One of the most understudied aspects of the American Civil War is how it played out overseas. In regards to Antietam and the Maryland Campaign in particular, the strategic impact that battles had on international affairs is blatantly clear. One of my favorite quotes about Antietam comes from George Stevens, a surgeon with the 77th New York. When describing the Antietam landscape after the war, Stevens could not fathom how such a peaceful place became the scene of "one of the grand battles which would decide the march of events in the history, not only of our own country, but of the world...."
One of the books in my possession that I value quite highly is a volume of the Messages and Papers of the Confederacy. There is a treasure trove of information in this book, and a good deal of it has to do with diplomatic affairs during 1862. One of the letters that stood out quite dramatically when I was reading through this volume the other day is an exchange between Confederate diplomat James M. Mason and Confederate Secretary of State Judah Benjamin. On September 18, the day following Antietam, Mason wrote to Benjamin to apprise him of the effect that the Confederate successes of 1862 were having in Europe. The following is a portion of that letter:
I have heard from one or two accredited quarters that this question (recognition) is again to come under the consideration of the British Cabinet in October, and the same report has reached Mr. Slidell.
In this posture of affairs, I can but hope that the reconsideration of the British Cabinet is brought about at the instance of the Emperor (Napoleon III, Emperor of France); and if this is so, I have little doubt that a favorable response will be strongly pressed upon it by him.
There is no doubt but the Emperor is both willing and anxious to recognize our independence, and seems so to declare himself without reserve. I had a note the other day from an English gentleman of high position, who told me that he had just seen the Emperor at Chalons, and who told him in conversation that he was, and had been for some time, ready to recognize us, and spoke rather impatiently of the opposite disposition of the British Government....
We are all much cheered and elated here at the signal successes of our arms in the series of battles reported from the Rappahanock to the Potomac lines opposite Washington, followed up by an arrival yesterday announcing that our forces had crossed into Maryland. We have only the Northern accounts, but even they are full to show that our victories have been complete, and the enemy both routed and disorganized. At this distance, and without the power to aid, I am filled with emotions of gratitude to those by whose counsels and whose courage such great events have been brought about. I look with renewed confidence to the effect which they must produce on the pending decision of the Emperor as to recognition.
(James Mason to Benjamin Judah, September 18, 1862, in Messages and Papers of the Confederacy, ed. James Richardson, Vol. II, Nashville: United States Publishing Company, 1906, 316-7.)
When Mason wrote this letter, he had yet to receive news of what had occurred the day before in Western Maryland. Many historians agree that had Lee won at Antietam, both England and France would have recognized the Confederacy as an independent nation. Europe loved American cotton, and laborers in factories and textile mills required it for their own livelihoods. European recognition most likely would not have come in the form of an international war being fought on American soil, but it would lead to financial, diplomatic, and political support. With these things considered, the dark days of 1862 could have been even darker for Union forces with Europe firmly on the side of the Confederacy.
Yet, with Lee's defeat and subsequent retreat from Maryland, events turned back in favor of the Union armies, stymieing European desires for recognition. The resulting Emancipation Proclamation was yet another nail in the coffin of European recognition. The case for Antietam's international impact is clear; it was a failed Saratoga for Robert E. Lee. Should Lee have won in Maryland, England and France were poised and ready for recognition and possible financial alliance. The Confederacy would never again come as close to gaining the international recognition and legitimacy that they so craved as they had come in the pivotal month of September, 1862.
Our Country's Fiery Ordeal
A blog about the American Civil War, written and maintained by historian Daniel J. Vermilya, author of The Battle of Kennesaw Mountain (History Press, 2014) and James Garfield and the Civil War (History Press, 2015)
Dedicated to my great-great-great grandfather, Private Ellwood Rodebaugh, Company D, 106th Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry, killed at the Battle of Antietam, September 17, 1862.
"And may an Overuling Providence continue to cause good to come out of evil, justice to be done to all men where injustice has long prevailed, and finally, peace, quiet, and harmony to come out of this terrible confrontation and our country's fiery ordeal." -- Albert Champlin, 105th Ohio, Diary entry of June 19, 1864 (Western Reserve Historical Society)