Dishonest book reviews

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Dishonest book reviews

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Edited: Sep 21, 2011, 10:55 am

A World on Fire: Britain's Crucial Role in the American Civil War by Amanda Foreman is over 900 pages long

It is more than 90% rehash of the entire Civil War with facts you already know together with accounts of any English, Scots, Welsh, or Canadian individual who had anything to do with the War in any remote capacity.

One thing definitely learned in the book is that Britain had no crucial role in the American Civil War.

I used the book purely as a soporific at bedtime, but would suggest others not waste their time in using it even in that manner.

What staggers me is the praise the book got from reviewers. Of course everyone has their personal taste in aesthetics and ice cream, but the reviews simply do not measure up to the book. Yes, I know you are thinking that if all the reviewers loved it that much I must be wrong, however, I defy anyone to read this book and come away with a positive review.

How in the world do book reviewers get away with such total misrepresentation?

Note, the reviews are listed below but only the last sentence of the last review gives a hint of what is in store for the reader of the book with the understated comment... "occasionally toilsome to read."

Have you ever read a book review that you could not believe even the remote possibility of the reviewer actually having read the book?



Praise from the U.K. for A World on Fire


“A World on Fire is an achievement as enjoyable as it is impressive. As in a great nineteenth-century novel, a teeming cast propels this epic—the gallant and the craven, scoundrels and lovers, diplomats and freebooters—some helplessly caught in the gale, others with their hands firmly on the levers of power. Charles Dickens appears in this book; had he been an historian he might well have written it.”—Richard Snow, editor, American Heritage, 1990–2007

“This is a tale never previously told.”—Stephen Graubard, Financial Times

“Riveting . . . The reader is swept along. . . . One can hardly overestimate the brilliance of Foreman’s conception. . . . A shimmering tapestry.”—Jay Parini, The Guardian

“Amanda Foreman’s magnificent new book . . . resembles nothing so much as War and Peace.”—Adam I. P. Smith, History Today

“A real-life Gone with the Wind . . . extraordinarily rich, racy and poignant . . . an iridescent book.”—Antonia Fraser, The Mail on Sunday

“Magnificent . . . a completely fresh perspective on the first great modern conflict.”—Antony Beevor, author of D-Day: The Battle for Normandy

“The scale of Ms. Foreman’s book is epic.”—The Economist


Publishers Weekly

In a dramatic change of pace, Foreman, author of the bestselling Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, fulfills her goal of capturing "the many relationships that together formed the British-American experience during the Civil War," from diplomatic maneuvers on both sides of the Atlantic to the sagas of British volunteers in the Union and Confederate armies. Weaving eyewitness accounts into an overview of the war's progress is tricky, particularly since Foreman includes vivid personality sketches of a very large cast of characters. But her massive text slowly comes into focus as we get to know such British participants as Illustrated London News correspondent Frank Vizetelly, whose wartime drawings are the book's visual highlight, and feisty Americans abroad, like Confederate propagandist Henry Hotze, whose masterful manipulation of the English press helped win the South sympathizers in a country where detestation of slavery was nearly universal. The North, meanwhile, struggled to repair relations after the 1861 seizure of two Confederate agents from a British ship. Whether Britain's role in the Civil War was "crucial" remains debatable, but Foreman amply offers a new perspective on the war in an elegantly written work of old-fashioned narrative history. 32 pages of b&w photos; photos throughout; maps. (June)
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Library Journal

Whitbread Prize winner Foreman (visiting research fellow, Queen Mary, Univ. of London; Georgiana: Duchess of Devonshire) weighs in with a big book rich in description and strong in narrative, with a large cast of characters that includes British nobles and American statesmen jockeying for power, British journalists reporting the war, and Englishmen and Irishmen fighting, respectively, with the Union and Confederate armies in what they regarded as noble causes. Foreman's special strength is tracking the social relationships that bound together, or estranged, the movers and shakers in London and Washington, with keen insights on the political maneuverings that kept England out of the war. If her minibiographies sometimes overwhelm the narrative and her battle accounts distract in their detail, her deftly drawn vignettes remind readers that personal concerns and personalities informed policy as much as national identity and interest. VERDICT The result is a very good read and a grand panorama of the war on land and sea, in the press, and in drawing rooms and public assemblies on both sides of the Atlantic. Highly recommended for all students of the Civil War, buffs and scholars alike, and anyone wanting to understand the complicated world of Anglo-American relations. See Prepub Alert, 11/29/10.—Randall M. Miller, Saint Joseph's Univ., Philadelphia
Less Reviews
Kirkus Reviews

Exhaustive record of Britain's growing alarm at the escalating American Civil War and outright sympathy and shelter for the Confederacy.

The Civil War exacerbated old grievances still rankling between the United States and England, which held the moral high ground on slavery and disdained American "exceptionalism." Whitbread Prize–winning historian Foreman (Georgiana: Duchess of Devonshire, 1999) embraces a vast enterprise, from the buildup to war to the aftermath, and does not fail to amplify in a leisurely narrative fashion all facets of the complicated British and American relationship, including diplomatic, political and military. The author also features accounts by countless other observers, pro-Confederate and pro-Union. English textile mills relied on Southern cotton, while the South leaned on British finance to manage its debt crisis; with the Union blockade of Confederate ports from April 1860 onward, the U.S. and England approached war with each other. Public opinion ran hot or cold, depending on dispatches by journalists such as William Howard Russell forThe Timesand artistic renderings by Frank Vizetelly (he was present during Jefferson Davis' last days as a fugitive). After President Lincoln's assassination, the British press underwent a thorough self-castigation for its pro-Southern coverage. With General Lee's victory at Bull Run, and subsequent march north, the Confederacy anticipated the British gesture of Southern Recognition. Despite avowed British neutrality, the North widely believed that Britain was supporting the Confederacy's blockade-running efforts. Yet the Southern defeat at Antietam began to reveal great holes in Lee's army, and the British could never entirely shake their abhorrence to slavery—leaving the South to its "utter isolation." Foreman's dense narrative ably—but lengthily—reveals the passions that this war aroused overseas.

A staggering work of research, occasionally toilsome to read.

Sep 21, 2011, 12:29 pm

The reviewer from The New Yorker (Hendrik Hertzberg) says "the pages fly like the wind". Of course, he also compares it to "those room-size, panoramic oil paintings of historical or mythological events" that were popular in the 1800s - which, at least in my view, doesn't bode well.

One thing definitely learned in the book is that Britain had no crucial role in the American Civil War.

According to Hertzberg's review, the book's title was changed for the U.S. edition (that again!). In England, the subtitle was: "An Epic History of Two Nations Divided".

It is more than 90% rehash of the entire Civil War with facts you already know

Let's suppose someone doesn't know much about the topic. Would this book be helpful to that person? Would he learn something?

