The Revolution of 1861: The American Civil War in the Age of Nationalist Conflict (review)
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The Revolution of 1861: The American Civil War in the Age of Nationalist Conflict. By Andre M. Fleche. (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2012. Pp. xiv, 204. $39.95 cloth)

Andre M. Fleche shows how Americans and Europeans of the mid-nineteenth century compared the Civil War to preceding wars of liberation and revolutions in Europe, especially the revolutions of 1848. Fleche's work complements previous studies of Americans' reactions to nineteenth-century European revolutions and independence movements, particularly my Distant Revolutions: 1848 and the Challenge to American Exceptionalism (2009) and Paul Quigley's Shifting Grounds: Nationalism and the American South, 1848-1865 (2011).

Different from these works, however, The Revolution of 1861 extends the "age of revolution" to encompass America's erstwhile peculiar epic conflict (p. 8). An Atlantic focus, Fleche argues, rids us of parochialism in showing how both Northerners and Southerners, in order to understand their great national crisis, compared themselves to peoples around them. Fleche argues that European struggles for self-determination offered Southerners a contemporary model with which to justify secession and international recognition, and European labor and class conflicts strengthened Southerners' opposition to abolitionism. These same conflicts, however, influenced Northerners to support emancipation, even when they were hostile to black equality. Most important, European failures to achieve liberal democracy through challenges to traditional authority prodded supporters of the Union to redefine American liberalism to account for and justify their wartime expansion of central authority, even through military conquest.

The Revolution of 1861 begins with a study of the immigrant politics of St. Louis during the outbreak of the war, showing how [End Page 585] "forty-eighters," European revolutionary refugees, organized and divided over the outbreak of "the American 1848," according to a Republican newspaper editor (p. 44). German-Americans tended towards the Union and antislavery, some hoping that the Civil War could precipitate a world democratic revolution. Meanwhile, Irish-Americans split, perceiving that fighting in America for either North or South might help liberate Ireland—the revolutionaries Thomas Francis Meagher and John Mitchel, escaping banishment in Australia for 1848 conspiracies, fought against each other in the Civil War.

Alternating chapters then explore how trans-Atlantic advocates of either northern national unification or southern national independence, called upon ideologies of European nationalism to explain Americans' wartime political objectives and to recruit international support. Of course, sometimes trans-Atlantic analogies did not easily fit American circumstances. Unionists struggled to show that secession jeopardized, rather than maintained, the American revolutionary origins. Instead, they recalled how the American Revolution had launched a global attack on aristocracy; the Union destruction of slavery could embolden ordinary Europeans to renew the assault in the Old World. Moreover, northern victory would ensure the American capacity as a great power to bring free-labor democracy to the world—thus justifying both exceptionalism and imperialism.

Meanwhile, champions of southern secession drew inspiration and justification "from a half-century's worth of revolution in Europe" (p. 84). Liberty-seeking Greeks, Belgians, Poles, Hungarians, and Italians all furnished prototypes for Confederates' reminding British policymakers of their general sympathy for continental rebels. On the other hand, Southerners struggled to show their likeness to European peoples who were different ethnically from the empires or majority populations that besieged them. And slavery remained the great chink in Southerners' search for international solidarity. Paradoxically, as Fleche shows, the appeal of the Confederacy to European revolutionaries was contradicted by the insistence of southern ideologues that in its defense of slavery the South was the [End Page 586] global bulwark of property-preserving conservatism, immune from the embrace of dangerous notions of human equality.

Given the windup of the narrative in 1865, Fleche perhaps reaches too far in asserting that resituating the Civil War in a global context allows us to see "the disturbing side of the rhetoric of nationalist self-determination" and to see how easily "liberal arguments could justify racial subordination" in the postwar imperial age (p. 9). Perhaps, alternatively, liberal arguments were simply defeated by a conservative, subjugating Atlantic counterrevolution, played out in imperial conquests in Africa, Asia, and the American plains. But this is hardly the focus of The Revolution...


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