The Slaves’ Gamble a look at African Americans in the War of 1812

Cross-posted to Frontier Battles

While a little outside the chronological range covered by this blog, I thought I would share exciting news about a new book that seeks to alter our impression of antebellum slavery through the lens of the War of 1812.

9780230342088

Smith, Gene Allen. The Slaves’ Gamble:  Choosing Sides in the War of 1812.  New York:  Palgrave Macmillan, 2012.  272pp. $27.00.

Gene Allen Smith, historian at Texas Christian University, has written an interesting examination of how slaves viewed and used the conflict for their own opportunities.  He showed that the war saw all sides using African Americans to aid their causes, while blacks saw the war as their chance to assert themselves, whether for seeking equality, in the case of free blacks, or freedom for slaves.  Further, the war was a turning point in American race relations, as Smith noted that slavery was in a tenuous situation on war’s eve.

He noted that the war drastically altered this path of decline and that it further halted any potential progress towards freedom or equality, as blacks who joined British forces, seeking to better their lot in life, returned with invading forces, leading enemy troops into American communities. The consequence of this was a greater distrust among whites of arming slaves and enrolling blacks in militia units to augment white manpower, which continued into the Civil War, where African Americans served in segregated regiments with white officers. One of the other major problems resulting from the war was the expansion of available land for plantation agriculture, and plantation-based slavery.(3-4)

Smith begins his study by examining the story of black participation in North American wars. What is great about this chapter is the examination of the cross-cultural interactions, echoing Richard White’s remarkable work The Middle Ground. He concluded that the contributions of blacks to military conflicts during the colonial and revolutionary periods redefined the relationships between blacks and whites in North America.(31)

As he examined the role of blacks during the War of 1812, he weaved in the stories of black participants across the various theaters, providing a new and exciting understanding of the war that is as important to the larger field of study on the war as Donald Hickey. Smith concluded that blacks found became aware that their contributions to the war were minimized in post-war America. Further, white Americans began to react fearfully to black insurrection possibilities and worked to prevent the arming of blacks. Also, northern states began enacting laws outlawing blacks residing in them. Slavery became more entrenched in the South, as new areas were available for cotton production. Thus the war served as the last opportunity for blacks to attempt to fight for their place in society until the Civil War.(210-214)

The book is well researched, relying on sources from such scholars as Richard White, Gary Nash, Ian Steele, Stagg, and Don Hickey. In addition to strong secondary sources, Smith utilized several great primary sources that considered black participation, as well as interactions with Native Americans.

A good monograph that examines the difficult situation faced by blacks as they attempted to choose a side in the War of 1812 to further their position, Smith’s The Slaves’ Gamble is a great book for scholars interested in African American history, military history, the War of 1812, and is a good book for those interested in the Civil War, as it illustrates quite well how the forces that led to that great struggle came into being by America’s “second war for independence”.

Book Review of Blue and Gray Diplomacy: A History of Union and Confederate Foreign Relations

Howard Jones. Blue and Gray Diplomacy: A History of Union and Confederate Foreign Relations. The Littlefield History of the Civil War Era series. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2010. ISBN 978-0-8078-3349-0. Illustrations. Notes. Historiographical Note. Bibliography. Index. Pp. xiv, 416. $32.00.

Originally posted in International History (22 August 2012)

Most studies of the American Civil War (1861-1865) focus on political and military leaders, military campaigns, and battles. Dr Howard Jones, University Research Professor at the University of Alabama, provides a diplomatic history of the American conflict that considers the foreign relations of the United States and Confederacy with the European Powers. Previous works by Jones include To the Webster-Ashburton Treaty: A Study in Anglo-American Relations, 1783-1843 (1977), Union in Peril: The Crisis over British Intervention in the Civil War (1992), Abraham Lincoln and a New Birth of Freedom: The Union and Slavery in the Diplomacy of the Civil War (1999), and Crucible of Power: A History of American Foreign Relations to 1913 (2002).

