NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER
10 BEST BOOKS • THE NEW YORK TIMES BOOK REVIEW • 2011
NAMED ONE OF THE BEST BOOKS OF THE YEAR BY
The Washington Post • The New Yorker • Chicago Tribune • The Economist • Nancy Pearl, NPR • Bloomberg.com • Library Journal • Publishers Weekly
In this brilliant narrative, Amanda Foreman tells the fascinating story of the American Civil War—and the major role played by Britain and its citizens in that epic struggle. Between 1861 and 1865, thousands of British citizens volunteered for service on both sides of the Civil War. From the first cannon blasts on Fort Sumter to Lee’s surrender at Appomattox, they served as officers and infantrymen, sailors and nurses, blockade runners and spies. Through personal letters, diaries, and journals, Foreman introduces characters both humble and grand, while crafting a panoramic yet intimate view of the war on the front lines, in the prison camps, and in the great cities of both the Union and the Confederacy. In the drawing rooms of London and the offices of Washington, on muddy fields and aboard packed ships, Foreman reveals the decisions made, the beliefs held and contested, and the personal triumphs and sacrifices that ultimately led to the reunification of America.
“Engrossing . . . a sprawling drama.”—The Washington Post
“Eye-opening . . . immensely ambitious and immensely accomplished.”—The New Yorker
WINNER OF THE FLETCHER PRATT AWARD FOR CIVIL WAR HISTORY
In a dramatic change of pace, Foreman, author of the bestselling Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, fulfills her goal of capturing "the many relationships that together formed the British-American experience during the Civil War," from diplomatic maneuvers on both sides of the Atlantic to the sagas of British volunteers in the Union and Confederate armies. Weaving eyewitness accounts into an overview of the war's progress is tricky, particularly since Foreman includes vivid personality sketches of a very large cast of characters. But her massive text slowly comes into focus as we get to know such British participants as Illustrated London News correspondent Frank Vizetelly, whose wartime drawings are the book's visual highlight, and feisty Americans abroad, like Confederate propagandist Henry Hotze, whose masterful manipulation of the English press helped win the South sympathizers in a country where detestation of slavery was nearly universal. The North, meanwhile, struggled to repair relations after the 1861 seizure of two Confederate agents from a British ship. Whether Britain's role in the Civil War was "crucial" remains debatable, but Foreman amply offers a new perspective on the war in an elegantly written work of old-fashioned narrative history. 32 pages of b&w photos; photos throughout; maps.
One of the Best Histories I
A World on Fire is a wonderful book. If you like reading popular histories you won't go wrong here. Ms. Foreman is a skilled wordsmith whose prose just draws you into the truly alien world of 19th Century England and America. I learned much while smiling, sometimes laughing, and occasionally arguing with the text in my hands. Really good stuff.
The only negative that comes readily to mind is an occasional anti-American bias. Ms. Foreman repeatedly reminds us of the anti-British feeling in America before the Civil War as if it were the most outrageously unjust thing imaginable. Consider, Ms. Foreman, if England had been invaded twice within forty years by the same rapacious empire -- would Brits feel kindly about their invaders? She also mentions the (what I perceive to be) false equivalency of English soldiers burning the White House and Congress with American soldiers having previously rampaged through Montreal during the War of 1812. I think many Americans of the nineteenth century would have happily traded burning an American state capital in payment for Montreal, the seat of a province of the British Empire, in exchange for burning the House of Commons and Buckingham Palace, and called it even.
Stepping around bias droppings is not hard, and what ground has not been contaminated is strewn with with wit, character, history and commentary drawn from letters, diaries, and newspaper reports of the period. I am not much interested is her previous work, Georgiana: Duchess of Devonshire, owing to the subject matter, but I look forward to her next book. She is a talent and her work is worthy of the narrowest of shelves.
Well Worth Your Time
I read this after reading a positive review in The Economist, and I cannot recommend it highly enough. The "external perspective" this book gives to the U.S. Civil War is eye opening, and will reward the investment of your money, time, and attention.