Review by Howard Jones
One War at a Time: The International Dimensions of the American Civil War.
By Dean B. Mahin. (Washington, D.C.: Brassey’s, 1999. Pp. x, 343. $27.95 cloth.)
In this study of Civil War diplomacy, Dean B. Mahin observes that President Abraham Lincoln played a pivotal role in the Union’s foreign relations that most historians have failed to acknowledge. Mahin is also correct in asserting that no one has written either a full-scale study of U.S. foreign relations during the Civil War or an all-encompassing analysis of Lincoln’s role as diplomatist. One War at a Time is an attempt to fill these two voids. Mahin holds degrees in history and international affairs and has served in several government positions for four decades, including the State Department, the U.S. Information Agency, and the U.S. Agency for International Development. He has also written Olive Branch and Sword: The United States and Mexico, 1845-1848. In this new work, the author focuses on Lincoln’s delicate efforts to avert a foreign war while using the threat of war to block British and French recognition of southern independence. Such a perilous program became even more complicated because of the Union’s problems with Britain over the Trent, the Confederacy’s contracting of war vessels in British shipyards, the threat of British violations of the Union’s blockade, British concern over a U.S. move against Canada, the Alabama claims dispute with Britain, and the French intervention in Mexico. The result is a sprightly written and useful book that rests principally on published materials, both primary and secondary.
Mahin reiterates the growing realization that historians of the Civil War have dwelled almost exclusively on generals and battles, virtually ignoring the international dimensions of that great conflict. If Seward was the John Foster Dulles of brinkmanship diplomacy, Lincoln was the Dwight D. Eisenhower of moderation. Lincoln was just as much a natural-born diplomat in temperament and willingness to compromise as the president of the Confederacy, Jefferson Davis, was not. Lincoln understood that nations acted in their own interests; Davis failed to see that foreign nations would not extend recognition to the Confederacy simply because of its claim to being a bastion of freedom against the oppressive Union. And, just as unrealistically, Davis insisted that the South’s use of “King Cotton” diplomacy would secure outside support. Seward had decided that the only way to ward off foreign recognition of the Confederacy was to warn of war with the Union. When the secretary of state threatened foreign intruders in his April 1861 war memo, Lincoln ignored the document but quietly approved its premise, emphasizing that the Union was permanent and that secession was treason. Lincoln wisely held to his axiom of one war at a time, implying that after the Union had defeated the Confederacy, it would turn on those nations that had interfered in what he (and Seward) considered to be a domestic matter. The secretary’s light administrative duties afforded him considerable time to spend with the president, cultivating a closeness between them that led to Seward’s seldom if ever acting without Lincoln’s direction. Indeed, Seward’s initial disdain for his superior grew into an admiring respect-so much so that he wrote his wife in June 1961: “The president is the best of us.”
This book covers a lot of important material, but it is primarily a synthesis of familiar material that is weak on analysis and does not delve deeply enough into Lincoln’s foreign policy. The author rarely offers his own conclusions, choosing instead to present a series of staccato-like quotations from historians. See, for example, Mahin’s use of the words of Pauline Maier, Merrill Peterson, and H.C. Allen regarding Lincoln’s use of the Emancipation Proclamation. Full of promise at the beginning, the work lapses into a kaleidoscopic summation of events that loses its central focus when Lincoln virtually disappears from the narrative. Mahin argues that the British and French mediation proposal of 1862 would not have caused an Anglo-American war unless the intervening powers extended diplomatic recognition to the Confederacy. But he fails to see that Union acquiescence to a mediation would have validated secession by bestowing legitimacy onto the Confederacy. Lincoln had to reject any form of foreign interference, no matter how innocuous it sounded, because its acceptance would have constituted an admission to the South’s existence as an entity. The author also underestimates the importance of slavery to Lincoln’s diplomacy and to his broad view of the war’s meaning. The Emancipation Proclamation did not have the immediate effect that Lincoln desired; many British observers denounced the document as a desperate attempt to reverse the Union’s war losses by instigating slave uprisings throughout the South. But few British (and Americans) grasped the significance of the proclamation and its relationship to the universal principles highlighted in the Gettysburg Address some months afterward. Lincoln had moved beyond his original goal of preserving the Union of 1861 to promote a vastly improved republic that had cleansed itself of slavery and thereby experienced a new birth of freedom. The slavery issue weighed heavily on Lincoln’s mind, most notably in providing a moral base for the war and for the Union’s foreign policy.
Mahin’s book confirms that the most effective diplomats are those least noticed by contemporaries. A true diplomat does not bang on the table for attention; he works in quiet and sometimes mysterious ways, achieving the best results by de-emphasizing his own significance. This was Lincoln, a diplomatist in the finest sense of the word.
Howard Jones is University Research Professor and Chair of the History Department at the University of Alabama. He is the author of numerous works, including Union in Peril: The Crisis over British Intervention in the Civil War and Abraham Lincoln and a New Birth of Freedom: The Union and Slavery in the Diplomacy of the Civil War.