British attitudes to the American Civil War

This blog can also be found on the website of the Oxford University Press.

04 2 Losing the Thread jacketOne hundred and sixty years ago, on 12 April 1861, the Confederacy attacked Fort Sumter, a Union fort in Charleston harbour. The first shots of the Civil War had been fired.

British attitudes to that war baffled both participants at the time, and perhaps still do. Many considerations, often conflicting, fed into the perceptions of individuals and groups in Britain, making their attitudes to both the war and their own self-interest in it, which were not necessarily the same thing, complicated and sometimes contradictory.

Many people in Britain were passionate supporters of one side or the other. However, many others—and perhaps a majority—felt a strong distaste for both sides. In the case of the South, the overwhelming reason for this can be stated in one word: slavery. Britain had abolished slavery in most of its own colonies in 1834 and, in the intervening thirty years or so, had become a strongly abolitionist nation. Even many of the Southern partisans in Britain refused to endorse slavery.

Despite knowing this, Confederate leaders managed to convince themselves that Britain’s need for raw cotton would lead it to recognise Southern independence and intervene to break the Union blockade of the cotton ports. “Why, sir,” said a fellow diner to William Howard Russell of The Times at Charleston in April 1861, “we have only to shut off your supply of cotton for a few weeks and we can create a revolution in Great Britain. … No sir, we know that England must recognize us.” After the war, Jefferson Davis’s widow wrote that her husband had regarded foreign recognition as an assumed fact.

Without this assumption, it is possible that secession and the Civil War would never have happened. It was a disastrous misjudgment by the Confederacy, which simultaneously underestimated the depth of the British loathing for slavery and overestimated the reliance of the British economy on the cotton trade.

Yet this implacable hostility in Britain towards slavery, and towards the South, did not translate immediately into widespread support for the North. Here, the reasons were a great deal more varied and complicated. The starting point is to understand that, before the Civil War, Britain and America had not been allies or political friends, despite many close personal links between the two countries.

It was, after all, less than 50 years since the British army had set fire to the White House and the Capitol—not a long time in the national memory. In the decade before the Civil War, Britain and America could have gone to war on several occasions. In particular, Britain was angered by America’s attempt to gain an advantage at Britain’s expense over the Crimean War, fought only a few years earlier. The two nations were fast becoming rivals, certainly in the economic sphere and increasingly in the political sphere too. Neither did the British Establishment take kindly to the republican and anti-monarchist ethos of America, especially at a time when a revolutionary threat in Europe bubbled close to the surface.

So, when the Civil War started, there was little existing bedrock of friendship between the governments in London and Washington.

The North made a calamitous start to the war as far as obtaining British sympathy was concerned. It denied that slavery had anything to do with the conflict. Many in Britain shared the sentiment of Giuseppe Garibaldi that, if the war was not about slavery, it was merely an “intestine war” over territory and sovereignty, “like any civil war in which the world at large could have little interest or sympathy”.

Then the North enacted the Morrill tariff, a protectionist measure that substantially raised the duties on British imports. This alarmed even Northern supporters in Britain, almost all of whom were fervent supporters of free trade. The Union had a press, especially in New York, that was vitriolically anti-British. It had a Secretary of State, William Seward, who was hostile to Britain, and who was also suspected (with good reason) of having designs on Canada. The North suspended habeas corpus and introduced restrictions on civil liberties, which in Britain were evidence of a tyranny.

On top of all this, in November 1861, a Federal naval captain, acting on his own initiative, intercepted the British mail packet SS Trent and removed two Confederate diplomats. Feverish support for this action in America, and outraged opposition to it in Britain, nearly led to war between the two countries.

With all this in mind, it is perhaps not surprising that many in Britain found themselves unwilling to support the North, whilst being unable to support the South. Both sides in America were aggrieved by this fact, and largely uncomprehending of it. But, much though Britain’s lack of sympathy infuriated the North, it was the South that needed Britain’s outright support, while the North—although it also wanted it—needed only her abstention. In that respect, the British response to the Civil War was more to the North’s benefit.

In time, attitudes in Britain towards the North softened, due principally to President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation. The ending of slavery had now become a war aim. The South’s last chance of obtaining British recognition had gone forever.

Slavery and arms: Britain and America’s 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 the links below. 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 last of four blogs based on the transcripts of the videos.

MW   You’ve touched upon the British hostility to slavery. Let’s just remind ourselves that the British abolished the Atlantic slave trade in 1807 and by 1834 freed all slaves in most of the British colonies. So the American Civil War over slavery was happening about 30 years after that. So, for decades after slavery had been abolished by Britain, England was still buying cotton from America produced almost entirely by slaves. Was there any concern about that in Britain?

