Blogs > HNN > Lee Ruddin, Review of "A World on Fire: Britian's Crucial Role in the American Civil War" (Random House, 2011)

Dec 9, 2010 1:30 pm


Lee Ruddin, Review of "A World on Fire: Britian's Crucial Role in the American Civil War" (Random House, 2011)



[Lee Ruddin is Roundup Editor at HNN. He lives in England.]

Much has been said about the Anglo-French military treaty.  Historian Andrew Roberts, writing in the Wall Street Journal, called it the “Entente Suicidal.”  John Bolton went even further, warning David Cameron that London’s defense pact with Paris could undermine its relationship with Washington.  Speaking to the Daily Mail, the former U.S. ambassador to the UN said that the deal to share nuclear secrets as well as aircraft carriers—dubbed the Entente Frugale given its cost-saving measures—would lead to a cut in transatlantic intelligence sharing.  

Let us hope it does not come to this, though, and that diplomatic sense prevails, since, as Bolton stresses, the special relationship “relies on intelligence sharing”—much of which, needless to say, the United States does not “share with France.”  You need only refer to the recent Yemen bomb plot to appreciate this, however, as President Obama evidently does given the rapidity with which he expressed gratitude towards Prime Minister Cameron for his cooperation in helping to prevent U.S.-bound planes reaching its eastern shore with an explosive payload. 

That said, you still get the impression that commentators on both sides of the Atlantic are grossly exaggerating any future fallout.  Thankfully, though, Amanda Foreman, author of Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire and winner of the Whitbread Prize for Best Biography in 1998, helps put this latest diplomatic spat into historical context with her new book, A World on Fire.  Telling the story of British involvement in the American Civil War and illuminating the strain events of 1861-1865 placed upon Anglo-American relations, it is recommended reading for those who believe today is the nadir of the special relationship.

I say this for the simple reason that, as angry as people are about the war in Afghanistan, you do not hear of Britons writing letters to the U.S. Embassy in London threatening to cut American throats.  And yet, this is what a letter to Charles Francis Adams at the U.S. legation threatened in 1863.  The anonymous letter is just one interesting fact among many dramatic episodes and even more colorful characters (197 in all, including soldiers, mercenaries, politicians, spies, journalists, diplomats, doctors and nurses who, on both sides of “the pond,” chronicled their experiences during the mid-nineteenth century) brought to life by Foreman in what is a sweeping 800-page narrative on a topic long overlooked.  A decade’s worth of research ensures that Foreman’s work is near-perfect; it is her mid-ocean perspective, however—born in London and brought up in Los Angeles, educated at Columbia and then researcher at Oxford—that ensures, some would contend, her work is considered pioneering.

Writing in the Literary Review, Saul David says “Foreman is the ideal guide for this fascinating tale of diplomatic intrigue and skulduggery.”  The military historian is both right and wrong in his comments here.  A World on Fire, to be sure, is no “historical Mills & Boon” that Tudor historian David Starkey has come to expect from “quite pretty” females whose names “usually begin and end with A.”  The fact remains, however, Foreman is still regarded by some in the academic world (most notably Kathryn Hughes) as an author of “popular” history.

Any sort of Civil War book, you would think, especially one containing a British dimension, would be welcome as we approach the Sesquicentennial.  Not so, however.  News that the 42-year-old visited the city of Liverpool after her manuscript had been sent to the publishers and just before it was about to hit bookshelves only adds insult to injury.  “This is the first time she has seen many of the British places she has written about,” Amy Turner reports in a Sunday Times feature.

American born, British-based historian Dr. Tom Sebrell is diplomatic enough not to be drawn into an academic tit-for-tat with Foreman on the audaciousness of her comment “look, it’s my book-buying public!” when joined by a group of tourists at the offices of Fraser and Trenholm down by the docks.  What is more, he is simply too professional.  Cognizant of the time the historical consultant for the American Civil War tourism packages (advertised in the U.S. by UK-based Select Travel Service) has invested in Liverpool, however, meeting with local enthusiasts, museum curators and (un)elected officials in order to make the commemoration a focus for tourism, I cannot help but think of Sebrell as a more “ideal guide” to tell “this fascinating tale of diplomatic intrigue and skulduggery.”  

This is not to say, though, that Foreman’s book is not worth obtaining.  Indeed, if her “popular” history adds to the popularity of Sebrell’s American Civil War Experience Walking Tours in London and Liverpool (organized by Queen Mary and John Moores, respectfully) as well as the already established Wirral Civil War Heritage Trail produced by the American Civil War Round Table (UK), then so much the better.  Since, like Foreman, says Sebrell in the latest edition of American Studies Today, his “project will also prove valuable in addressing the greater issue of Anglo-American relations.”  More recent tensions, such as those mentioned above, he concludes, “make analysing Britain’s near entry into the American Civil War even more necessary.”

Foreman’s late show in Liverpool is the least of her concerns, however, when compared with the fact some readers will undoubtedly feel short changed by the omission of a bibliography.  Granted, Foreman provides over a hundred pages of endnotes.  But I am surprised Lincoln’s Man in Liverpool: Consul Dudley and the Legal Battle to Stop Confederate Ships (2007), written by Coy F. Cross II, is not utilized.  I am equally amazed David Seed’s (ed.) American Travellers in Liverpool (2008) is not consulted, if less perplexed that John Hussey’s Confederates, Cotton and Cruisers: Liverpool Waterfront in the Days of the Confederacy (2008) does not feature.  I am pleased, however, to see the author Duncan Andrew Campbell referenced.  His 2007 work, Unlikely Allies: Britain, America and the Victorian Origins of the Special Relationship, is, as reviewer William Anthony Hay pens, a “well-written overview of its subject that offers newcomers a thorough introduction.”

The same, regrettably, cannot be said for Foreman’s second book, notwithstanding the (twenty-plus) maps, (sixty-plus) illustrations and (eighty-plus) plates.  As Sam Leith writes in the Spectator, “This is a very long book, and I don’t think it an insult to Amanda Foreman to say that you’d have to be pretty interested in the American Civil War to pick through its detail-crowded pages. And you’ll need to pay attention.”  As a consequence, those without a postgraduate degree in Civil War history are instructed to walk past good bookstores to join the heritage trails before purchasing a copy.  Then, and only then, will Foreman’s words—“look, it’s my book-buying public!”—a chance of ringing true.




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bill farrell - 1/11/2011

This is a rotten piece. It is badly written and it says nothing. Please get a competent historian to review this book.