In this study, Jones recounts the diplomatic events of the Civil War focusing on the issue of foreign intervention. He first looks at foreign relations from the outbreak of the war in April 1861 through the autumn of 1862. This was a period when the Palmerston Cabinet in London took the lead in declaring neutrality and recognizing the belligerent status of the South, and then considered mediation and possible diplomatic recognition of the Confederate States. He clearly shows the danger of British intervention in the Trent Affair (1861) and the Intervention Debates of 1862. Throughout this time the United States, using the threat of war, pursued its main goal of deterring Britain from diplomatically recognizing the South. The author shows that, despite pressure from certain circles, especially over the Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation, Britain opted to avoid a war against the United States in support of the Confederacy. London had to consider the Union threat to Canada and British commerce. By the end of 1862 the Confederacy was losing hope of British diplomatic recognition of the South, as well as hope for an alliance with Britain against the North.

Confederate diplomacy slowly began to focus on Napoleon III and France. Napoleon sympathized with the Southern cause. He entertained the ideas of diplomatic recognition and an armistice. The Emperor was open to Confederate proposals for an alliance, so long as it benefited French involvement in Mexican affairs and the pursuit of his dream to reestablish a French Empire in the New World. “Napoleon,” writes Jones, “considered Confederate independence crucial to the military and commercial bastion he envisioned in the Western Hemisphere” (p.310). The Lincoln administration was strongly against French interference in Mexican affairs. Jones shows that French support for the Confederacy became shaky after the Union victories at Vicksburg and Gettysburg in July 1863. Napoleon quickly abandoned the South after the United States threatened a war in Mexico in March 1864.

Blue and Gray Diplomacy is an outstanding study covering foreign relations between the Union, Confederacy, Britain, and France. It replaces David P. Crook’s The North, the South, and the Powers, 1861-1865 (1974) as the best study of foreign relations regarding the Civil War. Even so, the study can be supplemented by the recent publication of Wayne H. Bowen’s Spain and the American Civil War (2011). This reviewer highly recommends Blue and Gray Diplomacy to students and scholars of the Civil War to gain an understanding of the diplomatic events that touched the course and outcome of the conflict, especially the fact that Britain and France highly considered intervention in favor of the South, and in the end, backed away from such action.

Dr William Young
University of North Dakota
Grand Forks, North Dakota

Book Review of Caution and Cooperation: The American Civil War in British-American Relations

Phillip E. Myers. Caution and Cooperation: The American Civil War in British-American Relations. New Studies in U.S. Foreign Relations series. Kent: The Kent State University Press, 2008. ISBN 978-0-87338-945-7. Illustrations. Notes. Bibliography. Index. Pp. xi, 332. $55.00.

Dr Phillip E. Myers, Director of Administration at the Western Kentucky University Research Foundation, examines Anglo-American relations after the War of 1812 to the Treaty of Washington (1871).  The author focuses on Anglo-American relations during the American Civil War and puts it into the larger context of overall relations between the two states during the nineteenth century.

Myers argues against the traditional view that Britain and the United States had tense relations that could have easily resulted in foreign intervention or an Anglo-Union war during the American Civil War.  Instead, the author stresses that Britain and the United States employed caution and cooperation, rather than conflict, in their wartime relations.  Myers shows that both states had used caution and cooperation in their relations before the conflict that resolved border issues in the Rush-Bagot Agreement (1817), Convention of 1818, Webster-Ashburton Treaty (1842), and Oregon Treaty of 1846.  He writes: “The four treaties showed that caution and cooperation were the leading British-American aims” (p.23).

After the outbreak of the American Civil War, Myers stresses that Britain and United States worked to avoid an Anglo-American conflict, and that neither side seriously wanted war against the other.  The North had its hands full with the war against the South.  Britain was more worried about Napoleon III and the French threat to the British Isles and the European Balance of Power.  Britain declared neutrality in the American conflict, resulting in British recognition of belligerent status for the South.  Tension was evident over British trade with the South and the Union blockade.  Myers stresses that the Trent Affair (1861), traditionally thought to be a crisis moment when Britain and the United States might to go war against one another, was less serious than previously believed.  Neither power wanted war.  Private diplomacy quickly brought the two states back to cooperative relations that avoided a crisis for the rest of the American conflict.  He points out that the Palmerston Cabinet opted for cooperation with the Union in the Intervention Debate of 1862, and relations continually improved for the duration of the war.  The author states that, “by the end of 1862 the British-American peace was stronger than at any time since the beginning of the Civiil War . . .” (p.139).

