A World on Fire: An Epic History of Two Nations Divided by Amanda Foreman

The Times
Joanna Bourke
November 6th 2010

Amanda Foreman triumphs with a formidable and fluent history shedding new light on the horrors of the American Civil War

Amanda Foreman invites controversy. Ten years ago she published an outstanding biography of Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire. Unfortunately, though, she will always be remembered as the historian who posed nude inTatler, her body partially concealed behind a pile of books.

I never quite understood the hullabaloo. It was hardly an original idea. Foreman’s girlish pose was more reminiscent of a calendar by the Women’s Institute than a photoshoot in Playboy. And hadn’t Germaine Greer done something similar in the 1970s, although for the much more downbeat alternative magazine Oz? However, one of The Guardian’s most outstanding journalists — Kathryn Hughes — lost her customary cool, claiming that Foreman had single-handedly devalued the biographer’s skill.

Hughes accused Foreman of doing “an accidental disservice to biography in general, and to young women biographers in particular”. Hughes went on to make some very astute comments about unrealistic deadlines being set by publishers (increasingly under the sway of their sales departments), forcing authors to produce books deemed trendy and easy to research from the comfort of a reasonably well-equipped personal study. Less discerning critics of Foreman seemed to think that accusing her of being “glamorous” absolved them from criticising her work.

This is a pity because Foreman is a formidable biographer and historian. Her biography of Georgiana clearly deserved the prestigious Whitbread Prize — now the Costa — in 1998. She is part of a group of independent biographers and historical novelists who have transformed popular history, in its written and filmic modes. This group includes stars such as Stella Tillyard — author of an elegant history of four 18th-century aristocrats and a forthcoming historical novel about war and the British Regency between 1812 and 1815 — as well as Hilary Mantel, whose bestselling Wolf Hall, a fictional account of Thomas Cromwell that won the Man Booker prize, has revived this much-maligned character.

But it was with trepidation that I turned to Foreman’s new epic: a history of the American Civil War from 1861 to 1865. She claimed to be placing the war in its international context and, particularly, the involvement of British statesmen and soldiers. Could she make the transition from being a biographer of a duchess to writing a political and social history of a vicious war that transformed Anglo-American history?

After all, it is important to recognise that the conflict was not only about 11 Southern slave states attempting to secede from the United States, or the Union, to form the Confederate States of America. It was also about the relationship of Britain to the former colonies. Twice in those four years, America and Britain nearly declared war on each other. The eminent Times journalist William Howard Russell warned his readers of the likelihood that they would be embroiled in any conflict: the war was about one side fighting for “empire, and the other for independence”, he noted. William Henry Seward, the US Secretary of State, was even more blunt. If Britain forced the United States into war, “We will wrap the whole world in flames!” he thundered. “No power so remote that she will not feel the fire of our battle and be burned by our conflagration.” Foreman’s book — entitled A World on Fire, after Seward’s threat — shows that the 1861-65 civil war was not waged only on American soil but in the English Channel and in the political powerhouses of British government and industry.

I should not have been anxious. This book of nearly 1,000 pages is as comprehensive as any single study can be. Foreman provides a clear account of the full range of complex characters involved in this international conflict. She deals as fluently with the diplomatic shenanigans of the American President, US Secretary of State, British Foreign Secretary and ambassadors as she does with the experiences of millions of soldiers and sailors on both sides. More than 620,000 of them were killed. Innumerable numbers of them went mad.

What is often forgotten is that about 50,000 civilians were also slaughtered and many more had their lives ruined. As a US military surgeon in the 21st Kentucky Infantry explained to his wife on June 29, 1864: “It has been almost one continued stream of carnage. My hands are constantly steaped [sic] in blood. I have had them in blood and water so much that the nails are soft and tender. I have amputated limbs until it makes my heart ache to see a poor fellow coming in the ambulance … the horror of this war can never be half told.”

Foreman succeeds in conveying at least a sense of this horror. She does this by immersing herself in the lives of about 200 men, women and children. She has done her homework, having trawled dozens of archives and private collections for the voices of the protagonists. Her knowledge of tactics, armaments and diplomacy is impressive. The key players in the conflict are meticulously analysed, not only for their ideas, motivations and strategies, but also for their personalities and appearance.

