RECAP: “Reflections on a Global History of the American Civil War,” 12/2 Colloquium w/ Prof. Jörg Nagler

In 1789, on the eve of the French Revolution, Friedrich Schiller penned “What Is and to What End Do We Study Universal History?” A child of the enlightenment, Schiller wrote about history progressing toward higher moral ground and the improvement of mankind, and away from a Eurocentric vision of time. History, Prof. Jörg Nagler noted in opening the Kinder Institute’s fourth annual Distinguished Visiting Research Fellow Lecture, did not progress toward higher moral ground during the 19th and 20th centuries. It did, however, tend toward greater universalization, as the transatlantic, dialectical movement of people and ideas changed the nature both of the new homes these people were experiencing and the homes from which they came. Above all others, war was the most important change agent for society during this era, hence Prof. Nagler’s riff on Schiller, the namesake of his home university in Germany: “What Is and to What End Do We Study the Global History of the American Civil War?”

We might, Prof. Nagler proposed, think about this question economically. The emancipation of four million enslaved persons in the United States sent globalizing shockwaves through the cotton empire, particularly in those processing centers in the U.K., France, Germany, Russia, and the U.S. where wealth was concentrated. On one hand, cotton proved resilient, as did those issues related to racial hierarchy and labor dependence squarely in its orbit. Which is to say that the search for a new means of production strengthened imperialistic control in cotton producing regions like India and Egypt, re-configuring, and not at all resolving, the relationship between free and unfree labor that defined antebellum U.S. history. On the other hand, as he prophesied in a letter to Lincoln congratulating the president on his reelection, Marx truly believed that the war against slavery would inaugurate a new epoch of power for the working class.

So, too, might we think about this question politically, Prof. Nagler continued. We could, for example, zoom in and consider how the Civil War shook the institution of slavery in Cuba, where “Onward, Lincoln, Onward” rang out in enslaved communities that would see the institution perish within two decades of the war’s end in the U.S. Or we could zoom out and consider how intently the world watched the United States during its years of violent fracture, in hopes of gleaning some portent for how a war fought in an age of rapid industrialization, and sustained by volunteer armies, might serve as a referendum for democratic societies’ capability to survive conflict. The American Civil War can, in this latter context, thus be read as a broadband warning sign delivered to non-democratic nation-states of the time; that constitutionalism survived intact forged a bond between nationalism and liberalism at a time when they very easily might have parted ways.

That said, of all the transnational lenses through which to view the Civil War, Prof. Nagler argued that patterns of migration not only might be the most influential but also might provide the best access to the kind of multi-perspective historiographical methodology that is necessary for responsibly thinking about the conflict in global terms. Specifically, the mass migration of Europeans to the United States in the 1850s was central to the emergence of the Republican Party, the westward expansion of the nation, and, in this, secession and the very outbreak of war. Of course, it might also be worth noting that emigres—Irishmen, Italians, Germans, and more—made up almost a quarter (approx. 560,000 soldiers) of the Union side. The correspondence of these troops from the frontlines to the home front—and, once home, from metropoles to peripheries as a result of advances in steam and print technology—make up our richest archival matter when it comes to crafting a transnational history of the era not from above but from below. The letters of Joseph Weydemeyer, a Lt. Colonel in Missouri, were essential, for example, to Marx’s remaining so informed about the war. Robert Browning and John Stuart Mill interpreted the war based on similar correspondences, and European politicians could mediate information about the Civil War to the public—with particular, self-interested intentions, naturally—only because of these networks of exchange.

Prof. Nagler emphasized, though, that the record is nowhere near complete and that we need far more primary evidence if we are to fully flesh out the history in question. More extensive source material would reveal how not only cotton, but also barley and rice, are essential to understanding the evolution of global capital markets in the Civil War era and after. It would allow us to better conceptualize the changing living conditions of textile mill workers in Prussia, Russia, England, and Scotland and the rise of unionization in these areas; the gendered impacts of a transnational war; why the French intervened in Mexico under the purview of America and liberal republicanism; the death knell of slavery in Brazil and the presence of ex-Confederates in South America; the relationship between emancipation and suffrage in Great Britain; and much, much more.

The second half of the 19th century was an era in which the United States shaped the world while simultaneously being shaped by it, Prof. Nagler concluded, and this fact alone is answer enough to the question of why and to what end we should study a global history of the American Civil War.