The Magazine

Over There

The American Civil War from the vantage point of London.

Oct 17, 2011, Vol. 17, No. 05 • By JONATHAN LEAF
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

Mark Twain once said that it was more interesting to talk to Civil War veterans about battles than to chat with poets about the moon as the versifiers had not ordinarily been to the moon.

Painting of a Ship Sinking

Sinking of the CSS Alabama (1864)

CMSP Education / Newscom

This consciousness informs this splendid new history of Anglo-American relations during the Civil War. The author of a popular biography of the promiscuous and unstable Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, Amanda Foreman makes wide and effective use of firsthand accounts of important state meetings and original diplomatic correspondence. The result is engrossing and ultimately affirmative, but not triumphalist.

Indeed, Foreman sees many of her principal actors as equal parts fool and charlatan, and as a Briton, she is not always inclined to accept the standard hagiographical portraits. Thus, her depiction of Robert E. Lee in the hours before his surrender at Appomattox is not so gallant, and her view of the Union Army gives prominence to its incessant looting and brigandage when it was let loose in the South. Foreman makes clear that, while this latter practice was refined and enlarged upon by General Sherman in his March to the Sea, he was not the first Northern general to incite theft
and immolation.

The author’s take on the Civil War is of equal parts tragedy and irony. The sardonic and detached perspective is most prompted by Secretary of State William Seward: In Foreman’s view, he was a monstre sacré, pompous and self-inflated but also frequently petulant, insecure, irrational, and bullying. Confronted by the Confederate siege of Fort Sumter, he initially proposed to President Lincoln that they reunite the country by provoking a war with Britain, and throughout the war he threatened Lord Palmerston’s government with suggestions that the United States would seek to wrest Canada away from the Crown. In this way he dimmed the initial sympathy displayed by British abolitionists (and Palmerston himself) for the Union side.

Palmerston and Lord John Russell’s Liberal government was being pressed in the opposite direction by the agents of the Confederacy in England, by leading members of their own government (including William Gladstone), and by Napoleon III. Their hostility to America arose not only because they saw the United States as an unwelcome potential rival; it was founded as well in a detestation of our democratic character, and in a fear that universal manhood suffrage might be coming soon to England: “mobocracy.” In the minds of Gladstone and many sympathizers of the South, Northern opposition to slavery was hypocrisy and cant. The British press emphasized the disenfranchisement of black freedmen in the North, frequently suggesting that abolition might be more readily effected in the South if the two sections separated than if they remained together.

This misperception was fostered by the hiring and bribing of journalists by Confederate agents, but much more crucial were the active misrepresentations put forward by unpaid, but partisan, field reporters. Not uncharacteristic was this account of General Grant’s tunnel attack at Petersburg, which appeared in the Times: “Richmond never laughed more scornfully at the puny onslaught of her foe.”

The influence of this bias was such that most British intellectuals initially wrote off the Emancipation Proclamation as a cynical and insubstantial ploy by Lincoln to win foreign support for the war without actually freeing slaves. Yet the Proclamation did force Palmerston to temporize on whether or not to recognize the Confederacy. This was not an abstract concern for Lincoln and Seward: Britain was the world’s largest creditor nation at the time, and recognition would have greatly expanded the South’s capacity to finance its rebellion and diminished the North’s borrowing power, altering the economic course of the war.

It would also have made it possible for the Confederacy to take from British drydocks the ships for a modern navy. An indication of how significant this might have been lies in the example of one commerce raider that the South did manage to sneak out of England: The CSS Alabama captured and laid waste to more than 65 Northern merchant ships and inflicted more than
$6 million in damage ($129 million, adjusted for inflation). Because the Confederates had few such ships, the main practical consequence of such attacks was to cause Northern merchant insurance fees to skyrocket. But plainly, a broader campaign—akin to what Germany attempted with its U-boats in the two world wars—would have vastly complicated Union war efforts. Moreover, until late in the war, the South was able to move large quantities of cotton and tobacco overseas for sale, and with the proceeds acquired masses of guns, uniforms, even much of its
food supply.

If Foreman has a hero in her tale, besides Abraham Lincoln, it is Britain’s minister to Washington, Lord Lyons, a diffident and socially awkward figure who tended to identify his servants by their shoes as he did not like looking them in the eye. He consistently advised Palmerston to avoid making a decision on the recognition issue. This routine, in which Palmerston repeatedly delayed implementing a shift in policy, eventually proved definitive: By 1864 the Union had a million-man army, and at that point, Britain no longer had confidence it could defeat the North if war between the two countries broke out.

A World on Fire does raise a larger question: Why were Anglo-American relations so fraught, prior to 1861—and why have they been, ever since, so close? The puzzle is made more confounding by a simple fact: When the Civil War began there were two-and-a-half million British subjects living in America. Many were not-yet-naturalized Irish and Canadian immigrants rather than people from Great Britain itself. Still, this number represents nearly 9 percent of the total white population of the North and South. The role of the British consuls during the war was as much tied to acting on behalf of nationals serving in the two armies (or captured and held prisoner) as it was to exchanging diplomatic messages. And as Foreman shows, Britons served in important roles in both armies.

If there is any single lesson to be gleaned from all this it is that “soft power” is only of use when applied to representative governments, and even then its value is modest. That Northern soldiers sang “John Brown’s Body” as they marched had no influence on the machinations of Napoleon III. And even in Britain, the moral dimension of the American Civil War had limited influence on the views and allegiances of the educated public. Then, as now, the more reliably significant factors in wartime were national wealth and creditworthiness, strength of arms and industrial capacity.

Jonathan Leaf is a playwright in New York.