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

Sep 20, 2012 - Sep 22, 2012

Conference at the GHI | Conveners: Marcus Gräser (Johannes Kepler Universitaet Linz/GHI), Jörg Nagler (Universität Jena), Don Doyle (University of South Carolina)

The American Civil War not only was the central crisis of a hitherto "unfinished nation" in American history but was embedded in international or even global political, socio-economic, military, and cultural developments. In the age of nationalism and nation building, rising liberal democracies, the world simultaneously experienced increasing globalized capitalist economies that became interdependent from each other. With the liberations of over four millions slaves who had produced most of the world supply of raw cotton prior to 1861, manufactures had to find new supply areas and channels for the pivotal raw material for one of the world's largest industries. The globalization of the cotton empire was one of the results of the American Civil War. The American Civil War and its outcome were central to these transformations that then shaped the future developments of the United States. The world watched this conflict with high interest, and international communication networks shaped the perception of the American Civil War in their respective national culture. This phenomenon reflected the dialectical relationship between nationalism and universalism, and common transnational ideological currents. The study of the transnational ramifications of the American Civil War - employing histoire croisée and comparative history methodologies - will "deprovincialize" this conflict and its implications, and will render new perspectives of this central crisis of the nineteenth century.

In September of 2011, the first of this GHI sponsored conference series took place at Friedrich-Schiller-University in Jena (you can find a report of this conference in the Bulletin of the GHI). This follow-up conference will extend its agenda by e.g discussing the pertinent paradigms of gender and religion in a transnational dimension, and also by expanding the geographical horizons, e.g. by looking at British India, and Japan.

Conference Report

A year after the first "Transational Significance of the American Civil War" conference in Jena, this meeting brought together some of the original participants and a fresh group of historians, who gathered in Washington, DC to reevaluate the promise of transnational approaches to the history of the American Civil War. After Britta Waldschmidt-Nelson welcomed the participants to the German Historical Institute, Jörg Nagler opened the proceedings by remarking that the conference program reflected many of the scholarly desiderata that emerged in Jena, including an emphasis on the war's global impact, both in the mid-nineteenth century and over the longue durée, and the relationship between the war, the British Empire, and the world beyond Europe. In his opening remarks, Don Doyle noted that the organizers intended to collect a book of essays that drew on insights shared at both the Jena and Washington conferences. Doyle observed that in contrast to the domestic and social history preoccupations of Civil War scholarship in the 1970s, ‘80s, and ‘90s, historians in the 21st century have turned back toward an international approach. Finally, Marcus Gräser drew attention to the meeting as a collaboration of both U.S.- and European-based scholars of the Civil War, and considered what different perspectives non-American scholars might bring to the subject.

To begin the first panel, on revolution and nation-building in a comparative perspective, Tiziano Bonazzi addressed a larger historical parallel between the Civil War era United States and Italy during the time of the Risorgimento. Bonazzi noted that despite their obvious differences in economic development, after 1861 the political leadership in both Italy and the United States embarked on a process of liberal nation-building. The new Italian state's war on the obstreperous and violent southern banditti, Bonazzi argued, shared a "structural affinity" with the process of Reconstruction in the United States-as did the eventual political settlement in both nations, which built a stronger central government at the cost of excluding large swathes of the population from political participation. Chris Hill was unfortunately unable to attend the conference, but Jay Sexton briefly related Hill's view of a similar problem confronted by both American and Japanese nation builders in the late nineteenth century-how to deal with the losers of a recent internal conflict, many of whom (like Japanese samurai) retained close connections to the new nation's history, culture, and identity.

Bruce Levine's keynote address took up the question of the American Civil War's place in the "age of revolutions." Levine began by stressing the indisputably revolutionary experience of the Civil War, and especially its destruction of slavery and the southern Slave Power. The relationship between this second American Revolution, Levine noted, and European upheavals in 1789, 1848, and 1871, was something which contemporary commentators from Abraham Lincoln to Karl Marx had not failed to perceive. Like their counterparts in the European revolutions, the Civil War's eventual revolutionaries began with a strictly limited set of ends and means. But Lincoln's disinclination to turn the war into "an instrument of social revolution" gradually dissolved under the pressure of military conflict and slaveholding intransigence. Unlike its European counterparts, Levine observed, the escalation of the Civil War's social revolution-formalized in Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation-did not feature a radical transformation in political leadership. Yet the political power base of the Republican Party did shift toward abolitionists, Radicals, and even the slaves themselves after 1863. Although blacks were never at the heart of the Republicans' constituency, and the Civil War contained its own Thermidor, in the conservative retreats and failures of Reconstruction, Levine concluded, the war's revolutionary impact was not entirely effaced: as in the case of the European revolutions, the Old Regime never again returned in full.

