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  • The North American Crisis of the 1860s
  • Patrick J. Kelly (bio)

We have no craftier enemy than Louis Napoleon. His operations in Mexico were meant as a powerful flank movement for the rebellion. They were leveled at the United States, and the United States are not likely to forget it.

—Harper’s Weekly, December 9, 1865

From our point of view, his [Maximilian’s] victory would have been a calamity—not that it would have made the condition of Mexico worse than it is—but because it would have struck a disastrous blow at the cause of Republicanism on this Continent.

—New York Times, July 2, 1867

On June 19, 1867, a squad of Mexican soldiers under the command of Gen. Mariano Escobedo executed Maximilian of Austria on a hillside outside the city of Querétaro, Mexico. Just days before this dramatic event, an editorial in the Chicago Tribune argued, “Whoever shall write the history of the Great Rebellion will not complete it until he has traced to its final termination the effort of the Austrian Archduke to establish himself on the throne of a Mexican empire.”1 This influential newspaper’s prediction was based on its belief that when the Imperial troops of the Austrian archduke capitulated to Escobedo “the last rebel army surrendered. The invasion of Mexico by the French and the struggle of Maximilian to build up an Empire on this continent were, in fact, a branch of the Southern rebellion.” This editorial concluded that for future historians of the Civil War era, the “failure of the Southern rebellion and of Napoleon and Maximilian in Mexico will be linked together as events depending on each other, and inseparably connected.”2 The following essay will argue that the conflicts waged in Mexico and the United States during the 1860s were, as the Chicago Tribune long ago recognized, not discrete historical conflicts bounded by the “skin” of national boundaries.3 Instead, the U.S. Civil War and the attempt by the French emperor to overthrow republican government in Mexico are best understood within a North American framework.

In the last decade, the study of U.S. history has taken a transnational turn.4 Historians, such as Thomas Bender, who are calling for their colleagues to examine the movement of peoples, ideas, and technologies across national boundaries are, however, quick to acknowledge that the concept of viewing the history of the United States and its hemispheric neighbors within a transnational framework has a distinguished lineage. Most notably, in 1932 Herbert Bolton argued for a “broader treatment of [End Page 337] American history, to supplement the purely nationalistic presentation to which we are accustomed.”5 Just as “European history cannot be learned from books dealing alone with England, or France, or Germany, or Italy, or Russia,” Bolton argued, “nor can American history be adequately presented if confined to Brazil, or Chile, or Mexico, or Canada, or the United States.”6 By insisting on the “essential unity” of “Greater America,” Bolton’s ambitious framework encompassed the territorial expanse of the entire Western Hemisphere.7 More recently, scholars of the Atlantic World have moved beyond national borders to examine, in Jack Greene’s words, “the larger patterns and processes within which the several societies around the Atlantic functioned and of which they were integral parts.” The concept of the Atlantic World has gained far more traction among historians than Bolton’s notion of a Greater America. Both approaches, however, offer significant corrections to the common historical practice of framing the histories of nation states such as Mexico and the United States within the confines of politically bounded territorial spaces.8

Much like Bolton and the contemporary scholars of Atlantic history, this essay attempts to break the “hold of the national frameworks within which history traditionally has been written.”9 By adopting a continental perspective in examining the U.S. Civil War and French intervention, however, it substitutes the expansive geographical perspective suggested by these scholars—the Western Hemisphere and Atlantic World—in favor of a transnational approach that embeds these events into the history of North America.10 Expanding the framework of the U.S. Civil War to encompass the simultaneous conflict occurring...


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pp. 337-368
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