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Lincoln’s British enemies

Contrary to popular belief, thousands of Britons supported the slave-holding South during the American Civil War. In fact, it was only the arrival of a formidable new weapon that largely prevented a British intervention, as Thomas E Sebrell II explains

Published: April 17, 2011 at 2:35 pm
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A large effigy of Abraham Lincoln was unveiled in London’s Parliament Square in 1920. A year earlier, another had been placed in Platt Fields, Manchester, only to be moved in 1986 to its current, more prominent location in the city centre – Lincoln Square. A more poignant likeness of the American president is the 1893 memorial in Edinburgh dedicated to the Scotsmen who fought and died in the Union (Northern) army and navy in the war being waged on the other side of the Atlantic. This monument (shown left) includes two statues: Lincoln at the top, and a liberated slave at its base reaching up to the ‘Great Emancipator’.

Those who notice these monuments in three of Britain’s largest cities will probably conclude that the Northern war effort generated far more support in Britain than did the South’s. And this conclusion is apparently supported by the fact that there are no statues, memorials or plaques anywhere in Britain dedicated to the Southern ‘Confederate States of America’ and its political or military leaders. In fact, it’s safe to say that modern Britons’ awareness of their predecessors’ support for the South during the American Civil War is, for the most part, gone with the wind.

The ‘special relationship’ between Britain and the United States did not exist in mid-Victorian society. The War of 1812 (fought between US and British empire forces as part of the Napoleonic Wars) ended just 46 years before the American Civil War commenced, and the earlier War of Independence was firmly embedded in the minds of both nations. Needless to say, Britain and America were sceptical of each other’s intentions, especially on the international stage.

Regardless of the two powers’ suspicions, by the eve of the war in 1861 they were dependent upon each other, especially in trade. North-west England’s economy relied almost exclusively on cotton from the American South arriving into Liverpool and being distributed to mills in Lancashire and Cheshire. The agricultural South also provided Britain with much of its tobacco. The industrial North relied on Britain for the trade of machinery, inventions, rice and corn. In short, the British economy was reliant on both regions of the United States, and vice versa, and therefore the prospect of civil war was of real concern in Whitehall. Perhaps more importantly, the Confederate government realised that they, like the American patriots in the revolution, must gain European intervention in order to win against the larger, more powerful and industrial North. The economic ties with Lancashire painted Britain as the best candidate.

Fire-eating politicians

During the secession crisis preceding the war, taking sides was not easy for Britons – if they were inclined to do so – and the slavery issue did not make the decision simpler. Britain had abolished the institution of slavery throughout the empire in 1833 and was actively engaged in a war on the slave trade. The British did, however, rely on slave-grown cotton from the American South. But the ardent, pro-slavery rhetoric of the ‘fire-eating’ Southern politicians made it difficult for the British, especially political leaders, to embrace the new Confederacy. The North, therefore, seemed the slightly more likely ally.

Lincoln’s inaugural speech in March 1861, however, triggered a change of attitude in British society. The first elected Republican president stated that he had “no purpose, directly or indirectly, to interfere with the institution of slavery in the States where it exists. I believe I have no lawful right to do so, and I have no inclination to do so.” Afterwards, Lord John Russell, foreign secretary, argued in a letter to Prime Minister Lord Palmerston that the North aimed not at liberation, but conquest. As for the elimination of slavery, the prevailing British attitude could be considered moderate – let the institution in the South die its own death, do not shed blood to end it. But Lincoln’s inaugural speech convinced much of the British public that the war was not about slavery, and this caused many to overlook this moral issue in favour of those that affected Britain directly.

Shortly after Confederate forces opened fire on Fort Sumter in Charleston harbour, South Carolina, on 12 April 1861, a state of war was recognised between North and South, and Lincoln authorised a naval blockade of the entire Confederate coast, making the war a direct concern to Britain. The tea trade with Southern ports was crippled, but not as badly as that of cotton to Liverpool.

