A war of two cities

18th Nov, 2022

The ‘Laird Rams’ that appear in Liberty Bazaar were smaller versions of HMS Warrior, the world’s first iron-hulled warship, pictured at her berth in Portsmouth, England.

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.

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

It was in Liverpool that vast amounts of Confederate gold was used to procure ships for the fight against the much larger Union navy. And it is against this background of massive international stakes that my debut novel Liberty Bazaar is set. It’s based on real events, including the building of two ironclad warships known as the ‘Laird Rams’ and a five-day bazaar in Liverpool’s magnificent St George’s Hall. This fund-raising event was held to provide relief for Rebel prisoners of war and their families, and raised £20,000 – an enormous amount of money for the time.

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 (an estimated 620,000 combatants) than both world wars combined. The extent to which Britain had blood on her hands is not widely known.

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. 

The statue of US President Abraham Lincoln in Lincoln Square, Manchester. Lincoln thanked the city’s workers for supporting the Union, despite the ‘cotton famine’ hardships, and hailed ‘the working men of Manchester’ for their ‘sublime Christian heroism’

Many 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.

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.

The old town hall in Liverpool – scene of the final act of surrender of the American Civil War when Captain Waddell of the Confederate commerce raider CSS Shenandoah turned over his ship to local authorities on 6 November 1865

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’. Contemporary reports suggested more Confederate flags could be seen in Liverpool than Richmond.

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 Lancashire’s mills 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 indeed France – could certainly have altered the outcome of the conflict. France was also hard hit by the cotton embargo and Emperor Napoleon III saw an alliance with the Confederacy as an opportunity to strengthen his ambitions in Mexico, where French soldiers were already fighting to overthrow the liberal regime of Benito Juarez.

The magnificent St George’s Hall in Liverpool, venue of a five-day bazaar that raised £20,000 for the 'Southern Prisoners' Relief Fund' in October 1864

In the event, British prime minister Lord Palmerston chose a pragmatic solution and Napoleon was not prepared to act without British collaboration. Palmerston 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.

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 thousands of 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 extreme 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 Manchester’s cotton workers.