Sep 21, 2011, 1:23 pm

Reviews, by their nature, are mostly subjective. Although attention to factual details can be treated objectively, whether or not someone likes a book is purely a matter of taste. (cf Gone With the Wind, an enormously popular book...but not with me.)

The best reviewers (from a personal standpoint) are those you mostly agree with...or mostly disagree with.

Sep 21, 2011, 5:52 pm

First of all some very basic points:

1-If one were to put me on a scale at one side and on the other have as a counter weight: American Heritage, Financial Times, The Guardian, Antonia Fraser, History Today, The Mail on Sunday, and the Economist, then I would Definitely choose those guys and not me. Honestly! But in this case they are wrong.

2-I do not mind LONG books; I like Long books. I am not at all bothered by length. I have read War and Peace four times at 15 year intervals and love it as well as Gone with the Wind. I like long. But long and aimless wandering is simply not responsible.

3-The fact that it shows clearly that Britain played no "Crucial Role in the American Civil War" and the fact that it just follows anyone of British ancestry that thought about or had anything to do with the Civil War is simply an exercise in very poor judgement and a waste of perfectly healthy trees. A whole lot of very healthy, beautiful trees had to be sacrificed so this Foreman could get her kicks.

>2 lilithcat: lilithcat
Well changing the title is at least a step in the right direction.

In answer to the question:

Let's suppose someone doesn't know much about the topic. Would this book be helpful to that person? Would he learn something?

Yes they would but certainly in learning some material they would miss out on so very much that is presented better elsewhere..

>3 BruceCoulson: Bruce
When you say that "Reviews, by their nature, are mostly subjective" I agree. But this is different

When one review says

“Amanda Foreman’s magnificent new book . . . resembles nothing so much as War and Peace.”

It simply does not. As mentioned above, I have read War and Peace four times at 15 year intervals and love it; truly love it.
Are both books about war? Yes. But there the similarity comes to an abrupt halt. I spent many years as a sculptor but that does not make me a Michelangelo. Please do not even mention War and Peace on the same day that you talk about this Foreman book. Even Tolstoy believed in the importance of thinking seriously about historiography; and he wrote accordingly.

I guess what gets me fuming is that there are so many people in this particular History Group and elsewhere who really care about the writing and researching of History and could have chosen topics that they could have treated in truly brilliant fashion. But we will never hear from those people. Those people who respect history and the responsibility it entails will never get the big book contract or raving reviews, as this book got.

I saw Foreman on the Tavis Smiley TV program and was impressed by how she handled herself. Very blond, charming, quick, and knowledgeable; and knew her facts. So, I read the book. Maybe there is more to writing history than being blond, charming, quick, and knowing facts.

PLEASE, Somebody! Anybody!!! Read the book! Tell me where I am wrong!

In the meantime I submit that the wonderful people in this group have far more important titles on their TBR pile and that they should proceed with those.


Sep 21, 2011, 6:18 pm

>1 Urquhart: You might consider the fact that the book was written for a British audience which needs the context. For the 150th anniversary, British audiences basically have the choice between this book, McPherson's classic and the effort of the decaying John Keegan. Of the three books, Foreman offers the most new insights and also catches a female audience (the purpose of the Antonia Fraser blurb, the references to Gone with the Wind etc should flag the same issue: While it is a book about a war, women will enjoy reading it too - it is no novel though. This is a somewhat bad marketing move to catch the readers of Foreman's previous book. As the book is clearly placed in the Non-Fiction section, few will mistake this book for a novel.).

Most American Civil War books suffer from extreme insularity and ignorance about other world events around that time, leading to a large host of false USA! USA! memes (eg for those considering the Civil War especially bloody, I'd like to point you to the Paraguayan War). Foreman does a stellar job (based on ten years of research) in integrating the Anglo-American perspective.

The page count is daunting. The reading process is a joy, though - although written in a European style expecting some mental acuity from the reader. The book is filled with little anecdotes that in 150 years' time, many similarities remain. Thus, her mention of the US refusal to join an international convention because the US wanted to preserve its right to piracy immediately rings a bell about current US efforts to preserve its God given right to be the most energy-inefficient country in the world. Or US Secretary of State Seward's crazy idea to start a war with Canada to unite a divided country reminds me of Wag the Dog. The British get roasted too. Following the news, difficult for most Americans, helps to increase the enjoyment of the book.

1: "One thing definitely learned in the book is that Britain had no crucial role in the American Civil War."
If that is your lesson learned, I might suggest you re-read the book, as this is definitively not the author's opinion.

A. Britain kept the crazy French Emperor from supporting the South. He was prone to colonial adventures (see the crazy Austrian archduke shot in Mexico) A Lafayette Kodak moment would have been perfect for him. One or two crack French divisions in 1862 at Shiloh or the Seven Days might have led to defeats and peace talks.

B. Britain could have financed the South.
C. Britain could have sent its navy to protect cotton imports.
D. Britain could have reacted to any of the many unnecessary US provocations.

Instead, like a good friend, Britain stood by the North, absorbed the petty blows and unkind words, and hoped for a speedy recovery. (At least, that is my impression after the first third of the text.)

Sep 21, 2011, 6:26 pm

Yes they would but certainly in learning some material they would miss out on so very much that is presented better elsewhere.

What would you suggest as an alternative?

(I ask because I don't know a lot about this aspect of the Civil war and the review in The New Yorker intrigued me, so I'm considering reading her book.)

Edited: Sep 22, 2011, 4:01 pm

>5 jcbrunner: jcbrunner

Many thanks for your comments; this group is in great need of comments from people outside the USA, so I value your comments especially.

Many points to be made, so herewith just a few comments.

1-My sense is that you have read the first part of the book. So when you finish the book and look back could you explain the Antonia Fraser, comment in The Mail on Sunday that alludes to the book being "racy". In the US, the term racy has sexual innuendos to it. I love racy but don't remember any racy tidbits. Of course, absent any racy tidbits, her review becomes simply inaccurate. Would you agree? I will await your finishing the book on that issue.

2-"Instead, like a good friend, Britain stood by the North,"

Really? I think your views on this will change as you read on. Actually Britain awarded the Confederacy "belligerent status" and in doing so allowed the Confederates to operate freely in Britain. Everything from buying ships, etc. to help the Rebel cause.

Towards the last chapter it is mentioned that through out the four years of the Civil War Lord Palmerston worked hard to remain neutral and then said as much at the end of the war, even though no official declaration of neutrality was made during that time. Britain of course did not want to lose its source of cotton.

There was a tremendous amount of popular sentiment in support of the South as you will see; even though for the most part Britain could never really stomach the slave cause that the South held so dear.

