Book review

The American Civil War Through British Eyes: Dispatches From British Diplomats. Vol. 1: Nov 1860 - Apr 1962

Compiled by: James J. and Patience P. Barnes

 

London, (England): Caliban Books, 2003. ISBN 1-850660-42-5

 

Review by Tony Brown

 

This is the first volume of a trilogy intended to reveal the diplomatic advice received from representatives in Washington by the British Government before and during the Civil War by reproducing their dispatches. Anglo-American diplomatic relations did not then justify a formal exchange of ambassadors. The senior British Diplomat in Washington was an Envoy Extraordinary and Minister Plenipotentiary. Between December 1858 and February 1865 the post was held by Richard Lyons, Second Baron - usually referred to as Lord Lyons. This work is a selection of his dispatches compiled by James J. and Patience P Barnes.


James J. Barnes has written on Bibliographic subjects, while his fellow compiler has issued works on practical aspects of international relations during the twentieth century. This apparent lack of Civil War experience in depth is not a particular disadvantage as the creative writing was done by Lyons. The fairly full selection is preceded by a thumb-nail survey of Anglo American relations until 1862 to establish the historical context. Contentious issues are identified and influential factors explained. For example both sides wanted to "starve" Europe of cotton. The South hoped to force European powers to intervene. The North wanted to prevent Southern acquisition of military materials by trade. Both policies were eventually modified, as Lyons prophesied to his superiors.

 

Then follows a chronological selection of Lyons' dispatches between November 1860 and March 1862 divided into five chapters with each given a title indicating major themes addressed. The chapter devoted to the Trent Affair is especially interesting for British readers. This is valuable source material for well-informed scholars but there is nothing to help a general reader understand historical nuances. The compilers present the evidence and leave their readers to decide how to interpret it. Unfortunately no dispatches received by Lyons are included - their contents can only be inferred by Lyon's replies. To include such material would have expanded the book to possibly uneconomic dimensions, but ft does mean that anyone seriously interested in Anglo-American diplomacy of the period also requires access to other sources.

 

Lyons was an acute and perceptive observer of the social and political scene in North America who was highly respected in Washington. Just one example of this was that Secretary Seward sought Lyons personal - as opposed to official - opinion on a dispatch about to be sent to the Government in Madrid concerning the use of Cuban ports by vessels trading with North America, either North or South. Earlier, in April 1861 the Governor of Maryland suggested that Lyons be invited to mediate between the State and the Federal Government as the crisis in Baltimore festered - a suggestion promptly rejected by Secretary Seward. Lyons advised London that no "good effect" could be obtained by offers to mediate between North and South from European powers or their representatives (Dispatch 159, 23rd. April, 1861).

 

This is not work for the general reader, but anyone reasonably informed about the war could find it fascinating. Two further volumes are planned to deal with dispatch es until 1865. Once these are complete it may be hoped that a companion set of dispatches and instructions received by Lyons in Washington is produced by these or other compilers.