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

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

4.2 30
by Amanda Foreman

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Acclaimed historian Amanda Foreman follows the phenomenal success of her New York Times bestseller Georgiana: Duchess of Devonshire with her long-awaited second work of nonfiction: the fascinating story of the American Civil War and the major role played by Britain and its citizens in that epic struggle.

Even before the first rumblings of


Acclaimed historian Amanda Foreman follows the phenomenal success of her New York Times bestseller Georgiana: Duchess of Devonshire with her long-awaited second work of nonfiction: the fascinating story of the American Civil War and the major role played by Britain and its citizens in that epic struggle.

Even before the first rumblings of secession shook the halls of Congress, British involvement in the coming schism was inevitable. Britain was dependent on the South for cotton, and in turn the Confederacy relied almost exclusively on Britain for guns, bullets, and ships. The Union sought to block any diplomacy between the two and consistently teetered on the brink of war with Britain. For four years the complex web of relationships between the countries led to defeats and victories both minute and history-making. In A World on Fire, Amanda Foreman examines the fraught relations from multiple angles while she introduces characters both humble and grand, bringing them to vivid life over the course of her sweeping and brilliant narrative.

Between 1861 and 1865, thousands of British citizens volunteered for service on both sides of the Civil War. From the first cannon blasts on Fort Sumter to Lee’s surrender at Appomattox, they served as officers and infantrymen, sailors and nurses, blockade runners and spies. Through personal letters, diaries, and journals, Foreman has woven together their experiences to form a panoramic yet intimate view of the war on the front lines, in the prison camps, and in the great cities of both the Union and the Confederacy. Through the eyes of these brave volunteers we see the details of the struggle for life and the great and powerful forces that threatened to demolish a nation.

In the drawing rooms of London and the offices of Washington, on muddy fields and aboard packed ships, Foreman reveals the decisions made, the beliefs held and contested, and the personal triumphs and sacrifices that ultimately led to the reunification of America. A World on Fire is a complex and groundbreaking work that will surely cement Amanda Foreman’s position as one of the most influential historians of our time.

Editorial Reviews

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)
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
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.

Gary W. Gallagher
“A World on Fire” treats readers to a sprawling drama of British engagement with the American Civil War. …Foreman is largely unconcerned with arcane scholarly debates, writing for an audience of non-specialists drawn to engrossing accounts of major historical events.
—The Washington Post
From the Publisher
“So expansive in its scope, and so well written, that to call it a masterpiece somehow doesn’t seem to do it justice. . . . Foreman displays her exceptional gift for storytelling and for making history both fascinating and relevant.”—The Christian Science Monitor
“History as a Cecil B. DeMille epic . . . One puts down A World on Fire with a sense of awe.”—The Boston Globe 
“Thrilling narrative on a grand scale.”—History Today
“[A] remarkable book . . . an extraordinary cast.”—The New York Times Book Review
“[A] magisterial history.”—Newsweek

Product Details

Random House Publishing Group
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
6.48(w) x 9.52(h) x 2.01(d)

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The Uneasy Cousins

Britain and America-Divisions over slavery-Lord Palmerston-Uncle Tom's Cabin and the Stafford House Address-Charles Dickens's disappointment-The caning of Charles Sumner

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."1 During the late 1850s, the prevailing view in London was that Washington could not be trusted. "These Yankees are most disagreeable Fellows to have to do anything about any American Question," the prime minister, Lord Palmerston, had complained in 1857 to Lord Clarendon, his foreign secretary, fourteen months before Lord Lyons's arrival in America. "They are on the Spot, strong . . . totally unscrupulous and dishonest and determined somehow or other to carry their Point."2 It went without saying that the Foreign Office expected Lyons to be on guard against any American chicanery.

