American Civil Wars: A Continental History, 1850–1873 by Alan Taylor - review by Richard Carwardine

Richard Carwardine

The Blood-Spattered Banner

American Civil Wars: A Continental History, 1850–1873


W W Norton 577pp £33.99

A mountain of historical studies testifies to enduring interest in the American Civil War, a conflict still politically relevant in a nation riven over how to remember it. Those doubting that there is anything fresh to say about the bloodiest event in the republic’s history should read Pulitzer Prize winner Alan Taylor’s brilliant, panoramic account of the conflict. Applying a wide continental lens, he explores this crux of United States history and how it shook neighbouring Mexico and Canada. In all three settings, liberals and social and political conservatives were involved in parallel struggles to build a modern nation. After a French invasion, the creation of a short-lived monarchy and a devastating civil war, the Liberal Party leader Benito Juárez returned to power in Mexico. Fearing the growing power and rapacity of the United States, meanwhile, Canadians navigated internal divisions to create a continental confederation. And in the United States, the pulsing heart and geographical centre of events, Abraham Lincoln’s Union forces subdued the reactionary and rebel slave power to achieve emancipation and the constitutional basis for a more liberal and democratic nation.

Taylor’s lively account of the conflict in the United States follows mostly familiar lines. Insisting that enslavement was a positive good for the people of African origin and that slavery had to grow to survive, Southerners demanded the right to settle the vast western territories beyond the Mississippi. Committed to ‘free soil’ in those territories, a broad coalition of antislavery radicals and white supremacists in the northern states championed the superiority of free labour. When the Republican Party’s antislavery candidate, Abraham Lincoln, won the presidency in 1860 on a manifesto to contain slavery, states of the South broke away and formed the Confederacy. In hubristic celebration, its vice-president declared slavery the new state’s cornerstone. But a perspicacious minority foretold disaster. Texas governor Sam Houston brooded, ‘the first gun fired in the war will be the knell of slavery.’

The crisis signified incompatible versions of the constitutional Union. The South, explained a Virginian, deemed the United States a ‘confederation of sovereign powers, not a consolidation of states into one people’. Republicans defined the Union as a national democracy and not, as secretary of state William Seward scoffed, ‘a federal alliance, in which the minority shall have a veto against the majority’. Taylor rightly says that both sides ‘would fight to the death for their constitutional vision’, but this truth contains another: that the constitution only mattered as existential protection. Lincoln voiced a common fear when he warned that the world’s unique experiment in republican government would fall prey to successive secessions if the Confederacy were to succeed, Balkanising the continent. The Confederacy’s economic wellbeing, patriarchal and gendered social order and very stability, Southerners knew, depended on white
supremacy and the profits made from plantations utilising enslaved labour. Only in this sense was the American Civil War a conflict about states’ rights. A slave named Daniel spoke a simple truth in saying the war was ‘all about things we’ve been so long a putting up with’.

Taylor enriches his pacey account of the war with a gallery of shrewd, often witty, character sketches: Seward, for instance, ‘boasted too much, cut corners, and gloried in small tricks’. He has a keen eye for an arresting quotation: coveting Cuba, a Southern expansionist likened the tropical paradise to a beautiful woman ‘breathing her spicy tropical breath, and pouting her rosy, sugared lips. … She is of age – take her, Uncle Sam.’ But his major contribution is to broaden our customary understanding of the American Civil War by paying particular attention to the vast and thinly populated American West, where 300,000 of the one million inhabitants were independent Native American peoples. 

The Union outwrestled the Confederates in California and New Mexico, leaving its forces free to rain terror on the Apache and Navajo Indians there; likewise, the Native Americans of the Great Plains succumbed to the total-war strategies pursued by Union commanders there. Troops set fire in 1864 to thousands of square miles to create a terrifying blaze that drove off the bison and consumed Indians’ encampments and provisions. Dispossession, relocation and confinement were the Union government’s watchwords. Its design was to detribalise Indians and incorporate them as citizens in a liberal American state, making them beneficiaries of market competition and free labour. It was a tragically optimistic and self-serving vision, one compromised by a Republican policy of showering favours on powerful corporations in order to open up the West.

