George St Leger Grenfell was by no means the only Englishman to fight in the American Civil War. More than 50,000 British citizens sailed to the United States to take part in the conflict and a further 250,000 British-born immigrants enlisted for active service. Although Lord Palmerston’s Liberal Government tried to keep out of the war, the British people were
only too eager to take sides.

Conservative sentiment supported the South’s claim to self-government which, after all, had been the guiding principle on which the United States was founded, and Britain’s traditional sympathy for the underdog also helped the Confederate recruitment drive. On the other hand, slavery was a deeply emotive issue and many British men volunteered to fight the white supremacists in the South. The actor-manager Charles Wyndham enrolled as a surgeon in the Union army, as did the head of the Oxford Infirmary Charles Mayo, while Henry George Hore, a Sussex bank clerk, spent his life savings on crossing the Atlantic to join the Northern army. Matching them were starry idealists like the African explorer Henry Morton Stanley who fought with the Dixie Greys in the bloody battle at Shiloh. Stanley was captured and sent to the notorious Camp Douglas where he watched prisoners-of- war literally drowning in their own excrement. There was nothing romantic about dysentery which along with diarrhoea and typhoid fever killed two-thirds of the 620,000 soldiers who lost their lives in the American Civil War.

But while many volunteers came to have second thoughts about the carnage they had witnessed, British public opinion still favoured engagement in what was held to be a moral struggle between slaveholders and abolitionists. It took a Prussian philosopher living in Primrose Hill to come up with a deeper analysis. Karl Marx said the American Civil War wasn’t about principles but an epochal clash between two economic systems – feudalism and capitalism.

Ever since Jefferson’s day plantation owners had used their wealth and influence to dominate American politics but times were changing. Factories, woollen mills and iron foundries were springing up in the increasingly urbanised Northern states to take advantage of the new technologies and this led to the development of railroads and canals, which encouraged commerce and trade. To further help Northern manufacture, Congress imposed crippling taxes on imported goods and the agrarian South suffered accordingly.

‘The war between the North and South is a tariff war,’ said Marx, ‘and not for any principle.’ The great novelist and social reformer Charles Dickens, who had been on a fact-finding tour of America, came to a similar conclusion. ‘The Northern onslaught upon slavery,’ Dickens wrote, ‘is no more than a piece of specious humbug disguised to conceal its desire for economic control of the United States.’

From start to finish, the American Civil War was an exercise in hypocrisy and Britain played a major role in that too. While claiming to be politically neutral, the British Government capitalised on the conflict. The war would not have lasted nearly as long but for the British-manufactured guns, cannons, rifles and bullets that flooded through the Union blockade of Southern ports to arm the Confederacy. But that wasn’t all. Britain helped bankroll both sides in the conflict. To finance the war, North and South sold bonds on the international market and the largest bondholders were British.

Judged against such a duplicitous backdrop, Colonel Grenfell seems almost pure in purpose. He was a soldier of fortune who travelled the world seeking wars. He was seldom paid for his services and took enormous risks in battle. But what makes this Cornish mercenary truly stand out from his contemporaries was the vindictive way in which he was treated by his Union captors. A military tribunal sentenced him to death for a crime he never got to commit and when that sentence was commuted following British diplomatic pressure, Washington’s War Department kept him in prison long after the war had ended.


In his disastrous rant about the white nationalist rally in Charlottesville President Trump argued that the removal of Robert E Lee’s statue would change history. As usual, the great vulgarian got it wrong. He failed to recognise the difference between history and memory, which is always shifting. Pulling down a monument doesn’t change history but how we
remember it. As a novelist, I am fascinated by historical relativism; the theory that there is no objective standard of truth because the interpretation of data is subject to a host of subjective factors that pertain to the period in which the historian lives.

But what is even more interesting is historical blindness; the myths that countries weave about themselves that stand the test of time, if not of logical analysis. One such is the lasting American belief that they have never sought or possessed an empire. Yet what word but ‘empire’ can possibly describe the United States’ awesome might? It is, after all, the only nation that polices the world through five global military commands, with more than a million soldiers stationed on four continents. Faced with such incontrovertible evidence of territorial ambition, George W Bush could still proclaim that America ‘does not seek an empire.’ When asked to account for his president’s state of deep denial, the acerbic American novelist Gore Vidal diagnosed permanent amnesia. ‘We learn nothing,’ he said, ‘because we remember nothing.’

What Americans do remember is Thomas Jefferson’s famous preamble to the Declaration of Independence: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights; that are among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.’ Born out of revolution, the United States is the only nation in the world to be founded on a creed. To be American is an ideological commitment; a promise to protect the causes of freedom, democracy and justice. The difficulty comes in maintaining these values while being a world leader, which has led to a great deal of political double-talk in which colonialism is disguised as ‘democratic tutelage.’

Those with a clear view of the past like Yale historian Paul Kennedy consider that America had imperial intentions from the very outset of its history. He dates this back to when the first settlers arrived in Virginia from England and started to move westward. A century later, the Founding Fathers wrestled with how to reconcile a constitutional republic with the relentless pressures of expansionism and found convenient ways of disguising the truth. In office, President Jefferson promised peace with all nations, no entangling alliances and less military spending but the Sage of Monticello talked very differently in private. On April 27, 1809, one month into his retirement, Jefferson wrote to his friend and successor in the White House, James Madison, about the land deals that might be done with the Emperor

‘He ought to conciliate our good will, as we can be such an obstacle to the new career opening on him in the Spanish colonies, that he would give us the Floridas to withhold intercourse with the residue of those colonies cannot be doubted. But that is no price; because they are ours in the first moment of the first war, and until a war, they are of no particular necessity to us. But altho’ with difficulty, he will consent to our receiving Cuba into our union to prevent our aid to Mexico and other provinces … We should then have only to include the North in our confederacy, which would be of course in the first war, and should have such an empire for liberty as she has never surveyed since the creation: and I am persuaded no constitution was ever so well calculated as ours for extensive empire and self government.’

The message is clear. Jefferson was ready to go to war to expand America’s borders to include East and West Florida, Cuba and Canada in a United States recently enlarged by the Louisiana Purchase. Stripped of the sublime rhetoric of his public utterances, Jefferson’s letter reveals the cold, calculating heart of an imperialist. Three years later, in another letter, he urged Madison to declare war on Britain with the express intention of seizing Canada.

Feeling that this duplicity should be recognised for what it was, I have made the Madison correspondence a central feature of my novel, The Man Who Lived Twice.