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,
5 Eicher, 337.

Soviet Society and Culture 1953-1985

A major aspect of the Bolshevik plan for Russia was to reshape Russian society and culture in the Marxist image. To this end, the Soviet government set about attempting to impose its ideals on the population via the influence of artists, writers, filmmakers, and others. In one sense, they were successful in creating a Communist artistic vision and imposing this upon the intelligentsia and, through the media, upon the rest of the Soviet population. In other more fundamental senses, however, they ultimately failed in their plan. “Indeed,” as historians Nicholas V. Riasanovsky and Mark D. Steinberg point out, “it is precisely in social and cultural life that we begin to see signs of the disintegration of the Communist order that would contribute to its collapse.”1

Immediately following the rise of the Bolsheviks to power in late 1917, the Bolsheviks, in accordance with their liberal and progressive ideals, attempted “to nurture a spirit of collectivism and egalitarianism;” to this end, “iconoclasm and imagination were encouraged in the arts and literature.”2 Soviet leaders implemented social policies that contributed to a radical restructuring of Russian society away from agriculture and family life and toward liberation of the individual and even “free love.” The previous period of Russian history under the czars was seen as a period that had stifled intellectual, social, and artistic growth, and had to be overcome. This initial period of relative openness did not last long, however.

As a new generation of Soviet leaders, especially Josef Stalin, began to assume power and the previous generation of radical intellectuals receded into the past, a marked conservatism took hold over Soviet culture. Laws were implemented that restricted the rights of individuals, much of the earlier utopian talk of liberation and equality was repudiated, and greater censorship of the arts was enacted.

Following the death of Stalin in 1953, later Soviet leaders attempted to walk the thin line between the oppressive social policies of the Stalin era and an absolute artistic freedom that would lead to open criticism of the government and its policies. In literature, for example, the post-Stalin era saw a remarkable tolerance for controversial themes and even subjects that might reflect badly on the the Soviet Union itself. Even “forbidden themes such as Stalin’s purges and labor camps were briefly allowed,” though eventually banned once again.3

Great limitations were nonetheless kept in place throughout the history of the Soviet Union, even during periods of relative openness. One example is the Soviet reaction to the 1958 novel Doctor Zhivago by Boris Pasternak. While it was received throughout the world as a great work of literature, its publication in the Soviet Union was banned because the book, whose contents span the end of the Russian Empire and the rise of the Soviet Union, did not reflect a proper Marxist view of history. When Pasternak was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature for his novel, the Soviet government prevented him from traveling abroad to receive the prize and he was widely criticized in the government-controlled Soviet press.

Another example of the Soviet back-and-forth between openness and repression in literature is the treatment of the author Alexander Solzhenitsyn. His 1962 novel One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, written about the forced labor camps under Stalin, was published with the explicit and personal permission of Nikita Kruschev himself. Kruschev even openly praised Solzhenitsyn and his work, including leading a standing ovation for him at an official state dinner party, in which he happily announced to those gathered, “comrades, Solzhenitsyn is among us.”4 Only three years later, in 1965, however, Solzhenitsyn was banned from ever publishing anything within the Soviet Union again. He continued to write, however, and have his books published abroad, and was eventually expelled from the Soviet Union altogether in 1973.

This kind of vacillating and contradictory approach also marked the Soviet treatment of other aspects of culture. In figurative art, for instance, whereas the Soviet government had once encouraged innovation and expression and officially continued to do so, suppression of the arts was heavy. “In 1962,” for instance, “when Kruschev visited an exhibit of modern art in Moscow,” he proceeded to openly “mock it with crude humor.”5 Later, in 1974, in an even more extreme case of government suppression of the arts, “bulldozers were sent to destroy an informal exhibit in a park outside Moscow.”6

Because of this atmosphere of repression and especially because the Soviet government forbade a wide variety of emotions and thoughts from being expressed, such as any melancholy, pessimism, religious belief, doubt, or irony, the quality of the arts overall in the Soviet Union was very low. Artists, writers, and others believed that the arts in the Soviet Union had been “subordinated to revolutionary purpose and much of the complexity of life deliberately drained out of” them.7 As a result, many Soviet artists and intellectuals began to retreat from the public sphere and create small social circles and cliques “where new poetry or prose was read, art displayed, and ideas discussed.”8 Even among the wider population and especially the youth, counter-cultures began to form that focused on Western trends like rock music, new clothing styles, and sports. Public discourse in the Soviet Union had become so heavily regulated and any dissent or apparent deviation so heavily suppressed that people began turning to new ways to shape and express personal identity apart from the official Soviet doctrine.