Friday morning's proceedings began with Hartmut Keil and Alison Efford presenting papers that considered the political odyssey of German-American immigrants during the Civil War era. Keil argued that the experience of the Civil War transformed German-American liberal and radical attitudes, reorienting the immigrants away from political concerns in their homeland and toward their own role in American politics. Efford's paper assessed the place of African-Americans in the pluralistic democracy that German-American immigrants sought to build in the Civil War era U.S. At first, Efford demonstrated, German-American enthusiasm for multi-ethnic democracy provided a boost for black rights in the late 1860s. Ultimately, however, the Germans' conception of pluralism was vulnerable to racial distinctions, and may have helped weaken both the Fifteenth Amendment and the white North's commitment to blacks during Reconstruction.

The second panel on Friday morning took up the question of the American Civil War's larger relationship with global slavery. Michael Mann urged U.S. Civil War historians to avoid the temptation to see the global nineteenth century as an "Age of Emancipation," or a simple triumph of modern free wage labor. In fact the most important development between 1840 and 1880, Mann argued, was the "rearrangement of labor on a global scale," resulting in a multiple labor market which combined different work regimes across the world, each one tailored to suit the evolving demands of industrial capitalism. From the perspective of the Indian Ocean, especially, the perpetuation of slavery in East Africa, the spread of bound Indian "coolie" labor throughout the British Empire, and the increasing importance of convict transport reaffirmed the diversity and complexity of this evolving global picture. Matthew Karp's paper also considered the relationship between American slavery and other forms bound labor in the nineteenth century world. Southern slaveholders may have sharply criticized imperial coolie and apprentice labor in specific instances, but from a larger perspective, they saw these systems as part of a wider European recognition that coerced labor and racial hierarchy were unavoidable features of the nineteenth century world economy. Ultimately, Karp concluded, the rise of the multiple labor market in the 1850s only fortified Southern elites' confidence in the future of their own slave system.

A third Friday panel sought to further relate Civil War era politics of race, slavery, and emancipation to contemporaneous global developments. Andrew Zimmerman argued that transatlantic plebian radicalism represented a critical and overlooked component in the politics of the U.S. Civil War. The political economy of autonomy and the idea of the common, Zimmerman noted, animated radical resistance movements in the U.S. South, West Africa, and Europe. Although the power of bourgeois elites ultimately enclosed these new commons, any transnational understanding of the Civil War era must account for the significant ideological connections between anti-slavery, anti-racist, and plebian radical actors on both sides of the Atlantic. Andre Fleche, meanwhile, returned the discussion to the global confidence of conservative slaveholding elites in 1861. The political leadership of the Confederacy, Fleche observed, embraced and anticipated the racial logic of late nineteenth century European imperialism. Tracing Southern enthusiasm for Napoleon III's imperial invasion of Mexico, Fleche stressed the irreducible white supremacy at the heart of Confederate nationalism, which surpassed any competing commitments to liberalism, republicanism, or even the Monroe Doctrine.

After lunch, the conference reconvened with a panel that examined the direct reverberations of Civil War events and actors in the wider world. Martha Hodes reviewed international responses to Abraham Lincoln's assassination and suggested that the emphasis on "unity" and "universal grief" for Lincoln previewed the white North's later turn toward sectional reconciliation at the expense of black freedom. Charles Francis Adams and Benjamin Moran, the leading American diplomats in London, stretched the truth to include even Lincoln's bitter opponents among those in mourning for the President. Did these emotional responses, Hodes asked, "form the raw beginnings" of the political movement that led to white reunion and the betrayal of black equality? Jay Sexton examined former Secretary of State William Seward's remarkable twenty-month global tour, from 1869 to 1871. Seward's journeys, which largely bypassed Europe and ranged from Japan to Turkey to Mexico, produced an array of useful sources, including his own exhaustive memoirs and manuscripts, international press clippings, and British and American consular correspondence. The Secretary of State's materialist conception of "civilization" in the nineteenth century, Sexton argued, captured his nationalist view of globalization, but also reflected the ways that postwar American expansion was conditioned by British imperial power.

