As part of the all-virtual 2021 Virginia Festival of the Book, historians Adrian Brettle (Colossal Ambitions: Confederate Planning for a Post-Civil War World) and Ann Tucker (Newest Born of Nations: European Nationalist Movements and the Making of the Confederacy) shared their deep research into contemporary resources—letters and diaries, domestic and international newspapers, government documents and more—to gain a Confederate nation world view. Their histories trace the earliest stirrings of southern nationalism, the arguments made to define and legitimize the Confederacy, and a vision of future world leadership that failed to resonate outside of the South. This event was hosted by the Nau Center for Civil War History. Moderated by Will Kurtz.
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Thanks to our bookseller for this event, UVA Bookstore.
“Colossal Ambitions is a polished, well-researched, and well-written book. The level of detail about how Confederates imagined economic development, international relations, cotton production, and slavery is impressive. Brettle has provided a significant work that will help readers grasp what is at stake in understanding the imagination of Confederate thinkers and planners.” —John Majewski, University of California, Santa Barbara, author of Modernizing a Slave Economy: The Economic Vision of the Confederate Nation
“Ann Tucker’s work offers the most complete and thorough analysis to date of the global dimensions of southern nationalist thought. Most importantly, she carefully demonstrates how white southerners crafted both liberal and conservative understandings of their own nationhood, demonstrating that the creation of Confederate nationalism was a much longer, more dynamic, and more vigorously contested process than previously thought.” —Andre M. Fleche, Castleton State College, author of The Revolution of 1861: The American Civil War in the Age of Nationalist Conflict
The Nau Center for Civil War History at UVA
WILL KURTZ: Good afternoon, everyone. Welcome to “Confederate Ambitions: Flawed Visions for a New Nation,” a program in the all-virtual 2021 Virginia Festival of the Book, a program of Virginia Humanities.
I’m Will Kurtz. I’m the managing director and digital historian at the Nau Civil War Center at UVA. Thank you for joining us.
If you haven’t read today’s books, we hope you will. For details about how to buy them from our bookseller, which for this event is the UVA Bookstore, please visit VaBook.org, where you can also explore our full schedule and watch past events. While you’re there, please consider making a donation to support the Festival’s ongoing work at VaBook.org/give.
The Nau Center is proud to be a sponsor of this Festival event. And I would like to thank especially graduate student and recent graduate of the University of Virginia PhD history program Kevin Caprice and Brian Neumann respectively for helping with technical assistance today. I would ask that everyone has a question—and I hope you all do have questions, both those of you who are on Zoom with us today and those of you who are following us on Facebook Live—if you’re on Zoom, please ask your questions in the Q&A for our panelists today. And if you’re on Facebook Live, just add your question as a comment to the video there. Kevin will be monitoring the Facebook Live feed and will send me your questions. We will answer as many of them as we possibly can.
So, before we begin, just a little bit of housekeeping here. We will start with brief introductions of our panelists. Then, we will allow both of them to discuss their books for five or eight minutes or so. I have a series of questions to get us started for the day, and then for the last ten or fifteen minutes, we will turn to audience questions. So please, as you have questions, no matter what they are, please do ask them. We really appreciate and look forward to your engagement with us. Thank you again for being here.
So, without further ado, please let me introduce our speakers.
Our first speaker today will be Ann L. Tucker, author of Newest Born of Nations: European Nationalist Movements and the Creation of the Confederacy. She is an historian of the US South and Civil War in an international perspective. She is an assistant professor of history at the University of North Georgia. Thank you, Ann, for being here.
And let me introduce our second panelist today, and that is Adrian Brettle, who is author of our second book, Colossal Ambitions: Confederate Planning for a Post–Civil War World. He is a lecturer and associate director of the Political History and Leadership Program in the School of Historical, Philosophical, and Religious Studies at Arizona State University. Right next to my hometown in Scottsdale, Arizona.
So, it’s a great pleasure to have both Ann and Adrian here today. Ann, if you would please start us off. Just tell us a little bit about your book. Basic information for those who haven’t had a chance to read it yet. Thank you, Ann.
ANN TUCKER: Absolutely. Thanks to the Nau Center for having us today, and thanks to the Virginia Book Festival for including us. I’m looking forward to a great event.
