Civil War Historians and Terminology: Diplomatic History

Civil War Historians and Terminology: Diplomatic History

As historians of the Civil War era, we are all extremely familiar with the growing desire of using appropriate terminology in our scholarship and the pushback that such terminological changes have brought. We saw this when the Army University Press abandoned the term “Union” in its publications.[1] Slavery scholars had similar conversations regarding the use of enslaved versus slave, and other words surrounding the institution of slavery.[2] Or even more profoundly, there has been a growing conversation of what to call this conflict. We continue to use the term American Civil War, but as Steve Hahn and others have suggested contemporaries favored the more accurate description War of the Rebellion since the rebels had no intention of taking over the entire country but wanted to establish their own nation-state.[3] These debates are about using the most proper, accurate, and appropriate terms that communicate a more precise sense of past events and people. A debate worthwhile having.

However, one topic has not seen similar discussions but all too often creeps into the scholarly, even specialist literature, of the international relations of the Civil War era. Historians frequently use the modern terminology of ambassador when talking about foreign representatives in Washington, D.C. during the 1860s. While we certainly want to be cautious about using the terminology of the period when it comes to African American or Native American representatives, we need to acknowledge that the modern term ambassador is incorrect for mid-nineteenth century Atlantic relations. The modern usage of ambassador that people are familiar with dates to a 1957 conference streamlining international relations. We should strive to use the best, most accurate, and proper language in all areas of Civil War era scholarship.

Over the past ten years, I have heard conference presentations and commented on manuscripts that have used the term ambassador to talk about the foreign representative in the United States or from the United States during the 1860s. Joseph Fry, for example, identifies the British and French representatives in Washington, Lord Lyons and Henri Mercier respectively, as ambassadors.[4] Similarly, Don Doyle in his acclaimed The Cause of All Nations incorrectly upgrades the British, French, Spanish, and even Mexican representatives in Washington to full ambassadorial statues.[5] Maybe both scholars were thinking about a future Lord Lyons as he would be the ambassador of Great Britain to France for twenty years from 1867 to 1887. However, nobody in Washington held the title ambassador. While it may help modern, popular audiences, the terminology is incorrect and presents a false level of relationship.

When we talk about nineteenth century diplomatic relations and terminology there is actually a well-developed and treaty-enshrined system and language. These terms are not imaginary creations or were used interchangeably, these were actual titles and representatives were insistent on them. The Treaty of Vienna of 1815, which ended the European wars and territorial changes that had started with the French Revolution and escalated during the reign of Napoleon I, had established a four-tier hierarchy among diplomatic representative.[6]

At the very top sat the ambassador, who was classified as the personal representatives of their respective sovereign. The physical space that housed an ambassador was an embassy. These appointments were reserved for the European monarchies amongst each other. For example, France had an ambassador in London, Berlin, and Vienna. However, some of the smaller European monarchies, such as the German states, did not accredit full ambassadors.

The second tier occupied the envoy extraordinary and minister plenipotentiary (often simply minister or occasionally envoy for short). These representatives physically occupied a legation, not an embassy, as their home and place of business interaction. These officials were government representative and often had special negotiating powers to make bilateral agreements. Less common was the ministers resident. Smaller states usually used this title for their diplomatic representatives. The implication is that the government sent a minister, sometimes with a special mission, and he took up residence in that town or state. And finally, there was the Chargés d’affaires, or Chargé for short, who served as aid to ambassadors and ministers with the same powers those two ranks include. Chargé are usually left in charge when their direct superior leaves for short or extended periods of time. All these four titles were enshrined and formally employed signaling the relationship statues between two countries.

Group of men dressed in suits and hats in front of a waterfall.
W. J. Baker, Secretary of State William Seward and a delegation of diplomats at Trenton Falls, New York, 1863. [Utica, New York: W. J. Baker] Library of Congress.

When the Lincoln Administration took office in March 1861, the vast majority of foreign representatives in Washington were ministers, second tier representatives. There were of course Lord Lyons from Great Britain, Henri Mercier from France, Eduard Andreevich Stoeckl from Russia, Friedrich Freiherr von Gerolt from Prussia, and Georg Ritter von Hülsemann from Austria. Other European powers too had ministers: Roest van Limburg from the Netherlands, Don Gabriel Garcia y Tassara from Spain, Joaquim C. de Figaniere è Morào from Portugal, Giuseppe Bertinatti from Italy, and Edouard Blondeel von Cuelebrouk from Belgium. From South America, there were A. J. de Yrisarri from Guatemala and San Salvador, Luis Molina from Costa Rica, Honduras, and Nicaragua, and Miguel Maria Lisboa from Brazil. The only Ministers Resident was Rudolph Schleiden representing the Hanseatic City of Bremen. In addition, there were four Chargé W. de Rasloff from Denmark, Matías Romero from Mexico, Rafael Pembo from New Granada, and F. S. Asta from Chile. During the war, Lyons, Gerolt, Schleiden, and others took brief vacations at home, their respective Chargé took care of business during the minister’s absence.[7]

The United States was not considered a first-tier state during the mid-nineteenth century. Foreign relations were not on the ambassadorial level until the country grew and considered imperial projects. Before 1893, all foreign officials of the United States were ministers. In 1893, the newly inaugurated Grover Cleveland administration decided to upgrade the relationships with Great Britain, France, Germany, and Italy to the ambassadorial level. It is also worth noting that the U.S. relationship with, for example, the Netherlands remained on the envoy level until 1942.[8] After the Second World War, all foreign relations were uniformly ranked on the ambassadorial level to avoid this tiered power relations, at least in theory.

