The Magazine

Over There

The American Civil War from the vantage point of London.

Oct 17, 2011, Vol. 17, No. 05 • By JONATHAN LEAF
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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.