So, my book looks at international influences on the creation of the Confederacy. As the Civil War opened in the spring of 1861, the newly declared Confederate States of America of course had to fight against the North—against the United States—but much of their attention was also, perhaps unexpectedly, abroad. So, I have one example. The editors of the Richmond Daily Dispatch wrote in May of 1861, using an international context to explain to their audience the meaning of the impending struggle. And as they put it, the struggle for nationality is the identical struggle for the Confederacy as it was abroad. To these editors, the Confederate fight was the struggle of Italy against Austria. A confederation of independent states against foreign oppressors.
This transnational approach to defining the Confederacy might surprise a domestic audience that’s used to thinking of the Civil War as a purely domestic conflict in terms of brother versus brother, as we so often think about it. The reality is, though, this international perspective that the writers for the Dispatch deployed was not only familiar to a contemporary audience, but it was actually central to the way that elite white southerners conceived of this project of nation-building that they undertook through the creation of the Confederacy.
So, as I argue in Newest Born of Nations, elite white southerners used international perspectives in order to distinguish the South from the North, justify secession, and ultimately legitimize the Confederacy.
So, a little bit more on how they made all of that happen. Of course, at the opening of the Civil War, the Confederates had to not just defend themselves militarily but define who they were to themselves and to the rest of the world. And this is where the international perspectives were apparently very useful to elite white southerners seeking to do just that. So, in order to achieve their goals of defining who the Confederacy was and what it stood for, white southerners positioned the Confederacy as part of the larger international community of nations, basically claiming that it was simply the newest member of this international family of nations. And as they did so, they drew on a wealth of recent examples of new and aspiring nations as they looked to recent events in Europe.
So, throughout the first half of the nineteenth century, revolution had spread throughout Europe, as aspiring nations sought to overthrow empires and instead create self-governing nations. The revolutions of 1848 spread through France and Germany, Hungary, Ireland. They weren’t successful. But in 1860, right on the verge of southern secession, Italy did actually succeed in creating itself as an independent nation. So, there was one successful example that Confederates drew upon quite heavily.
Observers of these European events who were watching from the Antebellum South began drawing comparisons between the nations abroad and between the South, initially as a way of dramatizing the sectional conflict in the Antebellum United States. As the growing abolitionist movement in the North stoked these southerners’ fears that they would lose slavery, for example, white southerners claimed that abolitionist attempts to block slavery in the western territories were the equivalent of tyrannical attempts to oppress Italy or Ireland or Hungary back in Europe. And these comparisons taught white southerners to see the South as a potential national unit, equal to potential nations in Europe.
Not surprisingly, then, when these southerners then seceded from the United States, they expanded on these international comparisons in order to justify secession. Secessionists claimed that this Confederacy fought for the same values as nations such as Italy: values such as self-determination and self-government. An alternative Confederate international perspective even used contrasts between the Confederacy and nations abroad to claim that the Confederacy’s slavery created a purer, superior form of nationalism that was legitimate in its superiority basically. So, whether comparing or contrasting, southerners used these international perspectives to claim legitimacy for the Confederacy based on its relationship to these European nations.
These claims were incorrect, of course. Certainly, slavery did not create a superior nation. And a nation based on slavery did not follow in the footsteps of nations seeking freedom and rights. But even as wartime events made this inaccuracy apparent, Confederates remained committed, doubling down on their ideological manipulations in order to continue using international perspectives to justify the legitimacy of the Confederacy.
So, my book then demonstrates that southern nationalism was a transnational process. Civil War southerners saw themselves as part of a broader international debate over the meaning of nations and nationhood. And this international self-conception was thus central to the way that Confederates conceived of themselves as the newest born of nations.
WILL KURTZ: Thank you so much, Ann. That was really wonderful. I’d like to give Adrian a chance to summarize his book now. Adrian, take it away.
ADRIAN BRETTLE: Thank you, Will, and thank you, Ann and to the Nau Center and the Virginia Festival of the Book for making this event possible. “War divides, separates, despoils, and destroys until it seems as if all old things are passing away and as if the nations, North and South, and all things in them, were becoming new.” Thus said Henry Wise, acting major general in the Confederate Army, former governor of Virginia, in a letter to his wife written at the midnight hour between November the 13th and 14th, 1863, from his headquarters near Charleston, South Carolina, sleep having been rendered impossible on account of the noise of a naval bombardment from US gunboats on Fort Sumter, by now reduced to rubble.
