Book Review: A World on Fire: Britain's Crucial Role in the American Civil War


by Amanda Foreman

Random House, 2011. Pp. xxxvi, 958. Illus., maps, appends., notes, biblio., index. $35.00. ISBN: 037550494X

In human conflicts, often the parties become mirror images of each other.  In some ways, so went the Anglo-American family dispute during the American Civil War.  For instance, the British were put off because President Abraham Lincoln did not immediately make emancipation a war aim.  On the other hand, in Manchester, England malnourished orphaned child textile laborers worked “interminable” hours, supervised by “overseers who often beat and chained them.” (SY:102).

In her new book, British historian and novelist Amanda Foreman, author of Georgiana: Duchess of Devonshire   and other works, regales readers with tales of this dysfunctional wartime relationship.  She covers not only British-American diplomatic relations and personalities, but the writings and travails of British journalists, such as William Howard Russell of The Times and Frank Vizetelly of the Illustrated London News; the exploits and plots of American envoys and secret agents and undercover Confederate shipping in Britain; and the fortunes and misfortunes of the British volunteers who served in the U. S. and Confederate military services, altogether comprising nearly 200 personages and numerous other topics.

Foreman’s is not deep history: no lengthy socio-political context or analyses, few statistics, somewhat cryptic biographical, battle, and location descriptions.  But the sheer volume of sources that include government dispatches and reports, letters, diaries, memoirs, and newspaper articles provides the depth.

Foreman’s most important contribution is that on diplomatic relations.  We get to know Lord John Russell, British secretary of state for foreign affairs and Lord Lyons, the British ambassador to the United States well.  The views of Charles Francis Adams, the U. S. ambassador to the Court of St. James and his son and private secretary, Henry, are vividly portrayed.  Among those who might be new to readers are such pro-Northerners as the Duke of Argyll, Lord Privy Seal, and William E. Forster, M. P. and pro-Southerner John Laird, M. P., owner of Laird and Sons shipyard of

To this reviewer’s mind, the four most critical sets of events that might have led to British intervention and war were: 1) William Seward’s role in souring Anglo-American relations; 2) the “Trent Affair”; 3) the 1862 British discussions regarding mediation; and 4) the 1863 contretemps regarding the construction of Confederate ironclad rams.

Foreman crafts the view that Secretary of State Seward’s threats of war with Britain and bellicose outbursts helped teeter both nations on the brink on more than one occasion.  In his April 1, 1861, memorandum to Lincoln, the secretary of state advocated using a foreign threat to reconcile North and South, specifically, to “. . . .change the question before the Public from one upon Slavery . . . to one of Patriotism or Union.” (AF:76)  Moreover Seward kept up a virtual drumbeat of insults and aggressive actions.  Harriet Martineau accused him of abetting the passage of the Morrill Tariff Act which greatly disturbed the British.  In October 1861, he announced the North was expelling Robert Bunch, British Consul at Charleston, for holding discussions with Confederates on privateering.  Lord Lyons confided to Russell, “He [Seward] always tries violence in language first. . . and then runs the risk of pledging himself and the nation to violent courses, if he be taken at once at his word.”(AF:160)  By the end of the war, however, Seward had grown to be a statesman and both Russell and Lyons held him in regard, although friction over substantive issues persisted (e.g., Seward’s long sought desire to acquire Canada (hence the 1867 purchase of Alaska Territory).

In May 1861, Queen Victoria quickly issued a declaration of neutrality.  Seward’s bad reputation and actions had affected relations and elite opinion to the extent that both Lords Russell and Lyons felt that to side with the North would be “possibly dangerous with Seward at the helm.” (AF:92)  On the other hand, Foreman ultimately concludes that Seward’s war threats actually helped prevent hostilities, as they allowed British Cabinet ministers to be very clear-minded about possible consequences of crossing the United States.

Foreman chimes in with other historians on how close war came over the Trent affair.  In this U. S. Navy Capt. Charles Wilkes’s crew seized Confederate commissioners John Slidell and James M. Mason, from a British ship on November 8, 1861.  The British Cabinet and  nation erupted in a storm of stung national honor.  The seeming readiness of the ministers to go to war over one relatively minor incident is striking.  Although Prime Minister Lord Palmerston advised Adams the “. . . .Confederates could send an entire fleet of commissioners to England. . .without its having the slightest effect on the British government’s actions,” to risk war over a threatened government mail steamer seems out of line, to say nothing of an overwrought display of belief in an anachronistic code of honor.  The real problem, however, was that the two nations were sparring over two separate issues, that is, the United States over self-defense and Britain over national honor.

