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

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The impact on the British public was considerable – and deeply polarizing. The whole country “had divided over the merits of the Civil War and whether abolition, democracy, the Union, or the right to self-determination had been the real principle at stake,” she writes, quoting a notable essayist who once explained that expressions such as “I am a Northerner,” and “I am a Southerner,” were “as common on Englishmen’s lips as `I am a Liberal’ or `a Conservative.’ ”

Interestingly, Foreman writes that one of the “driving obsessions” behind her book was puzzling out the unlikely allegiances that were stirred in Britain. For complicated reasons, many who deemed themselves “liberal” or “progressive” believed that the Confederacy held a moral advantage in demanding independence and felt aligned with them, rather than with the anti-slavery North. Some were unsure which side to take, or why secession was even an issue.

“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.”

“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 The book is filled with first-person accounts, many of them from previously unpublished journals and letters.

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