JP   Yes and no. Almost everyone in the cotton trade, and almost everyone in Britain, was implacably opposed to slavery in principle. In practice, it was a different matter. Eugene Dattel has written that “most New Yorkers did not care that the cotton was produced by slaves because for them it became sanitized once it left the plantation.” For New Yorkers, one could read Britons.

The degree of hypocrisy and moral disconnection within Britain and the British cotton trade was extraordinary. Slavery was evil, but eliminating it in America was someone else’s problem, to be achieved at some undefined future point. The vast wealth that Britain as a country, and mill-owners as individuals, accumulated from cotton, was knowingly built on the back of American slave labour. Hardly anyone was unduly bothered by this in practice.

MW   During the Civil War, Britain seized the opportunity to trade with both sides, didn’t it? Selling weapons to both the North and the South?

JP   Yes. This was the heyday of laissez-faire economics. If someone overseas wanted to buy arms from Britain, then Britain sold them arms. Moral principles didn’t enter into it, and the British government mostly didn’t intervene.

The most notorious contribution made by Merseyside to the Confederacy was to its navy, non-existent at the start of the war and the scourge of the Union by its end. The ravages to Union shipping wrought by the Florida and the Alabama, both built on Merseyside, were devastating. Britain also supplied the Confederacy with huge quantities of small arms and ammunition.

MW   Did the famous Union blockades of Southern ports have much impact on the Atlantic cotton trade? How important was blockade-running as an activity?

JP   From a British perspective, blockade-running was of negligible importance. During the war, it accounted for less than 1% of the port of Liverpool’s trade. The cotton received in exchange for the armaments shipped to the South had almost nil impact on Britain’s cotton scarcity.

However, from a Confederate perspective, blockade-running was vital. Without the arms and supplies that the trade provided, the South could not have sustained the war.

MW   The only association most Americans have with Liverpool now is with the Beatles, but back in the day it had a reputation of siding with the South. Is that warranted?

JP   No; it was a lot more nuanced than that. There was a great deal of support for the Confederacy in Liverpool, but also a great deal of support for the Union. It must be remembered that three-quarters of Liverpool’s American trade pre-war was with the North and, during the war, virtually all of it. Liverpool had considerable vested interests in the Northern states.

Also, in terms of small arms and ammunition, Britain actually did more to supply the North than the South. In 1862, Liverpool sent almost 200,000 firearms and nearly 12 million percussion caps to New York. And, at the instigation of US Navy Secretary Gideon Welles, Laird Brothers – the Merseyside firm that built the Alabama – was approached to build warships for the Union and agreed to do so, although the ships were never built. This is detailed in the book, using new and original research.

The crucial difference was that, as the war went on, manufacturers in the Northern states converted to arms production, so the Union gradually became far less dependent on British arms than the Confederacy.

MW   And what happened at the end of the Civil War with the abolition of slavery? How did that impact the vital cotton trade?

JP   When the war ended, the freedmen urgently needed to find paid work. For most in the South, the only option was to continue growing cotton.

As a result, too much cotton was grown and prices tumbled. The dollar return of each acre under cotton cultivation reduced by 75 per cent between 1869 and 1896. This made it impossible for many cotton farmers to earn a living. It was not so much a failure of free labour as a catastrophic failure of the free market.

Over time, most of the South’s cotton farmers – both African Americans and whites – incurred substantial debts and became dependent on the credit merchants. Collectively, the Southern states had a near monopoly of the supply of raw cotton to the world market. But, collectively, the South had no meaning. It existed only as an an assortment of desperately poor individuals, with no means of using their combined power to raise prices.

The simplest way of viewing the Southern cotton economy in the decades after the civil war is as a vast system of payday loans, with the difference that the payday came only once a year and was often insufficient to pay the loan.

MW   And how did the British cotton trade react to that situation?

JP   It didn’t. All it had ever cared about was obtaining a large volume of raw cotton at a low price. How this was achieved had been a matter of indifference under slavery, and it remained a matter of indifference after slavery.

How British cotton affected America’s 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 the links below. 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 third of four blogs based on the transcripts of the videos.

MW   Just to get an overview, how much of your book would you say concerns Britain during the American Civil War, and how much concerns the United States?

JP   You can’t really separate the two. As Brian Schoen has written, “without cotton and the international demand for it, there would not have been secession or a Civil War.”

There was an unbroken umbilical cord that bound the two countries together, and that cord was woven from cotton. The narrative may mostly be about Britain, but standing silently behind every page is America. It is a constant presence.