One of the legacies of the War of 1812 was a British fear that the United States might try to annex British North America (as Canada was then known), accompanied by a conviction among Americans that they should never stop trying. It was neither forgiven nor forgotten in England that precious ships and men had had to be diverted from the desperate war against Napoleon Bonaparte in order to defend Canada from three invasion attempts by the United States between 1812 and 1814. London regarded the burning of Washington and the White House by British soldiers in August 1814 as a well-deserved retribution for the sacking of York (later called Toronto) by American troops.

Lyons soon discovered, as had each of his predecessors, that the War of 1812 had not only an entirely different meaning in the United States, but also a different outcome. In American histories, Britain had provoked the war by her arrogant and unreasonable behavior, first, by blockading all ports under Napoleonic rule, thereby stifling American trade, and second, by boarding American ships in search of deserters from the Royal Navy. The practice of "impressing" American sailors* into the navy was considered beyond the pale, especially when it took place off the coast of Virginia.3 Despite furious protests from Washington, the number of American citizens wrongly impressed had steadily increased over the years, and by 1812 the tally had reached over six thousand. But when the U.S. Congress declared war on June 8, 1812, it was to stop a practice that had already been disavowed by the English; just two days earlier, in London, the British government had agreed to stop impressment-too late to affect the outcome of the debates in Washington.

The peace treaty signed by Britain and America in 1814, the Treaty of Ghent, was based on the assumption that the war had been a draw since no territory was lost or gained by either side. However, news of the treaty had not yet reached the British and American armies facing each other in New Orleans, and a battle still took place on January 26. Though a small engagement compared to the great battles unfolding in Europe, it was a decisive American victory. General Andrew Jackson's force of four thousand men managed to defeat a British expedition almost three times its size. The fact that this stunning victory occurred after peace had been declared was later brushed aside in the telling. Two great American myths were born: that Andrew Jackson won the war, and that he had not only put the British in their place, but also crushed the army that had defeated Napoleon.

The failure of the United States to conquer Canada during the war had come as a great surprise to many Americans. Former president Thomas Jefferson wrote to a colleague in August 1812, "The acquisition of Canada this year, as far as the neighborhood of Quebec, will be a mere matter of marching, and will give us experience for the attack of Halifax the next, and the final expulsion of England from the American continent."4 Over the next few decades, politicians often expressed their desire to expel England from the "American continent." When small local rebellions broke out in Quebec and Toronto in 1837, it came as no surprise to the British to learn that President Martin Van Buren had ostentatiously invoked international law and declared U.S. neutrality, or that American sympathizers were providing arms and volunteers to the rebels. By announcing "neutrality," Van Buren elevated the uprising of a few hundred Canadians to the standard applied to an international war, giving hope to Americans who believed that a Canada free from British "shackles" would want to join the Union.5

That the original thirteen states would increase in number over the years had never been in doubt, but whether these new states would allow slavery was a question that had troubled Americans from the beginning. When the first Constitutional Convention met in Philadelphia in 1787, five of the thirteen*-Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, and Connecticut-had abolished slavery, and eight-New York, New Jersey, Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia-had not. There had been slaves in America since 1619-one year before the arrival of the Mayflower. And at the time of independence, one in five of the 4 million ex-colonists were black. The Convention agreed on a compromise, the first of many that would be tried until the Civil War. Slavery was left alone, but the slave trade was given a twenty-one-year time limit. After 1808, the importation of slaves was to be banned.

The invention in 1793 of Eli Whitney's cotton gin (which separated the tough cotton fibers from their seeds, saving many hours of manual labor), however, meant that slavery not only continued but also even flourished in the Southern states. The demand for cotton by England's textile mills was apparently inexhaustible and within two years after Whitney's gin arrived in the South, shipments of cotton across the Atlantic had increased from roughly 130,000 pounds a year to more than 1.5 million. The rise of cotton over rice, tobacco, or corn as the primary Southern crop coincided with the government's acquisition of the Louisiana territories from the French in 1803. The United States doubled in size as a result of the Louisiana Purchase, opening up to development and potential statehood more than 820,000 square miles from the Gulf of Mexico to the Canadian border. Instead of dying out, as some of the original framers of the Constitution had hoped, slavery was spreading north and west.

