Saturday, July 18, 2015

When Liverpool Went Dixie and Manchester Backed Lincoln

by David Chadwick

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.

Abraham Lincoln
President of the United States during the Civil War
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.

Statue of Oliver Cromwell,
Victor of the English Civil Wars
at the British Houses of Parliament
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.

HMS Warrior, a new breed of ironclad battleship
at the time of the American Civil War
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.

Liverpool Town Hall, scene of the final Confederate surrender

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 ‘Confederate Embassy’
in Liverpool
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.


David Chadwick’s novel, Liberty Bazaar, is set in Liverpool during the American Civil War and is told through the eyes of an escaped slave girl and a battle-fatigued Confederate general. It has received a rarely awarded Kirkus Reviews star and praised by Pulitzer Prize-winning Civil War historian James M. McPherson, as well as leading African American historian Richard Blackett.

A professional journalist and PR adviser, David took a BA in history and politics at Queen Mary, University of London, followed by an MA in creative writing at Manchester Metropolitan University. He has worked in Liverpool and Manchester and has undertaken detailed research into the histories of the rival cities.


You can find out more about David as well as the people and issues behind Liberty Bazaar at his website or his Facebook page.


  1. A fascinating insight into the international repercussions of what many see as a contained American conflict. Thanks for sharing. I've Tweeted.

    1. Many thanks for the positive feedback, Linda, and also for the Tweet. Until I researched Liberty Bazaar I hadn't realised how deeply British society had been affected by the Civil War. As you say, it is a fascinating subject.

  2. Yes, I had also not thought about how it might have affected countries outside the U.S. A fascinating post!

    1. Thanks for your kind comment, Sue. So glad to enjoyed the article.

  3. Thanks, David, this is fascinating! The Confederate government paid agents provocateurs to whip up support in Britain not only for the southern cause, but also for slavery per se. The most prominent of these was James Hunt, who ran the Anthropological Society (directly, but secretly, funded from Richmond VA). His papers are in the Bristol University Library, but if you can make any sense of them your palaeography is better than mine!

    1. Many thanks for your feedback and extra information, Mark. The antics of James Hunt sound intriguing and I will certainly take a look. It's deeply disturbing to see toxic racist nonsense attired in the language of science - something that continued internationally long after the Civil War.

  4. What a wonderful post! A real eye-opener. I never realized how divided England was about the Civil War in the United States. Your book sounds wonderful. Something for my growing TBR list.

    1. You are too kind, Elizabeth. I'm so glad you liked the article and I do hope you enjoy Liberty Bazaar just as much.

  5. When I was a young student in the US we were taught the moral issues, not the economic ones. From the beginning of colonization, Southern concerns were agrarian.It attracted or compelled a different sort of immigrant. It is an interesting study and this post sets it out better than most.

    1. Many thanks for sharing your insights, Linda. Yes, you can see how the mind-set of immigrants to the South would have been very different to people who settled in the North. In a nutshell, an industrial society clashed with agrarian one. One fascinating statistic is that at the time of the Civil War, the town of Lowell, Massachusetts produced more cotton garments than the entire South.

  6. Thanks!! I've always wanted to see a good article on why England got rid of slavery, without any war. People in US don't seem to grasp why war had to happen there- -it took me a long time to get it. So I wonder how England did it.

    For one thing -- hell, for EVERYTHING -- there was no free speech in the South. Did you know it was against the law in every slave state to speak openly, or write openly, against slavery? You could not preach against slavery, there either. A basic aspect of Southern life after 1845 or so. Before that, you could speak against slavery, you could even write books and preach sermons against it, as some did. Cassius Clay was one that did, but he HATED blacks so much he hated slavery, because it brought blacks and whites together in same area. Even he was forcibly caught, taken to Ohio boundary, and told not to come back. ANother one forcibly removed -- Hiton Helper. There were men tortured -- women tortured - no this is not bullshit -- for speaking against slavery. Violence was n ot just somethign they used on slaves, but you could not have people trash talking slave owners, you could not have books, and articles against slavery, and slavery be the big status symbol. BTW -- slavery was the big status symbol. Those with slaves or connected to slave owning families, did fine. These laws were called anti-incendiary laws.

    Supposedly they passed so SLAVES would not hear such sermons or read such books, and papers. But really it was so that WHITES could not trash talk slave owners. So that in church, the preacher could not preach the evils of slavery.

    This has a profound effect on the culture. Yet no one seems to mention it.

    In Kansas -- the first thing US Senator Atchison did, when he invaded Kansas in 1854, was to pass laws against speaking or writing against slavery. If you ever heard of the invasions of Lawrence -- those were by US Senator Atchison, on the basis of that city still allowing a newspaper there to publish anti slavery paper. And he is very very proud about that. His speech to his Texas men (Jeff Davis paid for 1000 Texas men to come to KS, led by Atchison) you can still see, in KS historical society. Plus dozens of newspaers -- hundreds -- are filled with news of this, as it dragged on for years, and led directly to Southern War Ultimatums of 1861 -- that Kansas accept slavery. I have a blog about it, but you can get the information yourself. I put a link in here to the speech.

    My question is -- how did GB get rid of slavery? I assume it was not against the law to speak or preach or write against it. But I'd like to know more

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  8. Thanks ever so much for these insightful comments, Seeker.

    I totally agree that the issue of abolition in the South was repressed by the state authorities, especially after Nat Turner's slave rebellion in Virginia in 1831, which left 60 white people dead. Yet despite laws banning the teaching of black people to read and write, many people did so. Among them was Confederate patriarch General Andrew 'Stonewall' Jackson.

    Thanks also for your blog link, which I will certainly read with great interest as the situation in Kansas did, as you say, lead directly to the outbreak of hostilities.

    In Britain, the abolition of slavery did not result in war because slave owners were not geographically and economically separated as they were in the United States. Also, there were never any plantations in Britain. Instead, British slaveholders outsourced production to the American South and the Caribbean islands.

    As a result, we never had chattel slavery in our face in the same way that the United States did.

    Nonetheless, abolition took a very long time and was not achieved without sustained political campaigning and great sacrifice by those committed to the cause. Great fortunes built up by plantation owners enabled them to exercise huge political influence in Britain, where many members of parliament and peers of the realm did their utmost to keep slavery. Despite their efforts, the slave trade was abolished in the British Empire in 1807. Although a massive accomplishment, this only outlawed ‘trading’ in slaves. Owning them on West Indies plantations was not abolished by Britain until 1833/34.

    If you haven't seen it, I can strongly recommend the 2006 movie Amazing Grace, which is about the abolition of the slave trade in 1807.

  9. Fascinating history , thank you!

  10. You are very welcome, Anne, and many thanks for the encouraging feedback.


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