The book is primarily about the British cotton trade during the war. But what most influenced that trade was events in America, while events in America were influenced in turn by reactions in Britain.

I would go further and say that you can’t fully comprehend the civil war without understanding its British dimension. The war was not only about the battles; it was about the political and economic background to the conflict, and that, to a large extent, revolved around cotton.

MW   There was anger at Britain’s neutrality during the American Civil War. It didn’t side with either the North or the South. Can you expand on that?

JP   Both sides wanted, and perhaps expected, Britain’s unequivocal support. The British Prime Minister, Lord Palmerston, put it aptly when he said that the two sides each felt “some little stinging resentment on account of that neutrality which they both of them in some degree characterise as unfriendliness”.

Britain did remain officially neutral during the war, but neutrality meant something different to Britain than to either side in America. Also, there certainly was unfriendliness in Britain towards both sides.

It is generally felt by historians, and I agree, that a majority in Britain favoured the Union. However, many people disliked both sides. They disliked the South principally because of slavery. They disliked the North for a number of reasons: the hostility towards Britain of the New York press, the Union’s designs on Canada, its opposition to free trade, the fact that America was republican and anti-monarchist. Many reasons.

However, a neutral Britain still wielded considerable influence on events in America.

MW   How did that influence manifest itself?

JP   Most obviously on the Confederate side, and most immediately in the response to the ‘King Cotton’ strategy. The South believed that Britain was so economically dependent on its cotton that it would be forced to recognise the Confederacy as an independent nation. In June 1861, the Charleston Mercury declared that “the cards are in our hands, and we intend to play them out to the bankruptcy of every cotton factory in Great Britain and France, or the acknowledgment of our independence.”

Jefferson Davis regarded British recognition as an assumed fact. Without that assumption, secession – and the civil war – may never have happened.

MW   And why did Britain never recognize the Confederacy? And indeed, why did the leaders in the South think that they ever would?

JP   The economies of the Southern states were wholly dependent on cotton. There was little industry and almost no commercial infrastructure. In 1860, 85% of America’s chartered banks were in the North and 90 per cent of its industrial output. As a result, much of the South’s cotton income ended up in the hands of Northern banks and merchants, which was one of the main grievances of the South before secession.

The mistake made by Confederate leaders was to believe that their dependence on cotton was mirrored in Britain. They were encouraged in this belief by the British cotton trade, and by the politicians associated with them. Henry Ashworth, a major mill-owner, told a meeting that “the entire failure of a cotton crop, should it ever occur, would utterly destroy, and perhaps for ever, all the manufacturing prosperity we possess.”

MW   Was Henry Ashworth overstating the case?

JP   Yes. Just a bit. Cotton may have been by far the most important industry in Britain at the time, but it was by no means the only one. Britain was economically diverse, unlike the Confederacy. 16% of the population may have been dependent on cotton for its income, but that meant that 84% was not. And this 84% was doing extremely well in the 1860s.

So, from an economic viewpoint, there was no compelling reason for Britain to recognise the Confederacy. And, although the issue was much discussed, there was no compelling political reason either, not least because of the depth of British hostility to slavery.

MW   Is it true that the South misjudged the timing of this cotton strategy, and that in fact they’d grown too much cotton before the war – so there was a glut – which undermined their influence over Britain’s policies?

JP   No, that isn’t true. And there has been a parallel argument in Britain, with historians claiming that British mills produced far too many cotton goods in the three years before the war. Put together, the allegation is of a glut of both raw cotton and cotton goods on the eve of the war.

I have analysed this allegation in forensic detail and it is utterly untrue. All the evidence shows that, before the war, both the supply of raw cotton and the manufacture of cotton goods was broadly in line with international demand.

Liverpool 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 the links below. 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 second of four blogs based on the transcripts of the videos.

MW   Let’s talk about the great port city of Liverpool. It was key, wasn’t it, to the cotton trade?

JP   Yes. All the raw cotton coming into Britain was traded on the Liverpool market by the town’s cotton brokers. No cotton reached the mills without passing through Liverpool. So the brokers there controlled Britain’s raw cotton trade.

MW   So did these Liverpool cotton brokers suffer from the scarcity of cotton during the American Civil War?

JP   Far from it. In 1863, while the rest of Lancashire starved, the Liverpool Mercury reported that the town’s cotton trade had enjoyed its most profitable year ever. To a large extent, this was the result of wild speculation in cotton and gambling on its future price. During the war, Liverpool can best be seen as a giant casino.