3-Also your point that

B. Britain could have financed the South.
C. Britain could have sent its navy to protect cotton imports.
D. Britain could have reacted to any of the many unnecessary US provocations.

just substantiates the neutral position that it took in not acting and seeking to remain neutral.

4-When you say the book is "written in a European style expecting some mental acuity from the reader. " Could you please expand on this topic? It implies a lot and I really do want to learn and welcome a more cosmopolitan perspective that I am most probably lacking.

5-When you say that "The book is filled with little anecdotes" I think you go to the heart of the book and Foreman's sense of history. She sees history as a stacking up of anecdotes of different people's lives from different social strata. Possibly one might call it the history as biography school. More specifically she follows, the British Ambassador (Lyons), British newsmen and an illustrator or painter and recounts what their experiences were, as well as a very long list of other people. Everything is anecdotal; and as you will see by the end of the book, the stacking up of so many anecdotes of so very many people who have nothing to do with shaping the final outcome of the war does become wearisome.

But more significantly her methodology shows me a failure to shape her material; or to choose the more salient characters and incidents. Rather she has gone through all the requisite archives and seems to be stacking up anecdote after anecdote and then doing a data dump on all people of British ancestry as they interacted with the Civil War. It is as if she is being paid for sheer quantity rather than quality of analysis that might help the reader understand better the forces and people who did shaped the events of the Civil War.

If she has a thesis that Britain had a "Crucial Role in the American Civil War" she has not proven by what she has presented.

And yet in all fairness I will say that the woman can write in a very fluid style; no problem there. Maybe if her editor had cut two thirds of the material the book would appear more meaty and less flaccid.

In hopes of becoming more cosmopolitan in perspective by hearing from you as you proceed.....


Sep 21, 2011, 8:15 pm

>6 lilithcat: lilithcat

I tried to access the article you spoke of in the New Yorker however I don't seem to get through to it. Do you have a URL you could suggest for it?

In answer to your question as to other sources, I would of course suggest there are many wiser than I on this forum who could come up with a good list of titles however you may wish to try:

Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (Oxford History of the United States), by James M. McPherson in one volume.

Shelby Foote, Jr. was an American historian and novelist who wrote The Civil War: A Narrative, a massive, three-volume history of the war.

Sep 21, 2011, 11:17 pm

I checked their website - apparently only an abstract is available unless you're a subscriber.

Sep 22, 2011, 10:41 am

From reading Karl Marx's contributions in An Unfinished Revolution: Karl Marx and Abraham Lincoln I learned that England not only had economic interests in seeing the South win they also had strategic interests. As two nations the industrial North and the agricultural South would not present the challenge to England's dominance that they otherwise did. Abolitionist forces successfully worked to prevent intervention.

That is one point that I found surprising. England had abolished slavery in the empire a generation before. I know that self emancipated American Bondsmen and women traveled to England and wrote and spoke against slavery but I am not sure that was enough to keep anti-slavery sentiment influential enough on its own to stop intervention on the part of the South.

To get back to the book in question I am not sure if I am interested enough in fleshing out my knowledge of the subject to wade through 900+ pages.

Ur, perhaps you are thinking that Britain's inaction equals irrelevance? Not getting an education plays a critical role in determining a persons earning ability. By not aiding the South Britain effectively aided the North.

Sep 22, 2011, 1:25 pm

There's some evidence that the anti-slavery forces did influence Great Britain's eventual decision to be 'non-committal' regarding the Civil War. I'm not sure this book would be the best source of information concerning the matter, though.

Edited: Sep 22, 2011, 10:45 pm

To JC Brunner.....

One of the real privileges of LibraryThing is that it provides the opportunity to learn from those more knowledgeable than myself and I believe the discussion we have underway will prove a case in point for me.

More specifically, you have read in your library almost more books (231) on the Civil War topic alone than I have in my entire library(261). So I will do my best to address the issues at hand; not to be intimidated by you, but seek rather to listen and learn while I make my points.

With that said I humbly submit again, sir. you are wrong about Amanda Foreman's book.

In summary, the book was:

1- a rehash of facts, for the most part, already widely written about on the Civil War and is,

2-a data dump of anecdotes, from archives on people of the time who, with a few exceptions and for the most part, did not play significant parts in shaping the final outcome of the war, and

3-in its 900 pages unable to prove clearly 'Britain's Crucial Role in the American Civil War', and

4-did willfully and knowingly enter into agreements and contracts, both private and public, that she fully knew would cause the death of countless numbers of perfectly vigorous and healthy trees through the publication of this 900 page book and in doing so increased her carbon footprint beyond that point which should be allowed or permitted to any responsible individual.


Sep 22, 2011, 8:21 pm

>12 Urquhart:
Well - blame the publisher for the subtitle (and the word Crucial there) - the book was originally published in UK for the non-US readers -- and was not even hinting at it being crucial. You cannot blame the author and the book for something which was never the intention of the book. And you seem to be putting this fact as a huge part of your disappointment... A few years ago I stopped looking and trusting subtitles in history books (especially when publishers change them) -- way too often it is a question of what would sell and not of what the book is really about,

Which also explains the rehash -- maybe it is a rehash for a US reader -- but for anyone outside of the States, the facts are not really that familiar.

Are there better books for the Civil War? I would believe you that there are -- I am not reading about it often enough to judge. But there other books, accessible for non-Americans that present the information better for non-Americans? That part I am not so sure about and I doubt that I will be able to answer even after I read the book (it is not my TBR pile) -- simply because I had not read enough about it.

As for it being data dump from small archives -- there seem to be a new school in the history writing where major and well known events are presented through the lives and the stories of almost nobodies - people that had not been tapped for information so far' people that had been almost ignored in the past. I personally like this -- it gives a lot of information that cannot be found in the big books and it also gives a fresh viewpoint into well known facts... We cannot just dismiss anything said by anyone that is not important... history is made by all people, not just by ones that make the decisions.

And I need to ask - if it was a rehash of known data, how could it have been a data dump of unknown archives? Don't get me wrong here -- but both things just cannot be through at the same time. If these archives are showing the same things that we know already, maybe it is simply because most US people had already seen all that is to be seen about that particular war...

PS: And now I need to go and pull this book at the top of my reading list (or close to the top) so I can actually see what all the fuss is about...

Sep 27, 2011, 7:04 pm

I concur with what Annie said.

Most of the confusion seems to be arising from Antonia Fraser's mistaken blurb. Reading the full review on the author's website, it is apparent that Ms Fraser's review was strongly influenced by the Keira Knightley vehicle The Duchess, based on the author's earlier book. That film isn't racy either. YMMV, especially in Nipplegate USA.

