An American Editor

July 24, 2013

On Books: A World on Fire

It has been a long time since I last reviewed a book. It is not that I haven’t been reading; rather, it has been a long time since I read a book worthy of my expending the effort to write a review. Most of what I have been reading would fall into the 3- to 3.5-star category at best. The remainder generally would be 4 stars with a few pushing 4.5 stars. (For a refresher on my rating system, see On Books: Indie eBooks Worth Reading (I).)

At long last, however, I have hit the jackpot with a genuine 5-star book: A World on Fire: Britain’s Crucial Role in the American Civil War by Amanda Foreman (2011; ISBN: 9780375504945).

As long-time readers of this blog know, I like to read nonfiction as well as fiction. Each serves its own purpose for me. Fiction’s role is primarily to entertain me. A particularly well-written novel may stay with me (two good examples are the mystery novels by Vicki Tyley and the historical fiction by Shayne Parkinson, both of whose books I have reviewed; just do a search on their names. Other excellent writers whom I have reviewed can be found by searching for the On Books tag), but its most important function is to be entertaining.

Nonfiction’s purpose, on the other hand, is primarily to educate me. It is a bonus when a nonfiction book not only educates me but entertains me. Such is the case with A World on Fire.

America’s Civil War has been the topic of thousands of books. One would think that, as one would also think true with books about World War II, that by now there was nothing new to discover or learn about the Civil War. But Foreman shows that there is still more to learn about the Civil War.

Rather than repeat the stories of the various battles (was this one more important than that one?), Foreman tackles the diplomatic front, concentrating on England. At the time, England was sympathetic to the Union cause but economically bound to the South. The economic ties were such that it was accepted wisdom that once the Confederacy declared itself an independent nation, it would become one on the world stage because the world powers — primarily Britain, France, Russia — would extend recognition to the Confederacy.

This belief, which was held in both the North and the South and even privately by Lincoln, was based on Britain’s need for the South’s cotton and France’s Southern leanings. More than 4 million Englishmen were economically dependent on Southern cotton (which is what led to Southerners declaring that “cotton is king”. The declaration came about in response to the question of whether Britain would recognize the South as an independent nation or remain neutral). The failure to maintain steady access to cotton would cause a major economic disruption in Britain.

But Britain abhorred the South’s commitment to slavery. It also did not want to encourage rebellion for fear it would encourage rebellion in its own colonies. England was in a diplomatic predicament. It is this story that Foreman tells.

Interestingly, Britain and France had agreed that they would only recognize an independent South together; neither would act on its own. It was this agreement, coupled with Britain’s unwillingness to take sides that kept the South from gaining international standing as a separate country.

What the South wanted was for Britain to break the North’s blockade of Southern ports. Britain was the undisputed naval power and probably the only country that could do so. That could only occur if Britain was not neutral. Britain feared getting involved for many reasons, not least of which was a fear of losing Canada and possibly the Caribbean in a war with the North.

Foreman tells of England’s struggle to remain neutral, and why it was such a struggle. It was not just a struggle philosophically; it was a struggle also because of the ineptitude of William Seward, America’s secretary of state, and Charles Francis Adams, America’s ambassador to the Court of St. James — and because of the South’s refusal to state publicly that slavery would end. Of course, Lincoln hadn’t yet so declared, which posed a quandary for Britain.

Seward believed that if he could make Britain an enemy of the United States, the Southern states would give up their secession to return to the fold and make a unified fight against Britain. Seward also believed that Canada should be part of the United States, not a British colony. Consequently, Seward was always threatening Britain with war and conquest of its North American colonies. The British struggled to deal with him. Adams, who was part of the Adams presidential dynasty, also disliked Britain and let his dislike color his actions.

Seward was also arrogant in his belief of America’s superiority. Contrary to reality, which was that America was, at best, a fifth rate military power, Britain was, by world agreement (except for Seward and much of the anti-British American press), the first-rate military power. Seward’s egotism, arrogance, and belligerence strained British-American relations.

Britain was also crucial to the South. Not only was Britain a primary market for Southern cotton, but the South had neither weapons manufacturing plants (they were all in the North) nor warship-building capability or expertise. Britain had both, and the South wanted access to them; Britain could be a help or a hindrance to the South.

The South also was arrogant. It was the common belief in the South that Britain would do whatever the South wanted because “cotton is king.” The South did not reckon with Britain’s keen antislavery beliefs and how much they shaped British policy toward the Civil War. Even those of the working class who were losing their jobs because of the cotton shortage were disinclined to support the South because of slavery.

Foreman’s coverage of the history of British-American relations during the Civil War is thorough and eminently readable. She writes as if she were a novelist. The prose is fluid and fact-filled. She makes the frustrations of the British, the Union, and the Confederacy seem alive. A World on Fire provides a new-to-me perspective of the Civil War. I found the book hard to put down. I also found it fascinating how much effort Britain and its citizens put into getting Lincoln to view the war as a war of emancipation and how much they pushed the South to give up slavery as a pariah institution.

If you are looking for a different perspective on the American Civil War, this is the book to read. If you are looking for a well-written history, this is the book to read. If you are just looking for a well-written book to read, A World on Fire: Britain’s Crucial Role in the American Civil War is highly recommended.

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