It was in these pockets of culture that “dissident movement developed from the late 1960s into the 1980s.”9 Ultimately, this was the backfire of Soviet policy that would contribute significantly to the Soviet Union’s eventual collapse. The Soviet attempts to suppress freedom of speech, individual identity, and self-expression were, like so many attempts to suppress the human spirit throughout history, doomed to failure from their very inception. In driving differing ideas out of the public sphere, the Soviet government had driven them into the place where they were most dangerous to the continuation of the Soviet Union: into hearts, homes, and other private places where they could no longer be monitored and controlled. By the time that Mikhail Gorbachev, the last leader of the Soviet Union, assumed power in 1985, a significant segment of the Soviet “population had become alienated from the established order in their values, judgments, tastes, and beliefs.”10 This alienation would, in a short time, prove an unstoppable force and would put an end to the Soviet Union and its Marxist experiment.

1 Nicholas V. Riasanovsky and Mark D. Steinberg, A History of Russia, Eighth Edition (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011), 589.

2 Ibid., 595.

3 Ibid., 609.

4 Niels C. Nielsen, Jr., Solzhenitsyn’s Religion (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1975), 9.

5 Riasanovsky and Steinberg, 613.

6 Ibid.

7 Ibid., 608.

8 Ibid., 596.

9 Ibid.

10 Ibid., 597.
Nielsen, Jr., Niels C. Solzhenitsyn’s Religion. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1975.
Riasanovsky, Nicholas V. and Mark D. Steinberg. A History of Russia. New York: Oxford University Press, 2011.

The Great Reforms of the 19th Century

In the second half of the nineteenth century, Russia came to a crossroads in its history. Under the influence of ideas largely emanating from Western Europe, Russians began to question certain aspects of their traditional way of life and government. Of especial concern was the status of the serfs, a group of people who made up the vast majority of the population of the Russian Empire but possessed a status little above that of slaves. Throughout his reign in the years 1855 to 1881, Czar Alexander II implemented a number of reforms in government which drastically altered Russian society in order to bring it in line with the new views of what a just society should look like.

The first and by far the most drastic of the great reforms implemented by Alexander II was the emancipation of the serfs. In the years leading up to and beginning Alexander’s reign, an insurrectionist spirit had begun to foment among the lower classes in Russia. Discontented with their situation, serfs had launched a large and increasing number of small rebellions since the the turn of the nineteenth century. Early in his reign, Alexander II announced his intentions to emancipate the serfs to his advisers, confiding in them that it was “better to abolish serfdom from above than to wait till it begins to abolish itself from below.”1

After a prolonged deliberation on the proper means by which to go about this emancipation, Alexander II finally issued the the decree abolishing the institution of serfdom in Russia on 19 February 1861. As a result of his decree, which at least one historian has referred to as “the greatest legislative act in history,” “some 52 million peasants, over 20 million of them serfs of private land owners,” were freed.2 Along with their freedom, however, came a great deal of debt and further disappointment. In an attempt to pacify the landlords, Alexander II had limited the amount of land the serfs took with them and had legislated the necessity of repaying the landlords for this land. As a result, “overpopulation and underemployment” were rampant “among former serfs, who, at least after a period of transition, were no longer obliged to work for the landlord and at the same time had less land to cultivate for themselves.”3

As Nicholas V. Riasanovsky and Mark D. Steinberg point out, “the emancipation of the serfs made other fundamental changes much more feasible.”4 Such sweeping legislation, no matter how haphazard and incomplete it might have been, could not help but act as a gateway to further reform in Russian society. Other reforms, particularly in Russian government, followed swiftly.

