Revolutionary Wars

Josh Keating had this interesting observation today on Syria and foreign fighters:

There’s a quantitative portion of [David Malet’s new study of foreign fighters in civil wars] as well, with data showing that the number of civil conflicts involving foreign fighters has increased since the 19th century — this could be due to globalization or just to better reporting — and that insurgencies involving foreign fighters tend to be more successful at toppling governments. I suspect this is because it tends to be more organized and formidable insurgencies that have the resources for international recruitment, not because foreigners are any more effective on the battlefield.

Applying this analysis to the American Civil War yields some interesting insights. The Confederate States of America constituted the most organized and formidable insurgency in 19th century civil warfare, equaled perhaps only by the Heavenly Kingdom in China’s Taiping Rebellion, yet Confederate overtures for international support failed at every turn. Britain and France flirted with recognizing the Confederacy as an independent state, but never seriously, and abandoned the idea altogether after the Emancipation Proclamation. Whether foreign fighters supported the Confederacy mattered little, as they would’ve been unable to break the U.S. Navy’s blockade of the South to join the fighting.

Indeed, contemporary revolutionaries and freedom fighters often sympathized more with the Union than with the insurgency it faced. Giuseppe Garibaldi nearly accepted an offer by Lincoln to lead the Union Army in 1861 but declined when the president, still depending on the support of the loyal border states, refused to declare the conflict a war against slavery. When word of the Emancipation Proclamation reached Europe in 1863, Garibaldi named Lincoln “the great emancipator” in a letter filled with effusive praise:

It is America, the same country which taught liberty to our forefathers, which now opens another solemn epoch of human progress. And while your tremendous courage astonishes the world, we are sadly reminded how this old Europe, which also can boast a great cause of liberty to fight for, has not found the mind or heart to equal you.

Interest in the American struggle wasn’t limited to nationalists. Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels both corresponded privately and wrote publicly on the Civil War with astounding lucidity of its causes and course. They and many other socialists, viewing the Civil War as a struggle against slavery and aristocracy, fervently supported the Union cause. Marx himself drafted a letter on behalf of the First International congratulating Abraham Lincoln on his 1864 re-election:

We congratulate the American people upon your re-election by a large majority. If resistance to the Slave Power was the reserved watchword of your first election, the triumphant war cry of your re-election is Death to Slavery.

From the commencement of the titanic American strife the workingmen of Europe felt instinctively that the star-spangled banner carried the destiny of their class. The contest for the territories which opened the dire epoque, was it not to decide whether the virgin soil of immense tracts should be wedded to the labor of the emigrant or prostituted by the tramp of the slave driver?


The workingmen of Europe feel sure that, as the American War of Independence initiated a new era of ascendancy for the middle class, so the American Antislavery War will do for the working classes. They consider it an earnest of the epoch to come that it fell to the lot of Abraham Lincoln, the single-minded son of the working class, to lead his country through the matchless struggle for the rescue of an enchained race and the reconstruction of a social world.

Neither Marx nor Engels would ever set foot in the New World. (Garibaldi briefly visited New York City in 1850, but never returned to the United States thereafter.) Whether the Union was lost or saved would have little impact on their personal lives or political goals. But they and countless others perceived the Civil War not as a parochial struggle for political supremacy but as part of a broader struggle for liberty and against oppression. Northerners and Southerners also shared that conceptual framework, albeit towards different ends.

That tendency to extrapolate broader significance to discrete events, whether accurate or not, also undoubtedly motivates many of those fighting and dying on all sides in Syria today.