Comparing books about the American Civil War to War and Peace has become a topos. In David Blight's new book about four literati writing about the Civil War during the Centennial, American Oracle, Bruce Catton is said to have written an American "War and Peace" not once but twice by reviewers, even though he wrote non-fiction. I'd approach it with the "real chicken" ads for dog food whose actual meat content is all of four percent (thankfully for canine health).

Having now read up to 1863, I think the book is a good choice for European readers wanting to learn about the American Civil War but a strange choice for American readers. This is due to the book's style. It is written like many books about the Iraq War (e.g. Tom Ricks' books) that feature hardly any Iraqis. It is the American Civil War as experienced and lived through by Englishmen, featuring some Americans.

Foreman's book shifts the action to the Atlantic seaboard and London. America's heartland is de-emphasized. American protagonists appear for shock effect and as a conversation starter for Englishmen (Enter Beast Butler. Butler: Grrrr! Exit Butler.). Thus, I vehemently deny the charge of a rehash, as the shift offers a new perspective, and she dramatically re-cuts the material (the Peninsula campaign hardly features at all). Whether Americans will recognize "their" war is another question.

Edited: Sep 27, 2011, 10:48 pm

>14 jcbrunner: jcbrunner

Am glad to hear you have not given up on the book, yet. With all the books you have in your library and that I sense you have read on the Civil War, I would have thought the rehash of Butler, et. al. would have been a bit tedious.

Actually, in all fairness to you I would respectfully request we wait to discuss it until you finish it. That way you will be able to be properly prepared on the issues rather than just just partially so, up to 1863.

Also, in all fairness I must admit I have returned the book to the library. I have neither the finances to buy as many books as you do, nor have the size house to accommodate the size of library that you have. However, I greatly admire your having both and having studied the topic in such detail in so many books. Sounds as if I can learn a lot from you.......

Having said that, the absence of that book in my possession should not in anyway limit our future discussion of the issues I have raised.


Sep 27, 2011, 9:53 pm

> 14

It is the American Civil War as experienced and lived through by Englishmen, featuring some Americans.

Now, see, that's just what would make it interesting to me, an American reader, the view from a different and unexpected angle. (ouch! sorry for the bad, and definitely unintended, pun!)

Sep 27, 2011, 10:38 pm

>16 lilithcat: lilithcat

Wonderful; no problem. Would be glad to discuss it after you have read it.

The price of admission......... :-)


Edited: Sep 28, 2011, 12:19 pm

Just for the record, I find the point mentioned above rather interesting when it comes to the title of this book:

A World on Fire: Britain's Crucial Role in the American Civil War by Amanda Foreman

A world on fire : an epic history of two nations divided by Amanda Foreman

I of course read the one entitled A World on Fire: Britain's Crucial Role in the American Civil War.

They seem to be selling both titles on this side of the ocean. Other people list this second book in their libraries here at LibraryThing and both titles are being sold by Amazon.

My book was taken out of a public library in NY State.

Does selling a book under two different titles at the same time in the same country happen often?

In this case the titles do imply real differences of content.


Sep 27, 2011, 11:26 pm

> 18

In fact, it's not all that rare for U.K. and U.S. editions of the same book to have different titles. A good recent example of that is Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone, which was published in the U.S. as Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone.

I have a couple of examples of this in my library: Dan Leno and the Limehouse Golem, by Peter Ackroyd, was published in the U.S. as The Trial of Elizabeth Cree, and P.G. Wodehouse's Aunts aren't Gentlemen was published here as The Cat-Nappers. I can understand that a publisher might think that Americans wouldn't understand the references to an English music hall player and a seedy area of London, but I don't get the change in the Wodehouse title.

Sep 28, 2011, 3:29 pm

>14 jcbrunner:

You are probably right about War and Peace - anything over a certain threshold (700 pages? 600 pages?) seem to be compared with it. And it becomes almost a house name for "long narrative that includes a lot of people and actions".

Sep 28, 2011, 5:54 pm

The best character in the book, by the way, is actually an American. The basement dwelling misanthropic factotum of the American Legation in London, Benjamin Moran.

Regarding US book titles, the most important factor seems to be suitability for keyword searches and some filler hyperbole (first, last, crucial, decisive, ...). I'd be interested to know whether the often wittier European titles actually harm book sales.

In Europe, we are fortunately half a publishing cycle ahead: The A World on Fire paperback at around 10 EUR is quite good value given the amount of pages filled. Books in general are cheap (academic and art titles excepted). Amazon and Boookdepository often deep-discount pre-publication titles, allowing me to snag many Civil War hardbacks at near paperback prices (12 EUR). For many used books one pays only S&H. For only 5 EUR, The Pursuit of a Dream about Jefferson Davis' brother's socialist model plantation slave community at Davis Bend, MS, is in transit across the Atlantic.

Most book lovers buy a lot more books than they can ever read. The true bottleneck is reading time. Even if one allocates only a minimum wage opportunity cost, the calculatory time spent reading costs much more than the cost of the book itself (thus, I remain puzzled about the success of the early reviewers program. The ten bucks saved shouldn't affect your reading queue.).

Sep 28, 2011, 6:46 pm

If you get a 'free' book, with the proviso that you're supposed to read it quickly and provide a review, most people will try to comply and read the review book first.

Edited: Sep 29, 2011, 11:07 am

>21 jcbrunner: JC Brunner said

"Most book lovers buy a lot more books than they can ever read. "

Not me; I have neither the money, nor library space to go that route, although I wish I did. Your strategy does sound appealing.

Jean-Claude, if I may

1- out of the 233 books on Civil War in your library, how many have you read?

2-have you read all the over 100 Civil War books that you have starred in your library?

3-and at what point in your reading of this Amanda Foreman book did you award the book 4 stars?

For the record, I only list books in my librarything that I have read.



Sep 29, 2011, 5:26 pm

>23 Urquhart: Sorry to hear that. While moving a large library is quite a pain, I love living in rooms filled with books, books that I have a connection to. Wherever I am staying, books tend to accumulate. Hotel rooms with a stack of books become much more human. I hope that the transition to ebooks will solve some of the space problem, my library being double and triple-stacked (although it is horrible to keep stock of one' collection of ebooks on different devices. One crazy side-effect of the transition to ebooks is locking me out of Civil War titles due to country restrictions. A special place in hell is reserved for those locking Civil War movie/documentary DVD's to Region 1, vastly overestimating their international appeal.).

Given that I have now been collecting and reading Civil War books for close to a quarter century, buying ten Civil War books a year sounds quite a modest habit to me. From my around 240 Civil War books, LT informs me that I marked 165 as read and 24 as reference and 8 as currently-reading, so a considerable part of it has actually been read. Even most of the books marked to-read I usually have read the first 50 pages and fondled the book. If I have starred a book, I have read it.