In the midst of his many preoccupations, Wise found time to think about the Confederacy once the conflict was over. That very same month, he published a pamphlet and wrote a public letter to a Charleston newspaper editor with his suggestions as to what fiscal policy the postwar Confederate government should adopt. Now was this escapism from the war? Yes. But it’s also a way for Wise to understand the war’s significance and purpose, for he believed present trials would lead to future power and prosperity.
Now more than a decade ago, my inquiry started on whether prewar southern-led schemes for the expansion of slavery continued covertly during the Confederacy. Assuming secretly because there was as much unanimity as there is possible among historians that, publicly at least, the Confederacy, being as it was desperate for foreign recognition and fighting for its very existence, had to renounce anything emphatically, remotely ambitious. It is surely enough just to quote from Confederate President Jefferson Davis’s message to Congress, declaring that a state of war existed with the United States on April the 29th, 1861, “In our independence, we seek no conquest, no aggrandizement, no cession of any kind from the states with which we have lately confederated. All we ask is to be let alone.”
But I ask, let alone to do what? I was surprised to discover first in Richmond, Virginia, newspapers that Confederate journalists boldly proclaimed that they were seceding and fighting the war to change the world. Naturally, we should use scholarly detachment about what is written in the press. But ambitious plans for the future were also expressed and then attempted to be implemented by leading Confederates whom I term the Planners. Many of them were politicians who did so in speeches, proclamations, and legislation, from Davis himself to his vice president, Alexander Stephens, and his own rival from Mississippi days, Henry Foote, from across the Confederate Congress and state legislatures.
Business leaders also planned, as evidenced by the proceedings of wartime conventions of planters, merchants, and stockholders of railroad corporations, whose deliberations were eagerly anticipated in the corresponding diaries of private citizens—men and women, including Rose Green Howell, Jane Evans, and Varina Davis—throughout the war. Very undiplomatic diplomats would express similar ambitions via cipher in State Department correspondence. And then these ideas were frankly disclosed and commented on in editorials, in newspapers, and more at length in pamphlets and even a novel.
What united this range of voices and media was that they believed, while the Civil War raged on, that they were on the threshold of a new great power arriving on the world stage.
What I first had to learn was how confident the plans were that the moment of securing their independence lay just ahead in time. They were convinced that the grand strategy perfected by Robert E. Lee of persuading northern public opinion that it was not worth the cost in blood and treasure to conquer and compel reunion was always on the verge of success. Hesitant allies, whether they knew it or not, would also tip the balance in favor of Confederates, whether British, French, Mexicans, Northern Democrats, Midwestern and Californian secessionists. The Union teetered always on the brink of economic, political, and social collapse.
Therefore, Confederate planners believed themselves to be in control of events. They sifted the evidence, blamed themselves as well as the shortcomings of their collaborators when things went wrong, but they never gave up. It was only in the aftermath of news spreading of the surrender of Lee’s army at Appomattox that this sense of control, confidence, and destiny ended abruptly.
As with Ann’s account, there is no uniformity here of opinion. Confederates profoundly disagreed among themselves. But I contend that these rhetorical and sometimes literally dueling battles were about means, not ends.
Nevertheless, the book is not about a single fixed agreement about what the nation would be like when peace came. The chronological structure of Colossal Ambitions is because perceptions of how the war was going dictated planning for peace. Driven first by the excitement and possibilities of secession and then by perceptions of when peace was to be expected, and the more specific opportunities and threats presented by the war. Lessons learned, crashing disappointments juxtaposed with at times a sense of profound vindication. This shifting context dictated the plans for the future nation.
WILL KURTZ: Thank you so much, Adrian. That’s really wonderful. So, I would just like to encourage all of our audience members to please ask your questions in the Q&A and on Facebook Live. We’ll start off with some questions of my own that I have for both of the panelists.
Both of you are well situated in history, at least among academic historians—Don Doyle, Paul Quigley, and some others—that really emphasizes that the Civil War didn’t just have an impact on the United States, and the Civil War didn’t just take place in the United States necessarily. There was this diplomatic element. There were these international repercussions—a whole transnational aspect to the war that’s a very important one.
But I feel that, if you went to a typical—and you both correct me if I’m wrong. If you went to a typical undergraduate lecture or a talk at a Civil War roundtable or anything like that, in which we only have so much time to talk about the causes of the Civil War, what happened during the Civil War, and why it was important going forward in the nineteenth century, that that international perspective is not always priority number one, right?