By 1819 the thirteen states had become twenty-two, evenly split between free and slave states. But in 1819 the territory of Missouri applied to join the Union, and the balance was suddenly upset. Missouri straddled the implied boundary established by the Mason- Dixon Line; both the Northern and Southern states claimed her as one of their own. Both feared what would happen to the balance of power in the Senate, where each state sent two senators regardless of size or population. By now, the two regions were developing separate though intertwined economies. The Northern states were hurtling toward industrialization, building factories, constructing cities, and developing financial institutions; the Southern states kept to their agricultural base, received fewer immigrants, and developed an alternative financial system based on the buying and selling of slaves and cotton.* The majority of Northerners could read and write; in the South, the literacy rate was less than half. The growing political, economic, and cultural differences between the North and South could not be easily reconciled. Finally, in 1820, Congress agreed to the "Missouri Compromise," which admitted Missouri as a new state to the Union, with slavery allowed. As a balance, however, Maine was admitted as a free state, and the future growth of slavery was confined to new states south of the Missouri border. The Southern states suddenly became deeply interested in the expansion of the United States into Mexico and Central America.

Britain could not help becoming entangled in these territorial disputes. In 1823, President James Monroe announced the "Monroe Doctrine," which essentially called for the Old World to stay on its side of the Atlantic and allow the New World to develop without interference. Since Britain had possessions and interests on both continents, this was neither desirable nor possible for her.* After a decade as foreign secretary, from 1830 to 1841, Lord Palmerston had become thoroughly exasperated by the continuous bickering between the two countries over Canada's borders. "It never answers to give way [to the Americans]," he wrote in January 1841, "because they always keep pushing on their own encroachments as far as they are permitted to do so; and what we dignify by the names of moderation and conciliation, they naturally enough call fear."6 Palmerston followed his own advice in the case of a British subject named Alexander McLeod, who was being held in a New York prison on the charge of murder. McLeod had been arrested in November 1840 after he drunkenly boasted in a New York bar of killing an American sympathizer who had been on his way to take part in the Canadian revolts of 1837. Palmerston informed Washington that McLeod's execution "would produce war; war immediate and frightful in its character."7 Hints from William H. Seward, the governor of New York, that he would pardon McLeod once the public outcry had petered out had no effect on Palmerston's determination to go to war unless the prisoner was released. Fortunately, a jury acquitted McLeod since there was no evidence against him except his own bibulous lies.8

Palmerston's approach to American issues was a reflection of his general attitude toward foreign policy: that Britain's interests should never be sacrificed to satisfy her friends or appease her enemies. His unapologetic nationalism made him widely disliked in Europe. According to legend, a Frenchman once complimented him by saying, "If I were not a Frenchman, I should wish to be an Englishman." To that Palmerston replied, "If I were not an Englishman, I should wish to be an Englishman." The Germans complained, "Hat der Teufel einen Sohn, / So ist er sicher Palmerston" ("If the Devil has a son, surely he must be Palmerston"). Palmerston's willingness to use the Royal Navy, which was the largest in the world, at the slightest provocation earned him the sobriquet "Lord Pumicestone" among his detractors. It was also noticed that Palmerston employed his gunboat diplomacy only against smaller nations such as Greece, while his manner toward the other Great Powers of Europe (France, Austria, Prussia, and Russia) was far more conciliatory.

