Why The North Won The Civil War
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Why The North Won The Civil War

David Herbert Donald

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Why The North Won The Civil War

David Herbert Donald

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WHY THE SOUTH LOSTWhat led to the downfall of the Confederacy? The distinguished professors of history represented in this volume examine the following crucial factors in the South's defeat: ECONOMIC—RICHARD N. CURRENT of the University of Wisconsin attributes the victory of the North to fundamental economic superiority so great that the civilian resources of the South were dissipated under the conditions of war.MILITARY—T. HARRY WILLIAMS of Louisiana State University cites the deficiencies of Confederate strategy and military leadership, evaluating the influence on both sides of Baron Jomini, a 19th-century strategist who stressed position warfare and a rapid tactical offensive.DIPLOMATIC—NORMAN A. GRAERNER of the University of Illinois holds that the basic reason England and France decided not to intervene on the side of the South was simply that to have done so would have violated the general principle of non-intervention to which they were committed.SOCIAL—DAVID DONALD of Columbia University offers the intriguing thesis that an excess of Southern democracy killed the Confederacy. From the ordinary man in the ranks to Jefferson Davis himself, too much emphasis was placed on individual freedom and not enough on military discipline.POLITICAL—DAVID M. POTTER of Stanford University suggests that the deficiencies of President Davis as a civil and military leader turner the balance, and that the South suffered from the lack of a second well-organized political party to force its leadership into competence.

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Northern Diplomacy and European Neutrality — by Norman A. Graebner

