What Drove the Terrible War?

The Union War

by Gary W. Gallagher
Harvard University Press, 215 pp., $27.95
Library of Congress
‘Fate of the Rebel Flag’; lithograph published by William Schaus in 1861, based on a painting by William Bauly

As we begin to move through four years of commemorating the sesquicentennial of the American Civil War, the outpouring of new books will add to that conflict’s status as the most-written-about event in our history. One of the largest of these volumes—in length as well as scope—is Amanda Foreman’s spacious narrative of Anglo-American and Anglo-Confederate relations during the war. Born in England, raised in Los Angeles, and residing in London and New York, Foreman is well qualified to write about “Britain’s crucial role in the American Civil War.” This subtitle as well as her main title (“A World on Fire”) might strike some as an exercise in hyperbole. The book mainly covers the North Atlantic world, and the British government and armed forces did not intervene in the Civil War.

But many British subjects did: as soldiers of fortune who fought on both sides (often in violation of Britain’s Foreign Enlistment Act); as officers and crews of blockade-running ships carrying supplies into Confederate ports and cotton out of them; as Confederate financial agents in Liverpool and in transshipment ports for blockade runners in the Bahamas, Bermuda, and Halifax; and as crew members (commanded by Confederate officers) in a half-dozen commerce-raiding ships built in Britain that captured or destroyed most of the 257 merchant ships and whalers lost to raiders during the war. And the fires that sank these ships did light up many of the world’s oceans from the waters off the Brazilian coast to the Bering Sea.

These activities were probably not “crucial” to the war’s outcome. But Britain’s official nonintervention was like the dog that did not bark in the Sherlock Holmes story. It played an important part in the North’s ultimate victory because any such intervention would have favored the Confederacy. Some form of intervention did come close to happening more than once, however. When Britain (followed by other nations) granted the Confederacy status as a belligerent power under international law in May 1861 and declared its neutrality in the conflict, Union Secretary of State William H. Seward thundered his protest and warned of war if the British took the next step and recognized Confederate nationhood.

But the Lincoln administration had already in effect recognized the Confederacy’s belligerent status by proclaiming a blockade of Southern ports, and this crisis passed. It was replaced by a new one in November 1861 when a zealous Union naval captain, Charles Wilkes of the USS San Jacinto, stopped the British passenger and mail steamer Trent on the high seas and took off James Mason and John Slidell, Confederate emissaries on their way to London and Paris. The British government angrily condemned this violation of neutral rights and threatened war with the United States unless the diplomats were…

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