Although Lincoln noted that neutral shipping rights was the issue over which America declared war in 1812 against Britain, down to the last moment, he opposed releasing the envoys.  Ultimately Prince Albert and Lord Lyons flew in as doves of peace.  Albert toned down the official British response to what amounted to a request for more information.  However, Lyons was instructed to make clear to Seward that only the release of Slidell and Mason would atone for the offense.  Lyons afforded Seward four extra days to respond to Palmerston’s ultimatum.  Aside from the effect of Seward’s lobbying efforts, Lincoln’s and the Cabinet’s feelings turned after vexed British feelings were made fully known through the arrival of British newspapers; receipt of Adams’s and others’ warning missives, and notice of French support for Britain; the negative reaction of the financial markets; and Lyons’s official meeting with Seward.

Foreman does not go into many details, but the Lincoln administration finally released Slidell and Mason.  Seward replied in writing that Wilkes had acted without orders, but defended the action, quoting legalists Lord Stowell and Vattel who averred that a belligerent may hinder its enemy from “sending ministers to solicit assistance”.  However, per James Madison’s instructions, Wilkes had erred in not bringing Trent before a prize court for adjudication, as these matters “. . . .shall not be decided by the captor.”  Seward argued, partly to appease Northern popular opinion which wildly supported Wilkes, that in this way, the United States’ prisoner release actually constituted a defense of neutral rights. (HJ:106)

As a final note, had hostilities ensued, the United States would have been deprived of "nitre" (postassium nitrate), the major ingredient in explosive powder.  Britain, the Union’s major supplier, embargoed a shipment during the Trent unpleasantness, as Foreman notes.  Yet she seems not to have known that Lincoln was aware of the U. S. nitre supply
shortage, or that a Military Armament Board had made clear that “. . . . not one gun in Northern ports could stop even the most lightly armored British warship.” (RVB:145-150)

In mid-September 1862, U. S. Gen. George B. McClellan halted Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee’s Maryland invasion at the battle of Antietam.  As a result of this longed-for success, Lincoln issued the Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation on the twenty-second.  In Britain, however, many saw the United States acting in a vengeful spirit, using the dictate to punish only Confederate slaveholders (not loyal ones) and threaten slave insurrections.  Confederates were also assuring Britons that slave emancipation would follow their independence, which gained them more pro-Southern supporters.

At the same time, virtually all British were appalled at the mounting battle tolls.  The 23,000 casualties on one day at Antietam equaled British battle losses during the entire Crimean War.  As a result of these cascading pressures, and
feeling it his moral duty to act, Russell scheduled a British cabinet meeting in mid-October to discuss a possible European mediation effort that would include France and possibly Russia.  For the next few weeks, heated discussions, as well as searing memoranda, circulated among the principals.  Notably William Gladstone, who viewed himself as the bearer of the “humanitarian” flag and supported North/South separation, faced off against War Secretary Sir George Cornwall Lewis, a realist, who believed that “The South would not be grateful for the help. . . and the North would swear vengeance on Briton.” (AF:322)  Later he stated that any notion of the Great Powers dictating terms to the American belligerents “‘was
ludicrous’”. (AF:329)  The mediation idea died by the end of November.

Among general readers, the Confederate ironclad threat has been veiled by the romance of Confederate raiders.  Yet Confederate Secretary of the Navy Stephen Mallory’s full strategic vision was to have the raiders do in Northern merchant shipping while ironclads destroyed U. S. blockading squadrons.  The Confederates thus built unarmed vessels in British shipyards, reporting “straw men” as owners.  Then, after the ships had stealthily departed port, crews, guns, and ammunition were loaded from an offshore or foreign location.  In this way, the technicalities of British neutrality laws were used to build Confederate warships.

Confederate naval agent James D. Bulloch had been operating in Britain since May 1861.  In March of 1862, his first raider, Oreto, a. k. a., C. S. S. Florida had departed port, masquerading as a day sailer, replete with women guests.  Then in early September of ’63, Adams learned that one of two ironclad rams had conducted test runs off the Laird Liverpool shipyard.

At this point, the British realized that these charades could no longer go on.  Although Russell was advised by investigators
that there was no real proof the Confederates were the owners, he understood the risk of war over ironclad rams that were observable prima facie evidence of hostile intent.  Meanwhile Adams was in a panic, partly because Russell was initially uncommunicative while he ascertained legalities and facts.  Thus Adams issued a stern warning that if the rams departed and then bombarded New York or Boston, for instance, war would be a certainty.  Finally in October Russell ordered the Royal Navy to seize the rams.  In the spring of 1864, the Admiralty purchased them from the French owner of record who had been fronting for Bulloch.

