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The American Civil War and the Brits
, June 28, 2011
This review is from: A World on Fire: Britain's Crucial Role in the American Civil War (Hardcover)
Amanda Foreman's " World on Fire" twelve years in the making and over 900 pages long, is not for the faint-hearted. It is not "Gone with the Wind" or "War and Peace" as some reviewers have suggested. There are no page-turning romances and women are very minor characters. But for the hard-core history buff, "World on Fire" is in some ways better than these great classic novels. It's plot zigzags among 200 characters -- including farmers, soldiers, cartoonists, politicians and labor leaders. It is gritty, off-center, more alive and more disturbing than these broad ranging novels. Unsentimental and a take-no-prisoners, bracing writing style, "World on Fire" is a work of great richness and descriptive power, a complex treat for those with strong concentration powers who don't mind an often confusing and abruptly changing plot strewn with dozens and dozens of unknown characters.
Foreman's research is prodigious,forthright and robust. It includes eye-opening accounts of poorly planned advances by both Union and Confederate armies, equipment pieced together like childrens' toys, and as always in war stories, countless vignettes of scared, hard-charging soldiers who are ultimately blown apart because of bad officers and bad equipment.
The British part of this story has been, for the most part, untold and unmined. Britain's political elites make it their business to constantly upbraid Lincoln and his Secretary of State, William Henry Seward. Above all, despite loftier proclamations against slavery, they don't want their lucrative cotton business ruined with the South and its slave labor. Former Tory turned Liberal Party leader, William Gladstone's role is eyebrow-raising throughout, as is the bad public relations gambit of the Union army when a famous journalist is unceremoniously drummed out of covering the war by Northern interests, unhappy at his balanced, often provocative coverage. Foreman has commented that she was struck in the course of her research by the large number of Brits who sympathized with the Southern states.
This wonderful, rich history can't be beat in terms of sheer real-life drama, complex, vulnerable characters and a depressed, tortured Cabinet in Washington, D.C. trying to deal with a President who has just lost a son to typhoid fever and a thousand other heart-searing problems. "World on Fire" is certainly worth the hard work.
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