A World on Fire
Video: Dr Amanda Foreman tells an audience of Oldie magazine readers about her book, A World on Fire.
by Amanda Foreman
A British epic of the American Civil War, 1861-1865
Christmas Day, 1864. ‘I had not known what cold was before this,’ Francis Dawson wrote to his parents in London. He had retreated to the Virginia mountains with his Rebel comrades. The South was defeated in all but word and Union troops were within sight of the Confederate capital. ‘On Tuesday we marched all night. The snow was falling in small flakes mixed with hail which froze as it touched your clothes, my hat was as stiff as a board, icicles hanging all around the brim, my coat shining with ice.’ Their food ration had shrunk to almost nothing. ‘I munch my bacon and bread, or,’ he added, ‘perchance bread alone, among the snow’.
Inside one of the drab tents of the Union camp, several miles south of Francis’s hideout, Private James Horrocks was scrawling a Christmas letter to his parents in Lancashire. Food also dominated his thoughts. ‘I have received an invitation to dine at headquarters,’ he wrote. ‘I do not expect a goose for dinner but we may have some slap jacks and apple dumplings.’ Slap jacks notwithstanding, he was only marginally more comfortable than Francis out on the ridge-top. James watched, helpless, as one by one the Battery’s horses dropped dead from cold and neglect. ‘This is the most miserable country I ever saw,’ he wrote. ‘It will freeze tomorrow, the day after it will thaw and then there is mud up to one’s knees everywhere.’
Francis and James, each unaware of the other’s existence, were no longer fighting to win, but to outlive the war. James reassured his mother, ‘I have never received a scratch yet. I have a presentiment that we shall see each other again.’ These were brave words in a conflict that claimed one in four.
Between 1861 and 1865, thousands of English, Scottish and Welshmen volunteered their services. They came out to be soldiers, seamen, engineers, and surgeons, not to mention spies and nurses. A sizable number who happened to be in America at the start of the war could also be found on the field and in the hospitals. Although the majority fought for the North, those who volunteered for the South were more often more motivated and loyal.
It was the largest non-British war ever fought by British men and women. Never again, not even during the Spanish Civil War, would so many risk their lives on behalf of a foreign cause. There is much to learn much from these forgotten, 19th century witnesses. The eye of the outsider is often sharper than the native, and the British participants had a unique perspective. They belonged to the old world but were at hand to watch the agony and triumph of the new. They were also unwitting diplomatists. The North and South nursed separate grievances against Great Britain. But among ordinary people, the shared experience of battle helped to mitigate hostilities. These were the first bonds, forged in mud and steel, of the special relationship.
Though with the North we sympathize
It must not be forgotten
That with the South we’ve stronger ties
Which are composed of cotton
Punch, 30 March, 1861
It is said that the closeness of siblings can be measured by the intensity of their fights. During the first one hundred years, Britain and the US were almost always arguing about something. Trade, maritime rights, and boundary disputes were the chief tinderlights; a spark from each had the capacity to send troops running to the barricades. Much good such martial spirits did for the belligerents. The war of 1812 ended ignominiously for both sides: the British Army suffered a stunning defeat at New Orleans, but not before it had seized Washington and set fire to the White House.
American anglophobia, already high, increased after 1812. It was positively unhealthy to be suspected of pro-British leanings. Every decade saw some fresh dispute. During the 1840s the quarrel centered on territory, in the 50s a friendly discussion over colonial ambitions in Central America turned into sour recriminations. Yet the two countries were each other’s best customers.
Southern cotton and Northern wheat fired up British factories and fed her workers. In return, manufactured goods and financial investment poured in to a hungry economy that was increasing faster than its population. (Between 1840 and 1860 America doubled from seventeen to thirty-two million.) The South grew richer and more genteel, while the North grew bigger and more powerful as artisans turned into workers, and entrepreneurs became bankers or industrialists. A vast network of railroads, partly financed by British capital, connected the North in a lattice of commerce. By 1860 an English oak dining table could be unloaded in New York on Monday and set for lunch in Chicago on Wednesday.
The same ease of transport enabled British immigrants to avoid the fetid slums of New York and seek a new life in any of the thirty-four states and seven territories of America. There were Englishmen in the New England mills and on the Texas homesteads, Cornishmen in the Wisconsin lead minds, Welshmen in the Ohio collieries, and Scots in the Vermont Quarries and Carolina plantations. Unlike the Germans, Poles, Italians and Irish, who clustered in conspicuous communities in the North, the British tended to integrate very quickly. In the North their sentiments were largely pro-Union and vehemently anti-slavery, while below the Mason-Dixon line they sided with the majority in favour of secession. During his tour of the South, the Times correspondent, Sir William Russell, was surprised to see what a difference a few miles could make to the moral opinions of his compatriots. Among the most articulate defenders of slavery were some of the, ‘British residents, English, Irish and Scotch, who have settled here for trading purposes, and who are frequently slave-holders. These men have no state rights to uphold, but they are convinced of the excellence of things as they are…’
As the bickering between the North and South turned into bitterness, southerners took great satisfaction in pointing out that the world depended on its cotton. In 1858 the loud-voiced Senator from South Carolina, James H. Hammond, spelled it out to a silent Congress. No one dared say no to the South, he declared, not even mighty Britain. Deprived of cotton she, ‘would topple headlong and carry the whole civilized world with her. No, you dare not make war on cotton. No power on earth dares make war on it. Cotton is King.’
