Mention the American civil war in Britain today and you are likely to encounter something close to a unanimity of views. The north were the goodies. The south were the baddies. The northern states had history and right on their side, whether on slavery and race or on the question of maintaining the union. The south, by extension, was wrong and against history on both counts. So, in short, the right side won. Moreover, in Abraham Lincoln the federal side had one of the greatest leaders America has ever produced, the man who rose to the occasion in deeds and words to save his country, and whose murder was one of the greatest calamities in the republic’s history.
Those are almost certainly, in broad terms, the views of the conflict held by most readers outside parts of the American south, just as they are, equally broadly, my own. They are indeed the official version. Happily, there is a good amount of truth in them. Yet not only was the civil war less straightforward than this benign retrospective view suggests, it was also a much more divisive conflict in Britain than the received pro-northern and anti-southern consensus lets us see. The imminent 150th anniversary of the start of the war is a good time to venture out of our comfort zone.
The best recent guide to a historically informed approach is Amanda Foreman’s book A World on Fire. Foreman stumbled on her subject while researching her bestselling 1999 biography of Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire. In the family archives she discovered that the heir to the Devonshire title later the eighth duke had spent Christmas Day 1862 making eggnog for Robert E Lee’s Confederate cavalry officers in Virginia.
This Devonshire heir, though, was not some deranged rightwing romantic but one of the pillars of Victorian Liberalism. As Lord Hartington, he served in Gladstone’s first two Liberal cabinets, introduced the secret ballot into British law, pulled troops out of Afghanistan in the 1880s, was leader of the Liberal party in opposition, nearly became PM, and finally broke with Gladstone over home rule for Ireland, becoming leader of the breakaway Liberal Unionists an irony for a man who had sided with the Confederates 20 years previously.
Yet as Foreman shows, Hartington’s support for the south was anything but unusual among liberal and progressive 1860s Britain. This country was almost as torn over the civil war as Americans themselves. Many went to fight. The war even crossed the Atlantic, with a battle between Union and Confederate ships in the Channel in 1864. The political parties, and Lord Palmerston’s Whig government, were split down the middle over the issues. And the battle for British public opinion was hard-fought, too.
Which raises the question of where the Guardian stood. Surely the paper, every bit as much a pillar of Victorian Liberalism as Lord Hartington, was solid in the union cause? So you might think, if you only read history through the eyes of the present. Yet the Manchester Guardian was as conflicted as many others of progressive views and some of those inner conflicts of view have resonance even today.