Magazine article New Criterion

Bull Run in Blighty

Magazine article New Criterion

Bull Run in Blighty

Article excerpt

Hugh Dubrulle

Ambivalent Nation: How Britain Imagined the American Civil War.

LSU Press, 352 pages, $49.95

The American Civil War is little understood in contemporary Britain. It is hardly on primary -school history syllabuses and seldom has been. It appears on some university courses, but about the only students in Britain today who study the American Civil War are those who have elected to research it independently for undergraduate or postgraduate dissertations, or doctoral theses. Among the general public, understanding is dismal. Some seem to imagine it was a conflict between cowboys and Indians, as represented in the old black-and-white films that still grace a few cheap and cheerful British cable-TV channels.

Hugh Dubrulle's new book, Ambivalent Nation, reminds us that such obliviousness to this highly significant event in the history of Britain's now-most important ally has not always been so. Britons watched events between 1861 and 1865 so closely at the time that, at one point, there seemed a possibility that British troops would come over the border from Canada and join in. The subtitle of the book is indicative: how Britain imagined the war. Because, inevitably, very few Britons were there, especially within the Confederacy, and so had to imagine what the conflagration and its participants were like. And the information upon which they built their imaginings was not especially reliable. The man who at the time was the most famous journalist in the world--William Howard Russell of The Times, who had made his name as a correspondent in the Crimean War and was the natural choice to cover the American war--was run out of the country after writing disobligingly about the performance of the Northern Army at Bull Run. His replacements were not in his league, so British readers had to rely mostly on their prejudices and assumptions about America and Americans to form their picture of what was going on.

The newspaper-reading public was wider, at the time, than might be imagined. In the 1850s a tax on newspapers--represented by its opponents as a tax on knowledge--had been abolished, encouraging a proliferation of new titles aimed at all sections of society. Literacy had been expanding among the working class since the Factory Acts of the 1830s and 1840s made part-time schooling feasible for children working in factories. By the 1860s these workers formed a readership of popular newspapers, just as The Times and The Daily Telegraph catered to those further up the social scale.

Professor Dubrulle explains why it was that these groups had such an interest in America: these were the former colonies and, in the estimate of many Britons, things had only gone wrong there for want of British rule. Each side in the Civil War had its obvious problems. In the North, the problem was democracy-something that Britain, despite the 1832 Reform Act, had yet to achieve, and that the average (educated) Briton considered to be a disaster. In the South, the problem was slavery, abolished more than thirty years earlier in the British Empire. That is not to say that Britons had a great regard for human rights or for the welfare of what were then known as Negroes; the feeling was that slavery was an offense against God more than against man, and Britons, having played an active part in the slave trade in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, had a certain amount of guilt to assuage. And there were few better ways of doing that than to deplore the states of the Confederacy, to an extent to which international opinion would compel them to abandon slavery, thereby undoing the continuing toxic legacy of British influence.

As Dubrulle stresses, however, this British abhorrence of slavery did not mean the country wanted the Confederacy to lose. Leaving aside the common belief that all would be well in America if only Queen Victoria were its head of state and it could be allowed to flourish under a constitutional monarchy, Britons did not easily take sides in the matter. …

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