High-Water Mark, part three

Foreign intervention comes up as an issue in Civil War histories, but have you ever seen it take solid form?

In military accounts, it looms over the horizon as an indefinite, tantalizing naval possibility. In the better diplomatic accounts (Jones, Mahin), it at least takes the form of a hypothetical chain of events: the offer of mediation / is followed by Northern rejection / which triggers recognition of the South / followed by the voluntary end of an illegal Union blockade OR the forcing of the illegal blockade by the British Navy.

Even this tenuous analysis too often has to be constructed by the reader from an author’s hints. It fails as definite menace. For their "intervention drama" elements, the diplomatic historians rely on conversations, speeches, and correspondence among the principal British actors … all the ho-hum stuff of politics-as-usual. This does at least place the bulk of British discussions between Second Manassas and Antietam; it also correlates Britain shelving their planning process per military events in Maryland.

Since actions carry more weight than words, Britain’s intervention prospects always seemed rather hollow to me. The converstations in Whitehall were real, were documented, but remained talk.

Author Timothy J. Reese looks at the intervention issue in his new book High-Water Mark: The 1862 Maryland Campaign in Strategic Perspective. And he does a really clever thing that has not previously occurred to anyone – he looks at the land forces available to Britain in North America throughout the Civil War. He identifies units, their arrivals, their departures, their quality, their siting, and he offers us this major discovery: the British build up of land forces in Canada peaked in time to back any and all British diplomatic action that might have flowed from Maryland Campaign outcomes.

Britain’s army, forgotten by historians analyzing the intervention crisis of 1862, were very ready. (I will not spoil the reader’s future enjoyment of High-Water Mark by disclosing more about this.)

Reese offers a second large discovery in this same chapter: that land forces accumulated in Canada remained for the duration of the ACW. Those implications are very interesting.

In providing strategic perspective to the campaign, Reese considers the diplomatic "threat" as just one tile of the mosaic, and yet in his management of this piece he provides more substance than many of the usual book-length studies do. Which is one reason I cannot speak too highly of this work, of which we have not even scratched the surface.

More on Thursday.