When Bri­tain sided with the South

The Washington Times Weekly - - Culture, Etc. -

Dog­gerel in an 1861 is­sue of Punch, the Bri­tish satir­i­cal mag­a­zine, aptly ex­pressed the nation’s dilemma about the Amer­i­can Civil War:

Though with the North we sym­pa­thize It must not be for­got­ten That with the South, we’ve stronger ties,

Which are com­posed of cot­ton.

Thus, the thin line trod by Bri­tain dur­ing the con­flict. In a seem­ing para­dox, a ma­jor­ity of what Amanda Foreman calls the “great lib­eral peer­age” thrust aside its claimed re­vul­sion with slav­ery — ban­ished in Bri­tain in 1835 — and sided with the South. Eco­nom­ics played a ma­jor role in the mer­chant classes’ sym­pa­thy; af­ter all, the cot­ton trade was worth $600 mil­lion an­nu­ally, pro­vid­ing jobs and fi­nan­cial se­cu­rity for more than 5 mil­lion men and women.

Ms. Foreman’s work is mas­sive but never bor­ing. Of joint An­glo-Amer­i­can her­itage — she stud­ied both in Bri­tain and the United States — she has the knack of find­ing and us­ing the quo­ta­tions and de­scrip­tions that put vi­tal­ity into her writ­ing. With her, the reader skit­ters from English draw­ing rooms to gory bat­tle­fields as the au­thor paints cin­e­matic pro­files of merce­nary sol­diers and politi­cians. She is one of the more ex­cit­ing his­to­ri­ans I have en­coun­tered in years. And, given she is in her early 40s, she should be en­ter tain­ing read­ers for decades more.

De­spite their pro­fessed ha­tred of slav­ery — “Un­cle Tom’s Cabin” sold a mil­lion copies in Bri­tain its first year of pub­li­ca­tion, ver­sus 300,000 in the United States — Lon­don politi­cians saw rea­sons not to give re­flex­ive sup­port to the Union. Af­ter all, the Amer­i­can Revo­lu­tion and the War of 1812 re­mained painful mem­o­ries, and the United States was emerg­ing as an eco­nomic chal­lenger to the Bri­tish Em­pire. Fur­ther, the United States sup­ported Rus­sia in the Crimean War of the 1850s. Many Brits, Ms. Foreman writes, sympa- thized with what they saw as a “South­ern strug­gle for in­de­pen­dence.”

A few months into the war, Queen Vic­to­ria de­clared neu­tral- ity, bar­ring the arms sales to ei­ther side and mak­ing it il­le­gal for a Bri­tish sub­ject to vol­un­teer for mil­i­tary ser­vice. Lord John Rus­sell de­clared, “For God’s sake, let us if pos­si­ble keep out of it!”

Such was not to be. The Con- fed­er­acy im­me­di­ately dis­patched pur­chas­ing agents to the United King­dom to buy ships covertly to pit against the Union, and even to com­mis­sion the lay­ing down of siz­able men of war. South­ern pri­va­teers preyed on Union ship­ping, the CSS Alabama alone sink­ing 65 Union ves­sels.

And, most no­tably, Bri­tish cit­i­zens flocked to en­ter the war. Al­though Ms. Foreman writes that ex­act sta­tis­tics do not ex­ist, she es­ti­mates that per­haps 50,000 Brits fought in the war, as sol­diers, sailors, doc­tors, nurses and guer­ril­las. Euro­pean sol­diers of for­tune, ever watch­ful for fights to join, signed with both armies.

Spies abound, sev­eral of whom had not pre­vi­ously crossed my radar screen. In a fore­taste of the covert op­er­a­tion Great Bri­tain ran in Wash­ing­ton be­fore and dur­ing World War II to court po­lit­i­cal and pub­lic sup­port, the South dis­patched a covert op­er­a­tive to Lon­don to swing pub­lic opin­ion to­ward the Con­fed­er­acy.

The agent, a Mo­bile, Ala., jour­nal­ist named Henry Hotze, was only 27 years old when he ac­cepted the as­sign­ment. Gre­gar­i­ous and ge­nial, he proved popu- lar with English jour­nal­ists, who ea­gerly snapped up the “news” — read pro­pa­ganda not al­ways 100 per­cent ac­cu­rate — from the Con­fed­er­acy. Hotze’s aim was “to mas­sage, not blud­geon, pub­lic opin­ion.” He set up Con­fed­er­ate sup­port groups across the United King­dom. And Hotze surely made his spy­mas­ters happy when a pro­pa­ganda pub­li­ca­tion he es­tab­lished ac­tu­ally turned a profit.

Bri­tish sym­pa­thies for the Con­fed­er­ate cause waned in 1863, af­ter South­ern losses at Sec­ond Manas­sas and Get­tys­burg. Con­fed­er­ate at­tempts to use Canada as a base for op­er­a­tions stirred fears that Bri­tain could lose its sole re­main­ing North Amer­i­can colony.

One fur­ther word of praise for Ms. Foreman. In ex­plain­ing why her book re­quired a decade of work, she notes that dur­ing the 10 years she bore five chil­dren (in­clud­ing twins) and cared for her hus­band, who had a bout of cancer.

Nonethe­less, she scoured sources across two con­ti­nents, and her chap­ter notes span an as­tound­ing 116 pages.

Joseph C. Goulden’s re­vised edi­tion of “SpyS­peak: The Dic­tio­nary of In­tel­li­gence” will be pub­lished by Dover Books in the fall.

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