So, what do you both think? And I’ll ask Ann to answer first. Do you feel like this transnational perspective that your book has—do you think this is being incorporated into more scholarship? Even scholarship that doesn’t necessarily see itself as transnational. Is it getting into the classrooms, or is there still more work to be done to convince people that, yes, this is an important war with a global context and global ramifications?
ANN TUCKER: As you point out, we have a growing body of scholarship on the transnational dimensions of the American Civil War that I think really has helped us rethink the nature of this war and the meaning of this war and go beyond just, as I put it, kind of the brother-versus-brother kind of narrative. And so certainly it’s an exciting field with, I think, a lot of great developments. I know one thing that I and some of our colleagues have talked about is moving on to Reconstruction, kind of internationalizing the aftermath of the Civil War. So, there’s certainly still exciting work to be done, even as I do think we’ve reached a point where this is part of the way historians understand the Civil War and has to really be integrated into any full account.
So far as whether it’s making it into the classroom, certainly in my classroom. And I think it is making it into the classroom. It’s not just the Civil War, where we’re kind of looking more transnationally. But I think we’re in a moment where historians in general are looking for the broader international connections and implications. So, I think that is an exciting development in the classroom to help our students understand the broader meaning. They may take US history but understand the broader implications of that.
WILL KURTZ: Thank you.
ADRIAN BRETTLE: Yes, just to chip in as well. The present-day preoccupation with globalization has undoubtedly sort of powered this look-back to the mid-nineteenth century as the first era of globalization. Of course, there’s now a caveat that globalization has suddenly become markedly less fashionable thanks to COVID. And that term—that then this will be an ongoing shift that we have to sort of manage this present-day context driving students’ interest and scholarly interest. But we are benefiting from the 1990s and 2000s as being this time when globalization was embraced. And that led to the transnational turn in Civil War scholarship.
And I just wanted to reemphasize, as Ann does, that we are uncovering what people believed at the time. The sort of universal feeling from Americans’ ideology that they were the last, best hope on Earth for democratic government for the world. The economics that I stress quite a lot in my book was even more pronounced, I would argue, among Confederates. That they see themselves as part of an evolving global economy.
So, I would sort of argue that transnational isn’t just an imposition of present-day preoccupations on the past, but I also obviously want to beat the drum for it that it is recovering a state of mind which, to repeat, really astonished me. I thought that—I mean, slavery was always seen by Confederates in a transnational, international context. It was a labor system that was competing against other labor systems, and we are uncovering that state of mind through this lens of globalization/transnational history.
WILL KURTZ: Great. Thank you so much, Adrian and Ann both. Those were wonderful answers. Ann, I have a specific question for you. Ann, your book focuses a lot on the legacy of the European revolutions in the early nineteenth century or Antebellum Era, as Americans would later come to call it. But for those who are not familiar with this subject, after Europe what were the other places around the globe that Confederates were looking to? After Europe, were they looking to the successful revolutions in the South American republics? What was their reference point, if it wasn’t Europe?
ANN TUCKER: So actually, they were also looking to the Latin American revolutions. Caitlin Fitz has written on that. My focus was more on the European revolutions because of the chronological immediacy. So as the Confederates were looking around—or even before Confederates, the secessionists or Antebellum southerners—they’re living through this moment in 1848 where these revolutions are spreading throughout Europe. And then, as I mentioned, in 1860 Italy succeeds in what the Confederacy is trying to succeed in as well. So, the chronological juxtaposition did matter to these comparisons that the Confederates were drawing, but they also ranged quite widely. These were a people who were—they had the time and wealth to sit around and study ancient Greece and Rome. And so, they drew comparisons to the ancients. They drew comparisons to the French Revolution.
And I think that’s part of how—I totally agree with what Adrian was saying about we’re recovering what they said. We’re not imposing things on them. They really understood themselves as part of this broader nineteenth-century movement of ideas of nationalism and independence that of course started with the American Revolution. That was a major comparison point that they used as well. And ran through the French Revolution, the Latin American revolutions, the European revolutions. And they very deliberately were placing themselves as just the latest iteration in this string of revolutions in this age of nationalism.