The price of raw cotton rose nearly five-fold at its peak. Roughly speaking, half of that increase was due to the cotton scarcity and half to speculation. Most consignments were bought and sold several times over before they ever reached the mills. Despite a halving of the volume, the value of cotton imports attained a peak in 1864 that would not be repeated until the extreme circumstances of the First World War. And the value of the cotton actually traded in 1864 was almost certainly the highest ever.

The brokers earned a commission of 1% for trading each consignment, based on its value. With the inflated price and with multiple sales of the same cotton, a broker could – and did – earn at least 20 times as much on the same weight of cotton as he had before the war.

MW   So how did all this play with the Manchester mill owners?

JP   Badly. Manchester believed that Liverpool held the cotton import hostage, allowing it to leave only when its price had been artificially inflated and a ransom of 1% had been paid. To them, Liverpool was little more than a toll booth on the Mersey.

Towards the end of the civil war, the cotton spinners, led by the future MP Hugh Mason, declared war on the brokers. This hostility between Manchester and Liverpool – which, one has to say, still exists today – is explored extensively in the book. Eventually, long after the war, it led to a complete change in how raw cotton was traded in Liverpool.

MW   The cotton brokers were directly engaged in speculation themselves, weren’t they?

JP   Absolutely. And so, it must be said, were the spinners. Everyone speculated.

MW   And, according to your research, these cotton brokers in England had massive conflicts of interest, didn’t they?

JP   Yes, they did. They frequently acted for both the seller and the buyer in the same transaction, trying simultaneously to achieve the highest price for one client and the lowest price for another. This is all detailed in the book.

I have also analysed the Bills of Entry for the port of Liverpool, never previously examined by historians. The study proves that 91% of Liverpool’s cotton brokers took responsibility for cotton consignments when they arrived at the docks. This proves the degree to which they were engaged in trading cotton themselves, instead of purely acting as middlemen, as they were supposed to do.

MW   It’s generally believed that during the American Civil War, Liverpool – unlike the rest of Britain – sided with the Confederacy and that Liverpudlians in general supported the South. Is that true?

JP   No, or at least not to the extent that is claimed. The crucial point is that Liverpool was the main communications hub between Britain and both parts of America – not just the South. Liverpool’s ties with the North were more extensive and more valuable than its ties with the South. This fact has largely been overlooked by historians.

During the war, the port did indeed swarm with Confederate agents, as one commentator put it, but it swarmed with Union agents too. It is worth noting that Laird Brothers, which controversially built warships for the Confederacy, were also approached to build warships for the Union and agreed to do so.

Overall, no hard and fast conclusion on Liverpool’s sympathies can be reached. There isn’t enough evidence. But Liverpool had strong vested interests in both sides of the conflict and it is time for a more nuanced view of opinion there.

MW   You did considerable work with primary sources on your book and you are a bit critical of some of the leading historians of this era. Can you talk a bit about that?

JP   I felt I had to to follow the evidence wherever it led and not to sugar-coat the implications.

Thomas Ellison, the revered 19th century historian of British cotton, had a major conflict of interest, because he was also a cotton broker. He has been given a free pass for too long. Douglas Farnie, the doyen of 20th century British cotton historians, was in serious error in his writings on the civil war. There are also substantial flaws in Sven Beckert’s recent work, Empire of Cotton.

But these criticisms relate specifically to the period of the American Civil War and only to that. I have no basis for making any wider criticism. The aim of the book is to correct some major misconceptions that have arisen, and not to rewrite history completely.

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.


My wife Kay’s brother, Rob, died on Sunday night. This is her remembrance of him.

For my brother

It is 30th March 2020 and we are in the midst of a pandemic sweeping across a locked-down world. Life is somewhat surreal, its preciousness thrown into stark relief. Perhaps it was better that Rob, my brother, should not be part of all this. He’d been wanting to leave the world for some time. Last night, in Harare, his body let him go. Continue reading

Over and out …

… not entirely, but this blog is taking a holiday. It hasn’t had one in more than three years. That’s 167 blogs, and about 167,000 words.

Now, I’m embarking on a new novel, which will give me quite enough to write for the foreseeable future. And I feel that I’ve talked myself out on Brexit, and on quite a lot else.

I imagine, although I don’t know yet, that I’ll still post occasionally. But it won’t be every week, or anything like it. Thank you to those who have kept reading, and au revoir for the moment.

Fantasy Island

One of the sadder features of the past 50 years has been the decline of the United Nations to a status of virtual irrelevance. Many of its subsidiary branches do vital and valuable work, but the General Assembly contributes little to the world, unable to agree on anything. It has always promised more than it has been able to deliver. Now, it doesn’t even promise very much.  Continue reading