A Bird’s Eye View of the Civil War: The Virtues of a Transnational Perspective

A Bird’s Eye View of the Civil War: The Virtues of a Transnational Perspective

Teaching the Civil War takes juggling some very broad, diverse, complex processes in the histories of slavery and freedom, of nationalism, citizenship and state building, of Indian Nations and the West, of modern warfare, of economic transformation of the economy, and of the ways in which people thought about life, death, gender, family, and personal responsibility. Adding a transnational dimension to all of this–exploring how the war reverberated outside the country and how it was affected by what went on beyond U.S. borders–seems daunting, overwhelming and perhaps not worth the bang one gets for the buck. I would nonetheless like to suggest in this post that there is much to be gained from looking at–and teaching–the Civil War from a transnational perspective. Shifting scales and angles allows students to see the war in a different light, to gauge its significance beyond U.S. history, and to rethink the nation and its narratives.

As the articles in the JCWE’s December 2017 issue show, the 1850s and 1860s witnessed profound transformations of North America. The articles describe different historical processes–peaceful and violent, protracted and ephemeral–that fractured and reconfigured the continent’s geography, refashioned its national communities, and expanded the meaning of freedom and community. Attentiveness to these broader processes and shared experiences, molded by connections and influences, marked by coincidences and contrasts, can serve as a remedy to parochialism and exceptionalism. At the very least, they remind students that nations rarely operate in a vacuum, and that what we sometimes imagine are monolithic actors–“Mexico,” the “United States”–need to be unpacked.

My article, “Law, Allegiance and Sovereignty in Civil War Mexico, 1857-1867,” focuses on how foreign invasion overlapped with domestic discord and reshuffled Mexicans’ sense of allegiance and their visions of law and politics. European military intervention in Mexico, as a response to the Juárez government’s defaulting on its foreign debt, is perhaps the most vivid illustration of the weight of transnational dynamics during the Civil War era, but they also profoundly affected the bilateral relationship between the two North American republics. Washington and Richmond both faced momentous challenges on the international arena. The Confederate government exerted itself to obtain diplomatic recognition; the Union resolutely sought to avoid this. The French intervention in Mexico added a new wrinkle to an already complex situation. Despite the Lincoln administration’s sympathy for the beleaguered republic to the south, and the Monroe Doctrine having been expressly designed to prevent something like Napoleon III’s “Mexican Adventure,” Washington’s foreign policy would remain firmly committed to preventing British and French recognition of the Confederate States of America, and avoiding alienating the French. Until the end of the war, New World republican solidarity would be limited to rhetorical saber-rattling in newspapers, meetings, and congressional debate, ably promoted by Matías Romero, the Mexican Republic’s young envoy to Washington.[1]

Victor Hugo, considered France’s greatest literary figure at the time, condemned American slavery and Napoleon III’s Mexican Expedition. Courtesy of Etienne Carjat.

The transnational dimension of the 1860s in North America is not the discovery of lucid, postmodern historians. What we can describe as a transnational consciousness was central to the way people conceived and understood the world they lived in.[2] The U.S. Civil War, the resurgence of European expansionism and the rebirth of monarchy in the Americas were seen as episodes in the larger struggle for civilization, as part of a universal confrontation between freedom and tyranny. When, in 1867, the Mexican Republic defeated the French sponsored imperial regime, Victor Hugo wrote to president Benito Juárez that America had “two heroes, John Brown and you. Brown, through whom slavery died, and you, who made liberty live.”[3] The New World was imagined as the stage in which the fate of humanity would be played out.

Matthew Brady’s photograph of Capt. Felix Salm Salm, a Prussian officer who served in the U.S. army during the Civil War. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

On both sides of the Atlantic, men and women agonized over events in North America. Some crossed oceans and borders to join the fray: Argentinian Edelmiro Mayer and Prussian Felix Salm Salm both joined the Union army. When the U.S. Civil War ended, the South American officer enlisted in Mexico’s republican army. Years later, he would fight against the indigenous people of Patagonia in the Argentinian government’s “Conquest of the Desert.” The German aristocrat served Maximilian as his empire crumbled. Tennessee-born William M. Gwin promoted the colonization and development of America’s frontiers as a member of the U.S. Congress, representing Mississippi (1841-1843) and California (1850-1855), and then, in the mid-1860s, as an imperial official and freshly minted duke in Mexican Sonora.[4] These men went far from home to defend their version of liberty and progress, and to build a better world–and a better life for themselves. Their colorful life stories translate into human experience the contradictions, dilemmas and rifts brought on by the Civil War era. They throw light on the artificial and unstable nature of patriotism, on the multiplicity of reasons why people fight in wars, and on the complex relationship between ideals and interests.

