Authors: Peter G. Tsouras
I have been fortunate indeed to have as a longstanding friend and colleague the soundest of sounding boards, William F. Johnson. Over endless cups of coffee, I have sought his advice and bounced my ideas off
his encyclopedic knowledge of this period of military history in the development of the details and story line of A Rainbow of Blood. As Edward
Gibbons's service in the British militia prompted him to say that he
thought the Hampshire Grenadiers informed the historian, Bill's service
in the U.S. Marine Corps and as an intelligence officer have combined
with great good judgment to make him a both a formidable critic and an
astute observer. I am indebted to his help.
British troops swarmed through the buildings of the Washington Arsenal only to find the powder magazines empty. The Arsenal workers had
removed them before they fled-all except for what they had hidden
down a well. It was into the darkness of that well that a British soldier
peered, torch in hand. He tossed it down to see what was at the bottom.
A tremendous explosion rocked the site "whereby the officers and about
thirty of the men were killed and the rest most shockingly mangled."1
The scene was not the beginning of the Great War in September
1863; it took place in 1814 during the second Anglo-American War when
the British sacked and burned Washington. Yet the feckless action of
a lone British soldier who touched off a disaster would be paralleled
by the rulers of his nation as the American Civil War raged forty-nine
The British establishment maintained such an active dislike for the
American experiment that it looked across the Atlantic with undisguised
glee at the young republic's fratricide. Great Britain's neutrality law
was so loosely written and even more loosely observed that it was no
hindrance to the massive trade with the Confederacy that equipped and
outfitted its armies with the vast output of British industry. Even worse
was the building of commerce raiders in British yards that devastated
the American merchant marine. Only the greatest pressure from the U.S.
government would force the British government to interfere with the
practice, but even then British juries invariably ruled for the Confederates.
The last straw was when the Laird Brothers firm in Birkenhead
began building for the Confederacy two armored iron warships outfitted with steel rams. Abraham Lincoln was finally forced to put aside his policy of "one war at a time" and deliver an ultimatum on September 5,
1863, threatening war if the ships were delivered. At the same time in
Britannia's Fist's alternate history, the USS Gettysburg was dispatched to
sink the Laird rams if they escaped.
Events now rested on the jagged edge of war and peace. As the
British soldier in 1814 had done, Lord John Russell, the British foreign
minister, peered down the dark well, torch in hand. He dismissed every
fact-filled brief submitted by Charles Francis Adams, the U.S. ambassador, even as he concluded that the ships must be seized as a matter
not of law but of state policy. He notified Adams of this too late. A Confederate sympathizer in Lord Russell's own office was the one to actually knock the torch out of his temporizing hand and down the well. He
warned the builder, and the just-completed CSS North Carolina fled on
the morning tide. Things now automatically began to happen.
Gettysburg caught North Carolina off the coast of Wales and seized
her in British waters. HMS Liverpool arrived to dispute the action. Defiances were thrown and the Battle of Moelfre Bay began. The British frigate would have overpowered the smaller American ship had not USS Kearsarge arrived to tip the scales. Liverpool died in the explosion that blew
her powder magazines, taking six hundred British lives. An enraged
Britain declared war.
Kearsarge fled home, pursued by a vengeful British squadron with
orders to take or sink her wherever found. They followed her right
through the Verrazano Narrows and into the Upper Bay of New York,
despite her escort by a Russian naval squadron that had intercepted her.
The battle was desperate, but the British were driven out. As the battle
raged, the British ambassador delivered the declaration of war.
The British struck first. Too weak to defend British North America,
British troops and Canadian militia struck simultaneously to seize Portland, Maine, and Albany, New York, by coup de main. Maine was vital
to the survival of British North America. The only railroad that connected Canada with Britain ran from Halifax, Nova Scotia, down to Portland
and then north to Quebec and beyond. Maine's regiments from the Army
of the Potomac were just detraining in Portland for recruiting duty as
the British attacked. Led by Col. Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, they
saved the city, but the British patiently set siege.
The objective of Albany had a different, though no less strategic,
purpose. New York was the richest, most populous, and most industrialized state in the Union; it was vital to the American ability to wage war.
From Albany the British struck down the Hudson Valley, leaving a pall
of smoke in their wake as they burned the river towns and terrified New
York City, America's great entrepot. Already its population's morale
had been shaken by the draft riots of July when the mostly Irish mobs
had run rampant. Crack the morale of New York, and the United States
would be out of the war.
At the same time, the Copperheads, the violently anti-war, Lincolnhating Democrats of the Midwest, rose in their planned revolt to take
their states out of the Union and into the Confederacy with the aid of
Confederate prisoners liberated from the POW camps in Indianapolis,
Chicago, and Rock Island. Chicago, the nation's second city, fell to this
stab in the back. At the same time, the Royal Navy was preparing to descend on the coasts of North America to break the blockade of the South
and counterhlockade the North.
It was at this moment that the Union could have cracked as the
storms of foreign war and rebellion crashed and broke. But it held. It
was now total war. The Union could no longer fight with one hand
tied behind its back. Every resource would be strained to its utmost, for
it faced the greatest power of the era whose industrial capacity, with an
equal population, was ten times as large. To these odds were added the
second industrial power of Europe, as the French jackal, Napoleon III,
sought to guarantee his conquest of Mexico by also declaring war.