Thursday, March 23, 2017

Review of Doyle, ed. - "AMERICAN CIVIL WARS: The United States, Latin America, Europe, and the Crisis of the 1860s"

[American Civil Wars: The United States, Latin America, Europe, and the Crisis of the 1860s edited by Don H. Doyle (University of North Carolina Press, 2017). Softcover, map, chart, chapter notes, index. 272 pp. ISBN:978-1-4696-3109-7. $27.95]

At least for most North Americans, the epic struggle between the Union and the Confederacy has tended to shoulder aside popular knowledge of other much smaller, but still significant, Atlantic world conflicts that occurred during the decade of the 1860s. Many readers are familiar with French intervention and the civil war in Mexico, but there were other sources of strife in Latin America that drew the the world's attention at the time. Many of these events are described and analyzed at length in the new essay anthology American Civil Wars: The United States, Latin America, Europe, and the Crisis of the 1860s edited by Don Doyle. In this volume, Doyle has assembled an impressive cast of international scholars. In several cases, expert command of important source material in their native countries allows contributors to offer a number of insights that may have escaped many U.S. historians of the Civil War era.

Jay Sexton begins the proceedings. Like most modern scholars, he includes the United States in the list of great imperialist powers of the nineteenth century, though he perhaps appreciates better than some the non-linear, fits and starts nature of the progression and the robust level of domestic debate involved. One of the main points of his essay revolves around the Civil War's settlement of internal sectional division as prerequisite to sustained national expansion near and far (a situation greatly different from ancient Rome, for example).

In the following essay, Howard Jones, who has written extensively about Civil War diplomacy, effectively reminds readers that foreign recognition and possible intervention were always self-interested questions for the European empires, with moral qualms over slavery never figuring most prominently in their calculations. His chapter provides a very useful summary of the issues and concerns raised by the British, French, and Spanish governments in relation to how best to deal with, and perhaps take advantage of, the American Civil War. Multiple volume contributors (Jones among them) tend to agree with the traditional view that the possibility of European intervention peaked during the late summer and fall of 1862.

Patrick Kelly's examination of southern aspirations in Latin America persuasively argues that secession instantly (and more than bit ironically) neutered dreams of a greater slaveholding empire. Once secession unlinked the South from the vastly more powerful economic, military, and diplomatic backing of the United States, the Confederacy lacked the resources and navy necessary to seize and hold faraway lands. In the writer's view, Mexico and Spanish Cuba, both long desired targets of southern politicians, quickly realized how little they had to fear from a Confederacy fighting for its own life in North America. Far from being able to negotiate foreign concessions from a position of strength, Confederate leaders had to humble themselves before all and repeatedly assure even the weaker powers of Mexico and Spain that their country no longer had designs on previously coveted territories. While self-interested northern Mexico state governors like Santiago Vidaurri cooperated with Confederate officials, the Mexican central government confidently and repeatedly rebuffed Confederate alliance overtures. Continuing on this line of reasoning, ready Confederate acceptance of French intervention while getting nothing in return from Napoleon's government beyond baseless hopes of future recognition comprised further evidence of Confederate weakness in power projection.

Richard Huzzy marks the decade of the 1860s as a crisis of the British Empire in the Americas to coincide with the internal difficulties of the United States. In deciding how best to protect and further their own interests, Britons struggled over whether to cooperate with U.S. ambitions (citing common racial and cultural heritages) or adopt the riskier and more expensive confrontational stance of containment and competition. Imperial crises cited in the article include European intervention in Mexico, a bloody uprising in Jamaica, and concerns over how much imperial capital should be invested in furthering Canadian development as a counterbalancing force to growing U.S. capabilities (ex. building a transcontinental railroad to compete with the continental and Pacific aspirations of the U.S.). As Huzzy demonstrates, by the end of the decade it was clear to all involved that the U.S. was boundlessly ascendant and British dominion in the Americas was on permanent wane.

The American Civil War also put Napoleon III's "Grand Plan" of containing the growth of the United States into full motion. Citing official diplomatic documents in French archives, Steven Sainlaude contends that French intervention in Mexico was much less about collecting outstanding debts (France had the smallest claims among the three European powers that intervened) and more about blocking U.S. ambitions in the rest of the Americas. France didn't want any single power to dominate any of the world's continents, and its government sought to create a centrally located Latin alliance in the Americas as a regional counterweight to the Anglophone powers. While Kelly's previous chapter created the picture of a Confederacy unable to realize antebellum territorial ambitions, Sainlaude's position is that the professionals in the French diplomatic corps (unlike their emperor) were more concerned by the threat to Mexico of an independent Confederacy (with its filibustering tradition out of temporary retirement) than they were in weakening the United States. These career diplomats did everything in their power to block Napoleonic favor toward a Confederate government that was clearly not out to completely abandon the Monroe Doctrine and was only forced into currying favor with the French after badly botching initial overtures to Juarez. In the end, the French weren't prepared to do anything unilaterally when it came to intervening in the American Civil War. By the middle of the decade, the U.S. emerged even more powerful than before, and a complete French military withdrawal conceded the end of the Grand Plan.

