by Tom Vallely
The Lancashire Cotton Famine of 1861-65 had
a profound impact on the region’s two great cities, Liverpool and Manchester.
Yet their reactions to severe economic hardship, triggered by the American
Civil War, was entirely contrasting. Liverpool – through which the cotton was
imported – overwhelmingly supporting the Confederacy. Manchester – the
commercial centre of Lancashire’s cotton manufacturing industry – seemed much
more pro-Union. Early historians like Adams, Jordan, and Pratt
generally took the view that Liverpool followed its economic self-interest,
whereas the stance of “moral Manchester”
and the rest of Lancashire was governed by higher ethical considerations; a
conclusion which they drew from the contemporary accounts of Cobden, Bright,
Marx and Gladstone. Revisionist historians in the 1970s, most prominently
Ellison and thereafter d’A Jones and Longmate,
argued instead that Lancashire was predominantly pro-Confederacy. I will argue that Ellison & Co overstate
their case and fail to make sufficient distinction between Manchester and the
surrounding mill towns. The subsequent accounts of Blackett and Campbell
suggest a more nuanced picture.
My own research, in the archives of the Merseyside
Maritime Museum, suggests that
while support for the Confederacy was indeed very strong in Liverpool the
picture was much more complicated in Manchester. In both cities a complex
interaction of factors came into play including commercial self-interest,
attitudes to free trade versus
protectionism, radical versus
conservative politics, and established versus
dissenting religion. Attitudes to slavery become significant, but only after
the Emancipation Proclamation. But all this, rather than a simple dichotomy of
selfishness versus social solidarity,
accounts for the choices the two cities made.
Economic self-interest might be assumed to
be the deciding factor in which side the two cities supported. Both were seriously impacted by the cotton
famine which resulted from the Confederate embargo then the Union blockade. Cotton was then a major component of the British economy; almost 4
million people – one sixth of the population
– depended on the cotton industry for their livelihoods. Longmate correctly
points out important context here, that “Slavery
and cotton had long provided a bond between the southern states of America and
the North-West counties of England”.
In the 1790s Liverpool was Britain’s main slaving port, controlling 80% of the
British trade and over 40% of Europe’s slave trade. It made the city rich and
prosperous. Virtually all the leading inhabitants of the town, including the
mayors, town councillors and MPs, invested in the slave trade and profited from
it. At least 25 of Liverpool's Lord Mayors, between
1700 and 1820, were heavily involved. Liverpudlians
spoke in favour of the slave trade at parliamentary abolition inquiries.
When the trade was abolished many Liverpudlians feared that “the sun of Liverpool’s prosperity had set”.
But the switch from trading slaves to trading slave-grown cotton increased the
city’s wealth and strengthened its ties with the ante-bellum South. A willingness to overlook morally
dubious business developed. This explains why Liverpudlians, both poor
supported the Confederacy together, rather than being divided by class as a
Marxist view might suggest. In addition to direct cotton-trading the city built
and manned blockade-running ships which brought cotton back to Britain. These
were supported by “the whole town”
with people refusing to testify in court against them.
For young men unemployed in the cotton famine, blockade-running was a way to
make large amounts of money. Over the course of the war over $200 million worth
of cargo was smuggled into the Confederacy in exchange for nearly 1.25 million
cotton bales - not enough for Lancashire’s mills, but creating huge profits for
the ships’ crews and funders, like Spence
– sometimes in excess of 700%.
It was also seen as an opportunity for noble adventure, and to take revenge on
the Union for causing Liverpool such hardship.
So well-known and widely-supported was Confederate shipbuilding that when local
official Edward Haycock launched a new ship supposedly bound for Australia in
August 1863, in his speech he openly joked about the possibility of it ending
up “going on a Confederate cruise”,
for which he was cheered and applauded by the audience.
At the same time, the elite of Liverpool used their considerable wealth to make
their own contribution, knowing they had much to lose – in terms of cash and
connections – if the Confederacy collapsed. Fraser, Trenholm and Co., which
acted as the Confederacy’s European bank,
was an offshoot of a long-established Charleston business; its manager Charles
K. Prioleau, who used his own personal funds to help the Confederates buy
British firearms, was born in South Carolina.
Similarly, James Spence, author of The
American Union (1861), and the one-man “indefatigable”
organiser of the pro-Confederate propaganda effort in Britain, was a leading
Liverpool businessman and member of the Liverpool Exchange.
