The American Civil War: A Case Study in 19th Century Diplomacy

Just as in previous eras, diplomacy and international relations functioned as tools by which nations sought to advance their respective interests relative to the interests of other nations in the 19th century. One event of the 19th century that serves as an example of many of the features and facets of diplomacy and international relations as it was practiced in that period is the American Civil War. In the Civil War, a part of the United States broke from the rest of the nation and formed its own ostensibly independent nation, the Confederate States of America. In a complex situation which combined domestic affairs with international relations, the struggle between the two sides included negotiations for prisoner exchanges and attempts by the Confederacy to draw certain European powers into the conflict on its side.

One feature of the Civil War which makes it an interesting case study in diplomacy is that the two powers primarily involved were two halves of the same nation, sharing in a common history and identity, and yet one of those powers, the Confederacy, tried to separate itself from the other and regard itself as a different entity. The other power, the Union, attempted to keep the states which had joined the Confederacy from breaking away but was forced by circumstance to interact with the Confederacy as if it were a separate power. This created an unique situation for both powers, one in which domestic affairs and international relations had to be combined and treated as synonymous in some sense.

One example of this situation may be found in the attempted prisoner exchanges between the Union and the Confederacy. The weapons used by both belligerents in the war, like nearly all weapons before the 20th century, were notoriously ineffective. The soldiers behind the weapons were also often undertrained and sometimes even entirely untrained. As a result, far more casualties were wounded than were killed and far more enemy soldiers were captured than wounded or killed by either side. Very early in the war “the ranks of prisoners began to swell.”1 In total, by the end of the war, the Union had “captured and held about 220,000 prisoners” and the Confederacy had taken approximately 210,000 prisoners.2

Because of these very large numbers of captured soldiers, the two sides found it difficult to adequately provide for those whom they held captive and devised a complex system of values by which to exchange the enemy’s prisoners for their own. Each prisoner was assigned a value determined by his rank and was traded to the enemy based on that value. A captured noncommissioned officer, for instance, was worth two privates. A captured general, on the other hand, was worth as many as 60 privates.

Of particular significance in regards to the complexities of mixing domestic affairs with international affairs due to the nature of the Civil War is the treatment prisoners received at the hands of the Confederacy versus that under the Union. Confederate soldiers captured by Union forces found far better conditions than Union soldiers captured by Confederate forces. The Union had hopes of restoring the Confederate states to itself and so tended to treat prisoners better in the hopes of repatriating them to itself in the future. The Union was also more willing to parole prisoners than the Confederacy, as can be seen by the 329,963 soldiers the Union “paroled or exchanged” by war’s end versus the 152,015 prisoners the Confederacy had “paroled or exchanged.”3

Also demonstrative of these complexities is the failed attempts of the Confederacy to gain the recognition and support of European governments. Immediately after secession, Confederate leaders had believed that European dependency on cotton from the states of the Confederacy would lead the nations of Europe to support the Confederate cause. Contrary to their hopes, however, the British government issued an official “proclamation of neutrality, which the other European powers followed” within only about a month of the war beginning.4

The Confederacy made several attempts throughout the years of the war to try to gain legitimacy through securing the recognition of European governments and possibly even bringing them in on its side. They sent ambassadors, for instance, to the French and English capitals in the hopes of persuading those nations’ respective leaders to support the Confederacy. They also, in part, determined battlefield tactics based on their belief that the Europeans might be swayed by what they saw on the battlefield. General Robert E. Lee, for instance, justified his strike into Northern territory, which seemed to go against the stated Confederate desire not to conquer the entire United States but to establish their own independent nation in the South, by reasoning that “a victory on Northern soil might spark foreign recognition for the young Confederate States, particularly from Britain and/or France.”5

Britain and France, for their parts, both exercised some very shrewd diplomacy in regards to the war, which they saw as a regional conflict from which they may be able to secure some profit. To this end, both European nations refused to give official recognition to the Confederacy, believing that doing so would alienate the United States. They did, however, agree to and engage in trading with the Confederacy as well as the Union. In this way, they were able to secure financial gain from both sides in the conflict and set themselves up for future diplomatic success no matter which side won the war.

The American Civil War was a complex situation which involved a strange combination of domestic and foreign affairs, and exhibits the intricacies of both as they were practiced in the 19th century. The issues of prisoner exchange and involvement of European powers both serve as examples of this complexity and importance.


1 David. J. Eicher, The Longest Night: A Military History of the Civil War (New York: Touchstone, 2001), 629.
2 Ibid, 628.
3 Ibid., 629.
4 U.S. Department of State, “Preventing Diplomatic Recognition of the Confederacy,” accessed 18 November 2012, http://future.state.gov/when/timeline/1861_timeline/prevent_confederacy.html.
5 Eicher, 337.

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