Wednesday, April 10, 2019

Review - "France and the American Civil War: A Diplomatic History" by Steve Sainlaude

[France and the American Civil War: A Diplomatic History by Stève Sainlaude (University of North Carolina Press, 2019). Hardcover, photos, illustrations, notes, timeline, bibliography, index. Pages main/total:xv,189/304. ISBN:978-1-4696-4994-8. $45]

During the American Civil War, Great Britain and Second Empire France were the two nations that the Confederacy desired diplomatic recognition from most. Both world powers had powerful militaries and were long-established trading partners with deep and complex shared histories with the North American continent. The language barrier to accessing essential source material combined with the widely held perception that Britain was by far the more diplomatically important of the two European empires has led U.S. scholars to focus mostly on the Anglo-American relationship. However, the recent work of Sorbonne historian Stève Sainlaude has accomplished much in the way of bridging this linguistic and interpretive gap in understanding. His scholarship produced from mastery of French archives has resulted in two award-winning books on French policy during the Civil War. Le gouvernement impérial et la guerre de Sécession (1861-1865): L'action diplomatique (2011) offers readers a general overview while La France et la Confédération sudiste. La question de la reconnaissance diplomatique pendant la guerre de Sécession (2011) examines Franco-Confederate relations at greater depth. With the assistance of translator Jessica Edwards, the Anglophone audience can now read a scholarly synthesis of those two earlier French-language works. Among other strengths, Sainlaude's France and the American Civil War: A Diplomatic History provides a much-needed counterpoint to the prevailing view that French diplomacy during the American Civil War had an influence clearly secondary to Britain's and looked to its neighbor across the channel to lead the way on U.S.-Confederate policy matters. Sailaude's study shows that France, while its foreign office clearly explored open cooperation with Britain to avoid geopolitical isolation, acted with far more self-interested independence than previously credited by most historians of Civil War period international relations. Though its title might suggest a broader approach to the topic, the book focuses most strongly on Franco-Confederate diplomatic interactions, where the author's particular scholarly expertise lies.

The study begins with a summary of France and Britain's declarations of neutrality, their positions on the blockade (and its effectiveness), and their granting of belligerency status to the new Confederacy. Other related issues, such as European worries over how both American combatants would respect the rights and protections of foreign citizens in a war zone, are also discussed. In addition to providing necessary British context to what is a study of French diplomacy, the section offers a fine introduction to the most significant points of international law that needed to be addressed by all nations concerned.

France's Emperor Napoleon III sympathized strongly with the Confederacy. This was accompanied by a deep personal antipathy felt toward the United States, an aristocratic disdain that apparently strengthened during his brief New York residency and travels in the North. However, Napoleon's personal desires were frequently in conflict with how the professional diplomats of France's Ministry of Foreign Affairs (the Quai d'Orsay) viewed the empire's interests best served. One of the book's strongest and most pervasive themes revolves around the successes Napoleon's chief diplomats had in thwarting the emperor's off and on efforts to promote recognition of the Confederacy through mediation—his bursts of initiative by no coincidence timed at key moments of perceived Confederate high tide in July 1862 and June 1863—as well as the emperor's desire to construct warships to sell to the Richmond government. In Sainlaude's view, Minister Thouvenel and his successor Drouyn de Lhuys were the chief and most effective guardians of French national interests during the war. Both men demonstrated uncommon bureaucratic skill in checking Napoleon's wilder impulses. They effectively blocked the emperor's pro-Confederate backdoor channels and consistently outmaneuvered badly outclassed Confederate diplomats; and they did this all while retaining the favor and good will of the emperor. Given their actions, it seems almost remarkable that neither was sacked. The author could find no good explanation for why Napoleon did not force the resignation of diplomats so opposed to his initiatives, but apparently the emperor deeply respected the bureaucratic professionalism of both men.

France diplomats also excelled in navigating the information war, effectively separating truth from propaganda in order to arrive at informed policy decisions. In the end, Sainlaude's sources reveal that French officials were remarkably well-informed on the resources, strengths, and weaknesses of the opposing sections and were able to feed accurate information to Paris throughout the war. The French were convinced relatively early on that the North would win as long as popular will held out, and they geared their diplomacy toward future relations with the United States on that basis. The book cites the wartime dispatches of Richmond consul and ardent Jefferson Davis critic Alfred Paul as particularly accurate and influential both in their astute assessment of the South's vulnerabilities and their remarkable prescience in predicting the course of the war. The author also points out several lesser appreciated areas, such as military and trade matters in the Far East, through which France viewed cooperation with the U.S. as important to maintain.

Sainlaude argues effectively in the book that the 1860s strength of French and British rapprochement (part of the off and on "entente cordiale" that existed during the nineteenth century beginning in 1830) has been overestimated in the historical literature. French ministers, far from reluctantly towing the British diplomatic line of restraint, opposed recognizing the Confederacy because it was best for French self interest. European concerns always held primacy, and even Napoleon himself came to see British naval power as more threatening to his own plans in the Americas (more on that later) than a unified and expansionist U.S. This concern touches upon another important theme of French diplomacy during the American Civil War, the truth that many of the most pressing issues lacked anything resembling a clear or consistent path to follow or "side" to take. Inherent contradictions in policy direction, particularly those related to the imperial venture in Mexico, all too often proved maddeningly impossible to resolve to the primary benefit of France.

