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

by Amanda Foreman


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780375756962
Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
Publication date: 06/12/2012
Pages: 1008
Sales rank: 432,049
Product dimensions: 6.18(w) x 9.02(h) x 1.81(d)

About 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 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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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.

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A World on Fire: Britain's Crucial Role in the American Civil War 4.1 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 36 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.
pierthinker on LibraryThing 7 months ago
The American Civil War was a pivotal event in modern history. A violent, bitter, technology-driven clash between two cultures, two visions of what America was and was to become. Even today, 150 years after the War started and 145 after it ended, it raises great passions amongst Americans and divides them still.The War is perceived and portrayed as an American event with little or no outside interference or impact. This book puts the lie to those ideas in a most detailed, instructive and engaging way. Amanda Foreman¿s book is a history of the Civil War focusing on two areas: how the War played in Great Britain, from both the British and the American viewpoint; and, the experiences of Britons who fought on both sides or were there to report on the War.The book examines these aspects of the War in great detail and with great authority. Many sources are used and used well, especially the personal accounts of participants and combatants in the fighting and the politicking. The narrative flow is chronological and shows to great effect the fog of war and the impact of too little information, often too late, on decision making and in shaping opinions.This is a long book and requires concentration and effort to sustain the arguments, keep all the characters straight in one¿s mind and generally follow what¿s what. But all that effort pays off in the sweep of historical fact and analysis that brings the War into sharper focus, perhaps, to a British audience than a purely military or American narrative could.I absolutely recommend this book.
rosalita on LibraryThing 8 months ago
Amanda Foreman has written a magnificent history of the role played by Britain (and less intensely, other European countries such as France) in the American Civil War. It's an aspect of American history not often touched on in more general histories of the Civil War era, making Foreman's book an essential addition to any Civil War or American history library.It is only a small exaggeration to say that Britain's crucial role was to play no role at all. The British government, both in London and in the consulate in Washington, D.C., worked very hard indeed to maintain its neutrality. It had to work so hard because both North and South were desperate to claim the support of the former mother country. Confederate leaders were sure that the Union blockade keeping Southern cotton from reaching British textile mills would create an economic crisis that would force Britain to declare its support for the Confederacy.On the other side, President Lincoln and his cabinet were sure that Britain's abhorrence of slavery would lead it to declare its support for the Union cause. Such confidence was shaken when they realized that few in Britain believed that the war was being fought to abolish slavery ¿ a belief upheld by the reluctance of Lincoln first to enact and then to enforce the Emancipation Proclamation. An overzealous naval blockade that repeatedly entangled British merchant ships in its web did little to garner Union support either in the halls of Parliament or the streets of Britain.Although the official British position remained studiously neutral throughout the conflict, Foreman also undertakes to explore the lives of a number of British citizens who took it upon themselves to come to the United States to fight, some for the Union but many more for the Confederacy. Many of these individual soldiers found themselves taking on rather more than they bargained for in their "grand adventure", and British diplomats were often helpless to extract them from their misadventures.A World on Fire is painstakingly researched and well written in a style accessible to more than an academic audience. Make no mistake, it is a tome of epic proportions ¿ more than 1,000 pages. In reading, I couldn't help feeling that the book could have been significantly shortened without detriment to its main thesis by abbreviating or eliminating some of the detailed shot-by-shot battle recreations. There is a plethora of Civil War books that delve exhaustively into military strategy; the extent to which Foreman does the same seems superfluous to the main thread of the story.Despite that minor quibble, I would highly recommend this book to anyone with an interest in either the Civil War era or the history of British-American relations. Foreman's scholarship seems impeccable, and her narrative is engaging and thoughtful.
EpicTale on LibraryThing 8 months ago
I include "A World on Fire" in my list, even though I managed to read only the first 240 pages (10 chapters) of 807 pages before needing to return it to the library. Foreman weaves a very interesting story about Britain's careful and, it seems, very principled neutral stance (at least up through Spring 1862! -- which is when my time ran out) between the American belligerents and the Union's and Confederacy's attempts to take advantage of it for their respective causes. The book is as much about the American players (William Henry Steward, in particular, but also Charles Sumner and Jefferson Davis) as their Brit counterparts. Foreman blew away my old, crusty notions that Britain and France favored the South for the sake of preserving the cotton trade, leaving me with great respect for their anti-slavery principles despite the difficult economic hardships these values caused. I look forward to returning to and finishing Foreman's book.
jcbrunner on LibraryThing 8 months ago
While the Sesquicentennial of the American Civil War is fast approaching its first anniversary, a breathtaking title that challenges the historiographical orthodoxy has yet to appear (Foner's masterful examination of Abraham Lincoln's changing stance on slavery is the strongest contender to date.). Re-establishing the international context of the war is one of the promising areas. The Civil War started as a agrarian reactionary counter-revolution that was defeated by the industrialized North. In order to sustain the war, the North had to resort to a number of progressive innovations such as an income tax and the abolishment of slavery. No wonder that The Economist was no fan of Abraham Lincoln. One of the early and key battlefields was the opinion not of mankind but a limited number of key states, foremost among them Great Britain. As the world's dominant power, a center of finance and major arms supplier, Great Britain was in the position to decide the outcome of the war. Its neutrality, severely tested by boorish US actions such as the Trent affair, guaranteed a Northern victory. Amanda Foreman's effort to write "an epic history of two nations divided" offers the possibility of examining the British influence on the war. While she succeeds quite well at capturing the reader, the main flaw of her approach is that the British influence became unimportant in the war of attrition after the Emancipation Proclamation. Thus, Great Britain is an important player from 1860 to 1863. Afterwards, not so much. Foreman tries to keep up the epic spirit in the second half of the book, hyping indecisive blockade runners and intrigues in England and Canada, Severe cuts to the second half of the book would have made a far stronger case for the British influence and a better read.Her epic history told through British eyes suffers from the effect that most foreigners stay in the big cities and along the seaboard. A phenomenon that one can witness also in most American accounts of the Iraq War. The Civil War, however, was a continental war. The war in the West and in Tennessee are accorded too little space, especially compared to the extensive treatment of the hare-brained Confederate incursions from Canada. She often fails to truly discuss the Southern bias of many of her sources. Their reporting gives the book a pro-South bias unwarranted by the facts, e.g. she quotes the British war tourist LTC Fremantle on the good behavior of the Confederate forces during the Gettysburg campaign, which, apart from the war crime of enslaving free blacks, was a brutal requisition of all movable goods (see Brown's Retreat from Gettysburg for examples). On the positive side, the best character in her book is the misanthropic factotum in the American Legation in London, Benjamin Moran: Meanly denying African American "non-citizens" passports (in accordance with US policy at the time), complaining about his superiors, the American royal Adams family, and about the British. BY the time of the American Civil War, the British and the Americans had developed quite a number of national peculiarities. One joy of reading the book is noting how little has changed. The American aversion to international law is reflected in the American unwillingness to join the Paris Declaration Respecting Maritime Law of 1856 because it wanted to reserve its right to employ privateers (a nicer name for pirates).Overall, an excellent read up to the battle of Gettysburg that gets lost in the author's chase of side shows in the second half to last third of the book. Recommended.
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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.