Menu Close

How British businesses helped the Confederacy fight the American Civil War

The dreaded CSS Alabama. McMullen via Wikimedia Commons

The American Civil War devastated the US, but it also had serious consequences for the world beyond. Among them was the Lancashire cotton famine, which plunged thousands of British subjects into poverty. But the war also provided great opportunities to others outside the US who were willing to exploit them.

The South’s campaign against the North would have been impossible without the contribution made by British businesses – and particularly those in Liverpool.

The rebel states of the Confederate South began the American Civil War in desperate need of cash, ships and arms. Most American industry and banking was headquartered in the North, so southern leaders were forced to look across the Atlantic to find these vital instruments of war. In Liverpool, they would find exactly what they were looking for.

The links between Liverpool and the southern states stretched back to the early 19th century boom in cotton consumption and manufacture. Cotton was the South’s main export, and it was through the port of Liverpool that it made its way to the mills of Manchester. It was these connections that saw the establishment of Fraser, Trenholm & Co., the Liverpool branch of a South Carolina shipping firm, which went on to act as the Confederacy’s European bank.

Fraser, Trenholm & Co. was managed by Charles Prioleau, a proud South Carolinian who had married the daughter of prominent Liverpool merchant Richard Wright. From his home in Abercomby Square, Prioleau forged commercial connections crucial to the Confederate war effort. Now owned by the University of Liverpool, the square housed merchants, engineers, and even mayors of the city – all of whom would be vital in supplying the Confederacy’s needs.

It was the industry and profit-seeking of Liverpool merchants that generated money for a cash-strapped South. The Confederacy had begun the war by attempting to blackmail Britain into recognising its independence by withholding cotton, on which thousands of mill workers’ jobs depended. This policy failed spectacularly, and when the southern government needed to sell cotton to generate funds, it found its ports blockaded by the Union navy.

Liverpool’s Abercromby Square in 1850. Ordnance Survey

The war saw cotton prices skyrocket, and Liverpool’s shipping interests were well-placed to benefit. Encouraged by Prioleau, Merseyside merchants knew large profits awaited them if they could get through the blockade to purchase southern cotton, often providing arms in exchange. The war, which was responsible for immense suffering, also provided commercial opportunities for those with enough capital and ingenuity.

Made in Merseyside

Along with cash, the Confederacy needed warships – and Liverpool, with its bustling port, was happy to comply. The Mersey was home to innovative shipbuilders Laird Brothers and the engineers Fawcett, Preston & Co. Both companies were approached by Confederate agent James Bulloch to build the most notorious vessel of the war, the CSS Alabama.

The Alabama terrorised the Union navy from its launch in 1862 to its sinking in the summer of 1864. Northern politicians were understandably outraged by the construction of a Confederate vessel in a British port, not least because in 1862 the British government had issued a declaration of neutrality.

Technically it was illegal for British subjects to arm warships for either the North or the South, yet little official scrutiny was afforded to the building of the Alabama. It did not escape the attention of Thomas Dudley, Union consul in Liverpool, who hired a team of detectives to try and catch Bulloch in the act of arming a confederate vessel.

To avoid detection, the Confederate agent arranged for the Alabama to leave Merseyside under a false name and be armed offshore. This act of subterfuge would have been impossible without the help of the British shipbuilders, and possibly even the dock officials.

The launching of the Alabama was incredibly embarrassing for the foreign secretary, Lord John Russell, and from 1863 onwards the government took firm actions to stop this sort of thing. Several vessels under construction by Merseyside shipbuilders were seized over the next few years, but it was too little too late. The Alabama went on to sink an estimated 62 ships throughout the war, and after 1865, the furious US government brought a series of legal actions against Britain known as the Alabama Claims.

Liverpool’s intimate links with the Confederacy are reminders of just how international the American Civil War really was. The merchants, shipbuilders and engineers of Liverpool seem to have been untroubled by the moral questions raised by aiding the South. The British government was committed to a strict policy of neutrality, but as the case of the Alabama shows, that position was easily undermined by individual desire for profit – a phenomenon all too familiar today.

Want to write?

Write an article and join a growing community of more than 174,800 academics and researchers from 4,810 institutions.

Register now