Book Review: "A World on Fire: An Epic History of Two Nations Divided" by Dr Amanda Foreman


1861: "On the one hand, slavery is bad. On the other hand, cheap cotton from the South keeps the UK economy working."

2022: "On the one hand, invading Ukraine is bad. On the other hand, cheap gas from Russia keeps the UK economy working."

Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose…

This is an incredible book. I knew very little about the American Civil War - this is a thorough history of that bloody event told from the perspective of the UK.

The UK was officially neutral. But that didn't stop hundreds of British subject from joining up to fight on both sides. It also didn't stop frenzied diplomatic efforts to turn the tide in the UK's favour. And that led to incessant lobbying, fake-news, and skulduggery within the realm.

Dr Foreman's book is long and detailed. Perhaps a little too detailed. There are some excellent discussions of battles which - though important to the war - don't really entangle with the British side of the story. The book occasionally gets bogged down in what I consider irrelevant details and diversionary footnotes.

She avoids making moral judgements about the actions of the participants. That isn't to say she "both sides" the war - the South were running an empire based on slavery - but she convincingly points out multiple examples of the moral failings of the Union and the UK.

What I found stunning is just how relevant the events are to the politics of today. Here are a few of the excerpts I found interesting:

he had been so certain that the British and French would intervene as soon as their cotton stocks were low. ‘Ah, yes,’ Benjamin replied, ‘I admit I was mistaken! I did not believe that your government would allow such misery to your operatives, such loss to your manufacturers, or that the people themselves would have borne it.’

and

The US Consuls’ descriptions of the suffering in Lancashire convinced Seward that the British would not hesitate to interfere in the war if the alternative meant starvation across wide swathes of England.

This seems to be exactly where we are with Russia. Will people of the UK continue supporting Ukraine in the face of the economic hardship? It's also interesting to see how President Lincoln used the media to shore up support:

Lincoln had written an eloquent letter to the ‘Workingmen of Manchester’ thanking the cotton workers for their patience and sacrifice. ‘Whatever misfortune may befall your country or my own,’ declared the President, ‘the peace and friendship which now exist between the two nations will be … perpetual.’

Again, very similar to the messages we see from President Zelenskyy.

With regard for the need for propaganda:

With one half of what he threw away in odious espionage I could have bought the British Press … every newspaper writer in London can be purchased, from those of The Times down … I do not mean to say that each would openly take cash; but each will take a consideration suitable to his taste.

and

One of Hotze’s favourite methods was to supply an acquaintance with fresh information, in the shape of a pro-South editorial that required little editing. If the article was printed, Hotze would always insist that the submitter should keep the 10 guinea fee.

I wonder where we are today? Which editors and writers will gladly take foreign emoluments?

The Times newspaper has been publishing for so long, it isn't surprising to find it neck-deep in the bloody bowels of history.

The Times went further and accused Lincoln of inciting the slaves in the South to kill their owners, imagining in graphic terms how the President ‘will appeal to the black blood of the African; he will whisper of the pleasures of spoil and of the gratification of yet fiercer instincts; and when blood begins to flow and shrieks come piercing through the darkness, Mr Lincoln will wait till the rising flames tell that all is consummated, and he will rub his hands and think that revenge is sweet’

This is a repeated theme throughout the book.

It was the news of Stonewall Jackson’s death, however, which made the Confederates spring into action. They were amazed and delighted by the spontaneous outpouring of public grief in England. Newspapers carried long eulogies to the fallen hero; The Times even compared Jackson’s death to Admiral Nelson’s at Trafalgar. Flags flew at half mast at many cotton mills.

Their assessment of the Gettysburg Address was similarly unfavourable

The Times, thought that Lincoln’s speech had been a total failure. English readers were told that the ‘imposing ceremony’ was ‘rendered ludicrous by some of the luckless sallies of that poor President Lincoln’

Of course, at the assassination of Lincoln, the papers went full Princess Diana

The British press was united over the tragedy of Lincoln’s violent death. Newspapers that had routinely criticized the President during his lifetime rushed to praise him.

There is also a look into the psychology of the confederates.

One bag contained the Confederate flag and a pouch filled with Virginian soil. Georgiana intended to give birth with the flag draped symbolically above the bed and the soil placed underneath to ensure that the baby was a true Virginian.

The modern revisionist history that the Civil War wasn't about slavery is undermined by the actions of those at the time:

Address to the Christians throughout the World’. Signed by the ninety-six clergymen of Richmond, Virginia, the ‘Address’ urged fellow Christians to protest against Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation.

There's all sorts of modern parallels. Especially when it comes to hate speech directed at public figures.

Mrs Adams was already pining to leave London when an anonymous letter arrived at the legation:
Dam the Federals
Dam the Confederates
Dam you both
Kill you damned selves for the next 10 years if you like; so much the better for the world and for England. Thus thinks every Englishman with any brains. NB.PS. We’ll cut your throats fast enough afterwards for you if you aint tired of blood, you devils.

While I make no comment on the state of modern politics, there are some… interesting echoes through the ages

The British government’s majorities in both Houses were so slim that Palmerston was desperately casting about for allies. He was furious with Gladstone, who gave a speech in the Commons on 11 May that deeply antagonized the conservative wing of the Liberal Party.

And

There was a national uproar after Palmerston and Russell announced that Britain would not fight alongside the Danes after all. Whether the government’s course was right or wrong mattered less than the obvious fact that it was a complete reversal from the one originally proposed.

Of course, history doesn't repeat. But it does rhyme.

By April 1868 there had been four Prime Ministers in three years: Palmerston, Russell, Derby and Benjamin Disraeli; Adams’s longevity at the legation during a period of such rapid political transition changed his public persona from that of a Yankee crank to a pillar of the diplomatic community.

I also found it grimly amusing that, despite fighting against slavery, the notion of equal rights was far from the mind of the Americans.

The second-class status of the coloured regiments was reflected in their pay for the first two years – which stayed at $7 a month, only just over half the $13 paid to whites – until Congress rectified the inequality.

And

In Manhattan, a delegation of black New Yorkers was denied the right to walk behind Lincoln’s funeral cortège. When the White House intervened, a police escort had to protect the black marchers from the violence of the mob.

As I said, it is a long book - about 1,500 printed pages. I found myself occasionally lost trying to work out whether a person was British, Confederate, Union, or something else. That's probably my failing at knowing how to retain knowledge while reading history. But you can't fault the detail and breadth of sources used.

I found it to be an exemplary history. There is so much that I didn't know about the Civil War. And I was completely ignorant of Britain's role in the affair.


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