Books
11:32 am
Mon September 13, 2010

Blue and Gray Diplomacy: A History of Union and Confederate Foreign Relations by Howard Jones

You can't swing a cavalry saber in these parts without striking someone who thinks of himself as a Civil War buff, an amateur expert on the War Between the States. Yet as Howard Jones reminds us in his Epilogue, "Historians of Blue and Gray diplomacy remain small in number particularly compared with the military and political historians [amateur and professional] of the conflict. Battles, generals and politicians all helped to determine the outcome of the war; but so did diplomats."

Audio ?2010 Alabama Public Radio

You can't swing a cavalry saber in these parts without striking someone who thinks of himself as a Civil War buff, an amateur expert on the War Between the States. Yet as Howard Jones reminds us in his Epilogue, "Historians of Blue and Gray diplomacy remain small in number particularly compared with the military and political historians [amateur and professional] of the conflict. Battles, generals and politicians all helped to determine the outcome of the war; but so did diplomats."

Jones, a UA history professor with more than a dozen published volumes, has worked this territory before. He is the author of Abraham Lincoln and a New Birth of Freedom: The Union and Slavery in the Diplomacy of the Civil War and Union in Peril: The Crisis over British Intervention in the Civil War. What Howard Jones doesn't know about this subject is probably just not worth knowing. And if you pick up this book, you had BETTER want to know a lot about the relationships between Lincoln and the Union and Davis and the Confederacy and the foreign powers England, France and to some extent Russia. Blue and Gray Diplomacy is narrative history and Jones tells his story well, but this is a thorough, highly detailed, massively researched volume.

Jones gives character sketches of Union and Confederate leaders at home and their diplomats abroad. Jeff Davis sent James M. Mason and John Slidell. Mason is described by a New York paper as a "cold , calculating, stolid, sour traitor" whose heart was "gangrened with envy and pride?."

John Slidell was described by William Russell thusly: "subtle, full of devices and fond of intrigue." If thrown into a dungeon, Slidell "would conspire with the mice against the cat rather than not conspire at all."

We also get sketches of the British cabinet ministers, the French counselors to Napoleon III and Napoleon himself, who was pragmatic and untrustworthy. William Dayton, Union minister to Paris, is quoted by Jones: "Truthfulness is not, as you know, an element in French diplomacy or manners. No man but a Frenchman would ever have thought of [Charles] Talleyrand's famous bon mot, that the object of language was to conceal thought."

Jones has read everything, official records, memoirs, journals and diaries. He summarizes correspondence among the principals, and even the minutes of the numerous meetings held over four years.

Though the diplomatic maneuverings were complex and fluid, the basic issue of recognition was a simple one. As Jones reminds his reader, the Union from the start wanted the European powers to stay out of the North American conflict absolutely, and all but threatened war if any power interfered. There seems to have been little chance that England or France would side with the Union. The danger was that they would recognize the sovereignty of the Confederacy as a new nation, try to impose an armistice or mediation, loan money, break the union blockade or, at the worst, side with the rebels.

The Confederacy knew that European recognition was crucial and worked very hard to get it. The wonder of it is that England and France, although tempted in different ways, came close to intervention of one sort or another but never did get there. Britain never understood the bitterness, the violent passions that grew up between North and South, and decided to
"wait and see" whether the adversaries would tire and quit fighting. Also, the British for a couple of long, bloody years, reinforced by Union defeats at Bull Run and failures by General George McClellan, did NOT in fact believe the Union could put down the Southern rebellion.

As Jones concludes, "the Confederacy's greatest fear came to pass: to win recognition, it had to win in battle; but to win in battle, it had to have the foreign aid that could come only from recognition. In more ways than one, the South had fought a lost cause."

There are several main issues that Jones takes up, none of them as simple as it looks. One was cotton. The mills in England and France needed it desperately. Workers were on short hours or out of work and hungry. Would that sway the government to intervene? It turns out, no, and in fact the mill workers of Britain and France were more anti-slavery than their governments were.

Another issue was slavery itself, seen from abroad, and especially the Emancipation Proclamation. Jones patiently goes through the responses to the Proclamation. Freedom for the slaves was cheered, but what about the possibility of massive slave uprisings and massacres? It never happened.

Finally, there was Napoleon III. Now mostly forgotten, the French Emperor wanted to take control of Mexico, and Texas and Louisiana if he could get them, and reconstitute a French Empire in North America. Napoleon's intrigues with the Confederacy are as byzantine as everything else in this tale.

No matter how much you think you know about the Civil War, there is plenty here that is new and intriguing.

This review was originally broadcast on Alabama Public Radio on September 13, 2010. Don Noble's book reviews can be heard each Monday on Alabama Public Radio at 7:35 a.m. and 4:44 p.m.

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