Myer’s argument contrasts sharply with previous historians, such as Howard Jones’ Union in Peril: The Crisis over British Intervention in the Civil War (1992), that stress tense Anglo-American relations and crisis moments between Britain and the United States that could have led to foreign intervention in the American Civil War.  Myers’ work is based on archival research in Britain, the United States, and Canada.  The study is valuable for depicting Anglo-American relations in a different light.  Is his thesis of Anglo-American caution and cooperation overstated?  This reviewer recommends this study for students and scholars to read and make up their own minds.

Dr William Young
University of North Dakota
Grand Forks, North Dakota

Book Review of Spain and the American Civil War 

Wayne H. Bowen. Spain and the American Civil War. Shades of Blue and Gray Series. Columbia and London: University of Missouri Press, 2011. ISBN 978-0-8262-1938-1. Notes. Bibliography. Index. Pp. v, 188. $40.00.

Few historians of the American Civil War focus on the international history of the conflict.  Most Civil War studies are about political and military leaders, military campaigns, and battles.  By comparison there has been just a trickle of studies over the last fifty years devoted to the subject of diplomatic affairs.  And, yet, most historians agree that foreign intervention, by way of mediation or military action, would have greatly influenced the outcome of the war.

There are several modern surveys of Union and Confederate diplomacy.  These studies include Howard Jones’ recently published Blue and Gray Diplomacy: A History of Union and Confederate Foreign Relations (2010), Dean B. Mahin, One War at A Time: The International Dimensions of the American Civil War (1999), and the older David Paul Crook, The North, the South, and the Great Powers, 1861-1865 (1974) as well as his briefer version Diplomacy during the American Civil War (1976).  Early Union diplomacy is examined in Norman B. Ferris, Desperate Diplomacy: William H. Seward’s Foreign Policy, 1861 (1976) and The Trent Affair: A Diplomatic Crisis (1977).  Confederate diplomacy is covered in Frank L. Owsley’s classic King Cotton Diplomacy (1931) and the more recent Charles M. Hubbard, The Burden of Confederate Diplomacy (1998).  Union relations with Britain are the focus of many studies, including Brian Jenkins’ two-volume Britain and the War for the Union (1974-80), Howard Jones, Union in Peril: The Crisis over British Intervention in the Civil War (1991), and Philip E. Myers, Caution and Cooperation: The American Civil War in British-American Relations (2008).  French foreign policy concerning the American Civil War is examined in Lynn Marshall Case and Warren F. Spencer, The United States and France: Civil War Diplomacy (1970) and Daniel B. Carroll, Henri Mercier and the American Civil War (1971).  French policy in Mexico is considered in Alfred Jackson Hanna and Kathryn Abbey Hanna’s Napoleon III and Mexico: American Triumph over Monarchy (1971) and Michele Cunningham’s revisionist study Mexico and the Foreign Policy of Napoleon III (2001).  Little has been written on Spain’s involvement in the conflict other than James W. Cortada’s study Spain and the American Civil War: Relations at Mid-Century, 1855-1868 (1980).

Dr. Wayne H. Bowen, Professor and Chair of the Department of History at Southeast Missouri State University, delivers us the most recent diplomatic history of the American Civil War.  In Spain and the American Civil War Professor Bowen explores Spanish foreign policy and Spain’s relations with the Union and Confederacy.  He stresses that efforts by the Confederacy to attract support from Spain has received little attention by historians “despite the advantages to both states that mutual assistance could have brought” (p.5).

Bowen describes how Spain, under the leadership of Prime Minister Leopoldo O’Donnell (1856, 1858-63), a former general, was in the midst of a political, economic, and military revival in the late 1850s.  O’Donnell was attempting to use the revived military and naval power of Spain to restore Spain’s prestige as a Great Power.  Spain had lost most of its American possessions in the Spanish American Wars of Independence (1808-33).  It had also survived two civil wars, the First Carlist War (1833-39) and Second Carlist War (1846-49) which challenged Queen Isabel II’s (1833-68) rule of Spain.  All that was left of the once extensive Spanish Empire was Spain, Cuba, Puerto Rico, the Philippines, and Guam.  By the late 1850s, Spain’s military revival resulted in an active duty army of 115,000 troops with a reserve of another 85,000 men (p.38).  Madrid was also rebuilding its naval fleet, which had 170 new ships in the 1860s.  Most of these vessels were steamships with sails that were built in Britain, France, and the United States.  By 1860, Spain was the 4th largest naval power in the world in terms of firepower and displacement (p.47).