Perhaps the most important of these reforms in government in Russia was the implementation of the zemstvo system in local government. Local government in Russia had been ineffective and overly bureaucratic for centuries. Since the reign of Catherine the Great in 1762 to 1796, local government in Russia had been conducted with the participation of aristocratic landowners in the governed areas. With the establishment of his new system of local government, Alexander II sought to both update the system, making it an overall better functioning government, and also to allow for a measure of democracy by incorporating the participation of the newly-emancipated serfs.

To this end, the zemstvo system included representation from the peasant and urban classes in addition to the old landowning class. The range of government programs and services governed at the local level also increased under the zemstvo to include things such as “education, medicine, veterinary service, insurance, roads, the establishment of food reserves for emergency, and many others.”5

Although the zemstvo system had a number of drawbacks, it was largely a positive development for Russians and functioned very effectively until it was abolished following the rise of the Bolsheviks in 1917. For example, “in effect, Russia obtained a kind of socialized medicine through the zemstvo long before other countries, with medical and surgical treatment available free of charge.”6 Such free universal access to quality healthcare is an accomplishment that would not be achieved in most of Western Europe until the twentieth century and has still not been achieved in some places in the Western world.7

In addition to the reform of local government, “at the end of 1864, the year that saw the beginning of the zemstvo administration, another major change was enacted into law: the reform of the legal system.”8 In order to put an end to the corrupt and antiquated practices and approaches rampant in the Russian legal system, Alexander II decreed a number of reforms. Perhaps the most significant of these reforms was the separation of the courts from the system of administration; Alexander II made the law courts a separate branch of government from the rest of the bureaucracy.

Two other particulars of Alexander II’s reform of the judiciary also stand out as of special importance among the many reforms thereof. The first is his simplifying of the system. Whereas there had formerly been a culture of secrecy and twenty-one different ways of conducting various kinds of court cases, Alexander II ordered that proceedings be done openly and that there be only two ways of conducting court. The other especially significant reform of the judiciary was the introduction of the right to trial by jury “for serious criminal offenses, while justices of the peace were established to deal with minor civil and criminal cases.”9 Finally, and by far most importantly, “all Russians were to be equal before the law and receive the same treatment.”10

The last of the great reforms of Alexander II was “a reorganization of the military service in 1874.”11 In the spirit of democratization that ran throughout the other reforms, the military was also remodeled in the interests of equality for all people. For example, “the obligation to serve was extended from the lower classes alone to all Russians.”12 In addition to widening the pool of conscripts, the minimum length of required service was also drastically reduced from 25 years, essentially a life sentence, to a mere six. A number of benefits also accrued to those were drafted, such as the guarantee of a basic education.

Czar Alexander II’s reforms of Russian society and government were sweeping and changed the face of Russia permanently throughout the course of his reign. Largely implemented in the hopes of quelling rebellion and appeasing the new and ever-growing groups of radicals and revolutionaries in Russia, Alexander II’s reforms went a great measure toward making Russia a more modern and certainly more democratic nation. As time would soon tell, however, his reforms were not implemented nearly soon enough nor were they, at least for a significant segment of the population and especially of the intelligentsia, nearly far-reaching enough. The opening of the twentieth century, and particularly the year 1917, would spell the end of Alexander II’s reforms and of the entirety of the old way of life, and would see the implementation of much broader and much deeper changes.

1 Czar Alexander II (1855). Quoted in Bernard Pares, A History of Russia (New York: Dorset Press, 1953), 361.

2 Nicholas V. Riasanovsky and Mark D. Steinberg, A History of Russia (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011), 368.

3 Ibid., 369.

4 Ibid., 370.

5 Ibid.

6 Ibid., 371.

8 Riasanovsky and Steinberg, 371.

9 Ibid.

10 Ibid., 372.

11 Ibid.

12 Ibid. 

Pares, Bernard. A History of Russia. New York: Dorset Press, 1953.
Riasanovsky, Nicholas V. and Mark D. Steinberg. A History of Russia. New York: Oxford University Press, 2011.