The above very briefly summarizes these most crucial complex events.  Throughout Foreman’s work her facts are accurate, excepting a few minor errors, and chosen well for criticality; the opinions and amount of background on people and places judicious; her battle explanations clear; her editorial omissions few; and all is written in rather chirpy, marching prose which makes the work entertaining.

The author is aided by amusing anecdotes about, and pithy quotes made by, the actors themselves.  For instance, before Adams was presented at court, he informed his secretary Benjamin Moran that sartorial “‘oddities of any kind’” were to be avoided; thus the American republican black suit was discarded in favor of European brocade and breeches; so that Adams would not appear a servant “caught on the wrong side of the green baize door”, quips Foreman. (AF:97)

Even more amusing is the account of guerrilla John S. Mosby’s 1863 kidnapping of U. S. Brig. Gen. Edwin Stoughton, along with a few officers, enlisted men, and about sixty horses.  This event is usually recorded to showcase Lincoln’s joke that “I can make a better general in five minutes, but the horses cost $125 a piece.”  Yet Mosby’s incursion became Foreman’s subject because his initial abduction target was Col. Sir Percy Wyndham of the 1st New Jersey Cavalry, a British soldier-of-fortune, who evaded capture by being in Washington that night.  The idea, however, that Mosby could penetrate Union lines, ten miles from Washington, blanched officials who tightened security.  Union pickets were ordered to challenge such responses to calls for passwords as “It’s me” and “I’m with the Fourth”. (AF:384-385)

As for composition, the somewhat random – even roaming – subject matter of A World on Fire might not be everyone’s favorite cup of tea.  I wished to canter through the “boots and bugle” accounts of British volunteers, although they were often riveting, to get on with the diplomatic analysis.  Conversely others may be entranced most by the personal military accounts.  The revolving door parade of so many characters can be confusing, however.  Surely, the large collection of prints and photographs, especially reprints of Vizetelly’s superb illustrations, can raise no complaints.

The only two important areas that I wished Foreman had covered more thoroughly were Britain’s seeming rush to issue its neutrality proclamation, which enraged the North, and popular British pro-North public opinion that had to contend with the massive unemployment of cotton textile workers; As of November 1862, 700,000 unemployed workers were
living off charity.

London Consul Freeman H. Morse wrote Seward on January 3, 1863, two days after the final Emancipation Proclamation was issued, that the “. . . .message that the war had a moral purpose seemed to be reaching the British public.” (AF:395)  In London weekly mass emancipation meetings were held and more pro-North books and pamphlets, such as John Elliott Cairnes work, The Slave Power, came on the market.

From the seventeenth century, Britain had really had two cultures, Anglican and Non-Conformist, the latter’s middle classes having religious ties with American evangelicals.  Moran was surprised when on January 14, 1863, his vicar declared during prayers, “Our hearts in this great contest are with the North,” (AF:396) which was received with a deep “amen” from the congregation.  But how solid was this religious support and how did it fold in with working class views that were not uniform?  Moreover, Confederate publicists, Henry Hotze and James Spence, continually lobbied the press and opinion makers and distributed pamphlets and posters, so British and American opinion continued to swing with events and as publications came off the presses.  As of October ’63, Henry Yates Thompson penned his mother that the “fashionable” set in Britain still characterized the North as being “an empire-seeking nation of hypocrites and elevated the South as the last bastion of a preindustrial paradise.” (AF:545)

The above minor deficits notwithstanding, after one completes this tome who can really complain?  Overall Amanda Foreman has done a monumental service, by shining a huge amount of light on the anxieties and actions of the third party to the American Civil War, in a very readable, engrossing fashion.

Sources of Quotes :

RVB = Robert V. Bruce, Lincoln and the Tools of War (Urbana, Ill.: University of Illinois Press, 1989).

AM = Amanda Foreman, A World on Fire: Britain’s Crucial Role in the American Civil War (New York: Random House, 2010).

HJ = Howad Jones, Blue and Gray Diplomacy: Union and Confederate Foreign Relations (Chapel Hill, N. C.: The University of North Carolina Press, 2010).

SY = Stephen Yafa, Cotton: The Biography of a Revolutionary Fiber (New York: Viking Penguin, 2005).


The Reviewer:  A retired lieutenant commander in the Coast Guard Auxiliary, C. Kay Larson’s most recent book is a novel, South Under a Prairie Sky: The Journal of Nell Churchill, US Army Nurse & Scout.  She is also the author of 'Til
I Come Marching Home: A Brief History of American Women in World War II
andGreat Necessities: The Life, Times, and Writings of Anna Ella Carroll, 1815-1894.
Reviewer: C. Kay Larson   

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