The war officially began on 12 April 1861, when the South Carolina artillery pounded the tiny Federal garrison out of Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbour. Understandably, news of the engagement roused secessionism to a fever pitch among southerners. They were absolutely convinced of two things: that the North did not have the stomach for a fight, and that Britain would recognize their independence. They were wrong on both counts.
London remained loudly silent. The government was inclined to recognise the South, but not at the cost of becoming involved in the war. It feared losing southern cotton, and yet did not wish to prop-up a slave economy. The British press, however, suffered no such doubts. Editorials applauded Lincoln and denounced the South as ‘bullies’. The rush of volunteers in the free states added excitement to the reports crossing the Atlantic. These were heady although precarious times. The Secretary of State, William H. Seward, bluntly told Russell, that the North would fight Britain too, if she attempted to interfere. ‘We shall not shrink from it,’ he warned. ‘A contest between the Great Britain and the United States would wrap the world in fire.’
When Britain revealed her hand in May 1861, North and South were equally enraged. Queen Victoria issued a Proclamation of Strict Neutrality. This was far less than what the South had expected, and far more than the North would tolerate. Strict Neutrality recognised the South as a legitimate fighting entity, but also the North’s right to blockade her ports. Britain considered this a fair compromise. But the North considered it tantamount to a recognition of Southern independence. A leading Northern Senator pronounced it ‘the most hateful act of English history since the time of Charles II’.
In theory the Proclamation prohibited British subjects from enlisting in either military service, from violating the Northern blockade, and from fitting out or equipping Union or Confederate vessels for warlike purposes. In practice, people did exactly as they pleased. In the first months of the war, officers, soldiers and ordinary civilians left in droves for America. They joined a mass exodus that included thousands of Germans, Irish and other Europeans. Later, as the Northern blockade increased, Britain also furnished an unofficial navy of blockade runners. ‘Firm after firm,’ recalled an English blockade runner, ‘with an entirely clear conscience, set about endeavouring to recoup itself for the loss of legitimate trade by the high profits to be made out of successful evasions of the Federal cruisers.’ At the height of the war, between 1862-4, Liverpool exhibited an energy and spirit not seen since the bustling days of the Slave Tra de. Seamen who supported the Confederacy scratched the figure of a turkey into the lintels of their houses, a few of which survive to this day.
Altogether, some 50,000 British men and women participated in the war. The South, already disappointed by Britain’s refusal to grant recognition, deeply resented the influx of foreigners who filled the ranks of the Union army. However, as we shall see, it too attracted a sizable number. Moreover, it was the grit and tenacity of the British blockade runners which enabled the Confederate army to enter the field with more than bowie knives. The problem for the South was not a lack of rifles but the dwindling supply of men.
The British involvement in the Civil War has always been a sensitive subject. At the time, Northerners accused Britain of complicity; Southerners, of betrayal. The bitterness engendered by the war no longer taints Anglo-American relations. However, grudging acceptance has come at the cost of historical amnesia. The British who fought alongside Union and Confederate soldiers have disappeared from the picture. With them, the world they inhabited, an Anglo-American world bound by shared ideals, shared dreams and shared kin, has disappeared too.
As cousins by culture and yet strangers by nature, these British adventurers are unrivaled historical witnesses. Moreover, their perspective as both the parent and rival of American civilisation, their experiences of immigration and integration, their understanding of the outsider’s struggle, makes them a talisman for the present. There has never been a book about the bloody pas-de-deux between these closest of strangers.
Historians have, of course, written diplomatic histories of the war; made studies of foreign volunteers; exposed the extent of Federal and Confederate espionage in Britain, described the Confederate naval operations in England, and examined the international reporting of the conflict. But no one – understandably, given the breadth and depth of the research required – has ever drawn all the facets together into a multi-stranded narrative of the Anglo-American world during the Civil War.
A World on Fire’ began as a study of the British volunteers. But eight years of research revealed a vast cyclorama, an immersion of humanity, that demanded its own epic telling. The British volunteers provided a wealth of unique histories. But it was only by placing each one within and alongside the biographies of their neighbour, their enemy, their army, their government, and ultimately the war itself, did the many and the one achieve a synthesis of meaning.
This introduction is a mere glimpse through the embrasure at the intricate panoply of ‘A World on Fire’
Back to Books