'No two nations have ever existed on the face of the earth which could do each other so
much good or so much harm'
President Buchanan, State of the Nation Address, 1859
A World on Fire tells, with extraordinary sweep, one of the least
known great stories of British and American history.
As America descended
into Civil War, British loyalties were torn between support for the North, which was
against slavery, and defending the South, which portrayed itself as bravely fighting for
its independence. Rallying to their respective causes, thousands of Britons went to
America as soldiers - fighting for both Union and Confederacy - racing ships through the
Northern blockades, and as observers, nurses, adventurers, guerillas and spies.
At the heart of this international conflict lay a complicated and at times tortuous
relationship between four individuals: Lord Lyons, the painfully shy British Ambassador in
Washington; William Seward, the blustering US Secretary of State; Charles Francis Adams,
the dry but fiercely patriotic U.S. ambassador in London; and the restless and abrasive
Foreign Secretary Lord John Russell. Despite their efforts, and sometimes as a result of
them, America and Britain came within a whisker of declaring war on each other twice in
The diplomatic story is only one element in this gloriously
multifaceted book. Using a wealth of previously unpublished letters and journals, Amanda
Foreman gives fresh accounts of Civil War battles by seeing them through the eyes of
British journalists and myriad soldiers on both sides, from flamboyant cavalry commanders
to forcibly conscripted private soldiers. She also shows how the War took place in
England, from the Confederacy's secret ship-building programme in Liverpool to the
desperate efforts of its propagandists and emissaries - male and female - to influence
British public opinion. She even shows how one of the most famous set-piece naval
encounters of the War was fought, remarkably, in the English Channel.
Foreman tells this epic yet intimate story of enormous personalities, tense diplomacy
and torn loyalties as history in the round, captivating her readers with the experience of
total immersion in this titanic conflict.
Go on London's American Civil War Walking Tours [www.acwlondon.org] and learn about the pivotal roles
played by the British, as well as Union and Confederate agents based in London, during the
Farewell to Lord Napier – Lord Lyons puzzles Washington
society – Rocky relations between Britain and America
Washington society adored the Napiers. From the moment they had
arrived at the British legation in 1857, Lord Napier was hailed as the
friendliest and most sensible diplomat ever to set foot in the capital. For
her part, Lady Napier soon won her own following as a hostess of unparalleled
warmth and grace. ‘Her cozy at-homes were remarkable for their
informality,’ recalled a Southerner after the war. Their presence was considered
essential at any fashionable gathering. The legation was neutral
territory and ‘one met there the talented and distinguished; heard good
music, listened to the flow of wholesome wit; and enjoyed delectable
repasts . . . A feeling of universal regret spread over the capital when it
became known [in 1859] that the Napiers were to return to England.’1
Senator William Henry Seward of New York, Lord Napier’s closest
friend in Washington and the heir apparent to the Republican leadership,
invited a small group of Senators to join him in organizing a
farewell ball. The committee had hoped to control the number of guests
by charging $10 per head,* but the heady combination of popularity
and power resulted in no fewer than 1,800 subscriptions for the gala.
Only one venue other than the White House could accommodate so
large a gathering, Willard’s Hotel on the corner of E and 14th Streets.
The New York Times joked that a ticket to the Napier ball was harder
to come by than a front-row seat at the current Broadway hit comedy
Our American Cousin, by the British playwright Tom Taylor.
On 17 February 1859, the grand ballroom at Willard’s was specially
decorated with an Anglo-American theme. Flags and mirrors lined the
walls and two large portraits, one of George Washington, the other of
Queen Victoria, hung majestically from the ceiling. A representation of
St George and the Dragon, made out of sand, covered the floor. It was,
however, the lavish banquet that created the most excitement. The chef
had fashioned the Napiers’ coat of arms out of spun sugar, as well as
‘dolphins in a sea of rock candy, and ices in every form, from a pair of
turtle doves to a pillared temple’.
The Napiers made their appearance at 9.45 p.m. to the strains of ‘God
Save the Queen’, and were greeted with loud cheers and applause. Their
evening dress was decidedly old-fashioned according to American tastes.
Boldly resisting the trend among men for black evening attire, Lord Napier
wore a royal blue jacket over a white waistcoat. Lady Napier’s dress was
also characteristically idiosyncratic; rather than trying to compete with
her wealthy friends, she had chosen to wear a white silk gown decorated
with tulle and edged in black lace. ‘You did not hear ladies say of her, as of
so many others: “What a splendid dress – how much did it cost!” ’ commented
the New York Times’s reporter. ‘When will women learn that to
beauty and perfection of attire, cost is but a small essential?’ The gallant
journalist was clearly ignorant of the sartorial revolution that had taken
place during the previous year. On the inside, every woman of means was
wearing one of W. S. Thompson’s new steel crinoline cages; on the outside,
they were experimenting with the new range of colours made possible by
the invention of synthetic dye. (Even Queen Victoria was not immune to
the changes in fashion and had worn mauve to the wedding of her eldest
daughter, Princess Victoria, to Prince Frederick of Prussia in January 1858.)
Lady Napier’s elegant but austere dress reflected none of these developments
and yet still managed to cause a sensation, not only on account of
its simple design but also because amid the unavoidable clash of magentas
and fuchsias the pure white cast all other colours in the shade.