Monday, August 15, 2011

Britain and the American Civil War

A World on Fire, Britain's Crucial Role in the American Civil War, Amanda Foreman

I have spent the last week immersed in A World on Fire. It was that clichĂ©, a book I couldn't put down, snatching every chance I could to read a few more pages, and resenting the necessary interruption of work.  It is one of the best books I have read on the Civil War, and I've read a lot of books on the Civil War.  It works as both an historical overview, of Anglo-American relations and how they affected and were affected by the war; and as the story of individuals, primarily British, some of whom observed and others who fought in the war.

The Civil War was one of my areas of focus as a history major, both in college and grad school.  My fascination with the period continues, especially with regard to Abraham Lincoln and his presidency.  Neither in school nor in my own reading since did I learn much about the role of international diplomacy in the war.  A World on Fire is not the first book to explore this topic, in fact it's the latest in a long line, but it does take a new and fascinating approach.  I couldn't have asked for a better introduction to this complex, crucial aspect of the war.

Foreman's original intent was to write a book on British volunteers in the Civil War, to look at how public opinion on the war shaped their decision to fight for North or South.  In course of her research, she became fascinated with the way "progressive" elements in England adopted the Southern cause, given Britain's strong anti-slavery feelings.  She also discovered that the world of Anglo-American relations was far more complex than she had realized.  In a Preface, Foreman describes her book as "a biography of a relationship, or more accurately, of the many relationships that together formed the British-American experience during the Civil War."  Her narrative has several threads, which she weaves together with consummate skill.  There is a general history of the war, including crucial battles.  There is the story of the diplomatic relations between the U.S. and Britain, already complicated even before the Confederacy began demanding diplomatic recognition.  There are also the individual stories, including British citizens resident in the United States as well as those drawn to the conflict.  Foreman compares her approach to the theatrical production of Charles Dickens' Nicholas Nickleby, a "theater in the round" with constant shifts of scenery and characters.  I was a stagehand in a local production, so I understand her metaphor, though I thought more of an Anthony Trollope novel, The Last Chronicle of Barset or He Knew He Was Right.

I learned something about England attitudes about America in the 1850s from reading the travel accounts of Isabella Bird and Anthony Trollope.  But I did not understand the anti-British feeling in the United States, nor the tension generated by America's attempts to annexe Canada.  One of the heroic figures in the book is Lord Lyons, the British minister in Washington, who worked himself into illness and exhaustion trying to maintain diplomatic relations in the midst of war, while also protecting British citizens caught in the conflict, in an atmosphere of almost constant hostility to Britain.  I had never considered the role of European consulates, scattered across the country; here in Texas, the British consul in Galveston apparently remained in residence throughout the war.  Foreman highlights both their witness and their struggles to assist English citizens.  In both North and South, foreign residents were subject to "crimping," forced enlistment in the army or navy, despite frequent investigations and formal complaints from local consuls and the legation in Washington.  Foreman includes both their stories and the stories of those who volunteered, the original point of her research, to illumine the larger story.

I knew that the Confederates counted on diplomatic recognition of their new nation, and they desperately needed supplies from Europe.  Britain would not associate herself with slavery, yet I did not know that many in England managed to convince themselves that slavery would be abolished in an independent South, perhaps even faster than under the Union.  Confederate agents in England were careful not to dispel this illusion, instead presenting the war as one for independence.  Like Bird and Trollope, many in England assumed that America was simply too big for one nation, that its eventual split into smaller entities was inevitable, particularly given the differences between north and south.  The Liberal government under Lord Palmerston, with Lord John Russell as foreign secretary, adopted a policy of neutrality that included both recognition of the Federal blockade of the southern states and granting the Confederacy belligerent status.  This last allowed the Confederacy to raise foreign loans and buy supplies from neutral counties.  Confederate agents used British shipyards to build blockade runners and gunboats, which became a point of increasing conflict with the Federal government.

While I knew that Confederate agents were active in Canada, I had no idea of the range of their activities, nor of the cooperation between Canadian and Federal authorities to rein them in.  England came to view their activities on Canadian soil as a violation of British neutrality, and a threat to Anglo-American relations.  I don't remember learning much about Canadian-American history in school either, come to think of it.

This is a massive book, over 1000 pages including notes.  There are 13 pages of "Dramatis Personae" alone.  Foreman's control of the long and complex story, its dozens of characters, is masterful.  Individuals move in and out of narrative, as the focus shifts, and with just a few words Foreman places each back in context.  There were only a few times where I lost track of someone and had to check the "cast list" or index.  Foreman is also good on battles, which in the Civil War were sometimes complex and as confusing to the participants as they are to us today.  The book is lavishly illustrated with photos, maps, and contemporary drawings by Frank Viztelly, a pro-Southern correspondent for the Illustrated London News.

I feel that I can hardly do justice to this amazing, compelling, compulsively readable book.  I can only hope that it will be as widely read and appreciated as it deserves.


  1. I am so excited about this book, even though I know so very little about the American Civil War (most of what I do know comes from either the British or Canada perspective, or from Gone with the Wind). I'm on the hold list for this but there are still twelve people ahead of me (I'm just happy the list is that short!). Your review has made me even more excited to read it!

  2. I've only seen one review of this here in the US, so far - I hope it gets more notice, especially in this 150th anniversary of the war. It certainly fits right in with my recent reading on the Victorian era - this books gives us a front row seat in the English cabinet meetings and parliamentary debates. I'll be interested to see if the American side is as easy to follow, since you're less familiar with that side of it.


Thank you for taking the time to read, and to comment. I always enjoy hearing different points of view about the books I am reading, even if we disagree!