Words As Powerful As Bullets: Diplomats during the U.S. Civil War

Today’s blog post comes from Paige Weaver from the History Office of the National Archives.

When most people think about the U.S. Civil War, they typically consider it a purely American affair that pitted the geographic regions of the North versus the South. Yet, this so-called “War Between the States” was hardly limited to the confines of the United States’ borders. It was in fact a truly international event that involved countries across the globe.

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Map of the world created during the Civil War era showing plans for an overland telegraph route that would connect San Francisco and Moscow. Despite distance and cultural differences, this map effectively demonstrates how interconnected the world was at the outbreak of the Civil War. (National Archives Identifier 306678).

Although no foreign country ever officially entered the war or engaged in the action on the battlefield, many were dramatically affected by the war’s repercussions. Countries around the world all had varying motives for meddling in the conflict. Great Britain suffered severely from the dramatic shortage of cotton as a result of the Union blockade of Southern ports. Emperor Napoleon III of France had imperial ambitions in Mexico that he believed could be expedited with a Confederate victory. And Russia championed the Union cause since it believed that the United States served as a counterbalance to Great Britain.

Countries around the world had serious vested interest in the outcome of the American Civil War. Thus, the political actions that each nation took as the conflict progressed were delicate matters that needed to be handled with care. Enter diplomats: underappreciated agents and delegates who participated in the war by using diplomacy instead of guns.

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Diplomats from across the globe pose in front of a waterfall in New York as the Civil War raged on in August 1863. From left to right: unidentified; State Department messenger Donaldson; unidentified; unidentified; Count Edward Piper, Swedish Minister; Joseph Bertinatti, Italian Minister; Luis Molina, Nicaraguan Minister (seated); Rudolph Mathias Schleiden, Hanseatic Minister; Henri Mercier, French Minister; William H. Seward, Secretary of State (seated); Lord Richard Lyons, British Minister; Baron Edward de Stoeckel, Russian Minister (seated); and George Sheffield, British attache. (National Archives Identifier 518056).

A diplomat is a person who is appointed by the state to represent the country abroad and engage in negotiations between other countries and international organizations. Diplomats perform a wide range of duties, but their major responsibilities include representing and protecting the national interests of their country, participating in conventions, promoting strategic dialogue, advancing treaties, and promoting the exchange and dissemination of information, technology, commerce, and positive relations.

Diplomats play a vital role in maintaining amicable foreign relations even during times of peace, but the significance of their arbitrating skills and ability to mediate international communication is amplified during times of war. Their names may not be as well known as the generals who fought in battle or the President who led the country through this grim period in our nation’s history, but diplomats who served the Union effectively worked behind the scenes to ensure that the Northern cause would ultimately prevail.  

Once war broke out in 1861, American diplomats who represented both the North and the South struggled to establish and maintain favorable international relations in order to help ensure victory. Diplomats who remained loyal to the Union and served in the Federal Government answered to William H. Seward, the Secretary of State.

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President Abraham Lincoln’s nomination of William H. Seward to be Secretary of State. The nomination was signed and dated March 5, 1861. (National Archives Identifier 595432).

Seward worked diligently throughout the war to ensure that no foreign nation intervened in the conflict on the behalf of the Confederacy. Not only did he oversee and instruct the numerous diplomats who represented the Union abroad, but he also hosted foreign diplomats at home and endeavored to win their favor and support.

In contrast, diplomats who represented the Confederacy desperately attempted to convince stronger and more powerful foreign countries to come to their aid and intercede on their behalf. These diplomats were successful in helping to convince Great Britain and France, two European countries who had much at stake in the outcome of the American conflict, to legally confer belligerent status upon the Confederacy, which recognized it as a nation engaged in war. Yet, this proved to be the extent of Southern diplomatic triumph since all foreign nations remained officially neutral for the duration of the war.

Although they may not be armed with guns or engage in violent confrontations on the battlefield, diplomats participate in wars in much more discreet ways. As soldiers from both the North and the South passionately fought each other physically, diplomats were meticulously working behind the scenes in order to garner international favor. Certainly, most foreign nations preferred one side or the other, but all remained neutral throughout the war, a factor that was crucial in securing victory for the North.   

Visit the National Archives website for more records related to the U.S. Civil War. And read the Prologue article: “The Diplomats Who Sank a Fleet: The Confederacy’s Undelivered European Fleet and the Union Consular Service” to learn more about Union diplomats preventing the Confederacy from acquiring ships from Great Britain. 

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