Book Review: The Civil War in the Age of Nationalism

The Civil War in the Age of Nationalism. By Niels Eichhorn & Duncan A. Campbell. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2024. Hardback, 336 pp. $55.00.

Reviewed by Kevin C. Donovan

Sprawling. Complex. Illuminating. Such describe The Civil War in the Age of Nationalism, in which Niels Eichhorn and Duncan A. Campbell position the American Civil War as merely one movement within a world-wide symphony of nationalistic endeavors and consequences.

The authors start by rejecting what they call the “exceptionalist” approach to the Civil War, in which the United States is presented as the center of world events, with its war seen as a turning point and leading light for the creation of new democratic nation-states. Eichhorn and Duncan reject this “shining city upon a hill” narrative (5). Rather, they explore the Civil War “from a comparative perspective, looking at how the conflict’s various aspects mirrored those in other parts of the world” (9). The nation-state is at the center of their analysis because the rise of national identities led to conflict and acknowledging that different peoples across the globe faced similar issues and came up with similar solutions allows a deeper understanding of history without “the inevitable insularity inherent in nation-state history” (12).

The authors’ approach leads to discussion of a sprawling array of nation-building activities, ranging from the failed Hungarian and Irish independence (or secession) efforts in the 1840s to the successful Italian and German unification campaigns of the 1850-1870s, the Latin American anti-colonial struggles, the Upper and Lower Canda rebellions of 1837-1838, and even the 1847 civil war (the Sonderbundskreig) among the Swiss cantons.

In analyzing all these events, Eichhorn and Duncan sometimes simply explain how motivations (e.g., a sense of oppression) or unifying principles (e.g., a shared ethnicity, religion, or other sense of common society) of different peoples in Europe or elsewhere were mirrored in the slave-holding population of the American South. Often, however, they identify direct connections between nationalistic events abroad and in the United States. Thus, for example, the authors reveal how Southern firebrands drew inspiration from the 1848 European revolutions, seen as struggles for the principle that every nation had the right to govern itself, as well as specific efforts of “Irish, Polish, Hungarian and Greek separatist rebellions” (60). If those peoples could legitimately fight for their own independent nation, went the argument, so too could the South.

Another parallel drawn by the authors is how nation-building wars involving slave-holding societies led to competition for the loyalty of the enslaved, resulting in emancipation offers. Yet newly freed slaves were then relegated to an inferior status, not just in the U.S., but around the world. Furthermore, in yet another example of how events abroad impacted the U.S., the authors show how Jamaica’s October 1865 Morant Bay Rebellion by oppressed emancipated slaves was used by the enemies of Reconstruction to argue that emancipation was a failed, dangerous policy. Radical Republicans, by contrast, asserted that the conflict arose from “the denial of rights to colored people” (198), spurring their own policy efforts.

President Abraham Lincoln is compared to Prussia’s Otto von Bismarck and Piedmont-Sardinia’s Conte di Cavour, because each practiced realpolitick in evading his country’s constitutional restraints and using whatever tactics fostered state goals. Reconstruction in the U.S. is compared to the Swiss Sonderbundskreig, because in each instance the defeated states/cantons were required to satisfy certain legal prerequisites before being readmitted to full participation in their country’s political life.

The complex consequences of nationalism are illustrated throughout the book. One interesting example involves Pope Pius IX. The pope caused a furor in the United States when he referred to Jefferson Davis as the “Illustrious and Honorable… President of the Confederate States of America” (151).[1] The authors speculate that the pope’s action “may have been in retaliation for the Lincoln administration’s 1862 recognition of the [unification-minded] Kingdom of Italy, which was hostile to the Papal States” (151). The pope’s honorific was used as proof that the Vatican supported the Confederacy. This accusation supplied anti-Catholic fodder well into the 1870s and helped fuel American popular approval of Bismarck’s campaign (kulturkampf) to destroy the authority of the Catholic Church in the newly unified Germany, as well as approval of the Italian conquest of the Papal States.

The authors show how nationalistic endeavors influenced potential British recognition of the Confederacy. Rejecting the notion that skillful American diplomacy forestalled recognition, Eichhorn and Duncan posit that a key reason the British government hesitated to intervene, even to offer mediation, was the plethora of nationalistic activities throughout Europe. With so many nation-building struggles going on, British leaders worried that any intervention in America’s conflict would set a disturbing precedent, leading to other combatants expecting support for their own independence movements. Indeed, pro-U.S. Britishers argued that if their government supported the Confederacy, it would encourage Irish aspirations for their own state.

This review presents but a thumbnail sketch of the numerous intriguing issues addressed by this book, which provides an illuminating perspective on how the Civil War fit into a much broader international movement called nationalism.

[1] “Some Civil War Documents, A. D. 1862-1864, Pope Pius IX, J. P. Benjamin, A. Dudley Mann, Jefferson Davis,” Records of the American Catholic Historical Society of Philadelphia, Vol. 14, No. 3 (September, 1903), pp. 264, 269 (Dec. 3, 1863 letter from Pope Pius IX to Jefferson Davis),


Kevin C. Donovan, Esq., a retired lawyer, now focuses on Civil War research and writing, including on law-related topics such as “How the Civil War Continues to Affect the Law,” published in Litigation, The Journal of the Section of Litigation, of the American Bar Association.  His inaugural ECW blog publication, “A Tale of Two Tombstones,” appeared December 9, 2022 and was ECW’s most popular post of the year on social media.

5 Responses to Book Review: The Civil War in the Age of Nationalism

  1. I just heard about this book yesterday and I want to read it. In 2009 I had a professor compare Lincoln to Bismarck and Cavour, asserting they were more relevant to understanding Lincoln than figures from the Revolution or the 20th century. Also Civil War soldier letters drip with proto-nationalist sentiments and motivations for fighting.

  2. Excellent! So, there were “struggles for the principle that every nation had the right to govern itself…If those peoples could legitimately fight for their own independent nation, went the argument, so too could the South.” and “Yet, newly freed slaves were then relegated to an inferior status, not just in the U.S., but around the world.” Yet more proof the Civil War was not about slavery.

  3. Will read; appears to address formally many of the issues of a broader context for the War. I also recommend “Empire of Cotton”, Sven Beckert. It makes clear the power of the international textile trade that was fed by ever-larger amounts of Southern-grown cotton amd held the entire US in its grip in the 19th Century. Mr. Beckert is not a capitalist but he understands his target.

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