North and South — with Britain watching

Besides famed players like Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee, Foreman also charts the experiences of Britons who fought. Besides famed players like Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee, Foreman also charts the experiences of Britons who fought. (Associated Press/ File)
By Matthew Price
Globe Correspondent / June 19, 2011

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A sprawling, memorable contribution to the teeming ranks of Civil War scholarship, “A World on Fire’’ joins the river of such books due as the nation marks the conflict’s sesquicentennial. Amanda Foreman’s ostensible subject is Great Britain’s complex role in the war, in itself a fascinating if neglected aspect of the conflict; but the messy vastness of her narrative — the book, studded with a monograph’s worth of footnotes, weighs in at more than 950 pages of text — transcends such a narrow categorization.

Twelve years in the making, and written at an incredible level of detail, “A World on Fire’’ is history as a Cecil B. DeMille epic. Ranging from the drawing rooms of Washington and London to the battlefields of Gettysburg and Antietam, to the high seas, and to Confederate and Union home fronts, Foreman has written a diplomatic, military, and social kaleidoscope of the Civil War. She superbly conveys the horror, pathos, and chaos of battle, the political and moral ambiguities, and the devotion of those who fought.

She has also restored an international dimension missing from many histories. The fall of Fort Sumter in April 1861 set off a furious diplomatic contest between North and South for the favors of Great Britain, then the world’s superpower. Britain had a tangle of economic interests in the United States; it was bound to the South by cotton, which kept the British textile industry spinning, and British investors held millions in stocks and securities.

For the Confederate States of America, wooing Britain was a political necessity. As more than a rebellious province but less than a sovereign state, it needed the endorsement of Britain to make good on its bid to be an independent nation. The British government, led by the doughty and ruthlessly pragmatic Lord Palmerston, declared itself neutral, which did nothing to ease relations with either side.

President Lincoln’s combustible secretary of state, William Henry Seward, who loved nothing more than stirring up American Anglophobia, spent much of the war fulminating against perceived British bias toward the South. He liked a good tirade, and was ready to fight, if necessary, a war with both the South and any European ally, making this threat in 1861: “If any European Power provokes a war, we shall not shrink from it.”

If Britain was broadly against slavery, much of that nation’s public looked favorably on the South. Lincoln’s initial refusal to link the war’s aims to the abolition of slavery — his primary objective was to preserve the Union — alienated otherwise progressive opinion. The North was seen as a soulless bully, picking on the plucky South. “The South fight for independence; what do the North fight for,” wondered the British home secretary, George Cornewall Lewis, “except to gratify passion or pride?”

Lewis was not alone in his sentiments. Foreman expertly surveys the full spectrum of opinion in Britain. (The Times ran flagrantly biased pro-Southern reports; when Confederate General Stonewall Jackson was killed at the Battle of Chancellorsville, the paper compared his death to Lord Nelson at Trafalgar). The British Cabinet could not make up its mind on what to do about the South. Neutrality did nothing to deter the flow of Confederate envoys and agents tasked with procuring British guns, materiel, and ships, however. They cleverly exploited every loophole in the neutrality provisions.

Foreman has no bold thesis to advance about the war’s causes or its consequences; her book is only revisionary in the sense that we see the conflict afresh from a myriad of perspectives. She presents an unforgettable cast of characters, some with leading roles and others playing mere walk-on parts. And what characters! Not only Seward, Charles Francis Adams, the American minister in London, President Lincoln, Ulysses S. Grant, William Tecumseh Sherman, and Robert E. Lee, but the many Britons who fought on both sides.

Here Foreman has struck archival gold. A young Welshman named Henry Morton Stanley who sees action at the Battle of Shiloh as a member of Arkansas’s Dixie Grays — he said later “it was the first time that Glory sickened me with its repulsive aspect, and made me suspect it was a glittering lie” — is captured and then re-enlists as . . . a Union soldier. (In an amazing twist, Dr. Livingstone’s son also fought in the war, on the Union side.) And then there is the flamboyant soldier of fortune Sir Percy Wyndham, who rides with the 1st New Jersey Cavalry and fights in Virginia and Pennsylvania. A man of explosive temper, Wyndham would twiddle his formidable moustache when angered — “[t]he twirl of that long moustache,” said the chaplain of Wyndham’s regiment, “was more formidable than a rifle.”

One puts down “A World on Fire’’ with a sense of awe. Foreman’s skill as historian and writer are formidable; yet one is also left with a nagging sense that Foreman does not adequately back up the bold subtitle of her history. Was Britain’s role crucial? This is a harder question to answer. For all their colorful exploits, the British volunteers did not, in a broad, strategic sense, make militarily decisive contributions to either side. And it remains an open question whether the South, if it had in the end won British recognition, could have turned the tide against a fully mobilized North.

Matthew Price, a regular contributor to the Globe, can be reached at

A WORLD ON FIRE: Britain’s Crucial Role in the American Civil War
By Amanda Foreman
Random House, 958 pp., illustrated, $35