The Civil War was a more than a conflict between North and South and President Abraham Lincoln recognized this larger dimension in the battle to preserve the United States.
“We think of the Civil War as a domestic war but it was also international,” says Kevin Peraino, author of Lincoln in the World: The Making of a Statesman and the Dawn of American Power (Random House 2013; $26). “Lincoln dealt with a series of crises during his presidency from countries like France, Britain and Spain. Even Russian ships showed up off the Atlantic Coast in the middle of the war. If he hadn’t handled those well, the course of the war and our country might have been changed.”
Using what was then modern technology—newspapers, telegraphs and steamships—our 16th president connected to the world, using these mediums to ally himself with Europe.
“Lincoln realized that he could communicate directly to ordinary Europeans,” says Peraino. “With the Emancipation Proclamation, he hoped to speak to European mill workers to appeal them to keep them from entering the war.”
Lincoln, a poor farm boy who spent his formulative years, from seven to 21, in an isolated and very rural part of Southern Indiana and didn’t speak any other languages except a smattering of German in order to win votes from German immigrants, had only sporadic schooling. But he was so much savvier than his upbringing would indicate. And his wife was no slouch when it came to understanding the world around them either.
“Mary Lincoln was much more cosmopolitan,” says Peraino. “She grew up in Lexington, Kentucky, which at the time was known as the Athens of the Midwest. Mary went to school where the students spoke French. Her home in Lexington was filled with French mahogany furniture and Belgian rugs. Henry Clay, the great American diplomat, was a neighbor.”
William Seward, Lincoln’s Secretary of State, was also extremely knowledgeable about foreign policy and Lincoln had both the wisdom and humility to listen to his advice. According to Peraino, Mary Lincoln wasn’t above letting her husband know about her pedigree and sometimes tried to interfere.
“Cassius Marcellus Clay, America’s minister to Russia, remembers Mary saying to him nobody listens to Seward, you don’t have to either,” says Peraino.
Of the 15,000 books or more books written about Lincoln, this is the first in 40 years to examine Lincoln's foreign policy. Peraino, a veteran foreign correspondent who has spent years covering conflicts overseas, did extensive research finding out about this overlooked part of Lincoln history.
“It was like a treasure hunt,” he says describing his search through archives, news clippings and even the edited parts of books recounting Lincoln’s international exploits that ended up on the cutting room floor. “Lincoln had these natural diplomatic skills which is something many people don’t know.”