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

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