A World on Fire : An Epic History of Two Nations Divided, Paperback Book

A World on Fire : An Epic History of Two Nations Divided Paperback

3.5 out of 5 (1 rating)


'No two nations have ever existed on the face of the earth which could do each other so much good or so much harm'President Buchanan, State of the Nation Address, 1859A World on Fire tells, with extraordinary sweep, one of the least known great stories of British and American history.

As America descended into Civil War, British loyalties were torn between support for the North, which was against slavery, and defending the South, which portrayed itself as bravely fighting for its independence.

Rallying to their respective causes, thousands of Britons went to America as soldiers - fighting for both Union and Confederacy - racing ships through the Northern blockades, and as observers, nurses, adventurers, guerillas and spies.

At the heart of this international conflict lay a complicated and at times tortuous relationship between four individuals: Lord Lyons, the painfully shy British Ambassador in Washington; William Seward, the blustering US Secretary of State; Charles Francis Adams, the dry but fiercely patriotic U.S. ambassador in London; and the restless and abrasive Foreign Secretary Lord John Russell.

Despite their efforts, and sometimes as a result of them, America and Britain came within a whisker of declaring war on each other twice in four years.

The diplomatic story is only one element in this gloriously multifaceted book.

Using a wealth of previously unpublished letters and journals, Amanda Foreman gives fresh accounts of Civil War battles by seeing them through the eyes of British journalists and myriad soldiers on both sides, from flamboyant cavalry commanders to forcibly conscripted private soldiers.

She also shows how the War took place in England, from the Confederacy's secret ship-building programme in Liverpool to the desperate efforts of its propagandists and emissaries - male and female - to influence British public opinion.

She even shows how one of the most famous set-piece naval encounters of the War was fought, remarkably, in the English Channel.

Foreman tells this epic yet intimate story of enormous personalities, tense diplomacy and torn loyalties as history in the round, captivating her readers with the experience of total immersion in this titanic conflict.


  • Format: Paperback
  • Pages: 1040 pages
  • Publisher: Penguin Books Ltd
  • Publication Date:
  • Category: General & world history
  • ISBN: 9780141040585

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While the Sesquicentennial of the American Civil War is fast approaching its first anniversary, a breathtaking title that challenges the historiographical orthodoxy has yet to appear (Foner's masterful examination of Abraham Lincoln's changing stance on slavery is the strongest contender to date.). Re-establishing the international context of the war is one of the promising areas. The Civil War started as a agrarian reactionary counter-revolution that was defeated by the industrialized North. In order to sustain the war, the North had to resort to a number of progressive innovations such as an income tax and the abolishment of slavery. No wonder that The Economist was no fan of Abraham Lincoln. One of the early and key battlefields was the opinion not of mankind but a limited number of key states, foremost among them Great Britain. As the world's dominant power, a center of finance and major arms supplier, Great Britain was in the position to decide the outcome of the war. Its neutrality, severely tested by boorish US actions such as the Trent affair, guaranteed a Northern victory. Amanda Foreman's effort to write "an epic history of two nations divided" offers the possibility of examining the British influence on the war. While she succeeds quite well at capturing the reader, the main flaw of her approach is that the British influence became unimportant in the war of attrition after the Emancipation Proclamation. Thus, Great Britain is an important player from 1860 to 1863. Afterwards, not so much. Foreman tries to keep up the epic spirit in the second half of the book, hyping indecisive blockade runners and intrigues in England and Canada, Severe cuts to the second half of the book would have made a far stronger case for the British influence and a better read.Her epic history told through British eyes suffers from the effect that most foreigners stay in the big cities and along the seaboard. A phenomenon that one can witness also in most American accounts of the Iraq War. The Civil War, however, was a continental war. The war in the West and in Tennessee are accorded too little space, especially compared to the extensive treatment of the hare-brained Confederate incursions from Canada. She often fails to truly discuss the Southern bias of many of her sources. Their reporting gives the book a pro-South bias unwarranted by the facts, e.g. she quotes the British war tourist LTC Fremantle on the good behavior of the Confederate forces during the Gettysburg campaign, which, apart from the war crime of enslaving free blacks, was a brutal requisition of all movable goods (see Brown's Retreat from Gettysburg for examples). On the positive side, the best character in her book is the misanthropic factotum in the American Legation in London, Benjamin Moran: Meanly denying African American "non-citizens" passports (in accordance with US policy at the time), complaining about his superiors, the American royal Adams family, and about the British. BY the time of the American Civil War, the British and the Americans had developed quite a number of national peculiarities. One joy of reading the book is noting how little has changed. The American aversion to international law is reflected in the American unwillingness to join the Paris Declaration Respecting Maritime Law of 1856 because it wanted to reserve its right to employ privateers (a nicer name for pirates).Overall, an excellent read up to the battle of Gettysburg that gets lost in the author's chase of side shows in the second half to last third of the book. Recommended.