Thus, we learn in a letter from English volunteer James Horrocks that the Union commander Benjamin Butler looked like a “bloated-looking bladder of lard”. He urged his parents to “Call before your mental vision a sack full of muck … And then imagine four enormous German sausages fixed to the extremities of the sack in lieu of arms and legs”. It is an image of the infamous commander that is perfectly consistent with his reputation as “Beast Butler”.

All sides fought this war aggressively. Recruiters, known as “crimpers”, kidnapped young men to force them into military service. Hardly surprisingly, these soldiers turned out to be more of a hindrance than a help; they had little loyalty and their discipline was abysmal. Even General Isaac Wistar admitted that kidnapped soldiers did not view desertion as a crime, but as “a vindication of their rights and liberty”. Volunteer Horrocks concurred, admitting that “If I was in England or in the English service, I should consider that it was a shame and a sin to desert”. But “in the land of the Yankee Doodle”, desertion is “regarded universally as a smart thing and the person who does it a dem’d [sic] smart fellow”. Looting, abusing prisoners, firing on civilians and rape were part of this tumultuous conflict.

Foreman gives us many poignant vignettes to help us to appreciate the everyday traumas of war. For example, the Battle of Shiloh took place on April 7, 1862 in Tennessee. It was the first battle involving mass slaughter. Just before the charge, and not knowing what was to come, a young boy standing next to Welsh volunteer Henry Stanley of the “Dixie Grays” bent down to pick violets, which he stuck in his cap. “They are a sign of peace,” he said, adding: “Perhaps they won’t shoot me if they see me wearing such flowers.”

No such luck. Later, Stanley again came across this young boy: his foot had been shot away and he was pleading with the other retreating men not to abandon him. In fear of his own life, Stanley found himself running over the dismembered bodies of his comrades. As he later recalled with a shudder, the dead “lay thick as the sleepers in a London Park on a bank holiday”.

There is much that is new in this epic book, but Foreman does well to remind her readers of some basic facts. For instance, she observes that the issue of slavery was an embarrassment to both sides until late in the conflict. Clearly, it was not in the Southerners’ advantage to claim to be fighting (in John Stuart Mill’s evocative phase) for the right “of burning human creatures alive”. But British supporters of the Union were also ambivalent. After all, the British economy was highly dependent on Southern cotton — and that cotton was picked by slaves. Knowing this, and in an attempt to get Britain to intervene on their behalf, the Southerners placed an embargo on cotton exports — a tactic that could have worked had the British not been able to increase cultivation in India and Egypt.

The war did not have a neat conclusion. By the end, however, General Ulysses S. Grant of the victorious Union would be the commander-in-chief of the largest army in the world — more than one million armed men. Within 18 months this number had dwindled to 65,000. This was a nation desperate for peace. As British-born Elizabeth Blackwell, who had spent the war training nurses at the New York Infirmary for Women and Children, explained in a letter to a friend: “You cannot hardly understand and I cannot explain how our private lives have all become interwoven with the life of the nation’s. No one who has not lived through it can understand the bond between those who have … Neither is it possible without this intense and prolonged experience to estimate the keen personal suffering that has entered into every household and saddened every life.”

The war was over, but the pain of reconstruction was just beginning. Foreman’s archive-rich evocation of this civil war is an eloquent testimony to her powers as an historian and storyteller.

Joanna Bourke is Professor of History, Birkbeck College, and the author ofRape: A History (Virago)

‘He levelled his gun at me and pulled the trigger’
William Howard Russell’s report for The Times on the First Battle of Bull Run, July 21, 1861, when the Union Army was routed:

What occurred at the hill I cannot say, but all the road from Centreville for miles presented such a sight as can only be witnessed in the track of the runaways of an utterly demoralised army. Drivers flogged, lashed, spurred, and beat their horses, or leaped down and abandoned their teams, and ran by the side of the road. Mounted men, servants, and men in uniform, vehicles of all sorts … thronged the narrow ways. At every shot a convulsion as it were seized upon the morbid mass of bones, sinew, wood, and iron, and thrilled through it, giving new energy and action to its desperate efforts to get free from itself. Again the cry of “Cavalry” arose. “What are you afraid of?” said I to a man who was running, beside me. “I’m not afraid of you,” replied the ruffian, levelling his piece at me and pulling the trigger … Let the American journals tell the story their own way. I have told mine as I know it.

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