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The Burden of Confederate Diplomacy.

The Burden of Confederate Diplomacy, by Charles M. Hubbard. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1998. xviii, 253 pp. $38.00.

COULD CONFEDERATE DIPLOMACY HAVE DONE A BETTER JOB in its mission of securing Confederate independence? Could it have succeeded in negotiating a relationship with the United States, or at least in shaping the terms of reconstruction? These questions are always implicit and sometimes explicit in Charles M. Hubbard's survey of Confederate diplomacy. Integrating recent arguments from the wider world of Civil War scholarship, he has produced a thoughtful interpretation of the means and ends of Confederate policy abroad.

The talent of Confederate envoys, Hubbard points out, never matched that of their generals; several initial choices proved singularly unfortunate, notably William Lowndes Yancey. Nor was the initial strategy of economic coercion by demonstrating the power of King Cotton productive, for the failure to ship cotton to Europe deprived the new nation of sorely needed funds without any worthwhile results. The team of Secretary of State Judah Benjamin and representatives James Mason (London) and John Slidell (Paris) fared somewhat better, but even they were unable to achieve meaningful progress in several years of negotiations. In contrast, Union diplomats, led by Secretary of State William H. Seward and his lieutenants in London (Charles Francis Adams, Sr.) and Paris (William L. Dayton) proved skilled negotiators, played on European concerns, and recovered quickly from stumbles, notably the Trent affair.

Hubbard does not shy away from identifying the Confederacy with the protection of slavery, but argues that the issue was of little consequence in determining British and French policy. He seconds the case presented by Howard Jones in Union in Peril (1992) that far too much has been made of Antietam and the Emancipation Proclamation as critical turning points in deterring the possibility of mediation or recognition by Great Britain. Elsewhere he offers equally sound arguments about the failure of Confederate diplomacy to shape Union policy, and the inability of Confederate leadership to take advantage of the opportunity to shape the terms under which it might abandon its bid for independence. Lacking, however, are more than a few suggestions on what alternatives might have led to a significantly different outcome, especially after 1861.

In the end, despite Hubbard's usually persuasive account of missed opportunities by Confederate diplomatic envoys and the Davis government, one nagging question remains: would a better performance have made any difference? Probably not. British and French foreign policy was shaped by self-interest, and at least the British would not have offered mediation, recognition, or intervention unless they believed the Confederacy had already secured its independence on the battlefield. It was up to Robert E. Lee and his generals to provide the best case for undertaking such policies. Absent continuous success on the battlefield or the collapse of the Lincoln administration, the Confederacy had little chance of prevailing diplomatically; conversely, European mediation, recognition, and possible intervention would have come as the result of Confederate victory, instead of contributing toward it, although such actions might have shaped the course of the end game. In the end a successful diplomatic strategy rested upon a successful military strategy, which by itself would have achieved on the battlefield much of what Confederates desired to secure at the negotiating table; tempting as meddling in American affairs might have been, it was never in the interest of the French and the British to risk war with the United States or to neglect international events elsewhere, especially after 1863.

More serious in the final assessment is the failure of Confederate representatives to get what they could as part of a negotiated abandonment of the experiment in Southern independence, in large part because of the ultimate reluctance of Jefferson Davis to accept defeat. By war's end, the Confederates advanced the idea of independence with emancipation (Duncan Kenner's mission), but rejected reunion with compensated emancipation (the Hampton Roads Conference). Whatever sort of independent Southern republic the Confederacy's leaders had in mind, they seemed to overlook the centrality of slavery and states' rights to the original vision; the actions of the Confederate government served instead to undermine the reasons why Southerners embarked on their experiment in secession in the first place. Confederate diplomacy contributed to the betrayal of that vision; in doing so, it was of a piece with Confederate policy at home.

On the whole, Hubbard's book is a provocative look at an important part of the Confederate bid for independence. Here and there the narrative would have benefitted from slicing repetition of ideas and arguments, sometimes in consecutive sentences; moreover, Hubbard never quite reconciles his critique of Confederate diplomacy, which suggests that Rebel envoys could have achieved much more, with the argument that the real decisions were being made on the battlefield. However, in his willingness to treat Confederate relations with European powers and the Union as part of a larger diplomatic effort and in his ability to show us how Confederate diplomacy reflected larger Southern characteristics, he has succeeded in making us ponder once more the rise and fall of that most curious entity, the Confederacy.

BROOKS D. SIMPSON

Arizona State University
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Title Annotation:Review
Author:SIMPSON, BROOKS D.
Publication:The Mississippi Quarterly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Dec 22, 1998
Words:851
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