A WORLD ON FIRE: BRITAIN’S CRUCIAL ROLE IN THE AMERICAN CIVIL WAR by Amanda Foreman is an amazing book.  The breadth of knowledge and research in a narrative that encompasses over 800 pages of text and 100 pages of footnotes is to be praised and warmly received.  There are numerous books written about the Civil War, but few that focus solely on the role the British played in the conflict.  The story treats the diplomacy of the war in depth ranging from the interplay between Secretary of State William Henry Seward to British Foreign Secretary Lord John Russell and British Prime Minister Henry John Temple Palmerston.  Included, are lesser figures in each country’s foreign policy establishment, the most important being Charles Francis Adams, the American Minister in London, and Richard Bickerton Pemell, Lord Lyons, the head of the British legation in Washington.  Apart from the diplomacy of the war the role of propaganda in the United Kingdom is dealt with in detail and the major characters involved who worked assiduously to try and gain British recognition of the new Confederate government on the one hand, and opponents who tried to lower the temperature between the Lincoln administration and Palmerston government.  Other important components of the book are the role of British volunteers in both Union and Confederate militaries, and the forced conscription of British citizens.  Foreman’s sources are enhanced by her use of letters and diaries from Britons who were involved in key battles and discussions during the war and it offers a different flavor that many books on the conflict seem to miss.  Forman’s work is impeccable, however at times it can be a bit drawn out and one gets the feeling that every piece of minutiae involving the British has to be included in the text.

(Union forces shelling the port city of Charleston, SC, in 1863.  Frank Vizetelly illustrator)

The author integrates all major components of the war into her narrative, but what separates her approach is her reliance on the personal stories of men like Francis Dawson, a British volunteer who joined the Confederate navy, and later army who was also present Gettysburg, and the Wilderness campaigns and was wounded during the last month of the war; Frank Vizetelly, an artist and reporter for the Illustrated London News, whose drawings permeate the entire book and was present at almost every important occurrence during the conflict.  Others whose letters and diaries proved to be wonderful source material include; Francis Charles Lawley, the pro-Confederate reporter for the London Times, Dr. Charles Mayo, a British surgeon who traveled to the United States to gain further surgical experience and wound up at Vicksburg and other major battles and whose reports reflect the death and mutilation that resulted from the intensity of the fighting.  Two other soldiers stand out in Foreman’s narrative, Sir Percy Wyndham, an English soldier of fortune who had served with Garibaldi in Italy, joined McClellan’s staff during the Peninsula campaign and later was involved in other major actions; second was Major John Fitzroy De Courcy, a former British magistrate and Crimean War veteran who Seward promoted to Colonel and fought with the 16th Ohio Volunteers.

The driving force behind the books preparation was Foreman’s goal to ascertain why progressive classes in the United Kingdom, journalists, university students, actors, social reformers and clergy felt that the Confederacy had the moral advantage over the Union during the Civil War.  Lord Palmerston summed up British opinion of the United States nicely in an 1857 comment to Lord Clarendon, “The Yankees are most disagreeable Fellows to have to do anything about any American Question….They are on the Spot, strong….totally unscrupulous and dishonest and determined somehow or other to carry their point.” (19)  Foreman’s greatest strength is her descriptive prose that captivates the reader.  She is able to ply historical details and integrate her stories into the narrative at a marvelous rate as each page has portrayed on it another wonderful vignette.  She is able to tell a story that has been told in parts by previous books, but she is able to synthesize her information in creating an immensely readable account that is very fluid and keeps the reader engaged despite the book’s length.

The first few chapters form a review of Anglo-American relations from the conclusion of the War of 1812 through the election of Abraham Lincoln.  Figures as diverse as Charles Dickens, Fanny Trollope, Harriet Beecher Stowe; and numerous politicians such as Charles Sumner and John Bright make their appearance.  Each provides their opinion of Britain or the United States and the tension that existed between the two countries.  What clearly emerges is that most Americans despised the British who they saw as an empire in decline.  From the British perspective, they looked down upon their former countrymen and what seemed to drive British opinion before the war and during its conduct was its hatred of slavery.  British hypocrisy is fully evident since their importation of cotton fueled the profitability of the south’s “peculiar institution.”

(by Frank Vizetelly)

It is clear throughout the book despite certain episodes that Palmerston’s cabinet was united and felt it was imperative for Britain to stay out of the conflict in America once Lincoln was elected.  The Palmerston government had to fight off intense pressure from southern lobbyists and certain British business men and members of Parliament to retain neutrality during the war.  British shipping interests built a number of ships for the south, including the CSS Alabama that in two years “captured or destroyed a total of sixty five U.S. ships, causing more than $5 million worth of losses to the Northern merchant marine trade.” (624)  Throughout the war the British government had to try and prevent blockade runners and ramming ships that were sold to the south from leaving British ports to be turned over to the Confederate navy.  British shipping and Union blockading of the south formed two issues that frustrated all sides and on occasion almost brought England into the conflict or at the very least recognition of the Confederacy.  The Union seizure of two southern diplomats from a British vessel in the Trent Affair was another episode that breeded great distrust between Washington and London.  Once both sides, as in most cases, realized that a working relationship between the Union and the British was much more conducive to the success of their economies accommodations were reached.

