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A World on Fire: Britain's Crucial Role in the American Civil War, by Amanda Foreman

It's called the American Civil War, but it was much more British than most people think.

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“I don’t mind your thinking me dense or ignorant,” wrote the novelist Elizabeth Gaskell in a letter to Charles Eliot Norton, a future president of Harvard. “But I should have thought … that separating yourselves from the South was like getting rid of a diseased member.”

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“A World on Fire” brilliantly examines Anglo-American relations of the era, and the politics behind the Civil War, yet it also depicts devastating scenes of battle. The book is filled with first-person accounts, many of them from previously unpublished journals and letters.

“I was lying on my back,” one solider at Antietam wrote, “watching the shells explode and speculating as to how long I could hold up my finger before it would be shot off, for the very air seemed full of bullets.” Another reported that “the whole landscape for an instant turned slightly red.”

As Foreman writes, some British residents in the South were forced into “volunteering” for the war by being kidnapped, chained to wagons and dragged through towns, and hung upside down and repeatedly dunked in water.

The United States was viewed as hypocritical, having not supported Britain in any war, and ignoring “the contradiction in demanding British aid once the situation was reversed.” But 20 years after the war ended, in 1885, Anglo-American turmoil had subsided. Ulysses S. Grant wrote in his memoirs that “England and the United States are natural allies, and should be the best of friends.” (It’s a sentiment still held today, of course, though one that’s been sorely tested since September 11th and the war in Iraq.)

“A World on Fire” is so expansive in its scope, and so well written, that to call it a masterpiece somehow doesn’t seem to do it justice. Foreman has boldly tackled one of the most familiar and important chapters in American history, yet she has brought the Civil War alive as if this story were being told for the first time.

Carmela Ciuraru is a Monitor contributor.

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