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A World on Fire: Britain's Crucial Role…
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A World on Fire: Britain's Crucial Role in the American Civil War

by Amanda Foreman

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Amanda Foreman’s A World on Fire: Britain’s Crucial Role in the American Civil War is “an attempt to balance the vast body of work on Anglo-American history in the 1860s with the equally vast material left behind by witnesses and participants in the war – to depict the world as it was seen by Britons in America, and Americans in Britain, during a defining moment not just in U.S. history but in the relations between the two countries” (pg. 806). While Foreman is not the first to explore this relationship (she attributes that to E.D. Adams in 1925), she does use sources from either side of the Atlantic to corroborate each others’ perspectives and puts diplomats at the forefront of her narrative.
Beginning with the pre-war era, Foreman writes, “For many Britons, the eradication of slavery around the globe was not simply an ideal but an inescapable moral duty, since no other country had the navy or the wealth to see it through” (pg. 24). Not only did the continuance of slavery in America make many Britons uneasy, but America’s designs on Canada and denunciation of England to rouse popular working-class sentiment further threatened Anglo-American relations. Foreman argues that the Union’s move to blockade ports early in the war opened up unforeseen issues, as legal definitions of a blockade implied formal war between two belligerents, which would enable the South to seek foreign aid and recognition (pg. 79-80). After much negotiation and a desire to avoid direct conflict with the United States, William Howard Russell argued that a direct conflict “would wrap the world in fire” (pg. 122). Britain passed the Foreign Enlistment Act, which “forbade a belligerent nation from outfitting or equipping warlike vessels in British waters, but there was nothing to prevent the construction of a ship with an unusual design,” like the future CSS Alabama (pg. 146). Despite this attempt at neutrality, Captain Charles Wilkes’ detaining of the British mail packet Trent in order to capture two Confederate commissioners threatened to worsen relations (pg. 172).
Prior to Antietam, Lee “understood as well as the Confederate government that Europe was waiting for a clear-cut victory,” though his loss at that battle and the subsequent Emancipation Proclamation weakened the South’s diplomatic power (pg. 296). Foreman writes, “There was no single reason why the British cabinet voted against intervening in the war. Economically, it did not make sense to interfere; militarily; it would have meant committing Britain to war with the North and once again risking Canada and possibly the Caribbean for uncertain gains; politically, there was no support from either party or sufficient encouragement from the other Great Powers apart from France; and practically, the decision to intervene would have required a majority consensus from a cabinet that had never agreed on the meaning or significance of the war” (pg. 329). Finally, Seward successfully warned Britain off with threats of the consequences should they enter the war.
While many Britons felt the Emancipation Proclamation weak and contradictory, “The news that the U.S. Congress had ratified the Thirteenth Amendment, abolishing slavery, had an even greater effect on British public opinion than the North’s recent military victories. No amount of sneering by Henry Hotze in the Index could diminish the moral grandeur of emancipation” (pg. 742). Foreman concludes, “The United States had never supported Britain in any war, including the Crimean, and yet neither the North nor the South had seen the contradiction in demanding British aid once the situation was reversed. Both had unscrupulously stooped to threats and blackmail in their attempts to gain support, the South using cotton, the North using Canada. Both were guilty in their mistreatment of Negroes, both had shipped arms from England, and both had benefitted from British volunteers” (pg. 794). The Treaty of Washington “settled most disputes, potential and historical, for the next twenty years” (pg. 802). In resolving the Alabama claims, the treaty “brought the Civil War chapter of British-American history to a close. The prewar resentment between the two countries had finally played itself out and a new, less hysterical and suspicious relationship was forming” (pg. 805). ( )
  DarthDeverell | Nov 4, 2017 |
Read Vol 1 of a multi-vol edition. Didnt inspire me to seek out the rest.. Intriguing angle. The Uk/US relationship during the CivilWar. Shows how closely the 2 were still linked, but the angle meant chasing too many hares, from high level diplomacy to obscure Brits who volunteered for one side or the other and happened to write a diary or a discoverable letter; made it all rather scattered and hard to follow. " team of Rivals covers an equally vast canvas of the same period more successfully. Schama's Rough Crossing too illuminates the UKUS with better focus and narrative skill at an earlier period. Most interesting is how her picture of Seward differs from Goodwin's; here he appears as a risk-taking tub-thumping machine politician with an Anglophobia problem; in Goodwin he appears as a sophisticated man of culture and the ideal friend and confidant. Is it the same man? ( )
  vguy | Jun 21, 2014 |
I appreciated the capsule biographies of British citizens who volunteered in the armies and navies of both the Union and the Confederacy, but I most enjoyed Foreman's detailed discussion of the two sides' diplomacy vis-a-vis Britain and France throughout the Civil War. Among other things, it fleshed out my pictures of some key leaders of Victorian Britain, such as Lord Palmerston, and of several members of the Adams family, including Henry Adams as a young man. ( )
  nmele | Apr 6, 2013 |
Excellent subject. Focuses on a wide variety of individuals across the wholespespectrum of activities in the American Civil War period. Makes for a wonderful presentation of some amazing personal interest stories. Also a thorough overview of the diplomatic and strategic concerns that affected the outcome of the war and the following era. It was almost like reading two separate works spliced together. Well worth the read to be exposed to many aspects of this period of American history that are not usually encountered in other Civil War histories. ( )
  jvandehy | Nov 22, 2012 |
A World on Fire is an exhaustive history that covers British involvement all the way through the American Civil War. Diplomatic wrangling on both sides of the ocean, the spin war waged in the British press and several personal accounts from among the hundreds of British citizens who fought on both sides of the Civil War is covered. World on Fire is very thorough and manages to introduce an angle into the American Civil War that has been little noted. ( )
1 vote queencersei | Sep 24, 2012 |
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Foreman is excellent on tactics, less good on strategy. She stays at ground level, close to the combatants, which means that the war – best understood from a detached vertical distance – remains a muddle. I ended her long book unsure of why it was fought; I also ended it wondering whether the tangled mess of individual stories, like the simultaneous plots of a Victorian novel, had reached any definite conclusion. I then remembered a visit a while ago to Richmond, Virginia, where, near the state capitol, I came upon a battalion of troops in Confederate uniforms camped out for a battle re-enactment that, complete with blood-curdling rebel yells, was due to take an entire weekend. The civil war did not end in 1865. It rages on, fought not along the Mason-Dixon Line but between red and blue states, or between the patriotic heartland and the effete, expendable east and west coasts.
 
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Washington society adored the Napiers.
For seventy-five years after the War of Independence, the British approach to dealing with the Americans had boiled down to one simple tactic: to be "very civil, very firm, and to go our own way."
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Presents a history of the role of British citizens in the American Civil War that offers insight into the interdependencies of both nations and how the Union worked to block diplomatic relations between England and the Confederacy.

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Penguin Australia

An edition of this book was published by Penguin Australia.

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