‘A World on Fire: Britain’s Crucial Role in the American Civil War’

Amanda Foreman has written a magnificent history of the role played by Britain (and less intensely, other European countries such as France) in the American Civil War. It’s an aspect of American history not often touched on in more general histories of the Civil War era, making Foreman’s book an essential addition to any Civil War or American history library.

It is only a small exaggeration to say that Britain’s crucial role was to play no role at all. The British government, both in London and in the consulate in Washington, D.C., worked very hard indeed to maintain its neutrality. It had to work so hard because both North and South were desperate to claim the support of the former mother country. Confederate leaders were sure that the Union blockade keeping Southern cotton from reaching British textile mills would create an economic crisis that would force Britain to declare its support for the Confederacy.

On the other side, President Lincoln and his cabinet were sure that Britain’s abhorrence of slavery would lead it to declare its support for the Union cause. Such confidence was shaken when they realized that few in Britain believed that the war was being fought to abolish slavery — a belief upheld by the reluctance of Lincoln first to enact and then to enforce the Emancipation Proclamation. An overzealous naval blockade that repeatedly entangled British merchant ships in its web did little to garner Union support either in the halls of Parliament or the streets of Britain.

Although the official British position remained studiously neutral throughout the conflict, Foreman also undertakes to explore the lives of a number of British citizens who took it upon themselves to come to the United States to fight, some for the Union but many more for the Confederacy. Many of these individual soldiers found themselves taking on rather more than they bargained for in their “grand adventure”, and British diplomats were often helpless to extract them from their misadventures.

A World on Fire is painstakingly researched and well written in a style accessible to more than an academic audience. Make no mistake, it is a tome of epic proportions — more than 1,000 pages. In reading, I couldn’t help feeling that the book could have been significantly shortened without detriment to its main thesis by abbreviating or eliminating some of the detailed shot-by-shot battle recreations. There is a plethora of Civil War books that delve exhaustively into military strategy; the extent to which Foreman does the same seems superfluous to the main thread of the story.

Despite that minor quibble, I would highly recommend this book to anyone with an interest in either the Civil War era or the history of British-American relations. Foreman’s scholarship seems impeccable, and her narrative is engaging and thoughtful.