The blockade became an escalated problem in November 1861 when the San Jacinto, a US navy ship, fired upon and halted the British mail packet Trent en route to Southampton from Cuba. Although the vessel was carrying two Confederate diplomats dispatched to London and Paris, the incident occurred away from the blockade and in international waters, a clear violation of international law. News of the Trent affair was well-received in the American North – the San Jacinto was greeted by a large, cheering crowd, including the Massachusetts governor, upon its arrival at Boston with the captured diplomats. In Britain, however, the incident caused a great deal of anger. Fortunately for Washington, parliament was out of session, but the London press, public and government condemned the episode, viewed by many as an insult to the Union Jack. Upon hearing the news, Palmerston was so furious he went to meet with a Confederate agent in Pall Mall. In her diary the same evening, Queen Victoria said of the Yankees: "They are such ruffians!"

Palmerston and Russell drafted an angry letter to Washington demanding the release of the diplomats, in addition to an apology for gross disrespect to Britain. On reading the letter, which had been sent to Windsor Castle for royal approval, Prince Albert exclaimed: "This means war!" He rewrote the despatch overnight, stating that Britain believed that the San Jacinto's captain had acted without orders, that Her Majesty's government was certain the United States would never intentionally insult her flag in such a manner, and requesting that the Confederates be released.

Realising it was not in Washington’s best interests to keep the prisoners, Secretary of State William Seward released them for Southampton.

The Confederate government didn’t just send diplomatic and commercial agents to Britain. As it did not have the materiel necessary to construct naval vessels – and couldn’t import them because of Washington’s obstruction of their ports – it was soon dispatching shipbuilders across the Atlantic too. Liverpool was immediately eyed by the Confederates as the headquarters for these operations.

Confederates financed and oversaw two major initiatives: constructing naval vessels and orchestrating blockade running. The former saw some of the South's most formidable gunboats built or fitted in Merseyside and Glasgow. In 1862, for example, the Alabama was constructed in Birkenhead by John Laird & Co, a firm owned by that constituency's MP of the same name. The vessel wreaked havoc on the US merchant fleet in the Atlantic ocean, sinking 65 ships. In 1864, Scottish shipbuilders Alexander Stephen & Sons refitted a tea-trader as the Confederate gunboat Shenandoah. This ship captured nearly 40 prizes, mostly US whaling vessels. Although the Alabama and Shenandoah were commanded by commissioned Confederate navy officers, they were mainly crewed by Britons, a violation of the 1861 Queen's Act of Neutrality.

Blockade running was of an entirely different nature. This activity consisted typically of lightweight ships running much-needed war provisions and other supplies to the Confederacy by sneaking through the US navy’s blockade of the Southern coast. A number of British-owned shipping companies based in Liverpool and Glasgow participated in this daring task, as it was a lucrative business.

As the war progressed, other financial ties with Britain developed. In March 1863 the Confederate government put a seven per cent loan worth £3m on the markets for three days in numerous European cities, including London and Liverpool, allowing individuals to invest in the Confederacy and its war efforts. The loan was oversubscribed five times, and accrued £16m (today’s equivalent of £690.5m) worth of bonds, nearly all them sold in London.

Aristocratic relief

The summer of 1863 saw the creation of the Southern Independence Association in Manchester, which consisted almost exclusively of aristocrats (the high membership fee excluded the working classes from joining).The SIA aimed to create a social movement that would force parliament into recognising the Confederacy as an independent nation and, in doing so, bring relief to the cotton mills in Lancashire, many of which were closed owing to the blockade of the Southern coast. The SIA quickly spread into nearly every Lancastrian cotton mill town, and by December there were chapters in 47 cities or towns in Britain and Ireland. Membership included leading figures in British society.

By no means did all British aristocrats favour the Confederacy. However, only 17 MPs during the war could be confirmed as pro-North, while 74 were known to favour the South. What’s more, the three leading supporters of the Union in parliament – Liberals John Bright, Richard Cobden and WE Forster – were far from aristocratic, quite radical in their political minds and frequently criticised by members of their own party. As Henry Adams, son and secretary of the US minister to London, said in a letter to his brother during the war: “We have friends here, but very few.”

