Academic journal article The Journal of the Civil War Era

Putting out the "Embers of This Resentment": Anglo-American Relations and the Rewriting of the British Response to the American Civil War, 1914-1925

Academic journal article The Journal of the Civil War Era

Putting out the "Embers of This Resentment": Anglo-American Relations and the Rewriting of the British Response to the American Civil War, 1914-1925

Article excerpt

Between the 1860s and the mid-1910s, the memory of the British reaction to the American Civil War placed a heavy burden on Anglo-American relations. In both Britain and the United States contemporaries saw the Civil War as one of the greatest transatlantic crises since the American Revolution. As Brougham Villiers and W. H. Chesson noted in 1919: "Never, not even in the Venezuelan crisis of December 1895, have the two great Anglo-Saxon nations been so nearly in the arena of Mars as in the days of wholesale fratricide when one out of every twenty-six Americans was a soldier." (1) While historians still debate why and how British society was divided on the war, in the fifty years after Appomattox the memory of the British upper class's support of the Confederacy and of secession continued to be a symbol of Anglo-American distrust, and the fact that many in Britain had seen Lincoln and the Union as the embodiment of the mediocre, mob-ruled American democracy was seen as evidence of the great abyss between British and American views on national unity, freedom, and democracy. (2)

The shaking of the foundations of the old world order during and immediately after the Great War led to a major change in the historical writing from the mid-1910s to mid-1920s on the British response to the Civil War. During this period, British and American academics, intellectuals, politicians, and public figures who believed that in an era of uncertainty and in a perilous world a better Anglo-American alliance was necessary tried to rid this alliance of the bitter memory of the war and establish a new memory that downplayed the differences between the peoples during the Civil War era. It was an endeavor to shape foreign relations by reshaping history.

To this day, the effort to alter the history of Britain and the Civil War, and its impact on Anglo-American relations between the mid-1910s and mid-1920s, has gone largely unnoticed. In the academic debate, Ephraim Douglass Adams's seminal Great Britain and the American Civil War from 1925 has been the consensual starting point of nearly every study on the subject. (3) However, historically, Adams's work was not only a starting point but also an apex of a crucial period in the historiography of the British response to the war, and it carried all the marks of a new, conciliatory narrative that historians have thus far largely missed. Adams concluded his research by lamenting, "For nearly half a century after the American Civil War the natural sentiments of friendship, based upon ties of blood and a common heritage of literature and history and law, were distorted by bitter and exaggerated memories." (4) His work, Adams hoped, would unearth and prove once and for all why the Civil War should not be seen as a nadir in Anglo-American relations, and it would thus heal a historical open wound. Put differently, Adams asked not to open a discussion but to close one.

This article provides a first examination of the efforts during and immediately after the Great War to reshape the history of the British reaction to the Civil War, which will provide a better understanding both of the origins of the historiography on the subject and of the role of Civil War memory in shaping Anglo-American relations during a critical period of transatlantic history. After first showing that up to the early twentieth century the memory of the British response to the Civil War had been a source for much bitter feelings between Britons and Americans, it explores the various tactics people on both sides of the Atlantic used to reshape this memory in order to fortify a closer Anglo-American alliance during the Great War and in its aftermath. It will then demonstrate how this newly constructed memory had an impact not only on Anglo-American relations but also on the origins of the historiography on the British response to the conflict.

* Although Britons' reactions to the Civil War were diverse and in constant flux, even during the war a perception had already begun to gain ground that the British aristocracy supported the Confederacy, a support based on sentiments of kinship, opposition to democratic reforms at home, and the hope of seeing the dissolution of the United States. …

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