A biography of a little-known cleric who defended Union interests in Britain during the Civil War.
In this debut, Smith introduces readers to Charles McIlvaine, an Episcopalian minister who spent most of his career as a Cincinnati-based bishop. McIlvaine developed strong relationships with religious and secular leaders in England during several visits to the country in the 1840s and ’50s, which put him in a position to advocate for the United States when British sympathies were largely with the Confederate States of America. Although Smith acknowledges that McIlvaine’s role was a small one in the context of the Civil War, he makes a convincing case for the importance of the man’s persuasive powers and of his useful relationships with powerful figures, including the Prince of Wales. The author draws on McIlvaine’s copious letters and published writings, as well as those of other noteworthy figures, to produce a biography that’s thoroughly substantiated by the historical record. The profusion of source material allows Smith to explore McIlvaine’s role in denominational fights over slavery and the evolution of his understanding of African-Americans, from advocating colonization of freed slaves to eventually presiding over integrated church services. It also illustrates his part in shaping evangelical thought about slavery and the war. Overall, Smith shows an evident mastery of McIlvaine’s story. However, the prose in which he tells it can sometimes be grating. Mid-paragraph changes of topic are jarring (“He advised McIlvaine to give up memorization and develop an extempore style based on prepared ideas. Regarding slavery, the parish records did not distinguish slaveholders among the communicants”) and excessive use of euphemisms, such as “the Queen City” for Cincinnati and “the Ohioan” for McIlvaine, are cloying. However, these stylistic concerns don’t outweigh the value of the information or of Smith’s persuasive analysis of his subject—a man who played a minor but important part in 19th-century international relations.
An intriguing portrait of a religious figure’s role in shaping public opinion.