Hatfield House in Hertfordshire boasts a very English interior, accompanied by a beautiful garden. It is owned by former leader of the opposition in the House of Lords, Robert Gascoyne-Cecil, 7th Marquess of Salisbury. It has been in the Cecil family since the 17th Century. Among its occupants was former Prime Minister, Robert Cecil. And in Hatfield House, remains a painting of Cecil’s hero; Confederate General Thomas ‘Stonewall’ Jackson.
June 1861. Two months had passed since secession and skirmish turned into full blow civil war as the shots rang out through Fort Sumter. Three months earlier, civil war was a possibility, but not a reality. Federal buildings had fallen into Confederate hands without a declaration of war, and though supplies to the Fort had been prevented by the odd skirmish out of South Carolina, it was not enough to provoke all out conflict. That all changed as President Lincoln took the initiative to begin hostilities whilst putting that particular ball firmly in the Confederate court by letting the Confederacy know that he was indeed going to reinforce Sumter, but not violently, and that war would be initiated if supplies were prevented from reaching the Fort. Reinforcing Sumter was of course provocative after the previous unsuccessful attempts in January 1861, and Lincoln knew it’d end violently, but it would be the Confederacy that fired the first shot after a tense stand off, and so appearing to be the aggressors.
James Bulloch arrived in Liverpool, England, two months after the attack on Fort Sumter and the beginning of the United States Civil War. His job; Chief Foreign Agent of the Confederate States of America. His task; to procure British ships in order to aid the Confederacy. His name is unknown to most, but his influence kept the Confederacy going, shook President Lincoln’s confidence, and almost brought Britain into the conflict on the side of the Confederacy. The Union State Department Officials referred to Bulloch as “the most dangerous man in Europe“.
Lincoln knew that sympathy in the UK for the Confederacy was intricately linked to high flying members of the British establishment (though, class doesn’t seem to play too high a part in support for either side). He sent a letter of thanks to Manchester workers who issued a proclamation of support for the Union. A statue of Lincoln now resides in Manchester. Lincoln thus played a very cautious game with the British. He was up against members of the Palmerstone government with obvious sympathy and suspect ties to the Confederacy, as well as newspapers such as the Glasgow Gazette and Manchester Weekly Budget. It’s true that most MPs and Lords and in fact, people in general, distrusted both sides.
President Lincoln thus sent Charles Francis Adams as United States Ambassador to Great Britain. Adams was the grandson of President John Adams, and son of President John Quincy Adams, and thus, had a degree of notoriety in the UK. He was tasked with making it abundantly clear to Great Britain, that with British possessions scattered all over the World, and US power increasing, that Britain should be careful about recognising the Confederacy, or sending ships to the Confederacy, or any other policy that could “set a dangerous precedent“. Washington was worried. Eduard de Stoeckl, the Russian Minister to Washington expected Britain to declare for the Confederacy at any moment, stating:
“The Cabinet of London is watching attentively the internal dissensions of the Union and awaits the result with an impatience which it has difficulty in disguising.”
Adams was worried, by 1862, that the British were considering brokering a peace deal between the North and South. Adams further worried, that brokering peace, meant offering concessions to the South.
Great Britain was officially neutral during the Civil War. It was in Britain’s interest not to throw its lot in with either side. Unofficially, there were those in high places handing out favours to both sides. Companies in the UK took advantage of the US civil war. Whilst it’s true that the Confederacy, despite its lack of strong industrial base that the North had, managed to produce some impressive arms, they also imported much from Britain. Especially rifles. It’s suggested that around 900,000 rifles were imported between 1861-1865, almost all made in Enfield.
Bulloch took advantage of this, knowing that British companies noted a brand new war market. He engaged with a company in Liverpool called Fraser, Trenholm Company; a large shipping company specialising in buying – and thus, bankrolling – the Confederate cotton industry, located in a rather unimpressive part of Liverpool close to the Thistle Hotel. From the offices of Fraser, Trenholm, Bulloch managed to purchase the CSS Alabama, despite British neutrality. CSS Alabama was built in secret though the Prime Minister knew, in Birkenhead. Bulloch managed to sneak Alabama out of Liverpool, and over to the the Confederacy, though the ship never docked in any Confederate port. For the next couple of years, it managed to raid 450 Union vessels, burn 65 Union merchant ships, and take 2000 prisoners. CSS Alabama (along with other ships out of Liverpool, including the CSS Shenandoah) was key to the Confederate war effort. It is also notable that Prime Minister Palmerstone most probably knew that the ship was headed for the Confederacy, and yet, he still let it depart pleading ignorance to where it was headed. Following the war, the US claimed damages for the destruction caused by the Alabama. Senator Sumner (a radical abolitionist) wished the claim to include the Canada becoming a part of the USA. In the end, the matter was settled for $15.5m.
In 1862, William Gladstone, then Chancellor under the Prime Ministership of Palmerstone, angered both his boss, and Queen Victoria with a speech made in Newcastle, in which he stated:
“….there is no doubt that Jefferson Davis 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.”