Plots abound in Foreman’s presentation.  Smuggling of ships, weapons, food, and supplies from English ports involved numerous characters ranging from the work of James Bulloch, the Chief Confederate secret service agent in England and the architect of Confederate plans to fulfill the needs of the Confederacy to Jacob Thompson, a Colonel in the Confederate army, and the head of clandestine operations in Canada.  Thompson largest operation came in November, 1864 when he wanted to purchase a steamer and convert it into a warship in Guelph, Ontario.  John Yates Beall who conducted terror raids against the north earlier in the war, would captain the ship, renamed the CSS Georgia and would try and sink the USS Michigan and create havoc along Lake Erie against undefended cities from Buffalo to Detroit. The plot failed when Lord Monck, the British Governor-General of Canada had the ship seized and a number of conspirators arrested.  Not to be considered defeated, Thompson when on with another operation this time to set fire to New York City in retaliation for Union army’s torching of buildings in the south.  The operation did set fire to a few hotels and created some panic, but overall it must be categorized as a failure.  Propaganda played a major role in the conflict and the Confederacy supplied millions of dollars to Henry Hotze, sent to London in 1862 and became the editor of the pro-Southern Index to convince the British people and government to recognize and supply the Confederacy.  He was able to befriend William Gladstone, a member of Palmerston’s cabinet and leader of the British opposition to the Tory government as well as the future Prime Minister, who became the Confederate voice for recognition within the British cabinet.  Foreman has a number of detailed descriptions of the spy operations that existed, particularly from the southern point of view.  This material is interesting and entertaining and reflects a different aspect of the war that most do not think about.

(Southern refugees encamped outside Vicksburg, July 1863, by Frank Vizetelly)

Foreman describes all the major battles and their political implications between the states, as well as how they affected British policy toward the war.  Much of this has been told in other monographs, but Foreman’s use of British citizens and their involvement in these battles presents a new and interesting perspective.  Examples include the battlefield and naval illustrations of Frank Vizetelly of Charleston’s harbor channel as Confederates deployed torpedoes, or his illustration of the fall of Fort Fisher as Wilmington fell to union forces, in addition to the many Punch cartoons that are interspersed in the narrative; as well as the opinions offered by William Howard Russell of The Times as he described the southern mindset as one of delusion and naiveté as they dealt with their prospects of victory.  Dr. Charles Mayo’s descriptions of the injuries sustained at Antietam and Gettysburg provide further insights into the concept of total and technological warfare that did not exist before 1861.  On April 2, 1863, Francis Lawley unburdened himself to in a letter to a British MP concerning the bread riots in Richmond.  “The Confederate capital was a microcosm of the many hardships being endured in the south; hunger, and disease were spreading.  Smallpox had invaded the poorer neighborhoods as more refugees arrived…” (424) Lawley further stated after a brief visit to Charleston after the battle of Wilmington, “that the empty streets reminded him of Boccaccio’s description of Florence after the Black Death.” (726)

Federal troops retreating at the first battle of Bull Run, 1861, by Frank Vizetelly)

Foreman delves into the thought processes and analysis of the major characters in the conflict.  She spends a great deal of time trying to explain the actions of Secretary of State Seward as he seemed to alternate between bellicosity and conciliation on a daily basis in dealing with the British.  Less time is spent on Lincoln than in most studies and there is little that is new here, but her portrayal of Jefferson Davis is intriguing as she delves into his personal life and fears as realized by the Spring of 1864 that his policies that were based on achieving British recognition, the pressure from British labor who were suffering because of lost jobs due to a lack of cotton, and the expectation that Robert E. Lee would deliver military victories that would result in independence had all fallen by the wayside.  Foreman has an excellent chapter dealing with Davis’ support for changing northern opinion by raids from Canada that would also provoke a war between the Union and England.  This did not pan out as Palmerston withstood pressure from Parliament to at least mediate the war that would have allowed the south to maintain slavery.  But, it was the slavery issue that the south could never overcome, though Davis, desperate after Sherman had ravaged Savannah and Wilmington was about to collapse on December 27, 1864 sent an emissary to London to offer to abolish slavery in return for recognition of the South.  In reality, the offer was moot once the U.S. House of representatives ratified the 13th Amendment abolishing slavery on all American soil on January 21, 1865.

Foreman brings her narrative to a successful conclusion by providing an update on the lives her main characters following the Civil War.  Further, she goes on to discuss the outstanding issues that remained between the United States and Great Britain.  The negotiations between the two nations were at times contentious but because of the work of Charles Francis Adams and his cohorts settlements were reached.  First, the Treaty of Washington, signed on February 24, 1871  “established two tribunals, one to arbitrate the claims of private individuals against the United States for actions committed during the Civil War, the other to rule on the Alabama claims.” (802)  On September 14, 1872 the tribunal ruled that Britain owed $15.5 million plus interest for the damage caused by Confederate cruisers built and facilitated by the British.   According to Foreman, A WORLD ON FIRE was an attempt “to balance the vast body of work on Anglo-American history in the 1860s with the equally vast material left behind by witnesses and participants in the war—to depict the world as it was seen by Britons in America, Americans in Britain, during a defining moment not just in U.S. history but in the relations between the two countries,” (806)  it is quite obvious that the author has achieved her goal.

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