WILL KURTZ: That’s great. And if I can ask a follow-up question, out of maybe my own curiosity. At the beginning of your book, you have the southerners looking to Garibaldi, a radical anticlerical Italian revolutionary, as sort of their model for what they want to do. And at the end of the book, they’re suddenly friends with Pope Pious IX. And I seem to remember that those two Italians didn’t like each other very much. How do you account for sort of the mental gymnastics from getting from Garibaldi to now the pope is our greatest hope on Earth?
ANN TUCKER: Mental gymnastics is a good way to put it, and Garibaldi was actually the central figure in the mental gymnastics, I find. What happens is they start off in the revolutions of 1848, watching these events unfold abroad and analyzing which elements of this do we like. Which elements of this do we not like? And in that analysis, Garibaldi emerged as really kind of the hero—internationally, not just in the South—but for these conservative southerners, he was the military guy. He’s not out there trying to create social equality. So, they were able to hold him up as this really kind of relatively unthreatening symbol of the march of national independence that they liked from the revolutions of 1848. Of course, then when the American Civil War breaks out, Garibaldi considers an offer to come fight for the United States against the Confederacy, and he also continually makes his antislavery sentiments clear as well.
So, for the Confederates, Garibaldi goes from this exemplar of nationalism to a hypocrite and a traitor to his own ideology really in a matter of months. And what they do, instead of accepting we’re really not fighting for the same thing as Garibaldi, what they do is they start manipulating the image of Garibaldi to claim he’s a hypocrite—he’s fighting against his own values. And therefore, since he’s the bad one, we can still be the good one, and we can still fight for the same values we used to think Garibaldi represented.
So, they’re changing over time in response to the unfolding events, and that’s how the pope gets wrapped up in all of this as well, as a last-ditch effort after Britain and France have failed to offer diplomatic recognition. The idea is maybe reach out to some more conservative powers in Europe like the pope, and we can ally on the basis of our common conservatism. It’s not intellectually consistent. It really is not. But I think that, in and of itself, indicates just how committed these Confederates were to these comparisons, that they’re continually looking for ways to continue these comparisons even when events are really disproving their claims.
WILL KURTZ: Great. Thank you very much. It’s a fascinating cast of characters that both of you have in your books for sure. So, Adrian, I’ll ask you the next question. One of the big themes of your book is they see themselves as a great power, and a great power like the South, which is confined to a large area of North America but one that they want to be larger still. They’re looking to expand. They’re looking to expand both territorially, and they’re looking to expand economically. So do you have a sense of what—and that was a multifaceted plan. Do you have a sense of like what was most important to them, Adrian? Was it grabbing that Pacific port so that they could have that trade with Asia and getting territory in the western United States? Was that moving down into Latin America? Or was it really, they wanted to expand their role in world trade? Is there a hierarchy of those goals?
ADRIAN BRETTLE: It depends on when they expected peace to come. The war determined that hierarchy for them. When peace was near at hand, like in the summer of ’62 or summer of ’64, they presented themselves as a sort of more modest, conservative, status quo power with a lot of demarcation. Looking for allies, offering pacts, especially with the United States itself, and talked about the balance of power rather than limitless expansion. They talked about industrialization, a balanced national economy, and worried about things—practical problems—that they might encounter, like paying off a postwar debt and how were they going to pay pensions to soldiers.
Then, when peace seemed remote, like in the summer of ’63 after the fall of Vicksburg, and the planning for peace became what it was like before the war broke out, and that was when they were the expansionists. Where the limitless expansion of slavery—that’s always—that and the maximum production of crops. So, they’re looking for markets. They’re looking for new lands in order to grow crop. It’s an interconnection of these things. So, China was crucial as a market. Hence, an expansion to the Pacific Ocean was crucial both to expand slavery into, say, mining, and at the same time open up that increasing amount of trade.
And in this sort of circle, they argued that if you open up connections—if you trade with more and more countries—that interdependency will lead to not only peace—because they knew that war was very bad for slavery—but it would also lead to acceptance of slavery. Doing business with a slave power would end abolition.
So, my answer to your question is the hierarchy changes were driven by the circumstances of the war.
