The U.S. Civil War, European Politics, and a Changing World


Don H. Doyle, The Cause of All Nations (Basic Books, 2014)


What a great book! Most Americans know the history of the Civil War by the roll call of its bloody battles — Bull Run, Antietam, Chickamauga, Gettysburg, Cold Harbor. While good books continue to be written about the war, by now the basic American narrative is pretty well set.

In The Cause of All Nations, though, Don Doyle has brought a whole new perspective to our “second American revolution” by contextualizing the war in the international currents of republicanism and liberalism sweeping through the Atlantic nations in the 1840s, ‘50s, and ‘60s. After the rise of liberalism in Europe and the failure of the European revolutions of 1848, the American Civil War became the cause of human rights and self-government advocates in the Atlantic world. Friends and foes alike saw it as a critical test of republican democracy and of human rights. Its outcome had profound international repercussions.

Initially, Lincoln believed, the war was fundamentally a test of whether government “of the people, for the people and by the people” (as Giuseppe Mazzini said in 1851) could long survive. In the Europe of the 1860s, torn between monarchy and the rising tide of liberal republicanism, the nobility and ruling classes — and especially those of Great Britain and France — rejoiced at the war’s proof that republicanism was doomed to failure. Liberals, like those in England agitating for expanding the voting franchise, and Italian revolutionaries like the great Giuseppe Garibaldi, an international hero, saw it as the great test of their time.

The other issue was slavery. In addition to the survival of liberal democracy, Europeans also saw the war as a profound contest over the perpetuation of slavery in the Atlantic world. The preservation of slavery was fundamental to the Southern cause (Doyle quotes from the Confederate constitution and Vice President Alexander Steven’s “Cornerstone Speech”, in which he said “…the negro is not the equal to the white man… slavery, subordination to the superior race is his natural … condition). As the war went on, though, the South’s obdurate (and often obtuse) attempts to justify “the peculiar institution” increasingly became a millstone around its neck. (Interestingly, Garibaldi was nearly commissioned a Union general officer in 1861, but turned it down, because, as he said, the Union was denying that the war was about slavery. “You may be sure,” he said later, “that had I accepted to draw my sword for the cause of the United States, it would have been for the abolition of slavery, full, unconditional.”)

After the Emancipation Proclamation in 1862, the causes were joined — the preservation of democracy and the abolition of slavery. Even so, European intervention was a close-run thing; Doyle points out that in the fall of 1862 Great Britain and France had already decided to recognize the South, undeterred by either Antietam or the Emancipation Proclamation. But then Garibaldi, an international celebrity, and his “red shirts” invaded Italy to free Rome from the French. Wounded, the great revolutionary issued a sensational letter in October supporting “the Great Republic”, and the resulting European uproar gave the Lincoln administration time to forcefully inject the slavery question into European politics. By the winter intervention had become politically impossible, even for the British. So it’s arguable that the Civil War was won not only the courage of the Union Army at Sharpsburg and by Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation — but also by intervention in Europe by Giuseppe Garibaldi.

Spain and France took advantage of American preoccupation to launch their own monarchial schemes in Latin America during the war, all of which collapsed after the Union victory. The end of slavery in the U.S. led to the end of slavery in the new world — and the end of France’s adventure in Mexico, about which not enough has been written. Doyle throws interesting light on the role of U.S. generals Ulysses S. Grant and William T. Sherman in supporting the Mexican revolution, though not enough. The topic warrants a book in its own right.

The Cause of All Nations is extensively well-researched, and is a useful history of both the American story and European states’ international relations during this period. It is crammed with the European intrigues of U.S. and Confederate agents as they crisscrossed the Continent writing pamphlets, hiring hack writers, buttonholing politicians and interviewing emperors. It digs into the role of the Pope and the Catholic Church in supporting the South. It analyzes the waves of immigration from Europe that played so large a role in Union manpower — thousands of immigrants wore Union blue — and the role of the U.S. government and the Homestead Act in recruiting them. Above all, it sets the Civil War in its proper place in history, as a global affirmation of self-government and freedom. Anyone interested in the Civil War should have Doyle’s book on his or her shelves.


Colonel (USA ret) Bob Killebrew writes and consults on national defense issues as a member of the Board of Advisors at the Center for a New American Security.  Prior to his retirement from active duty he served for thirty years in a variety of Special Forces, infantry and staff duties.