Dangerous hostilities between the United States and Britain ran high during the Civil War
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What was Britain's "crucial role" in the Civil War?
"Just staying out of it," seems the obvious answer. Amanda Foreman, however, reveals how much more there was to the story in "A World on Fire." Her book shows how frighteningly close the Lincoln administration and Queen Victoria's government came to war in the 1860s.
Ms. Foreman, an Oxford-trained historian who lives in New York City, has links to both countries. She makes excellent use of diaries, newspaper accounts, official records and letters to tell the story of American and British personal, diplomatic and military relations during the War Between the States.
"A World on Fire" also provides a broader overview of just how bad things were between the United States and Great Britain during most of Abraham Lincoln's famous four score and seven years. For decade after decade following the American Revolution, the two countries continued to feud over border and trade issues.
Reacting to American invasions in 1775 and 1812, the British built massive fortifications at Quebec City to discourage future U.S. designs on Canada. Then, when the barely United States careened toward a breakup, officials in Washington worried that the British government quickly would recognize Southern secession as a way of weakening a traditional foe.
The chance that minor disagreements would flare into armed conflict was always a concern among clearer thinking diplomats in London and Washington. Possibly the silliest of the disputes described by Ms. Foreman involves an American farmer who in 1859 shot his Canadian neighbor's wandering pig.
That incident happened at a time when the border between Washington state and British Columbia remained undefined. Both countries sent troops to back their claims, with the British ratcheting up the stakes with the dispatch of gunboats. Suddenly realizing that "the two nations could stumble into war over a dead pig," senior diplomats ordered the withdrawal of forces, Ms. Foreman writes.
A much more serious dispute, known as the Trent affair, came two years later when the war between North and South was under way. In November 1861, a Union Navy captain stopped and searched a British mail ship, called the Trent, making prisoners of two Confederate diplomats he found on board. With neither side willing to back down, the United States and Great Britain came very close to fighting a foolish, ill-timed and unnecessary war.
Neither Secretary of State William Seward nor President Lincoln was of much help initially in defusing the crisis. Fortunately Seward's war fever eventually broke. He then worked hard with Lord Lyons, the British minister to Washington, to come up with a deal that ultimately saw the release of the two Southerners but no apology for their capture.
Despite the legacy of bad feeling between the two governments, most British were strongly anti-slavery, Ms. Foreman writes. That public sentiment helped to tip the balance against the British recognition of the Confederacy.
Ms. Foreman concludes that Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation, freeing all slaves in Confederate territory as of Jan. 1, 1863, was the likely death blow to Southern hopes for any European aid. On Dec. 26, 1862, Confederate President Jefferson Davis told state legislators in his home state of Mississippi that they would have to face the larger, more populous and richer Northern states alone. He looked to the Old Testament for cold comfort. " 'Put not your trust in princes,' and rest not your hopes on foreign nations," he told them.
The war, nevertheless, went on for almost two and a half more years and Ms. Foreman's 807-page book has another 450 pages to run.
Ms. Foreman tells plenty of good stories about British citizens from all classes who served in Union or Confederate armies. Those sometimes eager, sometimes reluctant soldiers included a Welshman named Henry Morton Stanley, who was enrolled in, and deserted from, both Southern and Northern armed forces. Mr. Stanley later became world famous as the journalist who in 1871 located Scottish missionary Dr. David Livingstone in Africa.
In an earlier book, Ms. Foreman concentrated on a single aristocratic figure, Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, to give readers insights into selected aspects of 18th-century English life and manners. This time she is working with a sprawling canvas. The resulting book is the literary equivalent of a 19th-century cyclorama painting. Sometimes 40 feet tall and curving back on itself, these battle-scene paintings would fill an entire building.
Ms. Foreman has grafted her unfamiliar story about the role of the British during America's great national drama onto a general history of that conflict. The resulting work certainly is comprehensive. Viewing such paintings and reading such books, however, can prove exhausting.
First Published August 28, 2011 12:00 am