WILL KURTZ: Great. Thank you so much. I’m going to ask you both a couple short questions before we move on to the audience here. Let me stick with you, Adrian, for a second here. I know this is a long answer, but I’ll ask you to be sort of brief. And it’s when I’m reading your book, and I’m reading Hotze and all the other planners and all these great ambitious schemes for expansion that you just spoke about, am I wrong to just think these people are hopelessly deluded? Or is that just me from 20/20 hindsight? It’s hard to gauge sometimes their rhetoric versus real possibilities. Like how realistic was it that the Midwest was suddenly going to say, “We don’t want to fight anymore, and we’re going to secede from the Union as well”? Or Mexico is going to send troops north to help the Confederates or something like that. If you could just speak to that.
ADRIAN BRETTLE: They saw what they wanted to see. They interpreted what they wanted to interpret. And they could always explain away inaction, like say that the Midwest secessionists never appeared. But, you know, conspiracy theories are credible, as we know all too well today. And they believed that they were rationalizing it. And if you like, the biggest delusion of all was that they profoundly believed that there would come a point when the United States would sit down and negotiate with them as equals. And that delusion remained right until after Robert E. Lee surrendered at Appomattox.
But they took it as—they could not accept that there would not be that point when they would be treated as equals into a reunion. And I think that is—just to reiterate, it is hard for us to follow because of course we have the benefit of hindsight. We knew that they were deluded. But if you look, they actually went into actions. They took up time and space, when you would’ve thought they had other things on their mind. And I do, finally, believe that them taking themselves seriously explains a lot about the bewilderment that engulfed Confederates in April 1865. And that sort of shock of defeat that wasn’t going to be followed by a negotiation. And I think that opened the way to the Lost Cause myth to become so powerful after the war. Like Germany in November 1918 with the stab in the back. A vacuum is a really dangerous thing for reinventing history, and I would argue that that postwar—that Reconstruction era—arises from this profound sort of sense of the reality that they had beforehand.
WILL KURTZ: Great. Thank you so much, Adrian. I appreciate that. In my own work, I’m studying some of those Midwestern conspiracies, so it’s always kind of interesting to see how the South perceived them as well, not just the Lincoln administration. Trying to figure out whether this was a real threat or whether—like with the diplomatic side of things, whether there was a real threat of actual intervention by some major power or not.
And I’m going to kind of shift now and build off of one of the audience questions here. And they’re asking to what degree did northerners and Lincoln pay attention to what the Confederates were saying, and to what extent did they counteract it? So, I think this gets to what you include in your book. You include a little bit about the northern perspective on how they see themselves in the international order. So, could you speak to that for a little bit, please?
ANN TUCKER: Absolutely. Certainly, it was not the northern government or the United States government priority to focus on countering these deluded—is a good word for the international comparisons. But the North of the United States understood their nationhood in this international context as well. So of course, as we’ve already mentioned, the idea of the United States as the last, best hope of democracy for the world. And I do talk a little bit in my book about how these comparisons do and don’t resonate with northerners and Europeans. The reality is, of course, for the most part they do not resonate. There were small groups of minorities abroad and in the United States who endorsed some of these perspectives that the Confederates used to justify the Confederacy. But perhaps more useful for this question, I also look at southern unionists and how they create their own international perspective to justify a national vision of the South as continued in its unity with the nation of the United States.
And there is where we really see these ideas that were more prevalent in the North as well—the idea that the United States was the last, best hope for democracy for all of these oppressed nations in Europe, for example. And that if the experiment of republicanism failed in the United States, it would inevitably fail in the rest of the world. So that’s where unionists were really arguing the South has to come back into the nation and prove that democracy can work. And also starting to argue that it’s the Confederates who are actually the European-style tyrants.
Again, those were the southerners who were making the arguments that would’ve been more similar to the way that northerners saw themselves. Again, still within this international context of this international contest over what nationhood means.
WILL KURTZ: Right. And if I can build off of that a little bit, and another one of our wonderful audience questions. We have a question asking whether all of this rhetoric was just PR for white southerners or just a way to justify their actions. How sincere was it? That’s kind of something we’ve gotten to already. But when you talk about white southerners, you’re not just talking about white native-born southerners. You also have some foreigners in your book as well. Would you speak to what they add to this conversation? I’m thinking specifically of John Mitchell, but please talk about anyone you’d like.