He planned the three-day Grand Southern Bazaar in October 1864, where 10,000 of
Liverpool’s high society raised over £20,000 (£2,320,000 in today’s money)
for Confederate prisoners of war; an event so popular that 2000 had to be
turned away on the final day. Every level of society was involved in some
capacity in helping the war effort because everyone in Liverpool was, to some
extent, invested in the cotton trade. This “deep
involvement with cotton and shipping”
which stretched back decades potently suggests that economic self-interest best
explains why Liverpool “from the first
supported the Confederacy. However, in Manchester things were very different.
It is true that many in Lancashire did call for the government to break the
Union blockade in order to stop the “morass
created as more and more mills became unable to function due to lack of cotton.
Ellison argues, with partial success, that those areas hit hardest by the
shortage of cotton, such as smaller Lancashire mill-towns reliant solely on
cotton-related employment, were “almost
an exact match”
with the places most in the support of the secessionists.
But Ellison firstly fails to analyse the ownership of the press which
she uses for evidence, and how this may affect the reliability and biases of
newspaper accounts. Secondly, she also fails to take account of the fact that
mill-owners set up pro-Confederate events themselves and bribed or otherwise
encouraged their workers to attend them. In any case, the Lancashire towns she investigates cannot be
considered part of Manchester, as the idea of a Greater Manchester conurbation
did not exist until much later. By comparison to Liverpool, Manchester’s
economy was much more diversified and therefore could endure the cotton famine
better than Liverpool. Although it was home to the country’s biggest
cotton-spinning industry, it also engaged in distributive trading, goods manufacturing,
food processing, chemicals, engineering, retail and service industries –
sectors less affected by the shortage of cotton.
Even during the height of the crisis fewer than 500,000 of the 4 million people
in the region dependent on cotton for their living, were relying on relief. Contrary to Ellison’s thesis, a surprising number of cotton
manufacturers in Manchester and Lancashire (27 out of 62) actually backed the
a division which went against their own economic self-interest, and which
Blackett more convincingly
instead puts down to “exclusively…politics”.
For Liverpool, “economic
considerations [outweighed] abstract political arguments”
but in Manchester the political dimension prevailed. Although economics can explain Liverpool’s support of the
Confederacy, it cannot easily explain why in Manchester the situation was much more complicated and eventually more pro-Union.
Because of this, we must look elsewhere to other factors to explain why the two
cities took different sides.
Manchester and Liverpool espoused
different views on free trade. Between 1857-1860, America had one of the lowest
tariff rates in the world (17-21%) and was seen as one of the most
pro-free-trade nations in the world.
The British public was increasingly in favour of free trade, especially
Liberals to whom “free
trade was as much a moral as a commercial issue”. But Liverpool’s
popular politics throughout the 1840s and 1850s had been highly protectionist,
rooted partly in a Protestant hostility to Irish Catholic immigrants who would
work for lower wages.
The popular acceptance of free trade did not gain as much traction in Liverpool
as in the rest of the country, and after the repeal of the Corn Laws
in 1846 Liverpool’s protectionist views became even more extreme. In 1850, the
Liverpool Shipwrights Association went so far as to tell city officials “We should be a good deal better off if you
never let a foreign ship come into this port, for they do us no good”. Whereas Manchester’s views were more
Liberal, Liverpool’s were rooted in Toryism. Liverpudlian merchants like Rev.
Dr. Hugh McNeile claimed that free-traders “idolise cheapness, and exalt it as a motive
for action, far beyond all moral, social and political principles”. Protectionist candidates stood in
Liverpool in the 1847 general election, and the following year local Tories
formed the Liverpool Constitutional Association dedicated to “securing… that fair reward for his labour
which English men have been used to enjoy”,
prioritising them over their foreign competitors. In 1850 it condemned "the reckless pursuit of cheapness and
competition” which “threatened to
undermine [Britain’s] hard-won
constitutional liberty and prosperity".
In contrast, Manchester had a strong pedigree of favouring free-trade and
laissez-faire economics; it was said that “Free
trade Manchester could sniff out monopolies as pigs could truffles”.