The final panel on Friday afternoon addressed religion and gender in the Civil War from a transnational perspective. David Thomson's exploration of ministerial influence on Union diplomacy traced the ways that the North's religious envoys abroad turned sharply from the rhetoric of "holy fraternity" and embraced the language of "righteous violence." Both the Catholic John Hughes in Paris and the Episcopalian Charles Pettit McIlvaine in London argued before foreign audiences that the Union represented the "cause of God," while the Confederacy was "the work of the devil." Stephanie McCurry's paper investigated the larger relationship between waging war and building a nation in the nineteenth century. The inescapable military component to nineteenth century nationalism required newly-built states to expand the body politic in order to access male bodies for military service-but what were the gender consequences of this fraternal nationalism? Examining the evolution of Francis Lieber's code of war, McCurry noted that the Union's political and intellectual leadership was forced to revise its 1861 assumption that women were necessarily outside the domain of war. The case of the American Civil War, McCurry suggested, raises fundamental but often-ignored questions about the relationship between war, gender, and the consolidation of masculine citizenship in nineteenth century states the world over.

After a lively conference dinner on Friday evening, participants reunited on Saturday morning for a final panel, which assessed the transnational meaning of the Emancipation Proclamation. Don Doyle's paper began by noting Great Britain's skeptical reaction to the announcement of Emancipation in the fall of 1862. As William Seward had feared, British leaders including William Gladstone and Lord John Russell saw the policy as a desperate ploy by the Union, and an active debate on British recognition of the Confederacy continued within Lord Palmerston's cabinet. Doyle then shifted the scene to Italy, where the independent initiative of a U.S. consul enlisted the formidable rhetorical support and international moral prestige of Giuseppe Garibaldi to the cause of emancipation and the Union. Popular demonstrations in London, on behalf of the imprisoned Garibaldi, discouraged British conservatives from sympathizing with the slaveholding Confederacy, and demonstrated the transatlantic connections between democratic politics in the 1860s. Howard Jones, meanwhile, addressed the basic power politics that shaped the diplomacy of emancipation on both sides of the Atlantic. While the Confederates remained victims of their own global naïveté-in finance, diplomacy, and elsewhere-Jones stressed Lincoln's hard-headed determination "to destroy the South." Emancipation was above all a military decision made for political reasons, and one that ultimately strengthened the cause of the Union both at home and abroad.

The proceedings concluded with a roundtable discussion featuring five panelists. Jörg Nagler stressed the necessity of "de-provincializing" the Civil War and identifying new connections in an entangled world. Marcus Gräser observed that the Civil War was in fact an ideal test case of the possibilities of a transnational approach, given how firmly it is rooted in the master narrative of American national history. Martha Hodes identified five aspects of a transnational history of the Civil War that required further contemplation: time, and the chronological boundaries of the Civil War era; space, and whether the war was a truly global or a merely Atlantic event; visions, and how contemporary actors themselves understood the war's transnational implications; voices, and whose histories are selected and omitted by a global perspective; and readers, or whether an American readership is really willing to swallow a global view on the Civil War. Mischa Honeck noted the instability of political labels during the tumultuous Civil War era, and proposed that further investigation into the material culture of the era-e.g., the dissemination of Garibaldi shirts from South America to South Carolina-might yield a transnational history that includes the experiences and activities of ordinary people. Sven Beckert stressed the necessity of understanding the Civil War not merely as a cause or result of overseas events, but a critical instance of the larger transformations of the global nineteenth century. The two most fundamental of these, he argued, were the consolidation of the nation-state and the spread of capitalist social relations throughout the world, in both industrial centers and the countryside. Michael Mann wondered if "global history" was really necessary to understand the old Atlantic story of Euro-American state formation. The original promise of transnational history was that it reached beyond the nation-state-to make good on that promise, he argued, historians must break out of their comfortable confines of expertise, and shift perspective to a wider, unfamiliar global view.

A concluding conversation, which involved all conference participants, identified a number of critical questions that students of a transnational American Civil War must continue to engage. These included the idea of the war as a global trial of democracy; the relationship between the war and the worldwide evolution of capitalism and labor freedom; the need to incorporate Asian and African perspectives to determine if the war was truly "global"; the relationship between the Civil War and the other major military conflicts of the 1860s, including the wars of German and Italian unification, the Taiping Rebellion, and the Paraguayan War; the transnational careers of military professionals in the era, many of whom fought in more than one of these wars; the problem of how to think about gender and women's history in a world defined by war; and a larger reassessment of the methodological benchmarks, research strategies, and standards of evidence made necessary by a truly transnational approach to the mid-nineteenth century.

Matthew Karp (American Academy of Arts and Sciences)