MAJOR ROBERT ANDERSON’S surrender of Fort Sumter in April, 1861, placed an unprecedented burden on American diplomacy. Not since the American Revolution had the foreign relations of the United States been reduced to a defense of the Republic’s very existence. Diplomacy, to be sure, was only one element in the vast arsenal of resources upon which Northern leadership could draw to frustrate the South’s determination to sever the Union, but from the outset of the struggle it assumed a primary importance. Even limited European power, thrown effectively into the scale against the North, could have rendered the Southern cause successful. The nation’s future, therefore, rested on the efficiency of its diplomatic as much as its military corps.
Europe’s involvement in the American Civil War comprised a persistent danger to the Union, for the Southern independence movement threatened all the fundamental power relationships between the Old World and the New. Despite its tradition of isolationism toward Europe, the American Republic had become by 1861 a significant force in world politics. Cassius Clay, President Lincoln’s choice for the court at St. Petersburg, wrote in April, 1862, that it was “useless to deceive ourselves with the idea that we can isolate ourselves from European interventions. We became in spite of ourselves—the Monroe Doctrine—Washington’s farewell—and all that—a part of the ‘balance of power.’ “ To European leaders the United States was a nation of consequence in world affairs, but the relationship of American strength and American traditions to the precise interests of Europe varied from country to country.
London promised to become the focal point of all wartime diplomatic maneuvering, for Britain was the dominant power of Europe and her control of Canada and the sea lanes of the north Atlantic created extensive commitments in the New World. France was equally concerned over events in America but lacked the power to escape the British lead. Keeping such interested and calculating nations neutral became the chief task of Northern diplomacy.
Fortunately for the North, Anglo-American relations had never been more cordial than they were in 1861. But this was no guarantee of British neutrality. Britain’s powerful conservative classes, always cynical toward the democratic experiment of the United States, recognized the fundamental meaning of the American Civil War. Democratic institutions were on trial. The United States as a nation had passed beyond the normal control of Old World power, but if the American people were determined to destroy their national greatness and demonstrate the failure of their institutions, the least that reactionary Europe could do was to encourage them in their effort so that the work of destruction might succeed. British aristocrats had long regarded the American democratic example as a threat to their estate. For them the breakup of the American Union would impede the expansion of democracy everywhere. In July, 1861, Blackwood’s Magazine declared: “It is precisely because we do not share the admiration of America for her own institutions and political tendencies that we do not now see in the impending change an event altogether to be deplored.”
British conservatives resented American power and truculence as much as American institutions. What disturbed them especially was the growth of the United States into a formidable maritime rival. Edouard de Stoeckl, the Russian Minister in Washington, lamented in January, 1860, that in the approaching dissolution of the Union Great Britain would experience one of those “strokes of fortune” which occur but rarely in history. England, he predicted, would benefit more than any other nation from the disintegration of American power. “The Cabinet of London,” he warned his government, “is watching attentively the internal dissensions of the Union and awaits the result with an impatience which it has difficulty in disguising.” From St. Petersburg Cassius Clay warned Lincoln, “I saw at a glance where the feeling of England was. They hoped for our ruin! They are jealous of our power. They care neither for the South nor the North. They hate both.”
Western Europe, moreover, had long been indignant at the American effort to keep the Western Hemisphere off limits for further European encroachment. For the ambitious Louis Napoleon of France, especially, events in America were encouraging, for they seemed to be rendering the Monroe Doctrine inoperative. No American fleet would block the contemplated movement of French troops to Vera Cruz or demolish his dreams of establishing a vassal empire in Mexico. A strong and friendly Confederate States of America would create a buffer between what remained of the United States and his new Mexican possessions. Secession appeared so consequential to Europe because it again exposed the western world to European partition. It was no wonder that Stoeckl advised his government in April, 1861, that “England will take advantage of the first opportunity to recognize the seceded States and that France will follow her.”
In Washington, Henri Mercier, the French Minister, favored immediate action. He advised his government that in recognizing the Confederacy it would give the American conflict the character of a war and thereby extend to French seamen the benefit of neutral rights. The United States could not complain, he added, because it had recognized the revolutionary governments of Spanish America. Certainly this nation could not be offended merely because other nations accepted its democratic principles of self-determination. Yet Mercier was a realist. He admonished the French Minister in Paris to formulate his American policy only in agreement with the other powers of Europe.
Russia alone of the European states made the preservation of the Union a matter of conscious policy. For Stoeckl the destruction of the Union threatened the equilibrium of world politics. The United States, ran his argument, had become Europe’s best guarantee against British aggression and arrogance. Traditional Russian-American friendship had been based on a mutual rivalry toward Great Britain. It had been the case of the enemies of a rival becoming friends. George Mifflin Dallas, when United States Minister at the Czar’s court during the Van Buren administration, had recorded this significant phrase of Nicholas I, “Not only are our interests alike, our enemies are the same.”
After the outbreak of the Civil War the Journal of St. Petersburg, official organ of the Czarist government, declared: “Russia entertains for the United States of America a lively sympathy founded on sentiments of mutual friendship and on common interests. She considers their prosperity necessary to the general equilibrium.” Nothing, the Imperial Cabinet agreed, should be permitted to weaken this powerful counterpoise to England. Prince Gortchakov, the Russian Foreign Minister, instructed Stoeckl in July, 1861, to assure the American nation that it could assume “the most cordial sympathy on the part of our August Master, during the serious crisis which it is passing through at present.” This entente cordiale between the world’s greatest despotism and its leading democracy was Realpolitik at its diplomatic best, for despite the incompatibility of political principles, it served the best interests of both nations.
