Book Review: Ambivalent Nation: How Britain Imagined the American Civil War


by Hugh Dubrulle

Baton Rouge: LSU Press, 2018. Pp. xiv, 340. Illus., notes, biblio., index. $49.95. ISBN: 0807168807

John Bull Looks at Uncle Sam’s War

Prof. Dubrulle (St. Anselm’s), who has written extensively on British perceptions and reactions to the Civil War in the United States, takes a look at how these perceptions influenced their discussions about and actions during the conflict, and how these helped shape a more nuanced “post-colonial” relationship between the two English-speaking powers.

Dubrulle notes that in the decades after American independence, British perceptions of the new nation were still strongly rooted in the colonial experience, an attitude of superiority and disdain, mixed with concern over their still strong financial interests and the potential American threat to Canada. Life in ante bellum America, as understood by Britons, was derived from accounts by usually prosperous travelers or journalists who had visited the Republic, which tended to stress the “virtues” of the “aristocratic” South and the “vices” of the “democratic” North.

Wartime reporting in the British press tended to favor the South. While tending to dismiss slavery as a “paternalistic” institution, journalists and politicians touted the apparent military superiority of the Confederates. But Dubrulle also notes that there were contrary trends, in part a result of the rise of the “popular press”, as people, particularly among abolitionists and reformers, as well as members of the rising middle classes, strove to sort issues of race, political reform, democracy, nationality, and more. Although for much of the war it appeared that Britain was quite hostile to the Union cause (with some reason during the “Trent Affair), by its end popular sentiment had shifted to the North, a trend reflected most notably by the strong response to the death of Lincoln.

Dubrulle concludes that the war led to a greater respect between the two nations, and arguably foreshadowed the “Special Relationship”, though he tends to overlook a tendency toward an improvement in ties in the decade or so before Secession, as evidenced by the peace resolution of the “Pig War” or the tumultuous reception for the Prince of Wales in 1860..

Ambivalent Nation, a volume in the LSU Press series “Conflicting Worlds: New Dimensions of the American Civil War”, is a good read for anyone with an interest in the potential for British intervention in the Civil War, the international implications of the conflict, and the Anglo-American relationship.


Note: Ambivalent Nation is also available in several e-editions.


Reviewer: A. A. Nofi, Review Editor   

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