Re stars: A 4 stars book is a book I very much enjoyed reading. Four stars is what I expect from a book I buy and recommend. 3 and 3.5 stars books usually lack some quality I desire (research, writing), while 4.5 and 5 are books I greatly admire. I tend to be cautious in handing out 5s (some have been grandfathered in). Jung Chang's Mao biography is a recent example of a true 5 star book.

Foreman's book fits my 4 stars category: A highly enjoyable, well written and well researched book that I can recommend without reservation. As I said up-thread, Americans might enjoy McPherson's classic more. On the other hand, Foreman's book offers a new perspective that is all too often missing from the inward-looking Civil War community.

I tend to mark the stars as soon as I have a feeling for a book, revising it as reading progresses. I have not yet marked Blight's book American Oracle as I have only read two out of four essays. If the third essay matches the quality of the first two, I will award my stars. I do this, however, mostly for myself.

Edited: Sep 29, 2011, 5:55 pm

>24 jcbrunner:

JC, let's face it, you are a very nice person. Only a nice person could give four stars to a book that they have not finished, as you do when you say......

Four stars is what I expect from a book I buy and recommend.

For me, reading a book is a little like watching a play: I have to go through the whole play before I can say what I think of it. And yes, there are books that I think are totally worthless that I determine not to finish and therefore do not waste my time and add to my library.

When you say:

Jung Chang's Mao biography is a recent example of a true 5 star book.

you make me hungry. I had the book in my hand last week and was thinking of reading it....I like LONG; however I went with Washington, A Life instead. Maybe Mao will be next.

I was thinking of using an ebook reader, but so very many of the books I read are not in ebooks format; I dropped the idea.

So far in our conversation, it has become apparent that you have read one very large number of books on the Civil War and I am going to have to work hard not to be too clumsy in our conversation.

How much longer til you finish the book? Don't rush it. Maybe a month?

Sep 29, 2011, 8:57 pm

>21 jcbrunner: "Most book lovers buy a lot more books than they can ever read. The true bottleneck is reading time."

Truer words have never been spoken.

Oct 1, 2011, 9:24 pm

Ur, I have to say I'm surprised by the emotional force behind your indictment of Amanda Foreman. It seems to be based on more than the fact that the book did not live up to your expectations. If I could try to sum up the bill of indictments:

1. No new interpretation: It failed to offer new insight into the causes, etc. of the American Civil War. Specifically, you expected her to demonstrate that the United Kingdom played a "crucial" role in the Civil War, which she not only failed to do; she didn't even make a credible attempt at it.

2. Reviewers gushed over it: Antonia Fraser called it "racy," which it isn't. The History Today review compared it to War and Peace, which it does not even remotely resemble. These swooning blurbs prompted you to criticize the reviewers as "dishonest" as you launched this thread.

3. It’s a rehash of facts: Nothing was said here — nothing of importance, anyway — that has not been said better by American historians of the American Civil War.

4. It’s a mass of anecdotes: Foreman’s use of anecdotes about individuals strikes you as a “data dump” that implies “a failure to shape her material,” to draw comparisons, or to interpret evidence.

(I left out the complaint about the killing of trees, as I inferred that you wouldn’t object to the use of paper if you had thought better of the book.)

Now I'll switch roles and argue for the defense.

1. No new interpretation: I think we've established that Ms. Foreman did not intend to offer a new interpretation. Her American publisher inserted the "crucial" subtitle in a bid to move merchandise. You would be justified in resenting this, not only because you bought the book under false pretenses, but because you were then disposed to weigh the book's merits by a standard the author never intended to try to meet.

But your resentment is properly directed at the publisher, not the author. (FWIW even academic presses are often guilty of trying to juice up their titles in this way. Monographs with a local or regional focus are too often given titles that make them seem to apply much more broadly.)

2. Reviewers gushed over it: Well, they certainly provided blurbs that could be used to market the book. In the longer excerpts you provided, however, there are notes of criticism amidst the praise:

* “Whether Britain's role in the Civil War was ‘crucial’ remains debatable.…” — Publisher’s Weekly, getting a dig in at the subtitle

* “…her minibiographies sometimes overwhelm the narrative and her battle accounts distract in their detail…” — Randall M. Miller in Library Journal

* “A staggering work of research, occasionally toilsome to read.” — Kirkus Reviews (“Staggering” is not a particularly inviting adjective, especially when living just down the street from “toilsome.”)

These quotes closely resemble your own criticisms. All that’s missing is the vehemence of your expression and the sense of personal grievance.

As for the most irresponsible of the reviewers’ comments, jcbrunner and you have already described how lazy reviewers are liable to compare any lengthy book to War and Peace. I can see how this annoys someone who has read and reread Tolstoy’s masterpiece.

And as for Antonia Fraser’s comments (“extraordinarily rich, racy,… poignant… {and} iridescent”), don’t forget that this comes from a writer capable of going publicly moon-eyed and passionate over a painting of Charles II. Some authors of history are just a bit weird, and that’s going to show up in their opinions.

3. It’s a rehash of facts: Yes, but the facts are much less familiar to the British reading audience for whom Foreman primarily wrote.

Imagine a 900-page account of the British Civil Wars of the 1640s, directed at an American audience, and emphasizing how New World colonists engaged with the events. (Not a bad idea for a book, really.) Where Americans might welcome detailed accounts of what happened at Bristol, Marston Moor, and Naseby, an educated British reader might find this tedious and say it’s been done before. Where the American might find that such a book opened up a new chapter of history and set it in a trans-Atlantic context that is easy to relate to, the well-read Briton might complain that the approach was provincial (obsessed with American colonists) and failed to break new ground. Sound familiar?

4. It’s a mass of anecdotes: One reason the book struck you this way may well be that you had been misled about the author’s intentions. As discussed above, she was not out to make a case for Britain’s “crucial” role in the Civil War. All she has done is to narrate the war as seen from the Greenwich Meridian, and her main contribution, I gather, is to present the American war as something that mattered to Britons and other subjects of the British Empire.

For Americans, it’s true, the book could help correct a tendency toward exceptionalist provincialism in our studies of our biggest, baddest war. (Mark Grimsley is an American historian who has leveled this criticism at e.g. the absurd claim that William T. Sherman invented “total war.”) Either way, Foreman’s book won’t exactly rock our world.

Also, as jcbrunner suggested, there may be a difference in taste at work here. All these mentions of Foreman’s use of short biographies remind me of an old work that looms large in British history: Clarendon’s History of the Rebellion and Civil Wars in England. Published posthumously in 1702, Clarendon’s history has seldom been out of print, and proceeds from the book paid for the namesake Clarendon Press at Oxford University.

Nothing has contributed more to Clarendon’s appeal than his many “character sketches,” some of which are frequently anthologized (for example, “The Character of Lord Falkland,” the author’s personal friend who was killed at Newbury). It may be that Clarendon’s example still has some influence on British readers’ expectations of what a history book should be — especially a book about a civil war.

