A World on Fire, 3
I finished Amanda Foreman’s long history A World on Fire: Britain’s Crucial Role in the American Civil War two Fridays ago. I had started it back in March, when I wrote my initial post. Then I proceeded to read in spurts, stopping to read other books, until with 300 pages to go, it finally got hold of me and I stayed with it to the end (writing this post two weeks ago).
I have already quoted Rick Hertzberg’s comment in his detailed New Yorker review, in which he described the book as
an immensely ambitious and immensely accomplished—and just plain immense—work of narrative art. At a third of a million words sprawled over nearly a thousand pages, “A World on Fire” is not far south of “War and Peace.” Yet the pages fly like the wind—like “Gone with the Wind”—because there’s so much life, so much action, and so many vivid people in them.
I largely agree, but somehow I had to read hundreds of pages before fully succumbing. Not that the pages didn’t fly. When reading, I had a hard time putting it aside. But once aside, the book seemed almost a burden to return to, knowing I had barely made a dent in it and had so much else I wanted to read.
In any case, three closing thoughts.
1. One of Foreman’s recurring themes in her account of US-British relations during the war is the practice of crimping—the kidnapping and illegal conscription of British subjects. I’ll quote from some of her discussions, as doing so will give a sense of how she conveys relations between the US and UK through the testimony of people large and small.
Among those crimped is
twenty-one-year-old Edward Sewell from Ipswich, who had arrived in 1862 to work as a mechanic for a New York firm. He had been kidnapped in May while riding on the train to work: “I sat by myself in the corner and believe I began to doze [wrote Sewell]. About three or four in the afternoon I woke up and found myself on board a steam-packet on its way to Hart’s Island… . I found that I was in uniform as a soldier, and had been robbed of my money, jewels, and clothes except a ring on my finger.
Foreman explains elsewhere that Richard Lyons, the British ambassador in Washington, “suspected that forced enlistments in the Federal army would continue until the War Department ceased to regard the practice as a necessary evil to make up for the shortfalls in the draft,” then quotes General Isaac Wistar, who writes General John Dix in New York to object to the practice after “watching the execution of two such victims for attempting to desert”:
Nearly all are foreigners, mostly sailors both ignorant of and indifferent to the objects of the war in which they thus suddenly find themselves involved. Two men were shot here this morning for desertion; and over thirty more are now awaiting trial or execution. These examples are essential as we all understand but, it occurred to me, General, that you would pardon me for thus calling your attention to the great crime committed in New York of kidnapping these men into positions where, to their ignorance desertion must seem like a vindication of their rights and liberty.
2. Foreman brings the war to a close with great economy, yet surprising power, as Lee decides to surrender to Grant at Appomattox. And then, suddenly, Lincoln is dead, a tale told with equal economy and power. Foreman follows with a fascinating description of Jefferson Davis’s path from Richmond, Virginia, to Hilton Head, South Carolina, where he is captured a month after Lee’s surrender. Much of this is reported by British artist and war correspondent Frank Vizetelly, who appears throughout the book both as a character and through a selection of his drawings.
Vizetelly’s final sketch showed Davis in Washington, Georgia, on May 4, shaking hands with the officers of his guard. “It was here that President Davis determined to continue his flight almost alone,” wrote Vizetelly. “With tears in his eyes he begged them to seek their own safety and leave him to meet his fate.”
Davis, now realizing the extreme folly of attracting attention, made up a new identity as a Texas politician on his way home. Vizetelly’s continued presence only endangered the party, and the journalist accepted that it was time for him to leave. Just before he rode away some time on or shortly after May 5, Vizetelly pressed a £50 note into Davis’s hand, which would be enough to pay for the entire family to sail to England, third class.
The next time Vizetelly had a report of the president’s progress was from the news wires, announcing Davis’s capture on May 10.
3. In an epilogue, Foreman tells us what awaited the British characters featured throughout the book. Then, in her penultimate paragraph, Foreman explains the premise of the book.
The histories of the British participants in what is and always will be an American story bring the sharper focus that often comes with distance. Though united by language and a shared heritage, The Britons in America were nevertheless strangers who found themselves, for a variety of reasons, in the midst of great events. Their simultaneous involvement and detachment (even when their observations turned out to be misleading or mistaken) provide a special perspective on the war, one that by definition was not possible for native-born Americans. There were also many instances when the intimate access granted to British observers meant they were the only independent witnesses to record a particular event—such as William Howard Russell on President Lincoln’s first White House dinner, or Frank Vizetelly on the flight of Jefferson Davis after the fall of Richmond. For this reason their accounts remain not only fascinating but invaluable relics of the Civil War.
By this point, one can only agree.