In 1861, seven southern pro-slavery states broke away to form the Confederate States of America. The result was a bloody Civil War that ended with the victory of the Union – the northern anti-slavery states – under President Abraham Lincoln. One of the reasons that the Confederacy was able to hold out so long against the economically stronger north was support that it received from Europe. But who in England and other countries propped up the Confederates and why?
It’s been the conventional wisdom for far too long that the UK and Europe refused to help the Confederacy because of opposition in England and France to the institution of slavery. While many did find the enslavement of African-Americans repellent, there were plenty of others profiting from southern cotton. The myth of total neutrality needs to be buried.
Powerful interests across Europe supported the Confederacy throughout the American Civil War. The city of Liverpool, where cotton arrived for the mills of Lancashire, was a centre of support for the southern states. But it was not alone.
The Confederacy seeks recognition in Europe
One of the existential problems for the Confederacy was getting other countries to recognise its existence. So, diplomatic feelers were put out to governments, politicians and various organisations imploring them to get the thumbs up for the new country: the Confederate States of America. But many, while sympathetic to the south, were wary of angering Washington DC. And decided to sit things out until it became clearer whether the rebellious states could defeat the Union.
In June 1863, Confederate supporters in England held a rally in Bolton. They adopted a resolution declaring that “the disastrous war now desolating America and afflicting Europe can accomplish no good object” and urged that the “Government to endeavour to bring it to a speedy end by recognising the independence of the Confederate states”.
The Confederate envoy to Paris, John Slidell, enjoyed intimate tete-a-tetes with Emperor Napoleon III as he tried to get the French onside. But his efforts came to a sudden, undiplomatic conclusion. Slidell, and another Confederate envoy, were seized from a British mail ship, the Trent, in late 1861 by Union officers who stormed on board. A shocked Slidell had been reporting back to his political masters and then heading back to France. Instead, he ended up on a one way trip to prison. This incident very nearly plunged the United Kingdom into conflict with Lincoln – ending Britain’s official neutrality.
Building a Confederate war ship in England – and its sinking in France
The biggest weakness of the Confederacy in relation to the Union was the relative lack of manufacturing industry. So, when it came to getting their hands on state-of-the-art warships, the south turned to the shipbuilders of England.
The CSS Alabama was a warship built in great secrecy for the Confederacy at Birkenhead on the River Mersey by the firm, John Laird Sons & Co in 1862. The man overseeing this project was James Dunwoody Bulloch (1823-1901), a Confederate agent from Savannah, Georgia, who based himself in Liverpool for the duration of the Civil War ensuring that England’s cotton merchants didn’t wane in their support for the rebels.
The Alabama succeeded in harassing Union ships crossing the Atlantic for two years until the Union got its revenge. The Confederate warship docked at the French port of Cherbourg for repairs on June 11, 1864. At which point, the USS Kearsarge turned up and sank it. The Union vessel had been tracking its Confederate nemesis for months biding its time. This audacious attack was a severe blow to the morale of Confederate supporters in Europe. And it showed Lincoln’s long reach when required.
A raffle for Confederacy prisoners
The Liverpool based trading company, Fraser, Trenholm & Co, based at Rumford Place, near the docks and the cotton exchange, spearheaded support for the Confederates in England and Europe. The firm’s senior partner – Charleston, South Carolina born Charles K. Prioleau – was a naturalised Englishman. In August 1864, his wife Mary organised a raffle at St George’s Hall in Liverpool to raise money for the Southern Prisoners’ Relief Fund. The prize was a donkey!
It was all terribly vexatious for Mary Prioleau as she wrote in a letter to her husband:
“I do wish the Bazaar was over I am sure it is going to be worse than troublesome in some ways. There sees to be so little satisfaction felt amongst the various ladies connected with it.”
A complex web of cotton and money
Finance is the sinews of war and the Confederacy was always struggling to pay for its conflict with the Union. Its greatest bargaining chip was cotton. So any offering to European investors had to involve speculation in the 19th century wonder crop.
In the spring of 1863, the Confederate Seven Per Cent Cotton Loan of three million pounds was issued to investors in Europe by the French finance company Erlanger (based in Paris and Frankfurt), J. H. Schroder (London and Amsterdam) and Liverpool’s very own Fraser, Trenhnolm & Co. Southern cotton was “hypothecated”, used as collateral to back the loan. The bonds were exchangeable against cotton at 6d a pound in the knowledge that price would double when sold by the cotton merchants in Liverpool.
Fill your boots everybody! Trouble was, a year later the Confederacy lost the war and had collapsed by 1865. At which point, plenty of well-heeled people in Europe began denying very loudly, and in the newspapers, that they had ever owned any Confederate Cotton Loan in their investment portfolio. Perish the thought!
One of those denying that he owned £20,000 of Confederate Cotton Loan was the Birkenhead MP, John Laird. Founder of the shipping company that bore his name, he had retired from active involvement in the firm in 1861 entering politics as a Conservative member of parliament. However, his company did build the CSS Alabama, sunk off Cherbourg.
Another alleged holder in the Confederate Cotton Loan was the future Prime Minister, William Gladstone – who was the UK’s Chancellor of the Exchequer during the Civil War. His name popped up on the register as “Rt. Hon William Ewart, Great Western”, Ewart being his middle name. But no, harrumphed, the great politician – it’s not me. He attributed the appearance of his name on a list of Confederate Cotton Loan holders as “a strange error”.
It would be churlish to point out that Gladstone was the Liverpool-born son of a wealthy slaveowner, John Gladstone (1764-1851). His plantations in Jamaica and Guyana were worked by slaves. Those in Guyana rose in revolt in 1823 during the Demerara Rebellion.
Defeat for the Confederacy spells trouble for its supports in Europe
To the victor the spoils. And after Abraham Lincoln won the Civil War, agents for the Union arrived in England and Europe looking for Confederate assets. After all, the Confederacy no longer existed. The United States was reunited. And the property of the illegal government of the south could now revert to Washington DC.
Well, that was the theory. Lawyers and business agents crossed the Atlantic to repatriate the assets of the Confederacy. Fraser, Trenholm & Co soon found themselves at the receiving end of very stern legal correspondence. Some commentators in England wondered if Lincoln would be as willing to assume the Confederacy’s debts as well as their assets in Europe. The Confederate currency had been worthless and debts run up out of sympathy for their cause. Plenty of bondholders wondered if they would ever get their money back.