War, to illustrate how the structure of slavery and settler colonialism designed by Southern white supremacists was integral to nineteenth-century capitalist production -- even after the Civil War. In the final talk of the conference, Evan C. Rothera proposed an interesting new angle for studying the Civil War and its aftermath by analyzing "comparative reconstructions" and by exploring the presence of competing national mythologies.

The third day of the conference ended with a trip to Weimar on which Jane Obst pointed out well known and lesser-known attractions of the city. A joint dinner followed, and the evening proved Schiller's words that the "study of world history" is "an attractive as well as useful occupation."

The conference concluded on Sunday with a roundtable discussion. Moderator Jörg Nagler first made some general observations on the advantages and disadvantages of doing a global history of the Civil War and suggested new avenues for future research. Nagler observed that more scholarly work is still needed on a variety of topics to illuminate the global implications of the Civil War even more effectively, including the multinational Union regiments, the war's influence on the perception of international migration and migration to the United States, the impact of the economic transition following the Civil War on countries such as Egypt and India, and the rarely discussed significance of the British Empire in relation to the event. Furthermore, Nagler proposed that historians need to be more precise in defining "liberalism" in a global world and to think about the specific connotations of the term. Don Doyle then launched the discussion by challenging the validity of the term "age of nationalism" that many historians have employed as a label for the mid-nineteenth century. Doyle pointed out that national identity in this era was much more fluid and in some ways more voluntary than the term implies. Richard Blackett advocated that historians analyze what "ordinary people" did and the connections they tried to make across issues of race and class. Jay Sexton highlighted the importance of political languages and vocabularies, suggesting that the "old language of republicanism" was giving way to a "new language of civilization" over the course of the civil war. Then, the discussion turned to the question of how global the Civil War actually was. The participants agreed with Aaron Sheehan-Dean's suggestion that global analysis is not always relevant to our understanding of history and that one needs to exercise caution when putting events in a transnational framework. Marcus Gräser asked whether the transnational approach should be regarded as a means of explaining the war per se or rather as a tool for illuminating it, and Richard Carwardine and Jay Sexton observed that more attention should be paid to the role of religion in the Civil War. Finally, it was observed that since the conference had considered the transnational significance of the Civil War, it would also be fruitful to reflect on the world significance for the Civil War and examine how global developments help to explain how the war even came about.

Katharina Wagner (University of Jena)

Call for Papers

This international conference will investigate the transnational significance and ramifications of the American Civil War in a global context. The Importance of the American Civil War for American History is evident, but the conflict between the North and South furthermore can be seen as a primary example of nearly universal structural conflicts that were typical for the nineteenth century: first, the tension between local/regional actors and the ambitious nation state, second, the alternative social, economic, and political models of free labor in industrial capitalism and unfree labor in agrarian societies based on slavery and serfdom. This international dimension of the conflict not only sheds light on previously unrecognized elements of the story, it also helps to cast central, well known aspects of the conflict in a new light as well. The Civil War occurred within some transnational fields of conflict that not only contributed to its outbreak but also influenced its course and had significant international repercussions: the worldwide spread of cotton production as a result of the blockaded cotton export from the South was a significant outcome of the War, and the traditional fixation of the British textile industry on Southern cotton was part of the Southern secessionist's mindset, insofar as this privileged economic relationship seemed to promise not only economic security but also diplomatic recognition. (That this recognition failed to appear was then part of the story of the defeat of the Confederate States.) Some other interdependencies invite further explorations in the field of global and comparative history: How was the American abolition of slavery related to the European abolition of serfdom? Were there transnational learning processes? How did the European revolutionary experience of 1848-49 inflect the sectional conflict and the nexus of nation and democracy in the United States? What consequences did the Secession, the Civil War and Reconstruction have for the political elites in the fragile, multiethnic empires in Europe?

This conference will promote a variety of explorations in the global dimension of the American Civil War. The following headings might serve as possible topics for panels:

  • the Civil War and the explanatory power of transnational history
  • nation-building, sectionalism, and Civil War in a transnational context
  • the Civil War and the global economy
  • slavery, emancipation, and racism in a transnational context
  • the transnational impact of the American Civil War on military affairs and the future of warfare
  • the Civil War and international relations
  • the Civil War and global transfers of knowledge (through media, congresses)
  • contemporary (self-) perceptions and analysis of the American Civil War

Individual paper abstracts (200-250 words) should be specifically directed at one (or more) of the panel topics included in this CFP. Abstracts must be received by April 15, 2011. Participants will be notified by May 5, 2011. All questions and submissions should be sent electronically to: Jörg Nagler and Marcus Graeser Travel expenses (economy), lodging and meals for conference participants, will be covered. We intend to publish the contributions.

Call for papers (pdf)