Contrary to the how the matter has been traditionally expressed in the literature, Sainlaude's research in French archives and newspapers has revealed that popular sympathy with the plight of the southern people and the merits of the Confederate cause were by no means widespread in France. While the Confederacy had its defenders in the emperor and his backers, much evidence points toward the popular majority's rejection of southern attempts to paint themselves as a distinct, freedom-loving people of European-style refinement. Instead, the liberal press latched onto the inherent contradictions of freedom and slavery and generally decried the rebellion as unjustified, additionally seeing the South as violently aggressive and the Davis presidency unchecked and overly authoritarian (though the Lincoln administration was also sometimes criticized on similar grounds).

While slavery definitely harmed the image of the South in France and well-publicized events like the publication of Uncle Tom's Cabin and the 1859 execution of John Brown had as much affect on popular antislavery feeling on the continent as it did in the North, the issue did not hold much sway in French diplomacy, which greatly favored practical national self-interest over humanitarian considerations. According the the author, this was a major difference in French versus British handling of how the institution might affect the possibility of official recognition. In Sainlaude's view, Napoleon III's ultimate turn away from support of the Confederacy was an act of shrewd pragmatism that gained him important friends among the large reform elements of the home population who during the war drew frequent parallels between southern oppression of blacks and imperial suppression of freedom in France.

When it came to carrying out Napoleon III's "Grand Design" of a French-led Pan-Latin geopolitical bloc in the western hemisphere that would serve to contain Anglo-American expansion (only part of which was the puppet government installed in Mexico) , the American Civil War proved to a source of both frustration and opportunity. While permanent division of the United States might have seemed to be an ideal situation for facilitating Napoloen's plan, it was full of potential pitfalls. Though the Confederates outwardly supported the French occupation of Mexico as part of its gambit for official recognition, the French quickly came to realize that southerners were just as hostile as the U.S. to a European presence on the continent (especially one on its very borders). Napoleon and his diplomats in North America also well knew that it was southern leaders who were chiefly behind antebellum filibustering expeditions launched from the U.S. Long-held southern dreams of annexing large portions of Central America and the Caribbean directly conflicted with Napoleon's plan to include those very same lands in his own new sphere of influence. French officials additionally found Confederate declarations that secession ended their need for southern expansion highly unconvincing. Napoleon and his ministers were also certain that recognition of the Confederacy would lead to war with the North, and the capability of the massive new U.S. Navy to interdict French shipping and lines of communication with its forces in Mexico deeply concerned them. In the end, Napoleon's best prospect was for a long Civil War that would exhaust both combatants and allow the French time to firmly establish themselves in Mexico, though hope in some circles that the U.S. might recognize Maximilian's government as a sign of appreciation for France's restrained Confederate policy was clearly a pipe dream.

Of course, any thought of recognizing the Confederacy or intervening in the conflict was highly dependent on French confidence in the Confederacy's ability to both defend and govern itself. Though early Confederate victories impressed many within the French government, the most astute observers of the war quickly saw the cracks in the veneer of southern strength and their doubts about whether the Rebel experiment in nation building could succeed quickly gained strength and influence over the next two years. By mid-1863 French consuls on the ground in America and diplomats in Paris collectively came to the conclusion that an independent southern nation was not viable, or even desirable. This was accompanied by the growing belief that some new federated arrangement was both inevitable and most compatible with French interests looking forward.

The book clearly recognizes that trade concerns were integral to foreign policy formulation, and it finds estimates of the South's value to France as a trading partner commonly exaggerated in the general literature. Through incisive citation of key economic facts and figures, Sainlaude's study shows southern cotton to be far from "king" when it came to trade with France. While the American Civil War caused significant economic disruption on the continent, France's textile industry (and overall population percentage that worked in jobs associated with cotton), though large, was only a fraction of Britain's. Like Britain, France held large cotton reserves at the start of the war and was able to replace a large part of any future deficit through other sources, though it hurt national pride to be dependent on British cotton. Potential social unrest was shrewdly deterred by a large infusion of public welfare spending, and the nature of the French textile industry (which, unlike Britain's, was still heavily craft-based) meant that workers could more readily turn to other sources of supplemental income. Added to all this, the blackmail perception of the initial southern cotton embargo angered the French public when their goodwill was most deeply prized. In contrast, French trade with the North in silks and other luxuries was an immensely lucrative part of the French export economy, and country was in turn heavily dependent on northern grain imports. If any trade relationship with North America was truly essential for France to maintain, it was the one with the United States.

France and the American Civil War represents an extremely significant contribution to the scholarly study of transatlantic international relations during the period. It will surely assume the position of the premier English-language study of French diplomacy during the Civil War period. Through judicious interpretation of previously neglected French sources, Stève Sainlaude's study offers U.S. readers a highly original, nuanced, and deeply persuasive portrait of French positions on the most important diplomatic issues associated with the Civil War. Providing clarity while wading through many apparent contradictions, the author convincingly explains why France's seemingly pro-Confederate authoritarian regime nevertheless rejected official recognition of the rebellious confederation and instead saw its present and future national interests best served by maintaining relations with the United States, a choice one might reasonably find at odds with the country's imperial designs in Mexico and other parts of the western hemisphere. Very highly recommended.


  1. Drew: Thanks for this thorough review. I picked this one up recently in UNC Press's annual on-line sale at a hefty discount. Now I'm looking forward to getting to it (at some point).

    1. The topic would ordinarily have put the book on the 'maybe' pile, but the author's impressive essay in "American Civil Wars" really propelled this one up the priority list. I wasn't disappointed.

    2. It's not one I might not have prioritized either, but the fact that I know very little if anything about the subject (beyond the frolic in Mexico) combined with your assessment means that I'll have to move it up the list.


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