So how did the Confederacy, which generated a great deal of support in Britain, fail to convince Her Majesty’s government to grant the Southern states recognition as independent of the United States? This scenario came far closer to reality than many would believe. Palmerston’s government and parliament kept a close eye on the war theatre of Virginia, waiting for an opportunity to intervene. However, Britain was loathe to spread its troops too thinly across the globe. So if it was to enter the fray, it would only do so if the chances of having to deploy soldiers and sailors was kept to a minimum.

In September 1862, Palmerston finally felt such an opportunity existed. Confederate forces severely defeated the Union army of the Potomac in Manassas, Virginia, just miles from Washington. Shortly after, Robert E Lee’s Southern army invaded Maryland, threatening the Northern capital. If Washington was to fall, Lincoln would immediately be confronted with a fiendish dilemma: should he or should he not negotiate with Jefferson Davis’s Confederate government? The British media went into a frenzy of speculation, and Palmerston fired a letter to Lord Russell stating the time to intervene had arrived. Russell quickly replied: “I agree with you that the time is come for offering mediation to the United States govt with a view to the recognition of the independence of the Confederates. I agree further that in case of failure we ought ourselves to recognise the Southern states, as an independent state.”

Britain’s eyes were on Maryland, anxiously awaiting the results of the inevitable battle between the two armies, fully realising the consequences could spell certain doom for Lincoln. On 17 September, Generals Lee and McClellan clashed along Antietam Creek in an inconclusive battle which produced 26,000 casualties. Although a draw from a military standpoint, many saw Antietam as a Union victory owing to Lee’s subsequent retreat back into Virginia. Furthermore, Lincoln now felt confident enough to issue the Emancipation Proclamation. With this edict, all areas of the South under Confederate control would see slavery forever abolished if the respective states did not return to the Union by January 1863. Slave states loyal to the Union, however, could maintain the institution, a result of Lincoln not wanting to drive them into the arms of the Confederacy.

It has been argued that the Emancipation Proclamation made it near-impossible for Britain to enter the war on the South’s behalf, as such a move would have been regarded as a declaration of support for a slave regime. This is simply not true. The proclamation was widely condemned in Britain and, most significantly, in government itself. Russell branded it illegal, hypocritical and a violation of the US constitution. Far from eradicating human bondage, he argued, Lincoln had turned the institution into “the reward for loyalty”.

But if slavery was not the leading reason for Britain’s hesitation, what was?

In the period after the Confederate retreat from Maryland, Palmerston’s government was convinced that Lincoln would not entertain any offers of mediation from Britain or France. “To preach peace to them is like speaking to mad dogs,” Russell concluded. He then proposed further hesitation, suggesting that recognition of the Confederacy “should not take place till May or June next year”. But by the spring of 1863 the war had moved on, and the Union had developed a new weapon that made a decisive British intervention in the war all but impossible.

The seeds of this new development can be traced to November 1859, when the French launched an armour-plated vessel, La Gloire. In 1860, Britain responded by unveiling their own ironclad behemoth and the world's most powerful ship, HMS Warrior.

This new waterborne arms race was soon being replicated across the Atlantic, where both North and South raced to construct their own ironclad ships. By March 1862 each side had one. The Confederates' Virginia was the first to enter action, destroying two of Lincoln's wooden navy vessels in Hampton Roads, Virginia, and forcing a third to run aground. The next day the USS Monitor crawled into the harbour to counter the Virginia and protect the rest of the Union fleet. A fight immediately broke out, lasting over three hours with neither side suffering major damage as the cannon balls were simply repelled by the iron-plated sides. Although the clash was a draw, naval warfare was changed forever.

Looking on from the sidelines, it dawned on the British that the US navy had just surpassed them in the 'arms race'. Washington had a vessel entirely covered by armoured plates, whereas the Warrior had an open deck, exposed masts, rudder and anchor. The British immediately carried out tests to ascertain if the Warrior could withstand artillery fire from US gunboats, using cannons similar to those employed by American vessels against identical iron plates covering Britain's greatest ship. Palmerston was concerned to learn that every round easily penetrated the iron plates.