The campaign against the Corn Laws,
led by MPs John Bright and Richard Cobden set its headquarters not in London,
but in Manchester. To mark the end of mercantilism in Britain, after the Corn
Laws were repealed, Manchester in 1852 built the Free Trade Hall in
This goes a large way to explain why Lincoln’s protectionist Morrill Tariff in
1861 went down so badly, making Manchester so anti-Union at the start of the
The measure set import duties at 40%,
and increased the duty on foreign cotton imports by a “prohibitive” 70% which “violated
every principle of free trade”
the British held dear. The tariff, which targeted the British manufactured
goods currently flooding the American market, caused “outrage”
all over Britain but especially in “Free Trade Manchester”. Even Cobden and
Bright – who had been so enamoured with America that they were derisively
referred to in parliament as “The Members for the United States”
– became temporarily disillusioned with the Union. There is complete consensus among
historians that the new tariff was a “public
for the Union. During the early years of the war, it was the “one serious flaw”
which pushed away groups, like Mancunian Liberals, who would otherwise have
supported the Union. Pro-Confederates, such as Spence, tried to turn the
mistake to their advantage, emphasising the Confederacy’s commitment to free
Some in Manchester were persuaded by this; a letter to a local paper in
November 1861 signed “Power Loom Weaver”, argued that “no country that had fought for the establishment of free trade could
turn its back on a nation committed to the same principles”. However, while many free-traders
expressed anti-Union opinions, this did not necessarily turn them
pro-Confederate; dislike for one side did not mean affection for the other.
Were free trade the main factor then Protectionist Liverpool would have
supported the Union and Free Trade Manchester would have supported the
Confederacy; but the opposite was true. That suggests that factors other than
free trade and protectionism were at play in deciding who Manchester and
Liverpool supported in the war.
sides people took in the war determined to a measurable degree their commitment
to political reform,” writes
What he says of people is also true of cities. Though Campbell insists that for Liverpool “economic considerations [outweighed] abstract political arguments”, there was a distinct Conservative
High-Church political philosophywhich
undergirded the city’s economic self-interest. Liverpudlians were not simply
worried that the United States’ economic and trading power could one day rival
the British Empire; they also saw in the Union a fulfilment of their fears
about the excesses of democracy.
This view is reflected in James Spence’s pro-Confederate
best-seller The American Union,
which articulated conservative philosophical doubts on the shortcomings of Republican democracies.
Spence insisted that federal forms of government were successful only if
undertaken on a small scale, and that secession placed useful restraints on
uncontrolled democracy. He also referenced the two sides’ social and cultural
makeup: The Confederate states he saw settled by a genteel aristocracy traceable
all the way back to Britain, while throughout recent decades the free states in
the Union had attracted large numbers of poor immigrants from among “the residuum of Europe”.
Due to the electoral college, the Northern Free states were rapidly becoming
more politically powerful in Congress than the Southern Slave states, and Spence
argued this would inevitably lead to the promotion of those less skilled in the
art of government. With the French Revolution and the European
Revolutions of 1848 still in living memory, this played effectively into
conservative anxieties about popular democracy. The
abolitionist Richard Webb called Spence’s 400-page tract “one of the ablest, crafty and most
dishonourable books I have ever met with. It is studiously suited to the
English taste, being moderate in tone, lucid in style and free from
personalities". No pro-Union propaganda could match it, and
it became the seminal text on the Civil War for British readers. Not all
conservatives agreed; to some, a greater threat than American democracy was the
dangerous secessionist precedent the Confederacy set for Ireland to follow.
Those who saw this as the prime risk accepted
the Union’s right to use force against the secessionists to maintain its unity.
However, overall, most felt a
Confederate victory would both curb the Union’s imperialist expansion and also
prevent Britain’s adoption of a more democratic political system, which would
come at the expense of their own privilege. By contrast, in Manchester,
political radicals came to support the ‘free labour’ Union believing victory on
the American battlefield could in time be converted into victories at the
British ballot box, especially in political reform and widening the franchise. When the son of the American ambassador
visited Manchester in 1861, he was told that although its common people were “generally
unfriendly and even hostile” to his cause, “the
radical party, the Brights and Cobdens of Manchester, who have large influence”
for the Union.
Bright and Cobden both “spoke
frequently and volubly for the Union” throughout the war. The two men saw America’s successes in the
aims of the Manchester School of politics – “democracy,
low taxation, universal education, no government regulation, no military
expenditure unless in self-defence, and free trade” as a model for what Britain could achieve. “Can such intelligence, civilisation, and
moral and material well-being be elsewhere found?” Cobden asked. Over the next 18 months support for the Union
steadily built. Though Manchester was numerically dominated by working men, in
terms of its character, Longmate asserts, it was essentially a middle-class
This is important, as the middle class were generally more sympathetic towards
the Union, possibly because they had the wealth to evade the hardship visited
on the working class by the Morrill Tariff and the cotton blockade, but also
because of their more Liberal and Radical politics. Manchester was a centre of
social reform movements whose members saw similar movements gaining much
greater traction in the Union than the Confederacy. Blackett,
who is weaker than Campbell in his exploration of Confederate support but who
is much more detailed in his investigation of pro-Unionists, demonstrates
that ministers of the Unitarian
church (and other Dissenting branches of Christianity) played a pivotal role in
support for the Union. Support for the Union was also “closely aligned with the co-operative
movement” of which Manchester was the stronghold.
