Special Report

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

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)

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So he didn’t really have moral reasons for allying with either side?

No, not at all. He was a young man. He just got caught up. He kept a diary, which is a little bit unreliable but pretty good. It is very eloquent. When he was captured after the Battle of Shiloh, he got into an argument with his captors. He was saying, “Well, what is the war about?” And they said, “Well, it’s about slavery.” He suddenly realized that maybe they were right. He just never thought of it. He said, “There were no blackies in Wales.”

How does Stanley’s experience of the war compare with those of other Brits who served?

Henry joined out of necessity, not out of ideology. That is different from most British volunteers who joined the Confederate army. So he was very rare in the fact that he was so willing to switch sides. Also, he is one of the very rare prisoners to survive incarceration in a federal prison or a prisoner of war camp. His description of what it was like is very valuable because it is so vivid and horrendous. He saw people drowning in their own feces. They had such bad dysentery they would fall into a puddle of human waste and drown there, too weak to pull themselves out.

In their recent book Willpower, authors Roy Baumeister and John Tierney show how willpower works through different character studies, including one of Henry Morton Stanley. Is there a time during Stanley’s service or imprisonment where you think he displays incredible willpower?

Oh, sure. This is a young man who is able to keep his eye on the prize, which is survival. Also, he wants to make something of himself. He keeps those two things at the forefront of his mind and doesn’t allow the terrible, crushing circumstances around him to destroy him.

Did you come across any techniques of his to actually get through the suffering?

Yes, his remarkable ability to lie and believe the lie as truth.


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