Teaching the Civil War takes juggling some very broad, diverse, complex processes in the histories of slavery and freedom, of nationalism, citizenship and state building, of Indian Nations and the West, of modern warfare, of economic transformation of the economy, and of the ways in which people thought about life, death, gender, family, and personal responsibility. Adding a transnational dimension to all of this–exploring how the war reverberated outside the country and how it was affected by what went on beyond U.S. borders–seems daunting, overwhelming and perhaps not worth the bang one gets for the buck. I would nonetheless like to suggest in this post that there is much to be gained from looking at–and teaching–the Civil War from a transnational perspective. Shifting scales and angles allows students to see the war in a different light, to gauge its significance beyond U.S. history, and to rethink the nation and its narratives.
As the articles in the JCWE’s December 2017 issue show, the 1850s and 1860s witnessed profound transformations of North America. The articles describe different historical processes–peaceful and violent, protracted and ephemeral–that fractured and reconfigured the continent’s geography, refashioned its national communities, and expanded the meaning of freedom and community. Attentiveness to these broader processes and shared experiences, molded by connections and influences, marked by coincidences and contrasts, can serve as a remedy to parochialism and exceptionalism. At the very least, they remind students that nations rarely operate in a vacuum, and that what we sometimes imagine are monolithic actors–“Mexico,” the “United States”–need to be unpacked.
My article, “Law, Allegiance and Sovereignty in Civil War Mexico, 1857-1867,” focuses on how foreign invasion overlapped with domestic discord and reshuffled Mexicans’ sense of allegiance and their visions of law and politics. European military intervention in Mexico, as a response to the Juárez government’s defaulting on its foreign debt, is perhaps the most vivid illustration of the weight of transnational dynamics during the Civil War era, but they also profoundly affected the bilateral relationship between the two North American republics. Washington and Richmond both faced momentous challenges on the international arena. The Confederate government exerted itself to obtain diplomatic recognition; the Union resolutely sought to avoid this. The French intervention in Mexico added a new wrinkle to an already complex situation. Despite the Lincoln administration’s sympathy for the beleaguered republic to the south, and the Monroe Doctrine having been expressly designed to prevent something like Napoleon III’s “Mexican Adventure,” Washington’s foreign policy would remain firmly committed to preventing British and French recognition of the Confederate States of America, and avoiding alienating the French. Until the end of the war, New World republican solidarity would be limited to rhetorical saber-rattling in newspapers, meetings, and congressional debate, ably promoted by Matías Romero, the Mexican Republic’s young envoy to Washington.
The full article can be viewed on the Journal of the Civil War Era Muster blog.