Enthusiasts for temperance, which was also popular in Manchester, tended to
support the Union; Thomas H Barker, who drafted the 1862 Manchester address to
Lincoln (see below), was also the Secretary of the United Kingdom Alliance for
the Suppression of the Liquor Traffic. The Union was also backed by
Manchester’s Chartists (never a strong
force in Liverpool).
The majority of its many trade union leaders
did the same. Even 27 of Manchester’s prominent cotton
manufacturers (those who were ardent political reformists) backed the Union. Some radicals, however, found Lincoln
insufficiently far-reaching for them both on slavery (see below) and on the
politics of self-determination. John Watts, the first cotton famine historianas
early as 1866, argued that while Bright and Cobden saw the US as an example to
follow, other Radicals had already lost faith in America as a useful political
model because it had violated the “first
doctrine of Radicalism…the right of a people to self-government”. . Indeed,
Campbell argues some of the staunchest supporters of the Confederacy were
prominent radicals, like John Arthur Roebuck, William Schaw Lindsay and William
Scholefield, whose opposition to slavery was trumped by their support of the
right to self-government and the Southern people’s right to rebel against a
tyrannical and oppressive Union. That
said, Blackett offers persuasive evidence that despite the ebb and flow of
public opinion, by mid-1862 Manchester was overwhelmingly pro-Union, as will be
made clear below.
attitudes to slavery differed significantly in Liverpool and Manchester.
As early as 1782, 20% of Manchester’s
population, 11,000 people, signed a petition in support of abolition.
Abolitionist Thomas Clarkson’s 1787 speech denouncing slavery in Manchester
Cathedral drew national attention, and “Moral Manchester” was instrumental in
the abolition of the slave trade in 1807.
The City was home to the Anti-Slavery Society, the
Manchester Ladies Anti-Slavery Society, the Constitutional Society, the Emancipation Society, and the
Manchester Union. One abolitionist group even funded runaway
slaves on the Underground Railroad.
In contrast, when the abolition campaign began in the 1780s, Liverpool, which historically had fewer qualms about slavery, strongly
opposed it. Several of the city’s MPs, who had personally invested in the slave
trade, spoke strongly in its favour in Parliament. Confederate slavery therefore raised more
issues in Manchester than in Liverpool. Even so, in the early years of the war,
slavery was not a determining issue but one among a host of others.
As one English observer
put it in 1861, "We cannot be very
zealous for the North; for we do not like her ambition; we are irritated by her
insolence; we are aggrieved by her tariffs; but we still have much feeling of
kinship and esteem. We cannot be at all zealous for the South; for though she
is friendly and free-trading, she is fanatically slave, and Slavery is the
object of our rooted detestation". In August 1862,
Mancunians organised a pro-Union meeting in nearby Ashton and asked those at the meeting in favour of slavery
to put up their hands, only for locals to shout out: "it's not a question of slavery". Unemployed mill hands struggling to survive
wanted a resumption of cotton imports, regardless of their anti-slavery views.
In contrast, others condemned Lincoln during
the first 18 months of the conflict for not
being bold enough on the slavery issue. At the start of the war, courting the
slave-holding border states of Maryland, Delaware, Kentucky, and Missouri –
which Lincoln believed were vital to the Union war effort – he avoided action
on abolition for fear of pushing them into secession. But to many British
abolitionists, his reluctance put the Union and Confederacy on a moral
equivalency since neither held the ethical high ground. Yet minds began to change in Manchester the
following month. In September 1862 Lincoln announced that all slaves in
rebelling states would, on the first day of the next new year, be declared free
by the Union government. A Union victory would mean the end of slavery. This
Emancipation Proclamation decisively shifted the balance of public opinion in
Manchester, and elsewhere, towards the Union in a way which the
pro-Confederates could not resist.