Lt. Colonel Edelmiro Mayer, an Argentinian soldier and statesman who fought for the United States during the war. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Others did not fight, but they observed, debated, and wrote. Their letters (public and private), articles, and pamphlets, can draw students into the emotional and ideological underpinnings of the era’s impassioned transnational politics. Because they were often written for readers who were not familiar with the issues, these documents present provocative, stark, morally charged explanations of what was at stake in these conflicts. Students can read Karl Marx’s description of Abraham Lincoln as a “plebeian, […] without intellectual brilliance, without a particularly outstanding character, without exceptional importance,” and debate why this is held up as evidence that, in America, “ordinary people of good will can accomplish feats which only heroes could accomplish in the old world.”[5] They can also contrast Lincoln’s vision of the Civil War as a struggle to preserve the “government of the people, by the people, for the people” with Lord Acton’s conviction that the Confederate States of America represented history’s greatest effort “made by Republicans to remedy the faults of that form of government.” Had the Confederates, argued the British Liberal, “called on the negroes to be partners with them in the perils of war and in the fruits of victory, that generous resolution would have conferred in all future ages incalculable blessings on the human race.”[6]

These vivid testimonies paint a world that was messy, densely connected, and fraught with both danger and opportunity. Because of this, they can be particularly useful in the classroom. Having students read them and discuss them critically helps us decenter and destabilize familiar narratives of the past. They often upend the binary, anachronistic, logic we impose on political ideology to reveal its complexities. They clue us into the way some of the key concepts that structured the era’s contentious conflicts –slavery, sovereignty, democracy— were understood, debated, and transformed. Ideally, they resurrect a past that is unpredictable and relevant.


[1] For insights into transnational perspectives, I suggest these readings for students: Patrick J. Kelly, “The North American Crisis of the 1860s,”Journal of the Civil War Era 2, no. 3 (September 2012): 337-368 and Jay Sexton, “Civil Wars,” in The Monroe Doctrine: Empire and Nation in Nineteenth Century America (New York: Hill and Wang, 2011), 123-158. For Romero’s misión, see Thomas Schoonover, ed., A Mexican View of America in the 1860s. A Foreign Diplomat Describes the Civil War and Reconstruction (Cranbury and London: Associated University Presses, 1991).

[2] Donald H. Doyle, The Cause of All Nations: An International History of the Civil War (New York: Basic Books, 2013).

[3] Victor Hugo, Lettre de Victor Hugo à Juárez, président de la République mexicaine (Brussels: J.H. Briard, 1867), 3.

[4] Rachel Saint John, “The Unpredictable America of William Gwin: Expansion, Secession, and the Unstable Borders of Nineteenth-century North America,” Journal of the Civil War Era 6, no. 1 (March 2016): 56-84; Edelmiro Mayer, Campaña y guarnición. Escenas de la vida militar (Buenos Aires: Jacobo Peuser, 1892); Felix of Salm Salm, My Diary in Mexico, Including the Last Days of Emperor Maximilian (London: Richard Bently, 1868); Agnes Salm-Salm, Ten Years of My Life (London: Ruchard, Bentley and Sons, 1876).

[5] “Comments on the North American Events,” Die Presse, October 12, 1862, in Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, Collected Works (London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1984), vol. XIX, 248.

[6] “The Civil War in America. Its Place in History,” in John Emerich Edward Dalberg, Lord Acton, Historical Essays and Studies, ed. John Neville Figgis and Reginald Vere Laurence (London: Macmillan, 1907), accessed January 29, 2018, http://oll.libertyfund.org/titles/2201.


Erika Pani

Erika Pani is Research Professor at El Colegio de México’s Centro de Estudios Históricos. She has published Para mexicanizar el Segundo Imperio. El imaginario político de los imperialistas (2001), on the political projects of Maximilian’s Mexican collaborators. She has also published Para pertenecer a la gran familia mexicana: Procesos de naturalización en el siglo XIX (2015), on naturalization laws and practices in the nineteenth century.

3 Replies to “A Bird’s Eye View of the Civil War: The Virtues of a Transnational Perspective”

  1. Dr. Pani’s article provides some refreshing insights. Since I am retired now (for 15 years), and have not kept up with recent historiography like I used to, her article and many others on “Muster” are greatly appreciated. The new International focus is very helpful and needed.

      1. Very interesting article: However I must point out a mistake. Edelmiro Mayer never took part of the “Conquest of the Desert”, as He was already retired when this started, in 1878. He rose up all the way to Major in Argentina, then went to the U.S and took part of the Civil War, ending up as Leut.Col in the U.S.C.T. Later on, he would fight for Juarez in Mexico, eventually becoming a General, before returning to Argentina in 1873, to become involved in politics and music, as well as and obtaining a few administrative commands in Buenos Aires’ forces, but none of them related to the aforementioned campaign against the Patagonian indians. He would -however- later become Governor of one of Patagonia’s new provinces before passing out in early January 1897.

        Cheers to the author and the admins.

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