7 To Appomattox and beyond

by Malcolm Redfellow

No: ordinary service had not been suspended. Merely delayed by circumstances.

The circs in question have been Amanda Foreman’s A World on Fire, an Epic History of Two Nations Divided. All 814 pages of it. Plus another 124 pages of notes and references. Plus a comprehensive index.

Hint: get a (second-hand?) hardback: the Penguin paperback is photomicrographically -reduced (or whatever the present technology is) which renders the numerous footnotes a stretch for any normal eyesight.

And the dust-cover is better looking, as well (see below, right).

It is by any standards a massive book, an important one, and (since this is the never-undersold Dr Foreman) a popular one. It is also glacially slow. Is it really necessary to narrate in tedious detail each of the already well-documented major battles? How does that inform us more about Anglo-American frictions? Any reader will need to refer repeatedly to the ten — repeat ten — closely printed pages listing Dramatis Personae (Dr Foreman’s own term) which preface the main text These prove essential, if only to distinguish your Adams from your Adams from your Adams, your Russell from your Russell, and your Maury from your Maury. The term many reviewers reached for was “epic”, but even Homer and Virgil managed with fewer characters.

To be fair, any hiatus, any longueur is explained by the near-immediate failure of the 1858 transatlantic cable, and the delay for a further eight years for it replacement. That is one of the many “might-have-beens” that could have changed the story. It would, no doubt, have reduced the huge contributions of Charles Francis Adams (son and grandson of US Presidents), the US minister in London, and Lord Lyons, the British Minister in Washington — both diffident men who rose to the occasions that confronted them. If there are heroes, other than those of the battlefield, these two are they. Lincoln, by the way, seems a comparatively lessened character in all this story.

As the anonymous reviewer for The Economist had it:

There are walk-on parts for many eminent Victorians, including Leslie Stephen, father of Virginia Woolf, and Henry Morton Stanley, the “serial deserter” and Dr Livingstone’s saviour, whose ne’er-do-well son Robert was killed trying to escape from a prisoner-of-war camp. Ms Foreman records some telling vignettes: Henry Adams’s description of John Bright, greatest of Liberal parliamentary orators, shaking an opponent as a mastiff might shake a terrier, and sour Benjamin Moran, of the Union legation in London, exposing the insincerity of the Adams family’s proclaimed indifference to London society. She even tells an off-colour Victorian joke. When the prime minister, Lord Palmerston, at 80, was cited in the divorce of a Mrs O’Kane, the Pall Mall clubmen asked, “She was Kane, but was he Able?”

That “off-colour Victorian joke” is rendered in a footnote only (page 589). Foreman notes in her text that it was “a bizarre divorce case”. It wasn’t, for the case was withdrawn: the O’Kanes had not been properly married in the first place (it was a Catholic marriage, performed in a private house, so contrary to law).

A couple of obvious villains of the piece do emerge: the ever-scheming and self-promoting US Secretary of State, William Henry Seward, and The Times of London. Seward is never averse to fomenting troubles to promote federal expansion — especially into “British North America”. John Thadeus Delane, the Times editor, was — like the whole management of the paper — pro-Confederate. Moreover, Delane allowed himself and the paper’s line to be consistently misled by Francis Lawley’s wildly biased reporting for the Southern side, and by Charles Mackay, the paper’s pro-secessionist New York correspondent. As happens in these processes, the excrement went down the food-chain and Mackay took the blame.

Leslie Stephen’s forensic dissection of how The Times had covered the war — what Dr Foreman calls a devastating critique is available on Scribd; and is well worth the visit.

Foreman, over a couple of pages (779-780), shows how even back in 1865 the British press were well capable of Kelvin MacKenzie’s “reverse ferret”:

The Economist also felt obliged to explain away its previous condemnation of Lincoln, claiming that over the past four years ‘Power and responsibility visibly widened [Lincoln’s] mind and elevated his character’. But it was Punch that performed the greatest volte-face. Three weeks earlier, on 8 April, the magazine had placed Lincoln in a gallery of April Fools that included Napoleon III and the MPs Roebuck, Bright and Disraeli. The combination of embarrassment, shame and shock that Lincoln was killed while watching his play moved Tom Taylor, the magazine’s senior contributor, to browbeat his colleagues into giving him a free hand to compose an abject apology and homage to the late President. The editor, Mark Lemon, supported him, telling the staff, ‘The avowal that we have been a bit mistaken [over Lincoln and the war] is manly and just’. Taylor did not hold back. ‘Between the mourners at his head and feet,/ Say, scurril-jester, is there room for you?’ he asked contritely. Lincoln ‘Had lived to shame me from my sneer,/ To lame my pencil and confute my pen,/ To make me own this kind of prince’s peer,/ This rail-splitter a true-born king of men./ My shallow judgment I had learned to rue.’

So, A World on Fire has been something of an effort. It was worth it.