Palmerston's attitudes had been formed in the age when wigs and rouge were worn by men as well as women. He had personally witnessed the first wave of violent revolutions in Europe as a child when his parents joined the retinue of friends and relations escorting Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, through France. The family's brief but terrifying experience at the hands of a citizens' committee in Paris left Palmerston with only tepid faith in the ability of the lower classes to make rational decisions. During the first half of his political career, Palmerston was better known for his womanizing (which won him his initial nickname of "Lord Cupid") than for his work at the War Office, where he toiled diligently for twenty years at the midlevel post of secretary for war. But

apart from his enjoyment of female company-the more the better- Palmerston was in every other way a serious politician whose capacity for long hours and hard work almost incited a rebellion among the clerks when he became foreign secretary in 1830. It was a shame, Florence Nightingale remarked after she came to know the real Palmerston, that people accepted his jocular, almost flippant manner at face value, since "he was so much more in earnest than he appeared." Once his slumbering humanitarian instincts were aroused by a particular cause, he could act with unbounded zeal. The abolition of the slave trade became a lifelong obsession as Palmerston painstakingly attempted to create an impregnable web of international treaties that would allow the navy the right to search suspected slave ships in any part of the world.

One of the driving forces behind Palmerston's enmity toward the United States was its refusal to agree to a slave trade treaty. To his mind, the acts abolishing the slave trade in 1807 and then slavery throughout the British Empire in 1833 had joined such other events as the Glorious Revolution and Waterloo in the pantheon of great moments in the nation's history. 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. At the beginning of 1841, Palmerston had almost concluded the Quintuple Treaty, which would allow the Royal Navy to search the merchant ships of the Great Powers. "If we succeed," Palmerston told the House of Commons on April 15, 1841, "we shall have enlisted in this league . . . every state in Christendom which has a flag that sails on the ocean, with the single exception of the United States of North America."9 The Quintuple Treaty was signed, but without the signature of the United States. As a consequence, the slave trade continued exclusively under the American flag. The one concession Britain did obtain-and this was not accomplished by Palmerston, who was out of government between 1841 and 1846-was the formation of joint patrols with the U.S. Navy off the West African coast.

Whether Palmerston was foreign secretary, however, made no difference to the constant wrangling or the relentless expansion of the Union over the lands of Native Americans as well as British-held territories. Three years later, in 1844, the presidential candidate of the Democratic Party, James Polk, ran on a platform that all of Britain's Oregon territories right up to Russian America should be annexed by the United States. "The only way to treat John Bull is to look him in the eye," Polk wrote in his diary. "If Congress falters or hesitates in their course, John Bull will immediately become arrogant and more grasping in his demands."10 Polk's claim for all the land as far as what is now southern Alaska resulted in the popular slogan "Fifty-four Forty or Fight!" (meaning that the new boundary line should be drawn along the 54°40' parallel). But the expected fight never occurred; Texas joined the Union as a slave state in 1845, and a year later President Polk declared war on Mexico, a far less dangerous opponent. The British foreign secretary, Lord Aberdeen, who shied away from gunboat diplomacy, was willing to negotiate, and the Oregon Treaty was signed in June 1846, giving all of present-day Washington, Oregon, and Idaho to the United States.11 Victory in the Mexican-American War in 1848 resulted in the United States acquiring a further 600 million acres, most of them below the Mason-Dixon Line. There were now thirty states in the Union, once again in an even split between slave and free.

Meet the Author

Amanda Foreman is a Visiting Research Fellow at Queen Mary, University of London. She won the Whitbread Prize for Georgiana: Duchess of Devonshire, which was adapted for the screen as The Duchess. Educated as an undergraduate at Sarah Lawrence College and with a master’s and doctorate degrees in history from Oxford University, she is now married with five children and lives in New York.