William H. Seward, Lincoln’s Secretary of State, assumed the essential task of preventing the introduction of European power into the American Civil War. His diplomacy had but one objective—the preservation of the Union. Seward’s devotion to this cause was so intense that in April, 1861, he recommended to Lincoln a foreign war, perhaps against Spain and France, to rally the seceded states around the American flag and thus reforge the Union. Lincoln tactfully ignored the proposal, but the Washington diplomatic corps was amazed. Lord Lyons, the British Minister, warned the Foreign Office in London that Seward would be “a dangerous foreign minister.” Thereafter the British government regarded the American Secretary with suspicion. Charles Francis Adams, the American Minister in London, reported that Seward was viewed there as “an ogre fully resolved to eat all Englishmen raw.” Lord John Russell, the British Foreign Secretary, addressed Lyons in February, 1861: “The success or failure of Mr. Seward’s plans to prevent the disruption of the North American Union is a matter of deep interest to Her Majesty’s Government.” From the opening guns of the war Seward’s leadership was a matter of grave concern to the chancelleries of Europe.
To forestall European interference in American affairs after the fall of Sumter, Seward denied officially the existence of any war between North and South. “There is here, as there always has been,” he informed the British and French governments, “one political power, namely, the United States of America, competent to make war and peace, and conduct commerce and alliances with all foreign nations.” What existed, he explained, was an armed sedition seeking to overthrow the government. Its suppression did not constitute a war or in any manner modify the character, rights, and responsibilities of either the United States or foreign nations in their diplomatic relationships. Seward admitted that international law permitted the recognition of established de facto governments; he merely denied that one existed in the South.
What endangered Seward’s rigid position toward Europe was the rapid expansion of the conflict between North and South onto the Atlantic. It was fundamental in Lincoln’s strategy to weaken and destroy the Southern economy by cutting off Southern shipments of cotton to Europe through a blockade of the Southern ports. Shortly after the crisis of Fort Sumter the Confederate government issued a proclamation calling for privateers, and Lincoln announced his blockade. Seward warned Lyons that the North would tolerate no further European commerce with the South, but he denied that a formal blockade destroyed his own claims that war did not exist. Yet the United States could hardly proclaim a blockade without declaring itself a belligerent and claiming rights over foreign vessels admitted only in time of war. Lyons was disturbed, for the blockade imposed on Europe the choice of recognizing the Confederacy or submitting to the interruption of its commerce with the South.
Britain, fearful of being trapped in a maritime war, took immediate steps to protect her commerce. On May 13, 1861, without awaiting the arrival of Minister Adams, Queen Victoria issued a declaration of neutrality which called upon British subjects to avoid hostilities between the North and South. Soon France, Spain, the Netherlands, and Brazil followed the British lead. This recognition of Southern belligerency granted to Southern ships the privileges in neutral ports accorded the ships of the Federal government.
Washington was shocked at this British action, for it not only suggested collusion between Britain and France but also presaged the diplomatic recognition of the South. Charles Sumner, the Massachusetts Senator, termed the Queen’s proclamation “the most hateful act of English history since the time of Charles 2nd.” Seward’s reaction was even more violent. “They have misunderstood things fearfully, in Europe,” he wrote home in May. “Great Britain is in great danger of sympathizing so much with the South for the sake of peace and cotton as to drive us to make war against her, as the ally of the traitors....It will be dreadful but the end will be sure and swift.” Through Adams in London, Seward warned the British government, “If any European power provokes war, we shall not shrink from it.”
Similarly Seward advised Mercier that French recognition of the Confederacy would result in war with the United States. This nation might be defeated, he admitted bluntly, but France would know that she had been in a war. To William L. Dayton, the American Minister in Paris, Seward wrote: “Foreign intervention would oblige us to treat those who should yield it as allies of the insurrectionary party and to carry on the war against them as enemies....The President and the people of the United States deem the Union, which would then be at stake, worth all the cost and all the sacrifices of a contest with the world at arms, if such a contest should prove inevitable.”
European interference meant war, but Seward offered the Old World powers the carrot as well as the stick. He reminded both Britain and France of their long tradition of friendship with the United States and assured them that this nation had cherished that peace. The American Republic, he instructed Adams, was “anxious to avoid all causes of misunderstanding with Great Britain; to draw closer, instead of breaking, the existing bonds of amity and friendship. There is nothing good or great,” he added appealingly, “which both nations may not expect to attain or effect if they may remain friends. It would be a hazardous day for both branches of the British race when they should determine to test how much harm each could do the other.” The Secretary extended similar assurances to the French: “We have no hostile or interested designs against any other state or nation whatever, and, on the contrary, we seek peace, harmony, and commerce with them all.” Seward repeated ceaselessly his contention that the United States was one, and that the nations of Europe should not view themselves as neutrals between two imaginary belligerents in America, but as friends of the United States.
