BOOK REVIEW: 'Broken Promises': Self-Published Civil War Historical Novel Picked up by Major Publisher

Reviewed by David M. Kinchen
BOOK REVIEW: 'Broken Promises': Self-Published Civil War Historical Novel Picked up by Major Publisher
I'm always cheering on authors, especially those who have resorted to self-publishing because they haven't found a publisher willing to take a chance at a time when printed books are quickly becoming endangered species. The case of Elizabeth Cobbs Hoffman's "Broken Promises: A Novel of the Civil War" (Ballantine Books Trade Paperback, 336 pages, $15.00),
 originally self-published in 2009 as "In the Lion's Den" is especially timely in this 150th anniversary of the start of the Civil War because Hoffman spotlights the role of Britain during the first three years of the bloodiest conflict in American history.

It's not common knowledge, except among Civil War buffs, but the British -- at least most of the top leaders of the country -- favored the Confederate States of America in the early years.  Until the outbreak of the war in 1861 and the subsequent Union naval blockade, the British had enjoyed profitable commercial trade with the South, the source of  cotton, the raw material for their textile mills.  Hoffman rightly points out in her very readable book that most of the people in the country favored the Union side because they sensed that sooner or later those who favored abolition of slavery would prevail. Britain had abolished slavery decades before and many Britons reveled in  the spectacle of Americans talking about freedom while owning other human beings.

In "Broken Promises" Hoffman  combines historical characters, like Charles Francis Adams, grandson of the second President John Adams and son of the sixth President, John Quincy Adams;  and his son and secretary Henry Adams, with fictional characters like Julia Birch and her American-hating father  Sir Walter Birch, as well as doctor in training H.  Baxter Sams, a sympathetic Virginian who was a classmate of Henry's, Baxter is Julia's love interest and, as the author explains, is a composite of several members of the Harvard College class of 1858 who were friends of Henry Adams, including Robert E. Lee's son Rooney.

Charles Adams was chosen by Lincoln to represent the interests of of the United States at a time when Britain didn't consider the United States important enough to send an ambassador to London. Still, as minister, several notches below ambassador, Adams had the freedom to spy for his country, which was the original job of any diplomat.  With the aid of a Liverpool man sympathetic to the Union side, Charles soon learned that shipyards were building warships for the Confederate side. 

Julia Birch's family loathes Americans, whether they are Unionists or Confederates, so the course of true love between Julia and Baxter doesn't run smoothly, to say the least. Baxter uses his medical training and connections to secure opium and other medical supplies for the Confederacy. He has to run the blockade to get the supplies to the surgeons in the field.

Hoffman draws heavily on the letters of Charles Francis Adams, his son Charles Jr. and Henry Adams and especially on the latter's book "The Education of Henry Adams" to produce a very accessible way to learn history. As a Civil War buff, I found it an accurate and painless way to absorb history. "Broken Promises"  also illuminates the role of women during the period as they were fighting for their own freedoms. Julia is an admirable woman and Baxter Sams is a very lucky man.
About the author

Elizabeth Cobbs Hoffman PhD is a winner of the Allan Nevins Prize for Literary Distinction in the Writing of History and is the author of several nonfiction works of history. She is currently a Hoover Institute Fellow at Stanford University and holds the Dwight Stanford Chair in  American Foreign Relations at San Diego State University. She is a Stanford graduate, a wife and the mother of four. "Broken Promises" is her first novel.