The simultaneous tumult in Mexico posed its own opportunities and threats to the United States and the Confederacy. A brutal civil war (1858–61) between modernising, middle-class urban liberals and the conservative forces of the Church, the army and landlords resulted in the return to power of Juárez, who enjoyed good relations with Lincoln’s Union and shared its values. But the liberals’ internal divisions left the country prey to foreign intervention. Mexican conservatives plotted to restore monarchical rule under a European prince. The consequent complex and bloody dance saw the troops of Napoleon III clearing the way for a French protectorate under Archduke Maximilian, the brother of the Austrian emperor, Franz Josef. Confederates, their hopes of annexing northern Mexico dashed, accepted the situation; the Union, once assured that Napoleon would stay out of the American Civil War, bided its time. Mexico remained war-torn.

Taylor’s gripping account of the Mexican drama veers between horrifying Grand Guignol and Gilbert and Sullivan-style absurdity. Maximilian splashed out on dazzling ceremonies, costumes, balls and wine, believing (in his wife’s words) that ‘it is not reform that changes men, it is the way it is done’. Public business halted while he collected birds, butterflies, beetles, flowers and antiquities. Hoping to unite liberals and conservatives, he attempted to recruit moderates from both sides to his government, yet he alienated conservatives by upholding the confiscation of Church lands. Through noblesse oblige he sought to rescue Mexico’s Indians from the grind of debt peonage. When the Confederacy collapsed in April 1865, Mexico lost its buffer against the Union army. Yankee generals, seeing the two civil wars as common elements of ‘the old contest between Absolute-ism and Liberalism’, wanted to invade. Seward wisely urged restraint. Napoleon withdrew his French troops, urging Maximilian to abdicate. Fatally misjudging his situation, the emperor refused, lost his grip on the country and in June 1867 was shot by firing squad. Juárez returned to power to lead a country entirely dislocated and lacking the stability, foreign investment and prospects enjoyed by the postwar United States.

Canadians, long alert to the covetous eyes of annexationists to their south, reacted with concern at the triumph of Ulysses S Grant’s armies. The dominant political figure, the liberal conservative John A Macdonald, foresaw a crisis. Powerful Yankee forces, he feared, would invade Canada to spite the British. Anglophone and Francophone Canadians, though at odds on much else, shared an animus towards the United States. An abortive invasion by Irish-American radicals (called ‘Fenians’) across the Niagara River served only to cement Canadian unity and hasten the move towards confederacy. Macdonald, whose epic alcoholic sprees did little to diminish his political nous, was a natural seeker of compromise, tenacious in championing mixed parliamentary government over what he saw as the unbridled democracy of the United States. He got the British to press the maritime provinces into a Canadian confederation, to which British Columbia and Manitoba were subsequently added. The strengthened ‘dominion’ of Canada could see off American annexationists.

Panoramic in scope, Taylor’s book regularly shocks the reader with its descriptions of the brutality of warfare (‘arms shot off – legs shot off. Eyes shot out – brains shot out … everything shot to pieces and totally maimed for all after life,’ a Union surgeon grieved in the early stages of the war). Taylor concedes that Union and Confederate generals abided by a code of conduct that precluded total war against white civilians. But it did not extend to non-white peoples. To the horrors of battlefield carnage must be added Americans’ indiscriminate slaying of Indians and Mexicans, as well as Confederates’ murder of black troops in slaughter pens and rampaging whites’ violence against black civilians in the Union’s draft riots. The self-proclaimed ‘fiends from hell’, William Quantrill’s Raiders, threw victims, including a black baby, into burning buildings. In Mexico, frustrated and vengeful French troops played football with the heads of decapitated guerrilla prisoners. The victory of American liberals was scarcely cost-free. 

Nor, of course, was it complete. Postwar reconstruction programmes promised more than they delivered. Taylor’s account is scarcely triumphalist. He quotes an American reformer, Cora Tappan, who reflected in 1869, ‘A government that has for nearly a century enslaved one race (African), that … proposes to exterminate another (Indians), and persistently refuses to recognize the rights of one-half of its citizens (women), cannot justly be called perfect.’

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