Seward’s warnings were not without effect. When Lord Russell learned of the arrival in London of William L. Yancey, the Confederate Commissioner seeking recognition for his government, he wrote to Lyons in Washington: “If it can possibly be helped, Mr. Seward must not be allowed to get us into a quarrel. I shall see the southerners when they come, but unofficially and keep them at a proper distance.” But even the unofficial reception of Yancey was too much for Seward. His next letter to Adams was so menacing that Lincoln revised certain passages and removed others. Nor would the President permit Adams to read the dispatch to Russell. Even in revised form the dispatch was little less than an ultimatum. It suggested that Adams break off his relations with the British government if Russell persisted in seeing the Confederate Commissioner. Not content with this warning, Seward invited William Russell, the noted Washington correspondent of the London Times, to his home and read to him deliberately the long dispatch with its insinuations that Britain would destroy the American Republic if she could. Russell, he hoped, would not keep his impressions to himself.
Adams regarded the Secretary’s warning as little less than a declaration of war. “I scarcely know how to understand Mr. Seward,” he admitted. “The rest of the Government may be demented for all I know, but he surely is calm and wise.” Adams informed Lord Russell in London that further relations between the British government and the “pseudo-commissioners” of the Confederate States, whether unofficial or not, would be regarded as a manifestation of hostility by the United States. Lord Russell did not receive the Southern Commissioner again. In May the British Minister announced a hands-off policy: “...we have not been involved in any way in that contest...and for God’s sake, let us if possible, keep out of it.”
Through Dayton, Seward informed the French Minister that the United States would regard any further communications of his government with the Southern Commissioners as “exceptional and injurious” to American dignity and honor. Even an unofficial reception of the emissaries of disunion, he complained, would give them encouragement to prosecute their effort to destroy the American Republic. Perhaps a warning would be sufficient to relieve the United States of further action, for Seward declared that this nation could not tolerate, whatever the consequences of its resistance, the recognition of the Confederacy by the French government.
Mercier and Lyons in Washington, still determined to commit their nations to a settlement of the American conflict, suggested mediation, with their governments serving as umpires between North and South. Lord Russell judiciously declined and Seward caused the diplomatic corps abruptly to drop what remained of the scheme. In a statement to the governor of Maryland he made it clear that the Federal government would accept no foreign arbitrament in settling its differences with the Confederacy. The American Constitution, he reminded the Europeans, provided all the required means for surmounting internal disorders. Arbitration would endanger the nation’s integrity by substituting non-Constitutional devices for the normal functioning of the American system.
United States relations with Britain were unnecessarily disturbed in December, 1861, when Captain Charles Wilkes of the Federal warship San Jacinto stopped the British mail steamer Trent off the coast of Cuba and removed two Confederate leaders, James M. Mason and John Slidell. These men, among the South’s ablest, had been dispatched to London and Paris respectively to replace the earlier commissioners. To the zealous Wilkes their capture was an unprecedented coup, but unfortunately he had broken the cherished maritime principle for which this nation supposedly had fought the British in the War of 1812. In London Henry Adams, son of the American Minister, saw the issue clearly, writing to his brother: “Good God, what’s got into you all? What do you mean by deserting now the great principles of our fathers, by returning to the vomit of that dog Great Britain? What do you mean by asserting now principles against which every Adams yet has protested and resisted?”
Seward was embarrassed. He faced the necessity of satisfying the British who were wronged and at the same time of protecting American prestige abroad. “If I decide this case in favor of my own government,” he admitted, “I must disavow its most cherished principles, and...forever abandon its essential policy. The country cannot afford the sacrifice. If I maintain those principles, and adhere to that policy, I must surrender the case itself.” Seward soon decided on the latter course and conceded to the British with remarkable grace, for nowhere did the Trent case challenge his Union policies. “In coming to my conclusion,” he wrote to Adams, “I have not forgotten that if the safety of this Union required the detention of the captured persons it would be the right and duty of this government to detain them. But the effective check and waning proportions of the existing insurrection, as well as the comparative unimportance of the captured persons themselves, when dispassionately weighed happily forbid me from resorting to that defense.” Federal officials released the two Confederates promptly and sent them on their way. Lord Russell was relieved. He wrote, “I do not believe that Seward has any animosity to this country. It is all buncom.”
What gave the South the presumption of success in its effort to secure European recognition was the alleged economic power of cotton. Southern writers in 1861 assumed that Britain would break the Northern blockade to guarantee the flow of cotton into England. “Cotton,” declared the Charleston Mercury, “would bring England to her knees.” De Bow’s Review in June predicted that a blockade of the Southern ports would be “swept away by the English fleets of observation hovering on the Southern coasts, to protect English commerce, and especially the free flow of cotton to English and French factories.” If cotton were king, the South had only to place an embargo on that commodity to force Britain to destroy the blockade. “Foreign nations will not recognize the independence of the Confederate States,” admitted one Southern governor realistically, “until commerce with the Confederate States will become not only desirable, but necessary to their own prosperity.” The Confederate Congress refused to establish an embargo, but Committees of Public Safety in the Southern seaport towns effectively halted the export of cotton to Europe.
By the spring of 1862 King Cotton had compelled neither Britain nor France to recognize Southern independence or break the blockade. Confederate efforts to force action in the British government by depriving Lancashire of raw cotton actually had the opposite effect. As one British leader observed, “I wonder the South do not see that our recognition because they keep cotton from us would be ignominious beyond measure, & that no English Parlt could do so base a thing.” But the British resolve not to break the blockade result...

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