Tuesday, 20 September 2016

The American Civil War and Liverpool

Trans-Atlantic trade between Liverpool and the Southern cotton producing States was crucial to the cotton industry of the north-west of England, and with the outbreak of the American Civil War in 1861, the cotton trade experienced a period of uncertainty and instability.  The outbreak of the American Civil War followed the secession from the Union by the Southern cotton producing States that depended on slavery.  The growing anti-slavery position of the Northern States had made conflict with the South more apparent, the newly elected President Abraham Lincoln having firmly declared himself against the expansion of slavery, a view that was compounded in a speech he gave in New Haven, Connecticut in March 1860:

‘One of the reasons why I am opposed to Slavery is just here…I want every man to have the chance - and I believe a black man is entitled to it – in which he can better his condition – when he may look forward and hope to be a hired labourer this year and the next, work for himself afterward, and finally to hire men to work for him!  That is the true system.[1]

With the foundation of the Confederate States of America in February 1861, hostilities followed, and in 1863, the Emancipation Proclamation issued by Lincoln resulted in slaves being freed in Confederate States occupied by the Union.

The maintaining of networking and business contacts were essential to the cotton merchants and brokers of Liverpool, and during the war, despite the neutrality of Britain, some Liverpool merchants were willing to buy cotton that could be smuggled past the Union naval blockade that had been established during the early stages of the conflict.  An example of the intricate networking that developed during the Civil War in Liverpool can be seen with the activities of a Confederate naval officer and ‘secret serviceman’ who operated in the port called James Dunwoody Bulloch, a Confederate ‘banker’ named Charles Kuhn Prioleau, the Liverpool based shipping firm of Fraser and Trenholm and a number of Merseyside shipbuilding companies.

Bulloch Hall, Georgia, USA.

            James Dunwoody Bulloch had resided at Bulloch Hall, which was built by his father Major James Stephen Bulloch, a plantation owner and cotton producer. After establishing his base in Liverpool and cultivating his contacts, Bulloch began arranging in secret for the construction of commerce and blockade raiders, such as the CSS Alabama, which was built at the Birkenhead shipbuilders John Lairds, and the CSS Florida, which was constructed by the Liverpool shipbuilder William Cowley Miller.[2] Bulloch also purchased ships, such as the CSS Shenandoah, the purpose of which was as a commerce raider, particularly focussing on Whaling ships – a source of revenue for the Union.  The CSS Alabama became extremely successful; from the ship’s launch in July 1862 to her sinking by the USS Kearsarge in June 1864, the Alabama claimed over 60 prizes, her Captain Raphael Semmes also residing in Liverpool for a time.  Along with his younger brother Irvine Bulloch, who had been the youngest officer on the Alabama, James remained in Liverpool after the Civil War, both maintaining a relationship with their nephew and future President of the USA Theodore Roosevelt.

The society of Liverpool proved its support for the Confederacy when, in October 1864, the great Southern Bazaar was held at St. Georges’ Hall to raise money for the Confederate wounded, and as a result around £20,000 was raised.  The woman behind the bazaar was none other than Mary Elizabeth Prioleau, the wife of Confederate ‘banker’ Charles Kuhn Prioleau, who originated from Charleston, South Carolina, and was a manager and partner of Fraser and Trenholm.  The offices of Bulloch and Fraser and Trenholm were located close to each other at Rumford Place, near to the Liverpool Docks.  Prioleau was supplying funds for the shipbuilding at Lairds, and after the war was over, Fraser and Trenholm became bankrupt and he left Liverpool to settle in London.[3]



Prioleau decorated his house at 19 Abercromby Square in Liverpool with an elaborate mixture of classical and Confederate symbolism, some of which, such as the fresco on the entrance porch ceiling (above) which displays the palmetto tree, being the State symbol for South Carolina, would be instantly recognisable to Confederate supporters.

The Lancashire Cotton Famine was as much a result of overproduction in the years prior to the American Civil War as the supply of raw cotton being cut off due to the Union blockade.  The cotton workers of mill towns such as Manchester became unemployed as a result, and a rioting took place in Stalybridge in 1863, spreading to Ashton, Hyde and Dukinfield.  Despite this hardship, cotton workers had met at the Free Trade Hall in Manchester and had given support to Lincoln and the Union in the fight against slavery.  However, support was divided in certain Lancashire cotton producing towns, and some mills actually hoisted the Confederate flag on the day the Prince of Wales marries Princess Alexandra in 1863.

William Ewart Gladstone, despite his liberalism, had shocked his fellow politicians on his views on the American Civil War and the issue of slavery.  Gladstone, whose elder brother Robertson was a high ranking Freemason and politician in Liverpool, and whose father had kept slaves on his West Indies plantation, gave a speech in Newcastle in October 1862, were he had effectively recognised the Confederacy:

‘We may have our own opinions about slavery; we may be for or against the South; but there is no doubt that Jefferson Davies and other leaders of the South have made an army; they are making, it appears, a navy; and they have made, what is more than either, they have made a nation…’[4]

Gladstone’s reference to the Confederacy ‘making a navy’ was certainly uncanny regarding that his home town of Liverpool was central to the ship building activities of Confederate agent James Dunwoody Bulloch at this time.  Gladstone’s Newcastle speech certainly stirred feelings across the British political spectrum, leading the Liberal spokesman John Bright to comment ‘he has no word of sympathy for the four million bondsmen of the South’.[5]  Though he was against slavery, Gladstone ultimately disapproved of the Civil War to bring about its end.[6]


The offices of Fraser and Trenholm at Rumford Place, as they are today.

All photos taken with permission by Dr David Harrison

© Dr David Harrison 2016



[1] Abraham Lincoln, ‘From a Speech at New Haven, Connecticut, March 6th, 1860’, in Mario M. Cuomo and Harold Holzer, (ed.), Lincoln on Democracy; His own words, with essays by America’s foremost Civil War historians, (New York: Fordham University Press, 2004), p.176-177.
[2] John Hussey, Cruisers, Cotton and Confederates, Liverpool Waterfront in the days of the Confederacy, (Birkenhead: Countrywise, 2009), pp.17-19.
[3] See the Fraser and Trenholm Archive, The Liverpool Maritime Museum.  The archive includes original letters from Prioleau to key figures in the Confederacy, discussing loans and blockade running vessels.
[4] Peter J. Parish, ‘Gladstone and America’ in Peter J. Jagger (ed.,), Gladstone, (Hambledon Continuum, 1998), pp.85-105, on p.97.
[5] Ibid., p.99.  See also Philip Magnus, Gladstone A Biography, (New York, E.P Dutton & Co., 1954), p.154.
[6] Peter J. Parish, ‘Gladstone and America’ in Peter J. Jagger (ed.,), Gladstone, (Hambledon Continuum, 1998), pp.85-105, on p.99

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