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Special Report
Secretary of State William Seward, far right, with British Minister Lord Lyons, sitting third from right, and other international diplomats at Trenton Falls in New York. (National Archives)

The Unknown Contributions of Brits in the American Civil War

Historian Amanda Foreman discusses how British citizens took part in the war between the Union and the Confederacy

Though often overlooked, more than 50,000 British citizens served in various capacities in the American Civil War. Historian Amanda Foreman looked at their personal writings and tells the story of the war and Britain’s involvement in it in her latest book, A World on Fire, recently named one of the New York Times’ 100 Notable Books of 2011.

I spoke with the author—born in London, raised in Los Angeles and schooled at Sarah Lawrence College, Columbia University and Oxford University—about the role Britain, and one particular Brit, Henry Morton Stanley, played in the conflict.

Why is it that more people don’t know about international involvement in the American Civil War?

When teaching time is limited, you are just going to stick to the bare essentials. Who fought the war. What were the major battles. When did it end. What was the war about. You are not going to look at other aspects in high school. That’s the first thing.

The second thing is when you get to college and you start looking at the Civil War in a more nuanced way, generally that means race, class and gender. The international dimensions of the war cut across all three and therefore end up falling between the cracks because they don’t sit exclusively within one of those particular areas.

There are lots of legitimate reasons why people haven’t thought about international aspects of the war for a very long time. But the reason why you have to is because it turns out that those very aspects played a very important role in the war. I believe it is impossible to understand the war without also understanding those aspects.

What were the most surprising revelations you made about the war by looking at it from a world perspective?

The first thing I really understood was the limitations of foreign diplomacy in early American politics. It was very much the custom in the 19th century and especially in the mid-century for secretaries of state to consider their role a steppingstone towards the White House. In no way was it a tool for actual foreign diplomacy. When William Henry Seward, who was the secretary of state at the time, took office he just resolutely refused to accept that the pronouncements he made in the U.S. for a domestic audience were having such a crushingly disastrous effect on America’s reputation abroad. His own words served to drive Europe, and in particular Britain, from being willing allies at the beginning of the war towards the North into hostile neutrals.

By turning Britain into a hostile neutral, it meant that the South suddenly had an enormous leg up in the war. All the actions that Britain could have taken to make life difficult for the South—for example, barring any Southern ship from landing in British ports—never happened. And, in fact, the South began to genuinely believe that it had a chance of winning recognition from Britain of Southern independence, which I believe helped prolong the war by at least two years.

In what ways was Britain invested or really tied up in the war?

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