A World on Fire: An Epic History of Two Nations Divided, By Amanda Foreman

History unfolds like a cavalry charge
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The Independent Culture

"Though with the North we sympathise It must not be forgotten

That with the South we've stronger ties Which are composed of cotton."

Thus, in 1861, the satirical magazine Punch summed up London's ambivalent stance on the American Civil War; while Abraham Lincoln held the moral high ground, the Confederacy had the makings of a lucrative trading partner.

But although Lord Palmerston's government held a self-interested neutrality throughout, Britain did influence the conflict. Amanda Foreman's fascinating study documents the tangled web of relationships that implicated this country in the battle over the Atlantic: British arms at Shiloh and Gettysburg; British-built ships in the Confederate navy; and British doctors, nurses and soldiers volunteering in their thousands for both sides.

The author argues that the "simultaneous involvement and detachment" of these participants provides us with a "special perspective", and she focuses on their stories. This is the book's strength, and its principal weakness; while Foreman includes many evocative eyewitness accounts – such as the Times correspondent William Howard Russell's vigorous description of "the heat, the uproar and the dust" at Bull Run – her tight focus means we tend to lose sight of the bigger picture.

Nevertheless, Foreman's scholarship is impressive, and her narrative unfolds with the irresistible momentum of a cavalry charge. A richly compelling history.

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