– It is also rumoured that Gladstone had purchased Cotton bonds from the Confederacy also. It was a great deal at the time. Jefferson Davis policy was to hold back cotton from Europe, because he believed Britain especially was so reliant on Southern cotton, that they’d eventually have no choice but to back the Confederacy. And so, whilst holding back cotton, the South tried to strengthen their position by attracting European investors for such a sought after product in purposely short supply. Bankers from Paris were involved in the underwriting of cotton bonds – floating a loan of $3,000,000, redeemable in cotton at sixpence a pound – secretly authorised by the Confederate Congress in order to raise funds for arms. As Britain remained neutral, Gladstone appeared to be both a vocal supporter of Jefferson Davis, and a financier of the Confederate cause.
Another subscriber to the Confederate cotton loan program was John Arthur Roebuck, the Liberal MP from Sheffield. His reasons for supporting the Confederacy, like Gladstone, seem to be entirely related to profiting from the cotton loan program. It is no shock then that Roebuck was a member of the UK’s Southern Independence Association, and that he raised a motion in Parliament for the House of Commons to officially recognise the independence of the Confederacy. Roebuck, in proposing full recognition of the Confederacy, also strongly advocated sending arms and aid to the rebels. Roebuck overstepped the mark, perhaps delivering the biggest blow to the Confederate cause in the UK, on his visit to France in order to try to convince Napoleon III to support the Confederate cause. Roebuck returned to England insisting that the French Emperor had agreed to recognise the rebel States. This was a fabrication. The Emperor had completely rejected to idea. The fabrication was soon discovered, and used to ridicule Roebuck’s cause. The Confederate offensive in the UK Parliament, had been dealt its deathblow. A Confederate agent in Britain, Henry Hotze, charged with helping to lead the cause for recognition noted after the withdrawal of Roebuck’s motion:
“All hope of Parliamentary action is past. Diplomatic means can no longer avail. Everybody looks to Lee to conquer recognition.”
– At around this time, sympathy for the Confederate cause in Britain was drying up.
Colonel John Lewis Peyton of Virginia was sent to Britain in 1861, sent with instructions to buy arms for the Confederacy. He docked at Southampton, and resided in Jermyn Street, adjacent to Piccadilly in Westminster. He quickly became a member of Pall Mall’s Reform Club – a club that still runs today and boasts members such as Prince Charles and former Mi5 Director General, Stella Rimington. Peyton managed to secure a deal worth 1760 Enfield rifles which reached Confederate troops in South Carolina, in 1862.
One of London’s most famous Confederate guests was Matthew Fontaine Murray. His bust currently resides at the ‘Hall of Fame for Great Americans’ in New York City. His statue presides in Richmond Virginia. Murray was a great oceanographer, nicknamed ‘the pathfinder of the seas’, a wonderful astrologer, and great navy man. He landed in Liverpool, with his son, in November 1862, met with Bulloch, and then onto London to advance the Confederate cause. He made lasting friendships with high members of British society including Lord Wrottesley and Roberts Fitzroy, the captain of HMS Beagle, of Charles Darwin fame. Along with a distant cousin, Murray worked to establish ties that would supply the Confederates with support, and arms, whilst trying to give credit to their cause by mixing with those of important standing.
Peyton and Murray were just two of many agents sent to London, and other parts of England, to mix with high ranking officials, to use cotton bonds for funds and arms used to kill Union soldiers and prolong a vicious civil war. Confederate operations in London, were extensive; this included the business World, the journalism World, and deep inside the corridors of power in Parliament and Whitehall. John D Bennett, in his book “The London Confederates” notes of the South’s agents in England:
“For four years their efforts helped the Confederacy maintain its armies in the field; and without them the South would almost certainly have been defeated much earlier.”
A small Confederate community began to occupy Royal Leamington Spa in Warwickshire – and about 30 minutes from my house – including Major Norman Stewart Walker, a Confederate officer, who was sent to Britain with Confederate bonds to buy arms. Another visitor to the Royal Leamington Spa Confederate community, was youngest officer on board the CSS Alabama, Irvine Bulloch; whose nephew went on to become President of the United States; Theodore Roosevelt. James Murray Mason – grandson of George Mason known as the “father of the Bill of Rights” – stayed in Leamington Spa, sent by Jefferson Davis himself, to try to win over the British by appealing to the necessity for cotton. Writing to Confederate Secretary of State Judah Benjamin about the town, he remarked on the:
“…large circle of Confederates in this retired town”
– Thus, the town has a unique history in Britain with its links to the Confederacy. Many more Confederate agents were sent to Britain to procure arms, investment and support for the Confederate cause, knowing the CSA had quite a strong presence already.
The Confederate agents didn’t stand too much of a chance of succeeding in bringing Britain over to their corner. Loss of US grain supply, war with the US, potential loss of Canada, a rise in tariffs and risking aggravating large groups of pro-Union working class Brits, especially in the North, was too big a risk for the British to take for very little return.
Agents of the Confederate States of America flooded the shores of Britain during the war, in order to secure weapons and aid for the Confederate war effort, and whilst Britain publicly remained neutral and showed very little desire to recognise the Confederacy on an international state level; in private many of the country’s high ranking members of society gladly aided the Confederacy in big, and small ways. Wealthy Brits saw the US civil war as a great time to profit from death. This makes Britain – specifically in relation to keeping the Confederacy armed and dangerous, in which hundreds of thousands died – intrinsically linked to the attempts to both perpetuate and nationalise African American slavery in the US, far more so than most Brits care to admit.