Oct 1, 2011, 9:31 pm

I should clarify that I have not read this book, or even seen a copy. My comments are based solely on this discussion and on the reviews.

This thread has raised a question in my mind, though. What does Foreman have to say about the American minister in London, Charles Francis Adams Sr.? My knowledge of the diplomatic dance between the UK and the divided U.S. rests almost entirely on Adams’ son Henry’s breezy, self-mocking account in The Education of Henry Adams.

Oct 2, 2011, 4:29 pm

Excellent summary of the points under discussion, Muscogulus.

Charles II was quite a ladies' man: "Charles had no legitimate children, but acknowledged a dozen by seven mistresses." Wikipedia also quotes John Wilmot: "Restless he rolls from whore to whore, A merry monarch, scandalous and poor." Via Lady Di, his lineage may be back on the English throne soon.

Regarding the battle descriptions, they cover an odd middle ground of describing the battle but not allowing the readers to understand them. The (plentiful) battle maps are only helpful with background knowledge about the battle. I would have excised most of the battles, leaving only a results summary in.

Re Charles Francis Adams, both the US and Great Britain (Lord Lyons) chose to be represented by extremely introverted persons, almost incapable to do their diplomatic jobs. Both governments also did a sort of Wikileaks on their own diplomats publishing their candid private notes which did not endear them to their foreign audiences.

Adams, as a sort of American royalty, shut out the nascent career diplomat/functionary Moran as a social inferior, further diminishing his effectiveness. Until the Emancipation Proclamation, Adams was hampered by the US policy on slavery, having to defend the indefensible (sort of like today's US position on climate change).

Foreman's main source is Moran who presents the amateurish Adamses in a bad light, an impression highlighted by Henry Adams' own vignettes about his problems with British social protocol. They must have been quite dour New Englanders in Flashman's England.

Edited: Oct 3, 2011, 1:39 pm

>27 Muscogulus: Muscogulus

Re-#1-Being emotional……..
Looking back on my OP, so many days later, I confess I believe the tenor of that OP was perfectly appropriate to a blog of this sort. After all, this medium is not an ongoing academic journal or a doctoral thesis. On the contrary, a thoughtful, wise, and disciplined expression of passion in a posting demonstrates a certain emotional flexibility versus rigidity; and as well adds coloring, variety, and possibly even a poignancy to what might otherwise become a very dreary and desiccated exercise or discipline over the years.

Of course, the question must be raised: does being passionate invalidate one's position? Were the books of John Hope Franklin, Dee Brown, and Jacob Burckhardt invalid or the lesser for their being passionate? The books of Adrew Bacevich, that I have read, are always rooted in solid historical fact but have as well an emotional current throughout them that truly engages the reader and provides the momentum that actually keeps one intrigued and reading. His books are about outrage pure and simple, but does that make him less valuable as a professor of history at Boston University? So also for that fact does Wendy Doniger formerly of Harvard and Oxford and now teaching History of Religion at the University of Chicago. In her book The Hindus. It is her passion that draws the reader into and along for the journey. And anyone who knows anything about Wendy Doniger knows her books are met with a very considerable emotional response by Hindus that read her works.

I could list many others but I think you get the drift. Possibly on the issue of being “emotional” or passionate, it would be good for us to agree to disagree as it relates to history.

2. “Reviewers gushed over it”:

In point of fact, yes, the British press reviews that were quoted in the OP did in fact uniformly gush. The quotations are there and say as much. The American press less so……..

Re-#2-As to your abstract that: 3. It’s a rehash of facts: Yes, but the facts are much less familiar to the British reading audience for whom Foreman primarily wrote.

To this I would raise two points:
1. I am puzzled that you and others in this thread are consistently saying this. At no time in the book did I see it mentioned that this is a book primarily for British or European consumption rather than the American market. If that is clearly stated up front in the forward, I missed it and confess to being wrong in my expectation on sitting down to read the book.
2. When you say: It’s a rehash of facts: ....

I do not understand. Are you saying that a rehash is acceptable and professional behavior on the part of this author? Isn’t doing so really sitting back and benefiting from the work of others? I don’t understand your perspective or position.

#3-And finally on the question of a carbon footprint, I must again say that the point, while somewhat seemingly flippant, is still totally appropriate to the book in question. In this day and age when the global economy is in the current state that it is and we are, most of us except the folks in the 1%, looking at many hard years yet to come, for someone during such a time to write this book does bring in to question her ability as an author to pick material selectively and to shape her thesis into a meaningful and coherent work, rather than just going on and on; piling one more anecdote on another.…..

It looks as if we will probably have to agree to disagree here.

Re your question in a more recent post:
What does Foreman have to say about the American minister in London, Charles Francis Adams Sr.?

See, JCBrunner’s comment above on this.

Bottom line, I continue to believe you could have written a better book and with more focus than Foreman did.


Oct 3, 2011, 7:45 pm

1. We don't disagree. When I drew a distinction between your impassioned attack on Foreman and the more restrained criticism in reviews, I was not evaluating, just describing.

It is true that my taste runs more toward restraint, but I don't mind an honest polemic.

2. I agree that Foreman's book has flaws, and I now believe it could have used a good deal of pruning. The only point where we disagree is that I suspect the book is not completely without merit. Maybe it's a 900-page book that's worthy of 400-500 pages. Would you concede that much?

Edited: Oct 4, 2011, 4:04 pm

31 Muscogulus

The following agreement is something I will possibly be adding to in the days to come but let me just say that I believe you are totally brilliant to be able to make the summaries that you did of the discussion we are having of the book without in fact having read the book. Truly, you did a great job with a very demanding discussion.

I have neither the brain power nor the confidence to undertake such a task, so, my hat is off to you.

Also based on my reading of your blog, I truly do respect your way with words, which is a skill I believe you share with Amanda Foreman. The woman can write, seemingly effortlessly.
On that fact alone, the book has merit and is truly instructive to someone wishing to write a long story in a seemingly effortless manner. Since you are an aspiring historian possibly some day you will read it and give me your thoughts on it.

Finally, a request if I may, and that is that we agree to disagree. I think often people think they have to agree on things and reach consensus, however, I am trying in my life to work at engaging in conversations and relationships with people with whom I have real differences. My thinking being that we as a country need to come together while recognizing differences and that differences of opinion are ok.

Of course I am not sure how effective this strategy would be if I were put in the midst of a Tea Party rally for Michele Bachmann however I would strive valiantly to respect them even if I don't agree.

After all, I don't agree with any decision of the Chief Justice John Roberts but I certainly do respect his brain power and yours. And that's not bad company to keep, as far as brain power goes......

