The Revolution of 1861: The American Civil War in the Age of Nationalist Conflict

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The Revolution of 1861: The American Civil War in the Age of Nationalist Conflict. By Andre M. Fleche. (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2012. Pp. xii, 224. $39.95.)

Fifty years ago, the Civil War centennial set in motion a new wave that placed slavery and race at the center of the story and set off an exciting era of historical revision. Military and political history found renewed vigor and new currents in social, cultural, African American, and women's history, which vastly expanded the boundaries of the field. Although a sturdy few diplomatic historians turned out excellent work on the period, the overriding trend was a narrowing of focus on the national narrative of America reckoning with race.

Andre M. Fleche's sparkling new book comes during the sesquicentennial as a welcome harbinger of a new international interpretation of the Civil War. Smoothly written, well-grounded in primary sources, and cogently argued, the book admirably avoids quarrels with other historians and sets out to recapture the spirit of the time. Diplomats and revolutionaries, journalists and intellectuals, and liberal and conservative political leaders in the United States and Europe make sometimes-hurried appearances onstage to interpret the war and what it meant to the world.

Fleche sees the "Revolution of 1861" as part of the Age of Revolution that swept through the Atlantic World between 1776 and 1865. The Revolution of 1848, heralded as the "springtime of nations," is most prominent, for Southern secessionists saw in it not only sustenance for the "national idea" that people ought to govern themselves but also precedent for the international recognition of insurgent nationalist movements. It was the South, by Fleche's account, that initially aligned itself with the spirit of revolution and national self-determination. The Union, meanwhile, cast itself in an awkward role as the defender of the status quo, even guaranteeing the perpetuation of slavery in the states. …