American Civil War

Louis Proyect lnp3 at
Wed Jul 9 13:20:39 MDT 2003

Mark Lause wrote:
> I'm still waiting to hear some concrete questions on this subject.
> Marx and Engels weren't here...and they sure didn't have the knowledge
> about the subject we have today.

The British Involvement in the American Civil War

In 1861, the United States of America split into two, the industrial 
North and the agricultural South. The reasons were complicated enough, 
but the motivation for the split revolved around the election of Abraham 
Lincoln as President. One of his policies was the abolition of slavery, 
which he saw as being against the principles of the Constitution. That 
same Constitution outlined that each state could act 'in its sovereign 
and independent character'.

These 'state rights' were interpreted by some as the right to set their 
own laws and not have them imposed by federal government. To the 
Southern States, this promised imposition threatening their economy was 
the last straw. One by one they left or seceded from the Union.

The Rift

There was much talk about Free Trade - the trading of goods without let 
or hindrance. The Northern States supported home trade and imposed high 
tariffs on imports from Europe (mainly Britain). This, the South 
supposed, allowed them to sell goods like tools or machinery at inflated 
prices, while making imports even more costly. Since these Northern 
States held the majority in Congress, it was not easy to change these 

The South's major exports were cotton and tobacco - crops whose main 
destination was Britain. Both of these products were grown on vast 
plantations and cultivated using slave labour. The abolition of slavery, 
they claimed, would make them slaves to the Northern industrialists. If 
they were free of federal intervention, they could sell direct to their 
suppliers and obtain imported goods from them at lower prices.

The Secession started in January 1861, and on 9 February they formed a 
government under Jefferson Davis and blockaded federal forts within 
their territory. Despite assurances from Lincoln on his inauguration, on 
12 April, the Confederate States began bombarding Fort Sumner and the 
American Civil War began. It was to last four bloody years.

Britain and North America

Britain had no love for the United States as it had suffered humiliating 
defeats in the Wars of Independence. In 1812, when the USA tried and 
failed to take Canada, Britain took revenge in 1814 by invading and 
burning the Capitol in Washington. The Northern States in particular 
disliked the idea of being subservient to the British and their 
imposition of import tariffs hit British exports hard.

Free Trade was seen as being 'British' and many believed (and still do) 
that British finance and influence in the South was akin to a British 
colony within the USA. Given the trade links with the Southern cotton 
and tobacco industries, and the hostility with the North, it was natural 
that the British should side with the Confederate States. The 
recognition of the Confederate States as a belligerent power did nothing 
to improve relations between Britain and the Union.

Britain and the Blockade

On the outbreak of war in 1861, the US Navy was directed to blockade all 
maritime traffic into and out of Confederate ports. This effectively cut 
off all legitimate imports. This was particularly galling for the 
Confederates as they had no major arms or manufacturing industry and had 
to import most of their military goods from Europe. They were lucky to 
have a number of agents in England who were able to acquire large 
amounts of arms and equipment.

Both sides used the Enfield Pattern 1853 rifled musket but the South 
also bought Armstrong rifled cannon and muskets. The Armstrong rifle was 
especially valued for its accuracy and it was used as a sniping rifle. 
Footwear for the South was manufactured in Northampton and amounted to 
$1 million in the first 18 months alone. The Confederate army also 
depended on procuring supplies from Europe. As well as arms, they 
purchased uniforms, leather goods, hospital stores, and numerous other 

The US Navy blockade necessitated a new route for imports. Nassau in the 
Bahamas was used as a staging post for Confederate supplies along with 
Bermuda and Havana. The supplies were then loaded onto blockade runners, 
ships of mainly British registration, and taken to the ports on the Gulf 
of Mexico. About $200 million worth of goods from British ports got 
delivered to the Confederacy this way. The blockade was still effective 
at preventing the export of Confederate goods and, since these were to 
pay for the goods imported, it caused many financial problems for the South.

So few blockade runners were caught, about 1500 vessels all told – about 
18% - that the British argued that it was only a 'paper blockade' and 
therefore not recognisable by international law. The Confederates 
expected the British to break the blockade or escort ships through it, 
but this never happened. Unusually, Britain did not even object to the 
seizure of British ships running the blockade.

Confederate Commerce Raiders

One aspect that the Union did object to was the building of Confederate 
ships in British dockyards. These were purely commercial transactions 
with civilian shipbuilders to build unarmed vessels. These were built, 
engined and fitted out for seaworthiness before they were dispatched to 
a rendezvous with supply ships and fitted out as fighting ships. The 
crews were generally European, mainly British, but with the guns came 
Confederate officers. Thus manned, equipped and led, these ships wreaked 
havoc with Union shipping, forcing an increase in insurance for merchant 

Although not in the same league as the Royal Navy or US Navy ships, they 
made names for themselves. The CSS Alabama (built Liverpool 1862) went 
to the Indies and took 40 US merchantmen1. After putting into Cherbourg 
for refit in June 1864, she sailed out to attack the USS Kearsarge and 
was sunk. The CSS Shenandoah (built Glasgow 1864) went to the North 
Pacific and attacked the US whaling fleet. On hearing the news of the 
Confederate defeat, she sailed to Britain and surrendered to the Royal 
Navy in Liverpool on November 1865, six months after the war ended.



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