Liverpool and the Confederacy
by Alan McClellan
First published in the Bulletin in March 2001

Liverpool’s close connections with the Confederacy in the American Civil War through its maritime activity have not always received the balanced attention they deserve. In recent years there has been an unfortunate tendency to view the subject through the distorting lens of political correctness. The re-opening of Laird’s Graving Dock No. 4 with its C.S.N. Alabama associations brought the subject to life once again, and the writer pondered the usefulness of drawing attention to some often neglected points:

  • Slavery, though highly repugnant to ever increasing numbers of folk in the United States and Britain was not the only issue over which northern and southern states disagreed. Those states which broke away asserted other “states rights”, including that to maintain their traditional export trades in raw cotton.
  • Once hostilities between North and South broke out Jefferson Davies, no doubt influenced by the spirit of an age in which assertions of national identity were rife in Europe, sought recognition of the Confederacy as a state from the major European powers. In doing so he emphasises a commitment to free trade which was pleasing to those who feared the Morrell Tariff would cripple the export of raw cotton.
  • It was some time before Abraham Lincoln took up the abolition of slavery as a war aim. (The treatment of freed black men by some Union army officers continued to leave much to be desired)>
  • By the Declaration of Paris of 1856 Britain and other major powers, but not the United States, had accepted fundamental conventions for war at sea:-
  • Privateering was to be abolished.
  • A neutral flag protected the goods of each side in a conflict, with the exception of contraband of war.
  • Neutral goods with the exception of contraband of war were not liable to seizure under an enemy’s flag.
  • Blockades, in order to be binding, must be effective. That is to say maintained by a force sufficient really to prevent access to the coast of an enemy.
  • By attempting to impose a complete blockade on a geographically defined area the Union Government bestowed on the Confederacy the status of belligerent. Hostilities between them became more than a matter of insurrection. Business men in Liverpool and other neutral trading centres felt themselves entitled to trade with either side, or indeed both! Shipping contraband of war was seen as an acceptable gamble.
  • Whatever the niceties of the Foreign Enlistment Act, the Alabama was armed and commissioned as a Confederate States warship well outside British territorial waters. She was operated under strict naval discipline, no matter what the origins of her crew, as a commerce raider. (When published after the war, her exploits drew the attention of the Kaiser who commended their study to the German naval high command. She inspired surface raiding in both World Wars).
  • By 1860 Merseyside was pre-eminent as a centre of maritime activity and innovation, particularly in hull construction and rigging. Business was slack however, and there was unemployment amongst skilled tradesmen, labourers and seafarers. Shipbuilding orders were to be eagerly competed for, be they for blockade runners or warships.
  • Whilst researching for a particular T.V. project in the 1960s, the writer was told that in days gone by local lore maintained that had it not been for the threat posed to British North America (Canada) by the large battle-experienced Union armies, the post-war ‘Alabama claims’ would have been contested with greater vigour.

The climate of the times here on Merseyside has unfortunately encouraged a simplistic labelling of attitudes and events of the past. The study of Liverpool’s links with both sides in the American Civil war reveals a need for caution, particularly so far as the Confederacy is concerned.

In the early nineteenth century Liverpool based shipowners and merchants took full advantage of the opening up of the Indian trade in 1813, and the loss by the East India Company of its China monopoly in 1834. Competition created a demand for fast passages and therefore for vessels capable of making them in all conditions. (By the mid-nineteenth century it was commonly said if you wanted a speedy ocean passage, then you should take a Liverpool ship!)

With few exceptions (if any) the Liverpool commercial community welcomed moves towards free trade. In the political controversy which surrounded the repeal of the Navigation Acts in 1849, Liverpool shipowners were most concerned that relatively cheap soft wood vessels purchased by them from North American yards should be treated as British in foreign ports.

In the imbroglio over the ill-fated American Collins Line, which sought to compete with Cunard on trans-Atlantic services to and from Liverpool in the 1840s and 1850s, it was significant and noted that Senators Stephen R. Mallory and Judah P. Benjamin (eventually to become prominent in the administration of the Confederacy) vigorously opposed increased subsidies for the Collins operations. Benjamin successfully complained that subsidising the Collins enterprise was ‘to build up great cities at one end of the nation, and leave others to contend as best they may for commercial supremacy’, Senator Robert Toombs of Georgia summed the matter up by commenting: ‘If England will carry my letters for 25 cents, and I cannot carry them for less than half a dollar, I will let her have the business.’

Careful study of the background makes it apparent that attitudes to the American Civil War in influential Liverpool maritime circles demand careful assessment. Numbers of speculators undoubtably became involved in gambling in raw cotton and blockade running during the conflict, and fortunes were rapidly made and lost. However, there were people who felt, no matter what the misgivings of some over the slavery, that the South had a case worthy of recognition and assistance as a matter of political principle.

Acknowledgement and Sources:

Ian Cook and David Eccles
History Today” – various articles over the years
Sea Breezes”  – various articles over the years
Alan McClelland, “Bulletins”, L.N.R.S., 1989 / 93
David McGregor, “The Tea Clippers”,  Fast Sailing Ships
Jones, Quiggin: papers M.M.M. (and other printed sources
Joseph Jobé (Editor) “The Great Age of Sail
Sarah Palmer, “Politics and the Repeal of the Navigation Acts”, Manchester