By 1863, dozens of Monitor-style ironclads were under construction in Northern shipyards. Their use remained limited to rivers and along the coast, but many realised it would not be long before one was capable of crossing the Atlantic. It was, therefore, impossible from 1863 onwards for Britain to enter the war without putting its wooden fleet in great peril. And without its navy, the empire was in jeopardy. The British were no longer able to address Washington sternly, as they were forced to tread the water carefully when dealing with the United States, and Whitehall did not wish to risk losing Canada to American 'Manifest Destiny'.

This timidity continued after the conflict was over. Midway through the war, Washington began asking Whitehall for compensation for heavy damages suffered by the US merchant and whaling fleets at the hands of British-built and crewed Confederate raiders. Yet, with each request, Russell refused. The war’s end changed the situation entirely and in 1871 Britain finally agreed to pay the United States £3.5m (approximately £160m today) in compensation.

British attitudes also changed after the Union’s 1865 victory. The idea that slavery was the chief cause of the American Civil War was more widely recognised, Lincoln became more favourable as an icon, and the Union a more noble cause. This change in attitude made it easier for Manchester, where an effigy of the US president was burned on Guy Fawkes Night in 1863, to erect a statue honouring the same man.

The British did create memorials to the Confederacy, though not in the British Isles. In May 1863, Southern general Thomas J ‘Stonewall’ Jackson was mortally wounded in the battle of Chancellorsville. Winning nearly every engagement in which he commanded against greater opposition, in addition to being a staunch ‘Christian warrior’, Jackson won a lot of praise in Britain. Upon his death, the general’s British admirers launched a campaign to raise money for a statue. By the end of the war, they had secured enough funds for the memorial – but where was it to be erected?

Finally, in 1875 the statue of Jackson was put up in Capitol Square in the old Confederate capital of Richmond, Virginia, where it still stands today. More money was raised than necessary, however, and the SIA’s former London chairman, AJB Beresford-Hope, opted to give the remaining funds to the Virginia Military Institute in Lexington, where Jackson was a professor before the war.

The institute invested the money and continues to use it today to award the top two cadets in each graduating class the ‘Jackson-Hope Medal’ in honour of the Confederate general and the Southern Independence Association officer. The statue in Richmond and the annual medals at VMI bear the same inscription: “The gift of English gentlemen.”

Dr Thomas E Sebrell II has a PhD in history from Queen Mary, University of London. He has created three American Civil War walking tours in London that reveal Britain's links to both sides in the conflict. You can find out more at the website www.acwlondon.org

The American Civil War in context

The war began when Confederates fired on US-occupied Fort Sumter in Charleston, South Carolina, in April 1861. Its origins can be traced back to the previous decades’ debate between North and South over the spread of slavery into new territories. In 1860, anti-slavery candidate Abraham Lincoln was elected president, eventually causing 11 Southern states to secede from the Union to form the Confederacy, making Richmond, Virginia, its capital.

The North possessed nearly all of America’s industry and three times the manpower. The South, however, had great military leaders and won the first major engagement at Manassas, Virginia. Early 1862 saw the ‘Yankees’ win key engagements, but the tide changed to favour the South that summer when Robert E Lee took command of the army defending Richmond, winning the Seven Days’ battle on the Virginia peninsula and again at the second battle of Manassas.

The war changed course after Lee’s invasion of Maryland resulted in a draw and his retreat back into Virginia. Shortly after, Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, declaring all slaves in areas under Confederate occupation free. A war initially being waged solely to preserve the Union was now taking steps towards eradicating slavery.

Although Lee won the next two major engagements in Virginia, the war turned decisively against the South in July 1863 after losses at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, and the surrender of Vicksburg, the Confederates’ Mississippi river stronghold.

In May 1864, Union General Ulysses S Grant invaded Virginia and hammered Lee until he could no longer defend Richmond. The last Confederate unit to surrender was the sailors of the CSS Shenandoah at Liverpool, England, in November 1865.


The Civil War ended slavery in the United States, and paved the way for the domination of federalism over states’ sovereignty.


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