Like France, the Spanish Empire also moved to take advantage of the internal troubles of the U.S. to both strengthen and expand its own holdings. Cuba, coveted for decades by a powerful southern proslavery political bloc, was Spain's imperial jewel and distrust of future Confederate aims toward it prompted Spain to keep the breakaway republic at arm's length. Christopher Schmidt-Nowara's article also cites the Spanish reannexation of the Dominican territory as an opportunistic move. But, like France in Mexico, Spain miscalculated and fighting Dominican insurgents proved an expensive drain on the imperial treasury. According to Schmidt-Nowara, Union victory in the Civil War also ignited latent abolitionist elements in Spain, which, in combination with a decade-long civil war in Cuba beginning in 1868, caused Spain to reconsider its colonial priorities and shift to a more Pacific focus (i.e. the Philippines). Anne Eller's companion piece goes into much more depth on eighteenth century Dominican history under a series of foreign and domestic rulers, concentrating on the disastrous failure of Spain's 1861-65 experiment in recolonization. Compounding Spanish discomfiture, the successful popular insurgency on the island inspired similar uprisings in Puerto Rico and Cuba. As both essays convincingly demonstrate, nothing went the Spanish Empire's way in the Caribbean during the 1860s.

Ever since it achieved independence from Spain in 1821, Mexico sought in vain political stability and economic prosperity for its population, as well as a workable relationship between the state and the rich and powerful Catholic Church. Erika Pani's essay usefully summarizes the political history of Mexico during the 1850s and 1860s, as the nation experimented without any great success with republicanism, dictatorships, and monarchism.

American Civil Wars also shows that the 1860s period was a decade of crisis for the smaller independent countries of Latin America. Hilda Sabato's chapter interestingly examines the evolution of the political and military institutions of Spanish America during the first half of the nineteenth century. Findings include the early prevalence of decentralized republican forms of government there (following various models), with armed citizenries willing and capable of applying force to politics. Distrustful of peacetime militaries from their colonial experiences, these citizen militias were the primary defense force in Latin America during this time. Professional armies gradually developed, but their relationships with the militias were deeply troubled. These civic and military combinations tended toward instability, and revolutions were frequent events. According to Sabata's analysis, the 1860s were something of a watershed period before centralized governments with dominant standing armies for defense and internal coercion became the norm in Latin America later in the century.

It could be said that the existence of slavery in the United States (the world's foremost beacon of freedom) shielded the institution from international pressure in other places in the Americas like Cuba and Brazil, and Matt Childs argues that three great events in the 1860s placed Cuban slavery on the road to extinction (though it would persist until 1886). The enduring Caribbean slave trade did much to sustain the system, and several American Civil Wars authors mark the Lyons-Seward Treaty of 1862 as a seminal moment in putting real teeth into choking off the illicit trade. Also, the end of the Civil War sparked the abolition movement in Spain itself, which ended the slave trade participation on their end only two years later in 1867. Finally, Childs makes the excellent point that wars involving slave societies very often led to emancipation (planned or not), and that also proved to be the case in Cuba, where large numbers of slaves joined the rebels during the long civil war that began in 1868. After this great decade of crisis and change was over, slavery in Cuba was in irrevocable decline.

As it did with Cuba, the American Civil War also heavily influenced the end of slavery in the system's last bastion in the Americas, the Empire of Brazil. World opinion mattered, and Brazil was understandably unwilling to shoulder the collective scorn attached to being the only remaining slave power in the Atlantic world. Aided by the fact that slavery was not a sectional or party issue like it was in the U.S., Brazil was able to implement gradual emancipation in the form of a free-womb law. As essay author Rafael Marquese shows, worries over the economic consequences of abolition in Brazil were greatly alleviated by the relatively rapid recovery of the U.S. cotton industry, as well as certain structural economic changes in the decades following the 1860s. Twentieth-century Brazilian slavery was a distinct possibility without the great events of the 1860s, and Marquese's chapter successfully argues that Brazilian slavery could not have ended when it did (1888) or how it did without the American Civil War.

The volume contributors do lightly engage with each other in direct form in their essays, mostly in the form of positive reinforcement, and, in terms of collective themes, a few points are worthy of note. There is much consensus among the contributors about the high degree of fear felt by all involved (Great Britain, France, Spain, and Mexico) when it came to the real and latent power of the United States. While supported by the evidence, it does also seem likely that this interpretation is to at least some degree tinged by backward argument from current reality. An interesting additional essay might have charted how much world power views of the U.S. were altered by the scale and rapidity of the North's industrial expansion and military mobilization. Along this line, Schmidt-Nowara relates an illustrative tale of how deeply impressed a high Spanish official was by the size, material resources, and outward appearances of military professionalism displayed by the Army of the Potomac in early 1862.

Another common thread is just how much Great Power distrust of Confederate motives outweighed the superficially more pragmatic move of supporting Confederate independence as a way of weakening and containing the United States. The most popular view at the time seems to have been that the southern section was the driving force for expansion in the antebellum United States, and there was more to fear from that than a reunited republic, but this seems to somewhat contradict Patrick Kelly's persuasive interpretation of secession as self-defeating when it came to Confederate empire building. Then again, with so many known and unknown variables involved, no foreign policy is ever truly consistent. Regardless, the Confederacy's death in 1865 rendered many of these questions moot.

This is an utterly fascinating set of essays, a fine collection of cutting edge international scholarship examining the political and societal reverberations of the American Civil War as its shockwaves spread both eastward across the Atlantic and southward into the Caribbean islands and Central and South America. In addition to being highly recommended reading for any student of the North-South conflict, the volume would make an excellent addition to any course curriculum addressing the geopolitical dimensions of the Civil War.


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