Smoke on the Water

A World on Fire: An Epic History of Two Nations Divided by Amanda Foreman

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. 

His mix of attitudes was characteristic of British opinion in general. The dangerous people in Britain who might well have provoked war with the Union, were the Foreign Secretary, Lord Russell, and the Chancellor of the Exchequer, W. E. Gladstone. They wanted to mediate between the warring parties in company with “Europe”, in the form of France and Russia, as a preliminary recognition of the Confederacy, all with a humanitarian view to ending Lincoln’s bloodthirsty and futile war to overwhelm the South. Russell dreamed of being a counter-Canning, calling an Old World into being to redress the balance of the New. Gladstone worried about the depressed state of his native Lancashire, deprived by Lincoln’s blockade of its key to prosperity and employment, Confederate cotton. It was a mercy to everyone concerned that Cornewall Lewis led a successful resistance to them.

On the American side, amid the din of fighting, there was nothing that could be expected in the way of caution or moderation from among the Confederates. Theirs was a case of passing from a phase of gross over-confidence to a condition of desperation. Their energies were entirely devoted to purchasing the means of an army to stave off the Union, a navy to break the Union blockade, and pleading for recognition from any power that would listen. Napoleon III in France, already deep in Mexican schemes, was willing, but found himself stymied by British reluctance. In Washington, Lincoln did not need to resist any serious equivalents to Russell and Gladstone. He was free to reciprocate, in effect, Britain’s studiously moderate demeanour. Charles Francis Adams at the US Legation in London played much the same enabling part as Lyons in Washington.

The big test here was the Trent affair near the end of 1861. A British mail packet was detained by a Union warship and two passengers, who happened to be Confederate Commissioners on their ways respectively to London and Paris, were abducted and imprisoned. The irony of the affair was that the Union was behaving exactly in the manner of British blockaders in 1812, provoking the US to war.

Britain had a cast-iron case for war had the Union stayed obdurate. Regiments were despatched to reinforce garrisons in British North America (the core of the later Canada). British demands for satisfaction were couched in carefully unprovocative terms. Lincoln responded accordingly. He accepted in the face of vociferously patriotic popular opinion that he had no option other than to apologise and set his captives free.

The Trent affair defined the essence of the care taken by both of the cousins’ sides that there was not going to be, in Secretary of State William Seward’s braggart words, “a world on fire”. That care survived even the exasperation of Washington arising out of British negligence in letting loose from Laing’s yard at Liverpool in 1863, the Alabama and her sister Confederate privateers, who were to cause havoc to Union shipping. The ultimate expression of that note of care was the decision of Charles Francis Adams, leading the US delegation at the International Arbitration Tribunal at Geneva in 1872, not to press for the enormous “indirect” damages caused by Alabama and her sisters. This rescued Britain (in the person, by now, of Gladstone) from having to choose between humiliation or war.

The Foreman juggernaut is not best designed for the purpose of explaining that there never really was going to be “a world on fire”. William Howard Russell, the veteran first “war correspondent” of Crimean fame, well versed in the inwardness of things, responded in an interview to Seward’s words with wry amusement tinged with contempt. What ultimately emerges from this story is the good sense and statesmanship of the few responsible men at the centre of it. The Americans should get most of the credit, since they were the nearest to the fire.

Foreman’s panoramic 941 pages of text bristle with engravings reproduced from sources contemporary to the war. They tell of terror, tragedy, chance, bravery in the field and on the seas: the very stuff, indeed, of epic. They lend somehow a sternly Victorian tone of authenticity and authority. There are excellent maps and plans galore. There are lashings of plates. The apparatus of sources, references and notes is imposing. Yet, oddly, there is no bibliography. 

Foreman occasionally betrays evidence of not being entirely at ease with Victorian high politics. She thinks, for example, that there was a general election in 1866 following the fall of Russell’s ministry. On the other hand, it must be said that her handling of the rather esoteric issue of Cornewall Lewis’s contribution is spot-on. Quibbles in any case leave no trace on this splendid exercise in an epic theme. 

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