ANN TUCKER: Yeah. The context here is that the United States at the time of the Civil War had a significant immigrant population. When we put together all of the immigrants and their sons who fought in the Civil War, we’re looking at almost half of the US troops and upwards of 10 percent in the South. So that created a direct sense of connection right there. So, one of the things that I look at is these foreign-born soldiers who are, particularly in the North, claiming they’re fighting for the same values that they fought for abroad. That’s a little bit harder of a case to make in the South, and it’s in part why it’s not as widespread of a phenomenon.
John Mitchell really becomes the spokesperson on some level of this foreign-born population in the South because what he does is he was already famous as an Irish nationalist. He’s exiled to the United States. He’s a newspaperman and uses his platform as a journalist to popularize his pro-slavery views. And this was confounding to northerners, abolitionists, and the rest of the world who already associate slavery as an opposition to values of self-government and freedom and rights, of course.
So, what Mitchell does is, by making his pro-slavery case, he says there is an alternate case to be made. That these deluded self-comparisons that white southerners are making are not yet quite outside the bounds of the way that nationalism was understood in the nineteenth century. And Mitchell actually does then go on to directly draw the same comparisons that native-born white southerners were as well. He was quite outspoken in claiming that it was the Confederacy that fought for the same values he had fought for in Ireland.
So, again, we from our perspective certainly recognize that he was not correct in this, that the Confederacy was fighting against values such as freedom and equality and natural rights. But Mitchell and his likeminded immigrant southerners indicate that these ideas are outside our understanding; they weren’t yet outside the understanding of contemporaries in the nineteenth century. That was really what was at stake in the Civil War. Was this a valid interpretation of the ideas of nationhood?
WILL KURTZ: Great. Thank you. And if I can switch over to ask Adrian a similar question about the role of foreign-born Confederates in the creation of this rhetoric of expansion. The great power of Confederacy, legitimacy of the Confederacy as a nation. Henry Hotze is a very important figure in your book, and I was, again, wondering—some of our people are asking what is the foreign press writing about all this. And that’s a lot to ask you to find articles, especially in a different language, to be able to answer that thoroughly. But do you have a sense of how successful Hotze was in propagating the Confederate narrative across Europe? Is he speaking to himself? Is he being widely read? Is he being read back in the Confederacy as well? Just tell us a little bit about him.
ADRIAN BRETTLE: Yes. Henry Hotze was Swiss born, of course, as you know, and he established a Confederate newspaper, The Index, in London from 1862 until after the end of the war. To answer your question, it was read—it had a circulation of about twenty thousand. So that’s a sort of reasonably high circulation. And excerpts of it ended up in papers like the Times, The Economist, etcetera. And it was read also back—I mean, Judah Benjamin, the secretary of state, read it, for example, back in Richmond.
I think the most striking thing is that—I mean, if you like, they were lousy propagandists for a foreign audience in the sense that they were up front that the Confederacy was about slavery, was about expansion, and was about—and that it was a great power on its own account. I mean, to connect with Ann, it was a nation among nations, but it was also seen as a vanguard of an entirely new nation. It was one about white egalitarian democracy. It was one about racial hierarchy in an era where races were beginning to come more into touch with each other. And so, it was offering global solutions, and it was a very emphatic—I mean, the emphatic message was—it is we have a proposition for you. You’re making a mistake in not taking us for what we are. So that could explain the diplomatic failure. They were lousy diplomats. But of course, everybody knew that what was going to result in Hotze becoming a success would be Robert E. Lee had won another battle. And if what the Confederates expected was going to happen was going to pass.
WILL KURTZ: Great. So, I think that’s a wonderful way to end our conversation today. I can’t believe we’ve already hit 2:45. I just want to reiterate, if it’s okay with the panelists, that it’s very clear that, just as historians have shown the centrality of slavery to the Confederate national project, that was very much an aspect of the transnational attempt to do that. It was very central to it, and that transnational perspective cannot be talked about without addressing slavery as well.
So, thank you both so much for speaking about your books and speaking to these large, important issues that historians grapple with today. So, to wrap up, thank you, Adrian and Ann, and everyone in our audience on Facebook and Zoom for watching. We really appreciate your time. Please consider buying these excellent books, Colossal Ambitions and Newest Born of Nations. You can get them from your local independent bookseller or, again, VaBook.org, or go to the UVA Bookstore website if you’re more familiar with that. You can also check out all of the upcoming and past events from this festival at VaBook.org as well.
So, with that, thank you very much, Ann and Adrian, and take care everyone. Thank you for coming.
ANN TUCKER: Thank you so much.