Oct 16, 2011, 6:09 pm

(As happened with the Taney court, the future will not not look kindly on the Renquist/Roberts court for playing Calvinball with the US constitution. Perhaps one has to redefine smartness, if supposedly intelligent experts like Roberts, Mankiw, Summers, etc. advocate and execute terrible ideas. Apart from the troubles on Wall Street, there is a moral rot at the universities of Harvard and Chicago.)

Having finished the book, I think the last third of the book is much weaker than the strong first part. England played an important part in defining the war in the beginning. After 1863, England and the world basically watched the war of attrition in horror. Secondly, the war's center of attention shifts to the West, while her British correspondents are concentrated in the big cities in the East (and South). Cutting 200 pages would have improved the book.

Her subtle pro-Confederacy bias did not please me. She often lets her pro-South sources lament about the chivalrous South destroyed by Northern barbarians. As a non-American, she should have more easily realized that even the harshest hand of war was comparably mild (see Mark Grimsley's The hard hand of war about the early Southern complaints about burning fences and not returning escaped slaves.).

One of my pet peeves which she triggers often is the discounting of black suffering. The idea that this was a white people's war that also touched some black folks gives it a certain ACW Centennial feeling. To do the book justice, there are quite a few mentions of black bravery. Overall, however, it is closer to the token black appearance in stock photography and on TV.

Finally, there are some formulations that make me wonder how deep her ACW knowledge really is. For instance, in the famous incident during the battle of the Wilderness, she refers to "a brigade of Texans". Is it really too much to ask that a historian should know that the army of Northern Virginia had only one Texas brigade, probably its most famous unit (The Stonewall brigade's lack of numbers assigned it to relative obscurity after 1862.)?

Overall, still a good read that offers a fresh perspective by shifting the focus on the propaganda battle abroad.

Oct 18, 2011, 1:19 pm

> 33

Well, this historian must confess to not knowing about the single Texas unit in the Army of Northern Virginia. (I used to live just one block from a mass grave, in Alabama, of Texans who died in the service of the Army of Tennessee.)

> "playing Calvinball with the US constitution"

Love it! I may steal that expression.

Edited: Oct 18, 2011, 2:10 pm

>34 Muscogulus: Muscogulus

Thank you, Rob, your comment makes me feel less alone in the world when I also add for the record:

I do not know about:

- the Taney court


-Mark Grimsley's. The Hard Hand of War

-the Texas brigade


Oct 18, 2011, 4:18 pm

You don't know about Calvinball? Go borrow a copy of any of the Calvin and Hobbes collections. Good stuff, generally.

Oct 19, 2011, 7:47 am

>35 Urquhart: Sorry, if my comment intimidated you. It was mostly directed at a virtual Ms. Foreman. Isn't being exposed to things you don't know anything about one of the best parts of LT (and the internet)?

The Taney court's awful Dredd Scott decision features prominently in the book: Frederick Douglass and other black Americans, as non-citizens according to the Supreme Court, were officially refused passports, a self-defeating policy the British and other nations frowned upon (A modern version of this is the often proposed refusal to issue driving licenses to illegal immigrants which would only hurt traffic safety.).

Many of the Supreme Court's most dreadful decisions sacrifice the law to offer short-term political cover, e.g. the current decision to deny legal standing in US courts to victims of US torture (e.g. Maher Amar) swats away the problem but sends the long-term message that the Supreme Court considers the US legal system incompetent to handle such cases justly.

The Texas brigade was never purely Texan. In the early years, it consisted of the 1st, 4th and 5th TX and the 18th GA (as well as the infantry of SC's Hampton's Legion). Later, the 18th GA was replaced by the 3rd AK (also an orphan unit in the Eastern theater). The Texas brigade, under the leadership of John B. Hood, distinguished itself in numerous battles. It famously cracked the Federal line at Gaines' Mill, counterattacked through the West Woods and the Cornfield at Antietam, battled for Devil's Den at Gettysburg and, as mentioned in the book, secured the Confederate line during the battle of the Wilderness.

In my youth of ACW nerdom, and before my memory turned to mush, I memorized the order of battle of Gettysburg, Antietam and some other battles. Keeping track of the double or triple digit NY and PA regiments proved to be a challenge. Perhaps that's way my synapses start firing if I read about misattributed units ...

Grimsley, meanwhile, showed the Federal progression from coddling up to slaveholders in 1861/1862 to the "war is hell" policy of the later years. Unfortunately, he neglected to place the American Civil War in a larger, international context. The American Civil War, while not as civil as the Swiss Civil War (A very civil war), was still rather respectful in regard to civilians. In a book about German WWII POW testimonies I am currently reading, a German pilot is actively bragging about shooting down the civilian KLM plane that carried "Gone with the Wind" actor Leslie Howard. That is a scale of total war the American Civil War fortunately never reached.

Oct 19, 2011, 11:57 am

The American Civil War was the first modern war. It was limited by the technology available, and by the viewpoints of the principal actors/movers, who were people of their time.

The treatment of civilians has varied throughout the history of warfare; the ACW was a transition from the idea that civilians were exempt (as much as possible) from war's dangers, to the idea that enemy civilians were also military resources, and hence legitimate targets.

Oct 24, 2011, 4:32 pm

jcbruner: Grimsley, meanwhile, showed the Federal progression from coddling up to slaveholders in 1861/1862 to the "war is hell" policy of the later years. Unfortunately, he neglected to place the American Civil War in a larger, international context.

BruceCoulson: The American Civil War was the first modern war. {…} the ACW was a transition from the idea that civilians were exempt (as much as possible) from war's dangers, to the idea that enemy civilians were also military resources, and hence legitimate targets.

I have to stick up for Mark Grimsley here. His The Hard Hand of War actually does a good job of situating the American Civil War in an international context — though not in the way Alexandra Foreman attempts — rather by pointing to the precedents from European warfare that ACW generals and statesmen well knew, but that American historians have had trouble remembering. Grimsley's point is that, according to the prevailing standards for how states were supposed to comport themselves, the U.S. conducted the "War of the Rebellion" (as it was called while under way) with considerable restraint. Efforts to portray it as unduly hard on civilians, or as a template for 20th-century "total war," are baseless.

Bruce, I'm afraid Grimsley would reject both the statement (not unique to you) that the ACW was "the first modern war" and the claim that it was unique in regarding civilians as "military resources." While it’s unsurprising that the ACW made a profound impression on a nation that had never seen such massive land battles before, Grimsley says that U.S. historians have no excuse for being so naively exceptionalist about our biggest war.

