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Who did Britain back in the American Civil War?

Posted on 17 August, 2015 at 6:45

Britain’s influence on the American Civil War is hard to overstate, yet is often overlooked – while much the same can be said of the Civil War’s impact on Britain.

 

The Union, or North, went to war with the slaveholding Confederacy, or South, over the abolition of slavery on 12 April 1861. When the conflict ended four years later, it had cost more American lives than any other war in the country’s history – including both world wars and Vietnam. The extent to which Britain had blood on her hands is not widely known.

 

From the outset, Concerted Confederate attempts to acquire a British-built navy were met with equally determined resistance by the North. By October 1863 relations between the United States and Britain had reached breaking point.

 

In Britain, supporters of the Northern states believed a Union victory would help British workers to win the vote. Those who backed the Confederacy saw it as a bulwark against the mass democratic ‘mob rule’ they feared would upset the status quo in Britain.

 

The significance of the conflict in Britain was lucidly illustrated by an editorial in the London Times on August 21 1861: “The Civil War in the United States affects our people more generally even than the Indian Mutiny.”

 

Broadly speaking, the British working classes favoured the North, while the aristocracy backed the South. There were notable exceptions – for example, the Duke of Argyle’s ardent support for the Union. Nor was there anything like universal support for the North among the working classes.

 

At the heart of the Civil War was the abolition of slavery – a cause close to the hearts of the British people. They were proud of their country’s suppression of the transatlantic slave trade and the eradication of bondage in the West Indies in 1833. As a result, slavery no longer had meaningful support in any section of British society.

 

Nonetheless, in Britain – as in America – the question of choosing sides was more complicated and nuanced than 150 years of hindsight might suggest.

 

British Liberals and Radicals found themselves in a particularly invidious position. Many had applauded the Greek struggle against the Ottoman Turks, as well as attempts by Hungarian patriots and Italian states to shake off the shackles of Hapsburg oppression. The Confederate rebellion was also seen as a just fight for self-government. The fly in the ointment was slavery – although until Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation on January 1 1863, it had been possible to argue that the North was not officially fighting for abolition.

 

Conservative supporters of the South were less conflicted – and drew strength from the argument that they were not supporting slavery, but rather opposing the Yankee democratic experiment. The Civil War itself, they argued, was a direct result of the failure of the republican form of government.

 

Some supporters of the Confederacy even promoted the notion that the American Civil War was a corollary of the English Civil Wars, with descendants of New England’s ‘Puritans and regicides’ pitted against ‘banished Cavaliers’ in the South. Nor was this view unreciprocated. In Virginia, Britain was often vaunted as the ‘mother country’ and transatlantic kinship – especially with the British aristocracy – was venerated.

 

Nowhere in Britain was the war across the Atlantic more vividly replicated, or opinions more sharply divided than in Lancashire’s two great cities of Liverpool and Manchester.

 

Liverpool owed much of its wealth to the slave trade. The city’s ships had transported an estimated 1.5 million Africans across the Atlantic into bondage before the transatlantic trade was abolished by Britain in 1807. When the Civil War broke out, Liverpool’s ties with the South were still strong and it was no surprise that ‘Liverpool went Dixie’.

 

Historians agree that events in Liverpool and Birkenhead in 1863 could have radically redirected the course of the Civil War. From a Liverpool office building nicknamed the ‘Confederate Embassy’, the Rebels came within a whisker of acquiring two ironclad battleships – known as the Laird rams – powerful enough to penetrate the Union navy’s blockade of southern ports.

 

If this had happened the South could have exported cotton to mills – including Lancashire’s – and used the funds raised to bring back vital war materials. Whether this in itself would have led to a Confederate victory is conjecture, but war with Britain (and possibly France, also hard hit by the cotton embargo) could certainly have altered the outcome of the conflict. In the event, British prime minister Lord Palmerston took a pragmatic view. He conceded to the demands of Charles Francis Adams, the US minister in London, and the ironclads were seized by the British authorities before they could leave the Mersey.

As well as the Laird rams, Mersey shipyards produced legitimate blockade runners and legally dubious commerce raiders: warships that were built, but not armed in Britain. They included the infamous CSS Alabama, which ranged the oceans of the world destroying Federal merchant ships and inflicting serious economic damage on the Union. The final Confederate act of the Civil War involved another well-known commerce raider, CSS Shenandoah, surrendering to British authorities at Liverpool Town Hall on November 6 1865.

 

Unlike Liverpool, Manchester and Lancashire’s big textile towns were heavily reliant on cotton imported from southern plantations. When the Union navy’s blockade stopped the flow of raw material, these factory workers faced severe hardship.

 

Before the Civil War, Lancashire imported 75 per cent of all cotton produced by southern plantations (1.3 billion lbs). After 12 months of fighting, 60 per cent of the county’s spindles and looms stood idle and many operatives had lost their jobs.

 

Workers in parts of Lancashire hardest hit by this ‘cotton famine’ called for Britain to recognise the Confederacy, though their actions were driven by the need to put food on the table rather than any fondness for slavery. Moreover, many cotton industry operatives continued to back Lincoln’s Union, despite their own privations.

 

At a meeting in Manchester’s Free Trade Hall in December 1862, workers agreed to continue backing the cotton embargo and sent a message of support to Lincoln. In January 1863, the president replied by acknowledging the self-sacrifice of ‘the working men of Manchester’ and praising them for their ‘sublime Christian heroism, which has not been surpassed in any age or in any country’.

 

Soon afterward, the arrival in Britain of Union relief ships, loaded with provisions, represented an act of unity between the northern states and Lancashire’s cotton workers.

 

There is no doubt that Britain’s Confederate sympathisers antagonised Northern politicians, resulting in strained Anglo-American relations in the years following the Civil War. Nonetheless, it became increasingly apparent that the common interests of Britain and the USA outweighed their differences – especially with the emergence of a unified Germany following the Franco-Prussian War of 1870.

 

The resolution of the Alabama claims dispute in 1871-72 resulted in Britain compensating the USA for damage inflicted on its merchant fleet by British-built Confederate commerce raiders, including the CSS Alabama. The peaceful settlement of these claims set an important precedent for solving international disputes through arbitration and resulted in a substantial, long-term strengthening of relations between Britain and the United States.

 

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