Obviously, there were exceptions,
but Blackett argues compellingly that, these individuals aside, the
Emancipation Proclamation brought even the most pacifist Britons to support of
the Union war effort.. By the
end of 1862 Manchester emerged
as a strong Union supporter, and the
importance of the Proclamation’s role in bringing about this change of opinion
cannot be overstated: the
greatest pro-Union meeting of working men in Manchester, at the Free Trade
Hall, was called on New Year’s Eve 1862, to celebrate its enactment next day.
The meeting exalted Lincoln, claiming “the erasure of that foul blot on civilisation
and Christianity - chattel slavery - will cause [him] to be honoured and revered by posterity”.
Ellison calls this “unrepresentative” of the wider region’s feeling and asserts that,
though called by ‘working men’, the meeting was “probably” dominated by the middle class.
Her arguments here are thin. The main resolutions were proposed by a textile
operative Edward Hooson. In the new year 3,860 clergy, gathered in the same building, similarly declared
that an independent Confederacy "would
put back the progress of Christian civilisation and of humanity a whole
century". Once one side began offering total abolition,
slavery became a significant factor in the war, and Manchester’s pedigree of
anti-slavery sentiment kicked in. Support for the Confederacy became minimal,
supporters of the Confederacy tried even harder to adapt their pro-Confederate
material to an anti-slavery audience. In 1863
the manifesto of the Southern Independence Association – written by James
Spence himself – declared, “We regard
slavery as repugnant alike to the reason and the sentiment of the present age.
We believe it to be highly prejudicial to the real interests of the South…… we
hold that the Independence of the South is the true and sure means of
extinguishing slavery…”. This strong disavowal of slavery was unlike
anything proclaimed in the actual Confederacy and was so far from true Confederate
beliefs that the government in Richmond, Virginia sacked Spence, their finest
propagandist, because of it. By now the efforts of Spence and his fellows were
merely token. The creation of the Southern Independence Association was a last “desperate attempt to pull
Britain into the American Civil War as the tide began to turn against the
South”. My own
research has unearthed the membership list
of the SIA, whose headquarters were on Market Street in Manchester. Though it
claimed 588 members only 219 of them, and a mere one-sixth of its
vice-presidents were actually from Manchester. According to Campbell its
efforts were “paltry” and impact “virtually nil”; by the end of 1863
there were only 15 members left.Slavery was the issue it could not counter. Eventually, says Blackett,
almost all except the most conservative got behind the Union war.
Confederate supporters shied away from any public appearances in Manchesterand Thomas Barker boasted that
pro-Confederates now considered the city hostile territory,
as private letters from James Spence in 1864 confirm.
Thus, the differing stances of the Manchester and Liverpool which were rooted
in factors much wider than the issue of slavery were in the end, especially
after the assassination of Lincoln, reduced to that in the popular imagination.
Campbell concludes: “No issue… impacted
upon English opinion on the American Civil War as much as did slavery. The
existence of the institution caused far more damage to the reputation of the
Confederacy than most historians have acknowledged.”.
No single factor explains why Liverpool and
Manchester supported different sides in the American Civil War. Economic
self-interest and personal connections to the ante-bellum South were the
biggest factors in Liverpool’s decision, undergirded by a conservative
political worldview. In the case of Manchester, social and electoral reform,
and increasingly emancipation, were the significant factors which, in their own
way constituted Manchester’s own political self-interest. Both cities played to
their own interests but since their priorities lay in different areas they were
expressed as support for different sides.
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Watts, 1866, p227, totals the relief
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Manchester who would venture to say to Lord Palmerston 'interfere for the
cotton’…. nor would Manchester give any encouragement now to any party which
made the infraction of the blockade its war cry. If such a party existed it was
in Liverpool alone, and among the cotton factors and the persons connected
immediately with the South".
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|Brief Timeline of ACW
|Apr 1861 || Confederate attack on Fort Sumter |
|Jul 1861 || The First Battle of Bull Run |
|Mar 1862 || First battle of ironclad warships |
|Apr 1862 || At Shiloh Union forces rally from almost near defeat to drive back the Confederate army |
|Sep 1862 || The battle at Antietam |
|Jan 1863 || Lincoln issues the Emancipation Proclamation |
|Jul 1863 || Gettysburg Turning Point |
|Jul 1863 || Fall of Vicksburg |
|Sep 1864 || Sherman Captures Atlanta, Georgia |
|Apr 1865 || General Lee Surrenders |
|Apr 1865 || Lincoln Assassinated |