In the late 1850s and early 1860s, Spain was pursuing an aggressive foreign policy and flexing its muscles.  Spain opted not to assist France and Britain in the Crimean War, but it sent six frigates and 1,000 troops from Manila to assist France in Cochin China in 1857.  Then, in 1859-60, O’Donnell deployed 38,000 troops to northwest Africa to defeat Morocco. Next, in April 1861, the Spanish government sent 3,000 troops from Cuba to occupy Santo Domingo (the eastern half of the island of Hispaniola).  Spain officially annexed the territory two months later, and increased the military strength in Santo Domingo to 20,000 troops by 1862.  In 1861-62, during the first year of the American Civil War, Spain joined Britain and France in a punitive military expedition against Mexico, forcing the Benito Juárez government to make good on its international debts.  The initial allied force consisted of 6,200 Spanish troops from Cuba, under the command of General Juan Prim y Prats, alongside 700 British and 2,000 French troops.  Spanish and British forces withdrew from Mexico after a few months, although French troops stayed, and eventually took Mexico City and established the Mexican Empire.

Bowen believes that the Confederate States of America and Spain were “natural allies.”  He expounds that Spain was a more likely ally for the South than Britain or France.  Spain had kept slavery in its Caribbean territories while Britain rejected slavery in 1833 and France in 1848.  Spain and the United States had poor relations dating back to the American support for Spanish American Wars of Independence in the early nineteenth century.  The Monroe Doctrine (1823) was aimed at preventing Spain from reclaiming lost Latin American states.  Spain feared American expansionism, as well as US efforts to dominate Latin America and seize Spain’s remaining colonies of Cuba and Puerto Rico.  The Spanish government was pleased to see the breakup and weakening of the United States in 1861.  Some of the Spanish elite, including Queen Isabel II, Prime Minister O’Donnell, aristocrats, and military leaders, were sympathetic to the Southern cause.  Spanish plantation owners in Cuba and business leaders identified with and supported the South.  Spanish newspapers cheered Confederate battlefield victories.  Spanish seaports in Cuba and Puerto Rico provided safe harbor for Confederate smugglers and blockade runners.

The Confederate States of America looked to Britain, France, and Spain to gain diplomatic recognition and possibly intervention during the American Civil War.  Spain, like Britain and France, declared neutrality in the American struggle, but gave belligerent rights to the South in June 1861.

Why wouldn’t Spain openly side with the South?  First, Madrid refused to grant diplomatic recognition and establish an alliance with the Confederate States unless Britain and France took the first step (p.75).  Spain, despite its growing economic and military strength, was too weak to take unilateral action against the North in support of the South.  Madrid would need to reply on much superior British and French economic, military, and political power.  As Bowen writes: “Defeating Morocco alone was one thing, taking on the United States, even as an ally of the Confederacy, was a task beyond the capacity of Spain in 1861” (p.60).  Spain, depending on French and British leadership in foreign policy, would take a wait-and-see approach.  Secondly, the author points out that there was mistrust between the Confederacy and Spain throughout the American Civil War.  Spanish leaders realized that the primary arguments for United States acquisition of Cuba in the 1850s had come from Southern politicians, the same men that were in charge of the Confederate government in the 1860s.  Southern politicians had frequently mentioned that “after the South broke from the Union, Cuba, Mexico, and Central America would naturally join or be joined to the new Confederacy as slave states . . .” (p.71).  As such, Spain, not trusting the South, kept its newest naval ships and best army regiments stationed in Cuba (p.76).  Third, Madrid had overstretched its military and naval resources, especially with the occupation of Santo Domingo.  An insurgency against Spanish rule in Santo Domingo broke out in 1862-63, and Spain had to keep 25,000 troops there fighting a costly guerrilla war for the next three years (p.99).  The conflict, the most important issue in Spanish foreign policy at the time, led to the downfall of the O’Donnell government.  And, finally, Union naval power and military strength, especially after 1862-63, deterred Spain from openly siding with the Confederacy.  The United States Navy could deploy a couple of ironclad warships and destroy Havana (p.118).

