On to chapter VI of From Colony to Superpower, but first make sure to read Paul’s final thoughts on chapter V (here and here). He takes issue (as several others have) with my effort to ferret out a causal relationship between slavery and the debate over expansion in the 1840s, and discusses James K. Polk at some length. I suppose that I’d argue in response that expansion per se was never really the issue, and thus didn’t furnish the meat of partisan disagreement; it was how slavery could take advantage of that expansion that produced the dispute. Fittingly enough, Herring’s next chapter takes us through the Civil War.
Herring places the Civil War within the context of the various wars of unification in Europe and elsewhere as the nation-state solidified its hold as the primary unit of political organization. I think that there’s something productive in thinking about the war in this way; as Scott has often said, the war was in part about State’s Rights, and State’s Rights lost. That said, I think that the dynamics of national unification were much different in settler societies than in the Old World. In particular, I remain unconvinced that, had slavery not been at issue, the war would have occurred. That said, slavery may have had the effect of transforming local consolidation operations into a grand, regional conflict.
The Confederacy was generally inept in its diplomatic efforts. Faulty assumptions that had guided the early Republic, such as the notion that the world was dependent upon trade with America and would endure economic collapse in its absence, dominated Confederate diplomatic strategy. Although the Confederate cotton embargo hurt France and Great Britain, they were able to make do with stores, alternative suppliers, and cotton that either slipped through the embargo or was exported by the North. With the exception of Russia, the European powers generally preferred the idea of a divided North America, but were unprepared to do anything useful to make it happen. European investment in the North, especially on the part of Great Britain, also made the Europeans reluctant to intervene. These realities were not well understood in the South, leading to a combination of arrogance and cultural insensitivity that made earlier US diplomacy look positively competent. Jefferson Davis in particular didn’t seem to see much value in devoting a lot of attention to the diplomatic corps, believing instead that economic realities would force the European hand.
I would have liked to hear a little bit more about the impact of the war on military planning and doctrine in Europe. The nineteenth century combined fast technological and social development with relative peace, meaning that the art of warfare developed in fits and starts. Most military professionals (to the extent that the term was becoming useful) understood that the next war would be conducted in a considerably different manner than the last, but didn’t have a grasp on quite what the differences would be. Actual wars, therefore, came under considerable scrutiny. Americans such as George B. McClellan served as observers in the Crimean War, while many European observers served alongside both the Confederate and Union armies during the Civil War. Unfortunately, Herring doesn’t talk much about this cross-polination, except in that it affected other relationships. For example, Herring notes that relative friendship between the United States and Russia developed out of the experience of American observers in the Crimean War, and that this cordiality led to the good relationship between the Union and the Russian Empire.
On this point, Herring’s discussion of relations between the Union and the Russian Empire is remarkably interesting. He mentions the deployment of a Russian naval squadron to New York in the middle of the war, ostensibly intended to facilitate the study ironclad warfare, but also meant as a message of Russian support for the Union and, as always, to convey Russian military prestige. The squadron, including the frigate Alexander Nevsky, remained in American waters for seven months. The visit was partially the product of the diplomacy of Cassius Clay, abolitionist and cousin of Henry Clay, and who had been dispatched by Lincoln as Minister to Russia. The solid relations developed between Russia and the Union eventually led to the Russian sale of Alaska to the United States. As always, there were costs; Lincoln and Seward notably tamped down traditional American support for Polish independence during the 1863 Uprising.