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Tales of Heroism, Tales of Terror: the British in the American Civil War

Report by John Laskey

American Civil War Round Table UK / UK Heritage / Amanda Foreman

Top selling historian and broadcaster Amanda Foreman made a welcome appearance at the Civil Service Club in November, to talk to the Round Table about her recently published book on Britain’s crucial role in the American Civil War ‘World on Fire’ (to be published in the USA, June 2011 – UK paperback published May 2011).

So who would not support the North in its cause to free the slaves? Amanda wove the tale of two British men of very different class and background, who both became active and devoted soldiers of the Confederacy.

Amanda was very pleased to have been invited to the Round Table, whose work she had admired in the preparation of her book. She asked us to consider two widely assumed facts about Britain in the Civil War: that it wanted a Confederate victory, and that widespread opposition by its working classes prevented it from recognising Southern independence. These Amanda argued, were gross distortions - in fact there were deep divisions about the war at every level of British society.

There was Henry Wemyss-Feilden, a young British veteran of the Indian Mutiny. Amidst great competition for officer postings, this chivalrous Englishman was inspired not by hatred of the North, but a conviction of standing up for the underdog. Appointed by President Jefferson Davis as a captain, Wemyss-Feilden met Stonewall Jackson, whose gentlemanly behaviour only increased his idealisation of the South. Wemyss-Feilden sealed this love when he met Julia McCord, the daughter of a Southern politician from South Carolina, while writing her a safe conduct pass (she kept it all her life). In a further demonstration of his chivalrous impulse, Wemyss-Feilden protested against the decision to put Union prisoners in harm’s way during the siege of Charleston, a stance that probably cost him any future promotion prospects. After that, he was sent down to Florida, to round up Confederate deserters. Determined upon marrying Julia, he made two wedding rings out of his sole remaining wealth – two gold sovereigns.

Then there was Bennet G Burleigh, a middle-class Glaswegian who arrived in Charleston at the same time as Wemyss-Feilden, clutching the plans for his father’s design of a torpedo mine (he was imprisoned as a spy for his pains!). A socialist, Burleigh was also inspired by notions of Southern independence. After his release his reward was to be offered the – effectively useless – commission of Acting Master for the Confederate Navy. Burleigh then took up with John Yates Beall, a rebel privateer and together they raided enemy ships on the Chesapeake. He was later captured, but escaped Richmond where he became – in quick succession – a journalist and an actor! Eventually he returned to privateering until captured again in May 1864 while cutting union telegraph lines. But he escaped again this time from Johnson’s Island, Ohio by crawling through 125 yards of a sewage outlet – and made it to neutral Canada – where he met his erstwhile privateer comrade Beall. They got involved in an audacious plot to return to Johnson’s Island to get the remaining prisoners out, by capturing the Union ship USS Michigan. The plan failed and Burleigh was arrested on his return to Canada and extradited to Detroit – under armed guard – in February 1865. He managed to escape for the third time by means of a saw concealed in an apple pie sent by a well-wisher!

Wemyss-Feilden was injured during the last battle of the war. He subsequently rejoined the British army and also spent time as an arctic explorer.

Amanda posed the question: what drew these sane, liberal-minded men to the cause of the Confederacy? On the political front, she argued that US Secretary of State William Seward’s failure to seek foreign allies for the Northern cause was a major mistake that probably lengthened the war by several years. Seward probably hoped that quarrels with Europe would actually bring the South back into the Union. The title of Amanda’s book was taken from Seward’s apocalyptic warning to London Times correspondent WH Russell that a war between the US and Britain would “wrap the world on fire” In fact, Seward’s bombast had the opposite effect, and Britain formally proclaimed its neutrality, thus giving quasi-legal rights to the Confederacy if not formal recognition.

Amanda illustrated how this northern mismanagement of diplomacy was exploited to brilliant effect by Henry Hotze. Fluent in both French and German, Hotze was a cultured and erudite representative of the Southern cause. Along with fellow Southerner James Spence, he skilfully went about influencing the British press through a combination of charm and effective networking. More covertly, he was sometimes able to deploy a private force of agitators to break up anti-slavery meetings. He set up the pro-Southern newspaper The Index, not as a crude propaganda broadsheet but a subtle vehicle to distribute Confederate views to the intelligencia through careful editorials and contributions from a small, friendly circle of journalists. It did this by emphasising the suffering of British cotton workers, the bloodiness of the conflict and of the need for peace. A particular success for Hotze was his careful wooing of the Chancellor of the Exchequer (and later Prime Minister) William Gladstone, who famously stated the case for the Confederacy. Hotze also prepared a subtle campaign of placing pro-Southern messages in public places to coincide with the Parliamentary motion (subsequently defeated) of June 1863 to tie Britain in more closely to the Confederacy.

In spite of his successes, Hotze concluded that the British working class was primarily anti-Southern in outlook. His work was also made more difficult by James Spence’s support – notwithstanding his Southern credentials – for the abolition of slavery. Spence’s credentials were subsequently withdrawn by the Confederate government, and Hotze went to Europe in an attempt to undermine Union fundraising attempts there. The Index did not thrive in his absence, and in 1865 he returned to England in an unsuccessful attempt to salvage it, emphasising the dangers of the ‘africanisation of America’. By this time the war was reaching its end.

Amanda ended her talk by hoping that her research would help to challenge the mythology of Britain’s support for the South that continues to be picked up by historians in the absence of any alternative popular narrative.

Amanda went on to demonstrate her depth of expertise by taking twenty questions from her attentive - and knowledgeable - audience. These included: -

• The likelihood of British intervention. Amanda thought the 1861 Trent Incident the most likely entry point, and quoted Admiral Sir Alexander Milne’s preparations for the naval bombardment of east coast US cities to “bring it home to them”.

• The role of British women. Amanda had found very few examples, the most prominent being Dr Elizabeth Blackwell - the west’s first ever qualified woman doctor - and Mary Sophia Hill, a formidable Confederate nurse who took part in many Civil War battles and subsequently (and successfully) sued the US government for false imprisonment! Amanda added that any feminist viewpoint of Civil War history would not be well served by contemporary records. As an example, detailed statistics of property destruction had been kept during Sherman’s famous ‘March to the Sea’ though no records of rape were recorded. This had led some historians to conclude that, in contrast to the devastation of property, there was no rapine. This was surely untrue!

• Whether the outcome of the CSS Alabama Claim effectively ended Anglo - American hostility. Amanda agreed that the 1870 Treaty of Washington was a model of diplomacy, which effectively settled 40 (very varied) points of contention inside of 6 weeks’ negotiation.

• The steps that might have led to a successful Southern secession. Amanda enjoyed this as a good parlour game, her own view being that the South would have needed better diplomacy (for instance, by having someone like ‘Pathfinder’ Matthew Fontaine Maury as de facto ambassador for the South rather than James Murray Mason) then Southern recognition might have been made more likely. She added that Lincoln’s re-election and the fall of Atlanta were crucial to the victory of the North.

Finally, Greg pressed Amanda for a response to Dr David Starkey’s comments upon the works of female historians whose names “begin and end with ‘A”. In her answer, the audience must have agreed: Amanda Foreman holds diplomatic skills of a higher order than some of the historical characters she had mentioned!

Picture: Author and broadcaster Amanda Foreman signs her book ‘A World in Flames’ for attendees of the American Civil War Round Table (UK) meeting, 13 November 2010 (c) American Civil War Round Table (UK).

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