Lincoln’s Gamble: Fear of Intervention and the Onset of the American Civil War Security Studies
Paul Poast  |  July 3, 2015

Few studies consider how civil war onset can be influenced by third parties and by the belligerents’ perceptions of third party actions. I show that the American Civil War, a war largely ignored by civil war scholars, sheds insights into how anticipation of third party intervention influences the decision-making process within the target state and how the possibility of third party intervention can influence the onset and escalation of civil war. The American Civil War is an especially interesting case for exploring the role of third parties in civil war initiation since, unlike most cases considered by the existing civil war literature, the American Civil War is an instance of nonintervention: the third parties (the European powers in this case) mattered despite staying out of the conflict. Specifically, I argue that fear of foreign recognition (particularly by the British) played an underappreciated (if not the decisive) role in the earliest stages of the American Civil War by influencing Lincoln's decision to authorize the first major battle of the war at Manassas Junction, Virginia.