Therefore, as we work on a better terminology for the Civil War era, we should also remember that some terms have very specific meaning. While a modern reader of a popular history book may struggle with the concept of a minister, it is the correct term, and we need to use it. To call Charles Francis Adams, Sr. an Ambassador of the United States gives modern audience a sense of his role; but it also presents an incorrect level of relationship between the United States and Great Britain. It would have created a major consternation in the relationship between the two countries. We need to talk about terminology and search for the most accurate words in our writing. There are some instances where bending to modern demands distorts, however. Let’s avoid the word ambassador in our Civil War era writing.

[1] “Publisher’s Note on the use of Civil War Terms,” Army University Press,

[2] Graeme Wood, “Just Say ‘Slavery’: Involuntary relocation and enslaved person are misguided euphemisms,” The Atlantic (July 11, 2022),; P. Gabrielle Foreman, et al., “Writing about Slavery/Teaching About Slavery: This Might Help,” crowdsourced document,

[3] Steven Hahn, A Nation Without Borders: The United States and Its World in an Age of Civil Wars, 1830-1910 (New York: Viking, 2016), 4-6; Gaines M. Foster, “What the Name ‘Civil War’ tells us,” Journal of the Civil War Era Muster Blog, September 11, 2018,

[4] Joseph A. Fry, Lincoln, Seward, and US Foreign Relations in the Civil War Era (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2019).

[5] Don H. Doyle, The Cause of All Nations: An International History of the American Civil War (New York: Basic Books, 2014).

[6] Report of the International Law Commission covering the work of its ninth session, 23 April—28 June 1957,

[7] “The United States Government,” The American Register and International Journal 1 (July 1861), 45.

[8] “Ambassadors vs. Ministers,”

Niels Eichhorn

holds a Ph.D. in History from the University of Arkansas and has taught history courses at Middle Georgia State University and Central Georgia Technical College. He has published Liberty and Slavery: European Separatists, Southern Secession, and the American Civil War (LSU Press, 2019) and Atlantic History in the Nineteenth Century: Migration, Trade, Conflict, and Ideas (Palgrave, 2019). He is currently working with Duncan Campbell on The Civil War in the Age of Nationalism. He has published articles on Civil War diplomacy in Civil War History and American Nineteenth Century History. You can find more information on his personal website, and he can be contacted at

4 Replies to “Civil War Historians and Terminology: Diplomatic History”

  1. This spouse of a retired Senior Foreign Service Officer thanks you for this useful exercise in terminology correct to the Civil War Era.

    1. Niels calls attention to a long neglected distinction.

      A few additions to his post. Both the Articles of Confederation (Art IX) and the Constitution (Art II, sec 2 and Art III, sec 2) use “ambassadors.”

      For many years the US did honor the rankings of the 1815 Congress of Vienna. But it also recognized how reactionary that Congress was. Niels does not mention that the Congress gave “Papal nuncios” the same status as ambassadors. At the same time, most of the monarchies at the Congress refused to recognize ambassadors from republics. By 1823 the Holy Alliance that emerged from it threatened to restore the new republics in South American to the colonial rule of Spain, a major reason for the Monroe Doctrine. In that context, a major reason the US did not use “ambassador” prior to 1893 was its republican distrust of hierarchical rankings of diplomats prior to 1893.

      Nonetheless, in not insisting on the use of “ambassador” the US disadvantaged its ministers who had less status than ambassadors in public affairs of state. Recognizing the importance of the US, Prince Bismarck of Prussia, by the late 1860s, stopped observing some of those traditions. It helped that the US minster to first the Habsburgs and then the United Kingdom, John Lothrop Motley, was an intimate friend of Bismarck. Even so, some minsters continued to lobby the Department of State to use the rank of ambassador. But in 1885 Cleveland’s first Secretary of State Thomas Bayard responded “I cannot find at any time the benefits attending a higher grad of ceremonial treatment have been deemed to outweigh the inconveniences which, in our simple social democracy, might attend to the reception in this country of an extraordinarily foreign privileged class.”

      But March 1, 1893, (before Cleveland’s second inauguration) a lame-duck Congress quietly passed a bill allowing the use of “ambassador.” That upgrade was helped by the fact that many European powers by 1893 had become “republics” with monarchs. More telling was France. With the fall of Napoleon III and the establishment of the Third French Republic, France continued to maintain its existing embassies and use the term “ambassador.” As a result, “ambassador” was no longer a term associated with monarchies. The US was, therefore, much freer to join the French Republic in adopting the term “ambassador” and other European powers were much freer to send ambassadors to another republic.

      The best account of these issues is a chapter by John W. Foster, a minister to Mexico, Russia, and Spain—and Benjamin Harrison’s last Secretary of State: “Rank of Diplomatic Representatives” in The Practice of Diplomacy (1906). Foster also reports that Mexico, contrary to Niel’s implications, sent an ambassador to Washington as early as the late 1860s. He had been a member of the court-martial for Maximilian, leading to resentment by European ministers who sided with Maximilian and Napoleon III’s attempt to overthrow the Mexican republic and impose a monarchy.

  2. Thanks for the links to the “Union Army” vs the “US Army” and the “enslaved person” vs “slave” discussion.

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