The US Civil War is a topic that more or less everyone on both sides of the pond has learned at least a little something about. For us Americans, this is almost certainly more; I know in my school we covered the big battles and perhaps more importantly the many issues underpinning the war’s start and continuation. A World on Fire isn’t just a summary of those things. Instead, it is a history of the Civil War and at the same time a reflection of British and American relations during the war from the perspective of the people who lived through it. Foreman quotes extensively from personal records, letters, and other correspondence in her massive effort to tell the story of the war from different sides.
My edition of this book is subtitled “An Epic History of Two Nations Divided” and it is certainly epic. Coming in at over 800 pages long, in hardcover, reading this book is an undertaking (not least because it’s hard to hold!), but I at least found it a worthy one. Foreman is known very well for her earlier book, Georgiana, the Duchess of Devonshire, which I read and enjoyed well before blogging, so before I even knew what her next book would be about I already suspected I’d be reading it. This is a total change of pace, but it stands up very well in its own right. American history has never been my favorite subject, but I enjoyed reading this and felt like I got a ton out of it, as well as another perspective on a war that still persists strongly in our culture.
Depicting just how closely relations between America and Britain still were is incredibly complex. British men fought for both sides in the war, British ships were involved in blockades, and both sides remained convinced that Britain would play a big part in determining the outcome of the war. All this despite the British government’s continued attempts at neutrality. It is epic in its scope, covering all events of the time in equal measure – Foreman can tell the story of a battle costing thousands of lives alongside a drawing room conversation or dinner that could have as much or as little effect on the war.
To write this book, Foreman draws from an unbelievable amount of sources and quotes from a variety of people. Some of them stick in the mind a bit better than others; Frank Vizetelly was one of my personal favorites. Even though he’s generally on the Confederate side, I loved that his pictures of the war were sprinkled liberally throughout the book. It made him a bit more human, especially when the images of the time are simply stiffly posed photographs. I was saddened to discover the poor guy doesn’t even have a Wikipedia page, but his drawings are around on the internet. Here’s one of the Federal retreat from Bull Run:
Of course, Foreman also includes the big names who ran the governments in all of the countries concerned, as well as the generals and a huge host of lesser soldiers whose letters have survived. We get the perspective of men in England, like Charles Francis Adams, who was ambassador to London during the war, and men in Parliament who were split between the North and the South. I’d learned nothing about this ever previously, aside from the fact that the lack of southern cotton was bad for England, so I was completely fascinated by this side of the story. Canada also plays a part I’d never suspected; at the time it was British North America and thus an obvious front for England. I didn’t even know that anyone in the US had ever hoped to annex Canada, although that should have been obvious. To top it off, the book doesn’t just focus on the men; there are women here, too, both the women loved by the men fighting and women who were passionate about their causes themselves.
In short, this was a book fascinating on many fronts, full of information, both on a small and wide scale. In terms of its mission to depict the the truth of the relations between two countries and how the people of the time felt about them, it succeeds hugely, depicting the events of the war with depth, thought, and consideration. Those who are not history buffs may find it dry and lengthy at times, but those who are obsessed like me will undoubtedly adore A World on Fire. Highly recommended.
I am an Amazon Associate. I received this book for free for review from Amazon Vine.