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A World on Fire: Britain's Crucial Role in the American Civil War 4.2 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 30 reviews.
lrtbooks More than 1 year ago
I can honestly say that this may one of the best non-fiction reads of this year (I read the UK edition, published lat last year). The author ties together national relations between the U.S. and the UK during the Civil War, mixes in mini-bios of all of the major characters (both political and military), and discusses many of the major battles. She does this effortlessly, and despite her huge cast of characters she juggles everything flawlessly. This book is a true winner in every sense of the word. A Herculean effort to get through because of its length, but well worth the effort: superb narrative history, and without a doubt one of the best books I've ever read on the Civil War.
James_Durney More than 1 year ago
As America descends into civil war, England is the world's super power. The sun never sets on the British Empire. Her navy rules the waves and her merchant fleet carries most of the world's goods. England's industries can supply everything a modern nation needs to fight a war or enjoy peace. London is the center of the political world and the heart of the empire. England stands alone. France is still recovering from the French Revolution and the Napoleonic wars with an uncertain political atmosphere. Germany is not a unified nation; Prussia is the strongest state there. Italy is in the process of becoming a unified state. Russia is huge but backward, largely occupied with expanding toward the East. China is weak and often occupied by European powers. Japan is starting to become a power but not a player on the world stage. London's actions can change the course of the American Civil War. Her position is as vital to both sides as winning battles. This book looks at the political contest in London, Paris and Washington between the North and the South during the Civil War. Told largely from England's perspective, the book is an English import; it gives Americans a very different view of events. This perspective brings a new set of considerations into force when trying to answer questions about England's actions. We open with a detailed look at relations between England and America. They are not close allies having fought two wars in less than 90 years. The large Irish American population is anti-English and vocal about it. Bashing England is a popular political standard in many areas, helping to elect more than one Congressman. England sees America as a source of raw materials, a market for finished goods and a potential rival. American designs on Canada are always a sour point. There are constant border questions cased by westward expansion, a few have become serious. England took the lead in suppressing the trans-Atlantic slave trade and slavery is illegal in the Empire. However, her mills depend on cotton picked by slaves in America. This is a complex and detailed history. The author does an excellent job of explaining the background and legal aspects of each event. This makes it easier to follow the English position and understand their actions. The book covers the first three years of the war in detail. This is when the possibility of intervention was very real. The last year of the war is covered but in less detail as questions are settled. Each Confederate move, American counter move and English reaction makes for a lively history. This is a battle as real as any fought in America and deadly serious. Readers that have read about this from the American perspective need to prepare for a very different look at Seward and Adams. England saw a very different person than we did. Of great interest are how long news takes and the result of this delay. In the Fall of 1862, this is a critical item and almost caused real problems. We know England did not recognize the Confederate States of America. How close they came to doing something and how much help English businessmen provided makes an engrossing read.
willyvan More than 1 year ago
This is a superb study of US-British relations during the American civil war (1861-65). Britain was officially neutral; the British government never recognised the Confederate government, yet awarded it belligerent status. The British working class backed Abraham Lincoln, the North and the Union, against the slaveholders of the Confederate South. Yet the Liberal government allowed Britain's possessions Bermuda and the Bahamas to become the chief supply depots for the South. Royal Navy Reserve officers were involved in running the North's blockade, shipping arms to the Confederacy. The City of London, then as now the main source of reaction across the world, backed the South. The Times, finance capital's mouthpiece, also did all that it could to promote the cause of the slave-owners. Leslie Stephen, father of Virginia Woolf, wrote a brilliant exposé of its biased reporting (The Times and the American civil war, 1865).
fred5962 More than 1 year ago
Ms. Forman had written a book about the royals during the eighteenth century, so I was a little unsure of this book about the American Civil War. However, I read a review in the Chattanooga TimesFreePress, which recommended this book for serious readers. It's a large work, but I think you will find the personal notes, gleaned from letters and correspondence, to be compelling to understanding the reasons and the strategies of the war.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Foreman missed the mark on this book.  Minimal discussion of the causes of the ACW and the British working class response.  Critical when you consider that only 2% of British citizens could vote.  Also, minimal discussion of the Crimean War, and the 2nd Opium War.  This book did not provide any insight into a world on fire.
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This turne out to be a great book on civil war
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Wonderfully written book.
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the book was very well written and informative. I got a good idea of the American Civil war from the British point of view. the only problem that I had was that having a non Nook book made it impossible to put the novel on my eBook.
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I enjoyed this book from beginning to end, I recommend this book to anyone who love to learn about the civil war or just enjoy a good book.
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