British cotton and the American Civil War

Liverpool University Press has recently published a book based on my doctoral thesis at the University of Liverpool. It is called Losing the Thread: Cotton, Liverpool and the American Civil War.

I have made two videos, in which I discuss the book with Meredith Wheeler, for many years a writer/producer for ABC News in New York and London. Both videos are available on YouTube, clicking on these links . The first video covers The Civil War and Britain’s Cotton Trade, and the second The Civil War and Anglo-American Relations.

This is the first of four blogs based on the transcripts of the videos.

MW   Americans usually consider the American Civil War through the prism of slavery, but today your book is looking at it from a different perspective, from an economic thread, one might say. Cotton threads. And while Americans are aware of the devastating effects of the American Civil War on the United States, I wonder if you could tell us a little bit about the devastating effects it had on Britain.

JP   Yes, by all means. The cotton trade was by far Britain’s largest industry at the time. In 1861, when the civil war started, cotton generated 12% of Britain’s national income. Half the factories in the country were for cotton production. Cotton goods accounted for 38% of all British exports. A sixth of the population relied on cotton for its income.

80% of the raw cotton for that trade came from the slave states of the southern USA. In July 1861, that fell to zero, literally overnight. It remained close to zero for the next three years. This can be regarded as the world’s first raw material crisis, and one of the most dramatic periods in Britain’s industrial and economic history. Yet little has been written about it.

MW   But America wasn’t the only country producing cotton, was it? There was the West Indies – India itself ?

JP   The book examines in detail what was done to reduce the dependence on American cotton before the war, and to replace the supply lost during the war.

Other countries, India especially, did indeed ship extra cotton during the civil war. However, before the war, America grew two-thirds of the world’s cotton and more than three-quarters of all cotton entering world trade. The vacuum left by the absence of American cotton was simply too great to fill, especially at short notice.

The consequence was that between 1862 and 1864, British yarn production was at 36 per cent of what the market needed. About 4.5 billion lbs of raw cotton were denied to British manufacturers in the seven years to the end of 1867. This caused massive unemployment in the industry, leading to the Lancashire cotton famine.

MW   During the American Civil War, the Union side famously blockaded Confederate ports precisely to prevent the export of American-grown cotton. However, I was interested to read in your book that this wasn’t the only reason that so little American cotton reached Britain during the war.

JP   That’s right. Throughout the war, the absence of American cotton from Britain was due as much to actions of the Confederacy as of the Union. Indeed, the complete cessation of exports in July 1861 had nothing to do with the blockade, which had only recently been imposed and was not yet effective. The cessation was due to the Confederate states placing an embargo on the export of their own cotton.

MW   And why was that?

JP   It was part of the South’s ‘King Cotton’ strategy. Confederate leaders were convinced that Britain and other countries were so dependent on the South’s cotton that they would be forced to recognise Confederate independence. Three months into the war, there had been no such recognition. The embargo was intended to to remind Britain that its economy would soon be devastated without Confederate cotton.

MW   But this “King Cotton” strategy of holding up cotton exports ultimately failed, didn’t it? Because the British never recognized the Confederacy as a legitimate entity.

JP   No, it didn’t. Recognition was discussed in Britain, but it was never a likely option and it never happened. The British economy was far more diverse than the Confederate leaders appreciated. 16% of the population may have depended on cotton for their livelihoods, but 84% did not – and that 84% was doing pretty well in the 1860s.

MW   So, despite an almost complete absence of American cotton, you say that most historians believe that there was no shortage of cotton in Britain during the war – because there was a cotton glut beforehand.

JP   That’s right. The claim was first advanced at the end of 1862 by people who understood little about the global cotton trade, and nothing at all about the role played in it by a stock pipeline. Few subsequent historians have undertaken original research into the issue and most have simply repeated the erroneous contemporary claims.

Although the civil war was to last for four years, at its commencement nobody in Britain expected it to last longer than a few months. The global cotton trade carried enough stock, as it needed to do, to cover those months. So, when the price of cotton started to rise, the trade sold from stock. The outbreak of war suppressed demand, paralysed the world market and led to short-time working in Britain. In time, the stocks were exhausted. By then, there was a severe cotton scarcity, which caused the famine.

So the over-production argument has no validity. In the book, this issue has been considered from every conceivable viewpoint and with the aid of detailed and reliable statistics. The conclusion is unarguable. The Lancashire cotton famine was the direct result of the American Civil War and of nothing else.