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Civil War History 52.1 (2006) 66-93

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"Let All Nations See":

Civil War Nationalism and the Memorialization of Wartime Voluntarism

During the Civil War, European newspapers and journals regularly debated what the conflict meant for America's political future. Many of those hostile to the Union initially believed that the destruction of America's republican "experiment" was only a matter of time. Attacking what they saw as a government fighting an immoral war under the sway of popular prejudices, European writers often pictured the Union army as a mercenary force made up largely of recent immigrants and ignorant laborers. According to these foreign detractors, the conflict revealed the bankruptcy of the North's political system. Some European commentators would later come to look upon the Union with more favor. But this hardly mollified Northerners. As they shaped their interpretations of the war, they did so not in isolation but in response to what they perceived to be an ongoing hostility toward their war effort and the political system it safeguarded. Although historians have explored European attitudes toward the war and the Union and Confederate governments' foreign policies, little attention has been paid to the way a transatlantic discourse shaped domestic representations of the conflict, much less how such representations might have affected the conduct of the war or shaped postwar policies. One reason is that despite recent calls for a more internationalized approach to the study of U.S. history, the majority of Civil War historians remain resolutely focused on domestic events, particularly those occurring on the battlefield.1 [End Page 66]

Regardless of the nuances and fluctuation of European opinion, Northerners remained intensely concerned with countering early foreign criticisms of the war because such criticism had struck at the very heart of their identity. As numerous historians have noted, a persistent and deeply held belief in the nation's exceptional role in world history formed the core of nineteenth-century American nationalism. Combining a founding Protestant belief in the nation's divinely ordained mission with a liberal faith in economic progress and a republican hope that America's political system could escape the tyranny and reaction that had plagued former republics, Americans distinguished themselves in opposition to Europeans.2 Whereas Northerners had long exalted the superiority of their stable and progressive political system and the economic expansion it enabled, during the war they faced not only its potential collapse but also a hostile foreign press that questioned the justice and conduct of their cause. Condemnations from abroad distilled many of the Confederacy's critiques of the Union, as well as adding to a vocal antiwar movement in the North that denounced Unionism, and especially the state centralization it entailed, as pointless, immoral, and dangerous to the nation's fate. Having declared the nation an example to others, many Unionists felt compelled to shape an image of the war that could be used to rebut foreign and domestic censure.

Unlike modern historians who point to military factors to explain the war's outcome, the vast majority of Unionists argued unequivocally that their success resulted from the superior morality and civic virtue of their people—a version of the war well suited to reasserting American exceptionalism at home and abroad. Throughout the conflict Unionists characterized the war effort as a spontaneous uprising of citizens eagerly volunteering either to fight for the nation or minister to its defenders. By virtue of their selflessness, Northerners believed they had rekindled God's favor and thus passed successfully through the scourge of war. Despite its obvious attractions, this interpretation of victory was not preordained. Northerners might just as easily have [End Page 67] touted the benefits of capitalist development by emphasizing their superior industrial capacity. Or they might have highlighted the peerless bravery of Northern soldiers, the importance of centralized government, or any of the other factors that could plausibly be said to have contributed to the Union's success. Instead, they preferred to see the war as a story in which selflessness prevailed and civilian voluntarism played...


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