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world on fire, a Paperback – 2010
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A review by Anthony T. Riggio (Tony) of the book A World On Fire (Britain’s Crucial Role in the American Civil War) by Amanda Foreman
I purchased this book in the Kindle format from Amazon in July 2014 for $1.99 and saved it for future reading. As I started reading the book, I knew instantly that this was a book I would want in hardbound edition in my library and through an on line used book store, I bought it in hardbound. I continued to read the book on my Kindle as the hardbound edition was too heavy to hold at almost a thousand pages how spoiled we have become with the digital age.
This book is an absolute gem of a work and something as a student of history and this period, never considered the effects the American Civil War had on Great Britain and also the rest of Europe. The Author, Amanda Foreman I had never heard of but her work and research are indicative of an accomplished historian. The characters on the American side were well known to me but the British players in the dramas played out during the war were not as well known to me and the author laid out a compelling and exciting read.
While most students of the Civil War probably knew that the war impacted on England beyond the Trent affair. I guess I knew this but never dwelt on it. The North’s blockade impacted on England’s textile industry as Cotton was a needed raw material. In fact, the blockade resulted in over 400,000 workers being laid off which affected the economy of England. The lack of tobacco impacted on France and other European countries as well.
I never realized that London became a chess board for both Northern and Southern diplomats and spies. Power brokers on both sides lobbied Parliament for its attitude on recognition of the Confederate States of America (CSA) as a nation. Recognition would have given legitimacy to the CSA and impeded the goal to reunite the country. The issue of slavery was an anathema to the people of England but economic issues allowed English capitalists to view it in a more subjective light and in some cases they ran the US blockade to help the South and their own pockets.
While the Trent affair may have sensitized politicians on both sides of the Atlantic, Secretary of State Seward threatened an invasion of Canada. While this threat was handled adroitly, by the members of Parliament, and mainly the efforts of the ambassador to England, Charles Henry Adams, a son and grandson of two former Presidents, we almost had a World War.
One of the surprising things I learned was how many Brits volunteered to fight for both sides, notwithstanding a British prohibition against its citizens becoming involved. England viewed this as a possible violation of its neutrality. Many Brits were able to identify with the Southern society because it resembled England’s sense of Aristocracy, notwithstanding their strong feelings against slavery. They were more easily identified with the Southern sense of aristocracy as opposed to the heterogeneous population mixtures and industrialized capacity of the North.
There was so much historical references that impacted on the world such as Napoleon III’s invasion of Mexico right in the middle of the Civil War in direct contradiction to the firmly established Monroe doctrine. The United States was too preoccupied with its own goals of unification and slavery to object too loudly. Imagine, if the United States had declared war on either France or England the outcomes? We would be a completely different country.
I have to say, I loved reading this book and highly recommend it to any enthusiast of the American Civil War. I gave this book five stars out of five.
Foreman is a citizen of both Britain and the US. She was educated at Sarah Lawrence, Columbia and Oxford. She is refreshingly balanced and objective. The book focuses on Britain's role. In May 1861, Britain declared neutrality. However, it still found itself dragged into the conflict. The attitude of Americans towards Britain in the mid-19th century is a major feature of the book. Foreman said in an interview that "the Anglophobia of Americans was incredible. If you were a politician, all you had to say was 'I hate the English' and your popularity would go up 10 per cent." William Seward, Lincoln's Secretary of State, was Anglophobic. He believed that it was America's manifest destiny to seize Canada. Seward thought a war with Britain would unite North and South so he tried to create one. He felt that the South would forget the quarrel with the North and come to its aid to defeat a common foe. The South was not interested.
Southern cotton was vital to the British economy. The South provided 80% of Britain’s cotton imports and in 1860, cotton represented 38% of Britain's total exports. Britain's cotton supply was initially interrupted by a Southern imposed boycott. Later the Union imposed a blockade. The Confederate states wanted Britain to recognize their independence, and believed that it could force the issue by depriving the country of cotton. Seward warned Britain that "recognition will mean war!" Britain's lawyers advised that it had to acknowledge the South’s belligerent status. Under international law this was required once the North imposed its blockade on the Southern ports. Lincoln’s cabinet, including the Attorney General, did not seem to understand the legal issues and assumed that Britain was being difficult. That said, the North did not declare war.
It was widely assumed in the US that Britain would intervene to maintain its access to Southern cotton. This did not happen. The result was economic hardship in the mill towns of Northern England. More than 400,000 workers either became unemployed or had to work part-time. Britain eventually found cotton elsewhere, in Egypt and India. It remained neutral because it did not want to risk the loss of Canada or its Caribbean colonies.
British patience eventually snapped over the Trent Affair in 1861. Jefferson Davis dispatched two diplomats on a British mail ship from Cuba to Europe. The Trent was stopped near Cuba by the US Navy and the diplomats were removed. The French and British governments informed Lincoln that this action violated international law. However, the Attorney General claimed that the US was within its rights. Britain regarded the affair as an affront to its national honor and prepared for war. It dispatched troops to Canada. Foreman claims that the Union realized that "the ironclad ships of the Royal Navy would smash the wooden ships of the US Navy, the North would be blockaded and its ports destroyed. The Confederacy would in turn sign a free trade agreement with England." The North decided to hand the diplomats back. Lincoln reportedly told Seward “one war at a time.”
Britain was staunchly abolitionist but many of its citizens were sympathetic towards the South. Slavery had always been illegal in Britain and it was abolished throughout the British Empire in 1833. Most Britons did not think there was much to choose between the two sides on the issue of slavery. Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation in 1863 was ambiguous, it only applied to the states in rebellion. Some slave states remained part of the Union. Many Britons, including William Gladstone, convinced themselves that the Confederates would voluntarily end slavery once they had won the war. Many Britons also believed that the South had a just claim of national self-determination. The London Times maintained that the war was a contest for Southern “independence” against Northern “empire.” British views about the North changed decisively in 1865 after the assassination of Lincoln. “Newspapers that had routinely criticized the president during his lifetime, rushed to praise him.”
I would have preferred a shorter book and a more conventional telling of the story. There was more information than I felt I needed. That said, the book is an impressive achievement and an entertaining read.
Britain was "technically" neutral during the war, but in some areas.. far from neutral....especially building raiding vessels for the Confederacy struck a massive blow against the Union merchant... and especially whaling fleets. At the end of the Civil War, some British politicians were expecting to lose Canada to the U.S. over it.
The seizure of a British government vessel carrying Confederate diplomats almost triggered a war... favored my some unrealistic Union politicians. Both sides managed to "dance between the raindrops..." and avoid hostilities.
In the end though, the Confederate States of America proved to be its own worst enemy. It totally misread the situation in Europe, sent arrogant, inadequate diplomats to the two most important assignments. The chances of intervention were never good... and the Confederacy badly played what few cards that it did hold.
Foreman covers this and so much more. You won't be disappointed.