Grimsley describes how the North gradually escalated the severity with which it treated Confederate civilians, starting from a place of forbearance and striving to distinguish diehards from ordinary civilians. Even late in the war, as Sherman resorted to his march through Georgia and the Carolinas, he was only practicing what Europe called a chevauchée, a campaign to deny resources to the enemy while undermining civilian morale by demonstrating that the hostile government was powerless to protect their property. Not only was this permitted in war; in the case of a rebellion it would have been “lawful” (more than 80 years before the Fourth Geneva Convention) to terrorize the rebellious population with deadly force until they submitted to legitimate authority.

I’m not saying this would have been a wise policy, but it would have been deemed acceptable by the standards of the 1860s. Far from raising the bar for the harsh treatment of civilians, the U.S. lowered it so far that, even after raising it gradually over the course of the war, it was still pretty low.

N.B. The standard for treatment of civilians in the ACW was also considerably milder than in the numerous Indian wars waged by the U.S. and its predecessor colonies.

Oct 25, 2011, 6:57 pm

Well, the Indians weren't really human, so codes of conduct against savages are different, you see.

And the ACW was the first major war to routinely use trains for troop transit; the first war with modern weapons that made (for the most part) massed charges of troops against entrenched positions folly; the first war for a lot of things.

The 20th Century was an era where civilians were officially considered legitimate targets. In the 19th Century, unofficial means were used (blockades). But I'm willing to concede that in treatment of civilians, the U.S. wasn't exceptional for its time. (Although one may contrast the treatment of captured rebels in the U.S. conflict with the Sepoy Rebellion for an example as to certain other reasons why conduct was different.)

Oct 29, 2011, 10:08 pm

>40 BruceCoulson:

And the ACW was the first major war to routinely use trains for troop transit; the first war with modern weapons that made (for the most part) massed charges of troops against entrenched positions folly; the first war for a lot of things.

Not so much. The Crimean War of the 1850s, which killed about half a million combatants, certainly counts as a major war. It saw the use of train transports, the telegraph, photography (supposedly for the first time in warfare), and a significant role for mass media and public opinion, among other innovations that American historians commonly claim for our own Civil War.

Not that the American Civil War was lacking in innovations; e.g. the routine use of entrenchment by infantry (not just in siege operations) was a new development. But how influential was this innovation? The lesson supposedly learned at Petersburg and Cold Harbor, etc., etc., about not rushing entrenched positions, took decades to sink in, as many thousands of WW1 soldiers could attest. Similarly, the lessons of the Crimean War, such as the painfully learned lessons about medical care, failed to make much of an impression on American and Confederate generals in the 1860s. Had they learned from Florence Nightingale, both the Civil War death toll and the number of surviving “basket cases” could have been drastically reduced.

But maybe this should be a new thread.

Oct 30, 2011, 7:22 pm

>40 BruceCoulson: Cavalry charges stopped making sense since the 14th century - if the infantry kept cool and closed ranks. The Crimean War's charge of the Light Brigade is the poster child of a mad charge (lampooned in the Civil War's charge of the mule brigade at Wauhatchie). Somebody forgot to notify the Prussians who in Von Bredow's Death Ride broke the French line in 1870.

As science advances one funeral at a time, and war is nothing if not proficient in producing funerals, war becomes the father of invention by post hoc, ergo propter hoc. The deadwood US War Department fought like hell not to profit from the northern technological advantage (What if the Union had fielded a Lightning Brigade type division/corps at the start of the war?).

At the start of the Civil War, the US only had a token army. The current Pentagon houses twice the men of the 1861 US army (ca. 15.000). For comparison, tiny Switzerland (a bit larger than Maryland) mobilized 50.000 men to crush its rebels in 1847. The US built its army practically from scratch (a feat repeated in WWII). As the war was to be expected to be over before Christmas, nobody wanted to invest into the necessary resources (see also: 1914, Iraq). The fast demobilization after the war meant that most of the knowledge gained was lost (see also: WWI, WWII/Korean War).

Nov 1, 2011, 10:02 am

We all, I believe, are aware of the fact that the Peloponnesian War, 431 to 404 BC, was an "an era where civilians were officially considered legitimate targets" to put it mildly.

Am I correct, that we have agreement on that statement?

Nov 1, 2011, 10:48 am

The discussion has wandered off a bit here (that often seems to be about the time I get around to participating) but I wanted to make a few comments on the original issue. The numbering is simply for the sake of keeping my thoughts together.

1) I'm highly sympathetic to Urquhart's complaints about the reviews. I rarely find early magazine reviews of history books to be useful. Luckily I also rarely read a book in the year it was published so I'm happy to wait for the academic journals. My only real exceptions on magazine reviews are the more highbrow Times Literary Supplement and the New York Review of Books. Both did review Foreman's book and though they probably positive on balance they were certainly more critical than the reviews Urquhart quoted. More on this below.

2) I probably won't be reading Foreman's book. From the reviews and the discussion above it seems to be strongest on narrative storytelling and perhaps weaker on analysis. I am generally more interested in analysis than narrative. It also sounds like it suffers from being three books in one: a general survey of the war, a survey of British Foreign relations regarding the war and a monograph on British public opinion about the war. No wonder it ran to over 900 pages.

3) My concern about analytic quality comes primarily from the NYRB review by James McPherson. Note particularly to section following, "what particularly struck Foreman was the number of Britons who 'thought the slaveholding South had the moral advantage over the antislavery North.'" I'd be interested in comments from those of you who have read the book.

4) I generally found the TLS review rather vague by their standards. However, it did have an interesting reference to an earlier, more academically oriented, book on British public opinion about the American Civil War, R. J. M. Blackett's Divided Hearts: Britain and the American Civil War. I'm rather more likely to read a book like that (though I'd check the academic reviews first).

5) My main interest thinking about the topic of Foreman's book is how British opinion about the American Civil War related to the legacy of the movement to end the slave trade a generation earlier. There has been a significant historiographic debate on the forces behind the slave trade abolition movement (see David Brion Davis's Inhuman Bondage for a recent review) and I think comparisons might be revealing in both directions. Again, any comments from those who have read Foreman's book are appreciated.

Nov 1, 2011, 3:54 pm

>44 eromsted: Foreman comes from the world of the Duchess of Devonshire. Most of her sources are VIPs, a vapid class similar to Washington's Villagers whose opinions have only a loose connection to fact. These rich idlers naturally identified with the Southern planters and not the Northern merchants. Liverpool was highly linked commercially with the South while the North was starting to become a major competitor to Britain (stealing much of its intellectual property and asking for protective tariffs).

The British press also presented a wrong impression of America. They apparently proclaimed that the South would emancipate their slaves after having won the war. Given the twisted "for slavery while also against slavery" Union position, this fact-free but attractive story appealed to many readers (think of the lovely portraits written by the US press about Ahmed Chalabi).

Nov 29, 2011, 9:52 am

This doesn't contribute much in terms of the arguments presented here but some may find it interesting nonetheless: