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Author Interview:
One War at a Time

Dean B. Mahin, author
One War at a Time: The International Dimensions of the American Civil War
Published by Brassey's, December 1999
ISBN 1-57488-209-0, $27.95

We invited historian Dean B. Mahin to comment about his book on Lincoln's diplomatic role during the Civil War. He explains that Lincoln skillfully conducted a dangerous diplomatic balancing act, avoiding war with England and France while using the threat of war to prevent European recognition of Confederate independence. He says, "I believe that Lincoln's participation in the conduct of the successful Union foreign policy is the only major untold story in Lincoln biography and the most important untold success story of American foreign relations."

Dean B. Mahin has degrees in history and international affairs and is a veteran of forty years of service in international programs in or for the Department of State and the U.S. Information and Foreign Assistance agencies. He lives in Charlotte, North Carolina.

ALO: Welcome to Abraham Lincoln Online and thank you for sharing the some of the highlights of your study. We know that teachers and Lincoln students will be interested in your work.

Dean Mahin: I welcome this opportunity to talk about the international dimensions of the Civil War and Lincoln's role in foreign affairs, topics which have been rather neglected by historians and biographers.

ALO: You challenge the assumption that Lincoln had little involvement in foreign affairs and played a minor role in Union diplomacy. Why did others retain this belief but you did not?

Dean Mahin: Historians and biographers have been preoccupied with North-South issues and military affairs. In the l9th century U.S. presidents rarely commented on foreign relations; their constitutional responsibilities for foreign affairs were discharged mainly via verbal instructions to their secretaries of state. Until I spent three years searching for every scrap of evidence of Lincoln's interests and roles in foreign affairs, no one had assembled and evaluated this evidence, which was scattered in diplomatic dispatches, personal correspondence, diaries, and memoirs. John M. Taylor, a biographer of Seward, wrote that my book "shows that Lincoln had a real interest in foreign affairs and that no major diplomatic decision was reached without his participation and concurrence."

ALO:How do you see Lincoln's relationship with his secretary of state, William Henry Seward?

Dean Mahin: My conclusion that Lincoln participated actively in major foreign policy decisions does not downgrade Seward's important role. After an initial period in which both men took the measure of the other, they worked together very effectively. I could find no evidence of disagreement between them on important goals or strategies. The Lincoln/Seward partnership is one of the best examples of effective cooperation between a president and his secretary of state. Together, they persuaded European leaders to maintain neutrality and resist pressures to extend recognition and support to the Confederacy. Their diplomacy is one of the most important success stories in American diplomatic history.

ALO: Didn't one of Lincoln's White House secretaries comment on Lincoln's executive abilities, including foreign affairs?

Dean Mahin: Yes, that was John Hay, in a letter to his absent colleague, John Nicholay, in August 1863. "The Tycoon is in fine whack," he wrote. "I have rarely seen him more serene and busy. He is managing this war, the draft, foreign relations, and planning a reconstruction of the Union, all at once."

ALO: The Times of London recently listed Lincoln among the ten most influential persons in the past millennium. Did this paper hold that position during the Civil War?

Dean Mahin: The irony is that during the Civil War, this newspaper consistently underrated and misunderstood Lincoln. In fact, throughout Britain, Lincoln was poorly understood at the time. Opinion leaders of the British upper classes would probably have reacted negatively to any Northern president. Their generally negative attitudes toward the United States had roots in the American Revolution and the War of l812. There were several reasons for their sympathetic attitude toward the Confederacy. Leaders of the British Empire welcomed the division of the North American superpower into two smaller states.

British businessmen resented Northern competition in manufacturing, trade, shipping, and shipbuilding, while the Southerners were crucial suppliers (of cotton) and good customers for British manufactures. Political leaders were more comfortable with the semi-aristocratic political system in the South than with popular democracy in the North.

But there were also important reasons for negative judgments of Lincoln. British aristocrats could not believe that a man from the frontier with very limited previous experience in national government could be an effective president. They feared that the victory of the symbol of popular democracy would strengthen the movement for electoral reform in Britain, as it did. The Times reflected the attitudes and prejudices of the British upper classes. Incidentally, the recent article reported the results of a poll of 100 world leaders and influential artists and scientists; the editors of The Times did not comment on the inclusion of Lincoln in this list of the ten most significant figures of the past millennium.

ALO: Would you comment on the roles of Lincoln and Seward in the famous Trent affair?

Deah Mahin: Several historians and biographers have given Secretary of State Seward the main credit for the decision in late l861 to release the Confederate envoys a U.S. Navy captain had taken from a British mail packet, the Trent, thus reducing the danger of war with Britain. There had been very strong support for Captain Wilkes's action in the public, press, and Congress. At first Lincoln hoped to avoid a politically hazardous decision to release the Confederate envoys, which he feared would be viewed as bowing to British pressure. He considered a proposal to the British that the matter be referred to international arbitration, but soon realized that arbitration was not feasible in a case in which one nation thought its flag had been insulted.

Lincoln ultimately accepted the judgment of Seward and several other cabinet members that the envoys must be released to eliminate the unacceptable risk of war with Britain. This crucial foreign policy decision was made by the president, after considering advice from various sources. It reflected Lincoln's axiom for Union diplomacy, "one war at a time," which I used as the title of my book.

ALO: Tell us how Lincoln responded to British support for the Confederate war effort?

Dean Mahin: Arms and supplies brought from Britain by the blockade runners sustained the Confederate war effort for one to two years longer than would have been possible without this support. The majority of the ships were British-built, British-owned, and British-manned, and carried cargoes from Britain. I cite various evidence of Lincoln's involvement with the decisions to establish and maintain the blockade and his frustration at the inability of the blockading squadrons to prevent the arrival of large quantities of arms and supplies for the Confederacy. The first item on Lincoln's list of military priorities after the first debacle at Bull Run was "Let the plan for making the blockade effective be pushed forward with all possible dispatch."

But there was little else that Lincoln could do about this British contribution to the Confederate war effort. International law allowed any ship to attempt to evade the blockade; if a ship was caught, the ship and cargo were forfeited. The British government insisted that this "neutral trade" by the British private sector did not violate official British neutrality. The dominant British role in the blockade running system was rarely mentioned in the diplomatic correspondence with Britain. Neither the British nor the U.S. government wanted to establish any precedent which would limit the rights of future governments in future wars to establish blockades or attempt to evade them.

ALO: Three of your chapters review Union, Confederate, and postwar U.S. reactions to developments in Mexico, including the Mexican civil war, the French invasion, and Maximilian's Mexican "empire." What did Lincoln do to support the struggling republican government in Mexico?

Dean Mahin: Lincoln's minister in Mexico, Thomas Corwin, urged U.S. financial support for the Juarez government. The real story of aid to Juarez was deliberately masked by political maneuvering by Lincoln and diplomatic bluffing by Seward. The few historians who have written about U.S. relations with Mexico during the Civil War leave the impression that Lincoln and Seward wanted to provide financial support for Juarez but that the loan proposals were rejected by the Senate.

My research indicates that Lincoln wanted to provide the maximum possible moral and diplomatic support to the embattled republican government of Mexico - and wanted the Europeans and the Mexican conservatives to think that the U.S. was on the verge of substantial aid to Juarez - but in fact Lincoln was determined to avoid any military or financial commitment in Mexico. His only important speeches as a freshman Congressman in l847-48 had revealed how near James K. Polk had brought the nation to entrapment in a Mexican quagmire, and he was determined to avoid such a risk in the even more dangerous situation in Mexico in l861-62. But Lincoln maintained diplomatic support for Juarez and consistently refused to recognize the legitimacy of Maximilian's "imperial" government in Mexico.

ALO: What does your book offer those who are primarily interested in the Confederacy?

Dean Mahin: They will find chapters focusing on Confederate foreign policy, the issue of British and French recognition of Confederate independence, the role of cotton in Confederate diplomacy, the U.S.-British tensions arising from the construction in Britain of the Alabama and other Confederate commerce raiders, the massive British role in the blockade running system that sustained the Confederate war effort, and the frustration of Confederate leaders in the last two years of the war at their failure to obtain European recognition and support.

ALO: Where can our viewers obtain your book?

It is available in the U.S. from many bookstores and online book services, as well as the publisher (800-775-2518). It is also offered by three online services in Europe.

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