Andre M. Fleche: Why an International Perspective is Important in Understanding the Civil War

The Revolution of 1861: The American Civil War in the Age of Nationalist Conflict, by Andre M. FlecheSetting familiar events in an international context, The Revolution of 1861: The American Civil War in the Age of Nationalist Conflict, by Andre M. Fleche, enlarges our understanding of nationalism in the nineteenth century, with startling implications for our understanding of the Civil War. In the following guest post, Fleche explains the importance of this international perspective on the most American of wars.

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The Civil War has long been treated as America’s unique odyssey, or, as one famous historian described it, as a conflict as “American as apple pie.” In popular culture, the war has often been depicted as a war between brothers in an American family quarrel. For example, Ken Burns’s popular film series on the war especially encouraged viewers to see the war as a uniquely American conflict, which shaped a unique American identity. While these interpretations of the war powerfully appeal to the national psyche, they do not capture the complexity of the Civil War. In our increasingly globalized world, it is clear that this view must change. In the age of the internet, Facebook, and Twitter, when news travels across the globe in an instant, we twenty-first-century people should be well-positioned to appreciate the ways in which the flow of people, ideas, and information can make national borders less relevant.

During the nineteenth century, though news traveled more slowly, Americans were just as connected to the world around them. Ships from Europe brought news from abroad regularly, and small town papers copied items from port cities and published editorials on world events. These updates fascinated Americans and took them away from the local world of their homes and farms.

The American predilection to consider foreign peoples, ideas, and events proved important during the Civil War for several reasons. First, thousands of foreign-born men fought for the Union and for the Confederacy. During the 1850s, immigrants made up a larger proportion of the nation’s population than at any other time in American history. They came with ideals and commitments. Thousands fled Ireland to escape poverty and British oppression and thousands more left Germany to seek freedoms of speech, press, and person. A significant number of them had participated in the European revolutions of 1848, which had sought to establish representative governments in Ireland, France, Germany, Hungary, Austria, and Italy.

When the Civil War began, they fought in the name of the same principles in America. For too long, popular interpretations of the Civil War have portrayed foreign-born soldiers as hirelings and mercenaries, similar to the hated “Hessians” who had fought for the British during the American Revolution. It is high time to acknowledge that they had as many ideological reasons for fighting as their native-born counterparts.

Many Irish immigrants in New York, Boston, and elsewhere joined the Union armies because they believed a strong United States would pose a greater threat to British power. A reunited American nation, they hoped, might even aid the cause of Irish freedom. Many Germans who settled in the North detested slavery and cherished the freedom of speech, press, and person they had been denied in Europe. They fought for the federal government in order to defend human liberty for natives of the Old World as well as the New.

Fewer foreigners joined Confederate armies, but many of those who did also brought strongly held convictions. Many Irish Confederates, in particular, believed they were fighting in a great war for national independence like the American patriots had done in 1776 and like so many in Ireland had been hoping to do for decades.

An international perspective on the war is important because it recovers these stories. But an international perspective is also important because it helps us understand the ideologies of the native-born. The presence of foreign ideas and foreign soldiers in Civil War armies helped shape and define the Union and Confederate causes. Confederates seized on the right of self-determination, a cause which they believed no worldly thinker could deny to any people who wished to exercise it. Though they remained committed to slavery, southern statesmen and journalists worked hard to depict Confederates as heroic fighters for freedom and nationality. Federal authorities, on the other hand, argued that the Union war effort would uphold representative government and human freedom not only in America but also in the rest of the world. As Abraham Lincoln explained at Gettysburg, the United States’ “new birth of freedom” would ensure that government “of the people, by the people, for the people shall not perish from the earth.”

When Lincoln and others called attention to the universal importance of the war, most Americans knew exactly what they meant. Throughout the 1800s, countless news stories in the American media had encouraged the public to view their country as the only home of freedom and self-government in a world governed by monarchy and despotism. Supporters of both sides believed Unionists and Confederates fought to preserve the liberties the American Revolution had introduced to the world. When we, today, share their international perspective, we can better understand why so many believed the outcome of the Civil War represented the “last best hope” of mankind anywhere on earth.

Andre M. Fleche is assistant professor of history at Castleton State College and author of The Revolution of 1861: The American Civil War in the Age of Nationalist Conflict. Read his previous guest post, “The ‘Second American Revolution’ in a Global Age.”