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Spain and the American Civil War by Wayne H. Bowen (review)

From: Civil War History
Volume 59, Number 1, March 2013
pp. 108-110 | 10.1353/cwh.2013.0015

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The international dimension of the American Civil War, a topic of longstanding interest, has recently become an area of especially intense scrutiny. Historians have paid special interest to the roles of Great Britain in the American conflict, because of both its importance in Union and Confederate diplomacy and the linguistic skills of many Americanists. Wayne H. Bowen brings his expertise as a historian of modern Spain to the international history of the Civil War, offering a comprehensive portrait of Spanish-U.S. and Spanish-Confederate diplomacy. The remnants of Spain’s New World Empire loomed large in Spanish-U.S. relations throughout the nineteenth century. Especially significant were American ambitions in Cuba, and Spanish attempts to restore parts of its declining empire, including invasions of Santo Domingo and Mexico in 1861. Bowen eschews questions about culture, nonstate actors, and colonial entanglements, thus forgoing some interpretative and explanatory opportunities. Nonetheless, the text offers a valuable account of one of the most important international powers in the Americas in the era of the Civil War, one oriented more toward the Confederacy than the Union.

In the years of America’s Civil War, the Spanish state, under Prime Minister Leopoldo O’Donnell, sought to reclaim the status of major imperial power that it had last enjoyed in the eighteenth century. By the outbreak of the war, most of the Spanish Empire in America had become independent republics shielded from reconquest by the peculiar imperialist anti-imperialism outlined by the Monroe Doctrine. Spain had already lost Florida and Louisiana to the United States, and more recent U.S. expansionism threatened its most important remaining possession, Cuba. Spain thus welcomed the division of the United States as an opportunity to regain some of its lost imperial power. Both the Confederacy and the Union reciprocated Spanish diplomatic interest, and Spain thus had to engage with each of the two warring parties while it used their conflict as an occasion for its own separate political initiatives.

Spanish-U.S. diplomacy centered above all on the question of sovereignty and slavery in Cuba. Cuba was the United States’ third most important trading partner, after Britain and France. The United States played an equally important role in Cuba’s foreign trade, far outweighing Spain as a market for exports, principally of sugar and molasses. Relations between the Spanish Empire and the United States thus held a particularly strong interest for Cuban, Spanish, and U.S. elites.

The Confederacy could claim it had a kind of natural alliance with Spain as a partner in an envisioned slaveholding Caribbean empire, requiring common protection from meddling Yankees. Yet Spain, for its part, also remembered that it was precisely these Confederate dreams that had both inspired filibusters and led the U.S. government to seek aggressively to take Cuba, most threateningly perhaps with the 1854 Ostend Manifesto.

Southern ambitions in Cuba included not merely territorial greed but also a desire to protect slavery wherever it still existed in the Americas. Many feared that, under tottering Spanish power, Cuba might become another free state or even, like Haiti, a black-run republic whose actions and very existence posed a threat to slavery throughout the region. This was a logic to which Cuban planters could also subscribe, and Spanish authorities thus had to fear white creole disloyalty as well as Yankee hostility. Without Republican and Union opposition to southern and later Confederate Caribbean ambitions, Spanish ambitions in the Americas would have been threatened as much as supported by their fellow slaveholding Americans. The Union seems to have recognized this in the importance it gave to the ambassadorial post to Spain, occupied first by the prominent Republican Carl Schurz.

In the end, Spain and the Confederacy supported each other as much by accident as by intention. Despite Spanish fears of Confederate aggression, Cuba did become an important port for Confederate ships and thus Spain was, in Bowen’s words, “an indispensable de facto ally of the Southern cause” (124). Spain, meanwhile, used the distraction of the war—rather than diplomatic or other support from Confederacy or Union—to advance its own American ambitions.

Even before hostilities broke out in the United States, Spain began preliminary political...



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