Officers of the 114th Pennsylvania Infantry playing cards at Petersburg, Virginia in 1864
Epic? Perhaps. Ambitious, certainly. A touch intimidating, even. One feels as if one is confronted by a kind of literary juggernaut, grinding relentlessly to its destined end. It is reminiscent of the dramatic campaigning styles of General Ulysses S. Grant, dauntingly demanding unconditional surrender at Vicksburg, or Major-General William Tecumseh Sherman, cutting an impressively wide swath of country in his march from Atlanta to the sea. Amanda Foreman, well-known for her Whitbread Prize-winning biography of Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, here sets out to provide a formidably voluminous examination of the ways the Americans looked at the British and the ways the British looked at the Americans at the time of the Civil War between the Union States of the North and the Southern Confederate States of America, 1861-1865.
The drama of the "cousins", naturally, is all on the American side. They were undergoing the ordeal of the Union. They were the actors. The British were the onlookers. It was they who were on the receiving end of recrimination and blame.
Britain's declaration in May 1861 of strict neutrality between the contestants caused an explosion of outrage and resentment in the Northern Union, much exacerbated initially by Lincoln's wild-card appointment as Secretary of State, William Seward, that never quite died away. The Northerners construed neutrality as conceding the rebellious Confederates a moral equality. They expected British sympathy and support. They overlooked the fact that Britain had been the foremost patron of rebels in Europe from Belgium to Italy. They overlooked also that their imposition of a blockade on the Confederacy gave it just as much a semblance of belligerent status as did Britain's neutrality.
Resentment among Confederates was in more of a seething mode. They assumed that "King Cotton" had Britain in his toils, and the British recognition of their sovereign statehood could not long be delayed. One of the great, simple decisive facts of this case is that Britain did not budge from its strict neutrality. It remained thus subject to abuse from both sides, but ultimately did immense service to the victorious Union cause by the cautious expedient of doing its best to keep clear.
The people in Britain most responsible for that unheroic policy were the Prime Minister, Lord Palmerston, and his two most rational and sensible advisers in cabinet, Sir George Cornewall Lewis, the Secretary of State for War, and the Duke of Argyll, a minister in the Lords and one of the foremost figures among the slavery abolition advocates. In Lord Lyons, at the British Legation in Washington, British diplomacy had a practitioner skilled in avoidance of offence. Palmerston despised the Union for its democracy. He deplored with all Free Traders Republican partiality to protectionist tariffs. He was among many of his kind who rejoiced that the great democratic experiment, so lauded by Radicals led by Richard Cobden and John Bright, had seemingly failed. He rejoiced also among many of his kind that the glorious future predicted for the Union as a great world power had seemingly been cancelled by its split. On the other hand, as a veteran suppressor of the slave trade, Palmerston loathed the slave-driving Confederates. He shared the misconceived impatience of much of British opinion at Lincoln's necessarily devious slowness in arriving at full-scale slavery abolition.