Book Review: The Civil War Abroad: How the Great American War Reached Overseas

The Civil War Abroad: How the Great American Conflict Reached Overseas. By Charles Priestley. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2022. 219 pp. Paperback, $39.95

Reviewed by Neil P. Chatelain

Most Civil War books focus on the conflict as it was waged across the United States and Confederacy, with text exploring connections between armies, social movements, or technology of the two major belligerents. The Civil War Abroad looks at things from a different perspective, taking readers across the Atlantic to Britain, the Mediterranean, and the European continent, showcasing how international actors impacted the conflict and how wartime participants impacted the world.

Charles Priestley is a member of the American Civil War Round Table (United Kingdom) and as an international writer exploring America’s most trying conflict, it is only natural that his take would explore international impacts. Readers should know however, that this is not a standard narrative story. Instead, the book is episodic, with separate essays each, exploring a different aspect of the conflict in Europe and the Mediterranean Sea.

There are things one might expect to be included in a book exploring Europe’s part in the conflict, such as the two chapters about CSS Alabama and its fateful sinking by USS Kearsarge. However, some major elements of Europe’s involvement, such as the 1861 Trent affair or impact of Napoleon III’s support of Maximilian in Mexico, are barely mentioned. Priestley’s efforts are focused on telling stories of individuals and their part in the conflict, though not always in a standard biographical sense. Concerning United States and Confederate diplomats, for example, one chapter explores a speech given by Confederate envoy William L. Yancey while another deconstructs the final days and death of US Minister to France William L. Dayton. The fifteen chapters range from a Royal Navy officer who captains a blockade runner before ending up in Turkey to the postwar recruitment of veterans on both sides into Egypt’s military to the wartime accounting of a French prince commanding Texans in Louisiana’s swamps and bayous. Who is explored and in what focus makes characters stand out, allowing for great variety from chapter to chapter.

One might expect that someone from the United Kingdom writing a book on international aspects of the war would certainly include international sources, and Priestley delivers. A host of sources from Great Britain are cited, including contemporary newspapers, British archives, interviews, and books. There are also citations from French, Egyptian, and Belgian sources. The work’s greatest contribution is perhaps Priestley’s efforts to physically visit and document each British, European, Turkish, or Egyptian site mentioned in the book. Priestly does this to ensure he is experiencing things as an author and researcher just as the cast of characters did. Many chapters use modern images of locations mentioned or photographs of the graves of characters to prove that the Civil War’s memory is active across Europe.

Anyone reading the book’s title and subtitle should be made aware that The Civil War Abroad does not include any major focus outside of Britain, Europe, Turkey, and Egypt, so if you are looking for analysis of the Civil War and Latin America, Africa, or Asia, you will need to look elsewhere – something the author clearly denotes in the introduction but that people reading the title might not initially expect. Readers should also know that four of the fifteen chapters include lengthy anecdotes quoted from other sources, though in most of these cases it is either the first time these sources have been published at all or it is the first time they are being translated into English. This may detract some who are looking for a more synthesized text, but may also attract many who love to get their hands on a source difficult to find.

The Civil War Abroad: How the Great American Conflict Reached Overseas offers numerous interesting approaches by an international author writing about international anecdotes of the United States Civil War. It is valuable for serious scholars of the overseas aspects of the conflict for exploring lesser-known actors and foreign source material, is a delightful read for those who love compelling stories about the conflict, and offers interesting insights for those wishing to dip their toe into the war’s international complexities.

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