A Review of Fleche’s “The Revolution of 1861” by David Thomson

The Revolution of 1861: The American Civil War in the Age of Nationalist Conflict by Andre M. Fleche. University of North Carolina Press, 2012. Cloth, ISBN: 9780807835234. $35.00.

With the sesquicentennial of the war upon us, dozens of scholarly works will emerge detailing the generals, politicians, battles, and home front experiences that shaped the bloodiest war in American history. Still others will discuss in detail the coming of the war and the sectional tensions that proved irreconcilable by the winter of 1860. Yet, far fewer works will detail the larger international framework that the war sprung out of in 1861. With Andre Fleche’s The Revolution of 1861, historians have a strong source that grounds the causes and larger philosophy of the war in its proper international context.  By drawing on the European revolutions of 1848, Fleche demonstrates the larger debates over self-determination, race, class, and labor that pulled North and South apart and resulted in a Civil War.

For the North, the revolutions of 1848 presented the challenge of balancing “liberal principles of freedom with more conservative ideals of order and authority” (60). According to Fleche, the Lincoln administration constantly struggled in the war’s early years with conservative goals of order and restoration of the Union while simultaneously dealing with former European revolutionaries within the Union Army and northern intellectual circles who espoused much more radical ideals targeting the elimination of slavery. Prominent members of Lincoln’s cabinet, such as William Seward, promoted the idea that secession threatened the American nation-state and therefore the heavy hand of the state proved necessary in order to maintain order, and even the future of western nation-states, in the midst of a revolutionary age. Such a position proved difficult for the northern government to maintain as they found themselves moving away from the previous embrace of self-determination and revolution that had defined the early republic.

For Fleche, Confederate intellectuals and government embraced the rights of self-determination as they harkened back to the European nationalist movements of the previous fifteen years as models for their own efforts in combating the aristocratic North. Confederate authorities made countless references to the similarities of the embattled South with the oppressed groups of a variety of European nation-states. Confederate spokesperson stressed self-determination and self-government as essential characteristics of the Confederate struggle and qualities that remained anathema to Union aims. Repeated efforts to tie the Union war effort to Russia’s war on Poland provided further fuel in the Confederate mind that their efforts were in the right.

Yet nationalist discussions in both North and South underwent dramatic shifts following the Emancipation Proclamation and shift of northern war aims to that of ending slavery. Such an act on the part of the Lincoln Administration enabled Union representatives to “recast their diplomatic strategy and bring it in line with traditional republican predilections” (113). Such an act garnered further support among the European working classes while allowing Union forces to promote their revolutionary destiny. Conversely, Confederate spokesmen emphasized the tremendous risk that emancipation posed on the social order within the South and that the institution of slavery actually promoted progressive ideals and prevented socialism and communism from taking root in the United States. Ultimately, however, emancipation harkened back to French Revolution ideology and proved insurmountable in the Confederate nationalist war. For Fleche, the war lost by Confederate armies would also be lost in the realm of public opinion by Confederate diplomats and intellectuals.

Despite the detailed nature of Fleche’s work, there were several points worthy of further inquiry. For instance, Fleche offers fleeting commentary to the providential rhetoric that pervaded American life during this time but quickly moves from that point. This is certainly an area that Fleche could have delved into more detail about as providential and millenialist rhetoric undoubtedly played a role in nationalist discourse. Furthermore, while Fleche does give attention to Roman Catholics in the form of Archbishop John Hughes and Father John Bannon and their roles in nationalist discourse among Irish-Americans, there were even greater opportunities to discuss the nationalist rhetoric among the various Protestant denominations in the Union and Confederacy during the war. Such an examination would afford the opportunity for Fleche to have inserted the voice of some individuals outside the higher intellectual circles who almost certainly discussed nationalist ideals. These minor reservations aside, The Revolution of 1861 offers a wonderful point of departure for future studies of nationalist rhetoric in the Civil War era. As historians continue to discuss the war and its various manifestations, hopefully Fleche’s work will be one of many that will place the war in its proper international context.

David Thomson                                                                                   University of Georgia

David Thomson is a doctoral student at the University of Georgia. He is the editor of the forthcoming Faith in Providence: The Life and Letters of Brevet Brigadier General Charles Henry Howard (University of Tennessee Press.)

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This entry was posted in 19th Century, Book Reviews, Civil War, Providence. Bookmark the permalink.

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