Union Jacked

Article excerpt

Byline: Christopher Dickey

A new history shows how the British almost turned the tide in the Civil War.

When Americans look back on their great Civil War from 1861 to 1865, and they're doing that a lot right now, they tend to see it as exclusively an internal affair. Hundreds of thousands died in horrific battles. The slaves were freed. The Union saved. And what was going on across the Atlantic was hardly relevant. But as Amanda Foreman makes abundantly clear in her massive, magisterial history A World on Fire: Britain's Crucial Role in the American Civil War, nothing could be further from the truth. There's a lot here worth thinking about in terms of today's geopolitics. When should a great power get involved in a distant conflict? When should it keep its distance? London's dilemmas then are not so different from Washington's today.

All the key players understood that the War Between the States had tremendous global implications. At stake over the short run were supplies of cotton, the most important trading commodity of the time. Whole industrial economies depended on it--80 percent of the raw fiber used in the vast mills of Lancashire came from the Confederate states. They were, like the oil producers of today, sure that great powers couldn't do without them. Over the long run, it was already clear that if the United States did remain united, its power was likely to rival and surpass Great Britain's. So London had, on the face of it, every incentive to help the Confederates tear America in two. …