In the immortal advice to a tourist were I start to a journey into examining the American Civil War it wouldn't be from this point. By any standards "A World on Fire" by Amanda Foreman is a big narrative history which self proclaims itself to be "epic" in its title and it certainly is a beast when its comes to size (frankly my arm ached holding it) and scale amounting to 816 pages of narrative and a further 100+ of detailed sources. Some other reviewers have rightly complained about the lack of a bibliography. All I would say was that if one was added you would need to take our hernia insurance to read this book, although the lavish illustrations are some compensation.
Foreman's underpinning concept is however a very interesting angle namely a transatlantic view of the American civil war one of the most fascinating of all modern conflicts and which has attracted huge historical attention. Thus rather than another book primarily about the "usual suspects" namely Lincoln, Lee, Sherman, Grant and Forest we have a different set of protagonists most notably Lord Lyons the UK ambassador to Washington and possibly one of the most introverted men who ever lived; US Secretary of State William Seward already charted in humongous detail in Doris Kearns Goodwin's truly epic "Team of Rivals"; Charles Francis Adams the grandson of the great John Adams and US ambassador to the Court St James and the spiky Lord John Russell the English Whig and Liberal politician who served twice as Prime Minister of the United Kingdom in the mid-19th century and was the Foreign Secretary throughout the course of the Civil War.
Coming from the premise that the Civil War was an international conflict allows Foreman to weave a huge narrative that charts the fact many years before the Spanish civil War thousands of people from these isles were inspired to fight in this conflict which prefigured uncannily much of the carnage of the First World War. One of these was Dr Livingstone's great chum and fickle Welshman Henry Stanley who started off with the confederate Company E, 6th Arkansas Regiment of Volunteers and who learned the "rebel yell" at the Battle of Shiloh which he described as "wave after wave of human voices, louder than all other battle sounds together". Stanley was eventually taken prisoner where he promptly deserted and joined the Union all before his great African adventures. In another quirk of fate David Livingstone's son Robert died in a Confederate prison camp.
Britain was also of course THE great super power at this time American politicians particularly those in the Confederacy were desperate to gain British patronage and recognition in the maelstrom which followed. Foreman usefully highlights how the pro Northern Faction of MPs in the House of Commons led by the great John Bright and William Foster managed to hold back the tide of pro confederacy support particularly from those MPs with links to "King Cotton". Yet British neutrality was strained throughout the conflict and Foreman charts incidents such as the boarding of the British ship the Trent in 1861 which became a source of high irritation and intense friction in the conduct of British foreign policy. By any standards this conflict was a headache for Britain not least around a conflict of principled opposition to slavery abolished here in 1833 but in turn a desire to be a key player in the strategic and lucrative transatlantic trade around cotton. If the world wasn't complicated enough British Foreign Policy was also was grappling at the same time with Napoleon III's ambitions in Europe and Bismarck's rise in Germany.
The value of Foreman's book then is to come at the conflict from a vantage point that has been heavily neglected. She clearly has invested her heart and soul in the book although some of her facts are somewhat wayward (her summary of the Wilderness campaign for example is confusing) and some editing would not gone amiss. That said her chapters which chart the confederates procuring supplies and men particularly in Liverpool are fascinating and you genuinely can learn many facts and new dimensions of the war from this book that have hitherto been submerged. Thus as stated above this book it not a starting point for a study of the American Civil War. The curious reader would be wise to seek out James MacPherson's staggering "Battle Cry of Freedom" as a starter or Ken Burns brilliant documentary series the "American Civil War" which is often shown on television. Foreman's weighty tome is far more specialist but is full of insights and a damn good read for Civil War aficionado's.
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