By late 1863, the Confederate States had lost realistic hope of European intervention in the American conflict.  The South shifted its primary diplomatic efforts from Britain to Emperor Napoleon III of France.  But, France, like Spain, was tied down in a conflict, the Franco-Mexican War (1861-67) and had other diplomatic concerns in the Polish Uprising (1863-64) and Schleswig-Holstein Crisis (1863-64).  Moreover, United States naval and military strength, along with battlefield victories in 1863 and afterwards, allowed the North to make diplomatic threats against France and Spain that needed to be and were taken seriously.

In Spain and the American Civil War Professor Bowen provides a much needed examination of Spanish foreign policy during the American crisis.  Most diplomatic studies of the American Civil War ignore Spain and its influence in the Caribbean Region.  The author stresses the mid-century revival of Spanish power and how Madrid became strategically overextended while trying to regain influence as a Great Power.  In doing so, he shows that Spain would have been of limited assistance to the South unless Britain and/or France diplomatically recognized and allied with the Confederate States.  This is an interesting study and should be on the reading list of every student and scholar interested in the American Civil War and international diplomacy in the mid-nineteenth century.  It is based on both primary and secondary sources.

Dr. William Young
University of North Dakota

H-Net review of Army Life

My latest book review for H-Net posted a few days ago. I reviewed the book Army Life: From a Soldier’s Journal: Incidents, Sketches, and Record of a Union Soldier’s Army Life, in Camp and Field, 1861-1864 by Albert O. Marshall, veteran of the Thirty-Third Illinois Infantry Regiment, and edited by Robert G. Schultz. Overall, I found the book quite good and a reliable primary source on the Civil War. I encourage you to read it here on the H-Net site.

Review of The Badax Tigers

Nanzig, Thomas P., Ed. The Badax Tigers:  From Shiloh to the Surrender with the 18th Wisconsin Volunteers. New York:  Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 2002. ISBN:  0-7425-6019-8  384 pp. $22.95

This book is an insightful look into a company within a Wisconsin Infantry regiment, from its origins, to the end of the war. Editor Thomas Nanzig provided wonderful research into Company C, 18th Wisconsin Volunteer Infantry (known as the Badax Tigers), basing it around primary sources from letters and newspaper accounts on the regiment that bring the life of the common soldiers to the forefront.

The book begins by discussing the beginnings of the Tigers in camp of instruction in Milwaukee. This is especially of interest to myself, as my thesis dealt with the subject in Illinois. I even used it in a draft chapter of the thesis that was not included in the final version. It then chronciles the company’s participation in several major engagements in the Western Theater of the war, including Corinth, Vicksburg, and Atlanta, including the end of the war.

The book centers around the letters of Private Thomas Jefferson Davis to his wife throughout the war and is supplemented by newspaper articles and reports on the regiment as well as letters written by other soldiers in the company intended for publication. Nanzig does an excellent job of combining these rich sources into a coherent story of one Federal unit during the war. This book reads like many other histories, but has the benefit of narrower focus, where the individual soldiers are able to come alive more, as they are examined against the company of roughly one hundred instead of the regiment of one thousand.

There are a couple other great things about this book in addition to the rich source material. Nanzig provided readers good analysis of the material. Further, he included several sections after the bibliography, including statistics for the regiment and Company C, an organizational chart of the 18th Wisconsin, and a roster for Company C. These provide important information for better understanding of the source material in the text.

In addition, Nanzig relies on good sources outside of the soldiers’ materials. These include works by Allan Nevins, James McPherson, as well as early works by Stephen Ambrose and the reports of the Wisconsin adjutant general during the war, which are vital to studying soldiers. These materials provide a strong scholarly background for this work.

Overall, this is an insightful work into a Wisconsin infantry unit and provides a wonderful look into the lives of common Union soldiers. It is easy to read and well-edited. Scholars and general audiences alike will find value in this work. Scholars should examine this for their own research into Civil War soldiers and should consider using this in classes on the war, as students will find it accessible and compelling. General readers will enjoy an intimate connection to the boys in blue, as they (the soldiers) write to loved ones back home, and reporters tell the story of the Badax Tigers. The Badax Tigers should be on the shelf of every library that includes Civil War material.

My H-Net review of Campaign for Corinth

I just had my latest H-Net review published. I usually only post the link to give H-Net the traffic. I reviewed the book Campaign for Corinth by Steven Dossman for H-CivWar.

Click here to read the review.

I hope you enjoy the review.