History, Liverpool Interest

Slavery and arms: Britain and America’s Civil War – In Conversation with Jim Powell & Meredith Wheeler

Before its civil war, America supplied 80 per cent of the raw material for Britain’s largest industry, the cotton trade. During the war, this fell to almost zero. Jim Powell’s new book Losing the Thread: Cotton, Liverpool and the American Civil War examines what happened to this trade and to the Liverpool cotton market, its beneficiaries and its victims, during the war.

Jim has produced two videos discussing topics covered in his book with Meredith Wheeler, for many years a writer/producer for ABC News in New York and London. Both videos are available to watch on YouTube: the first covers The Civil War and Britain’s Cotton Trade, and the second The Civil War and Anglo-American Relations. This is the last of four blog posts based on the transcripts of the videos. The original post can be found on Jim’s website.

MW   You’ve touched upon the British hostility to slavery. Let’s just remind ourselves that the British abolished the Atlantic slave trade in 1807 and by 1834 freed all slaves in most of the British colonies. So the American Civil War over slavery was happening about 30 years after that. So, for decades after slavery had been abolished by Britain, England was still buying cotton from America produced almost entirely by slaves. Was there any concern about that in Britain?

JP   Yes and no. Almost everyone in the cotton trade, and almost everyone in Britain, was implacably opposed to slavery in principle. In practice, it was a different matter. Eugene Dattel has written that “most New Yorkers did not care that the cotton was produced by slaves because for them it became sanitized once it left the plantation.” For New Yorkers, one could read Britons.

The degree of hypocrisy and moral disconnection within Britain and the British cotton trade was extraordinary. Slavery was evil, but eliminating it in America was someone else’s problem, to be achieved at some undefined future point. The vast wealth that Britain as a country, and mill-owners as individuals, accumulated from cotton, was knowingly built on the back of American slave labour. Hardly anyone was unduly bothered by this in practice.

MW   During the Civil War, Britain seized the opportunity to trade with both sides, didn’t it? Selling weapons to both the North and the South?

JP   Yes. This was the heyday of laissez-faire economics. If someone overseas wanted to buy arms from Britain, then Britain sold them arms. Moral principles didn’t enter into it, and the British government mostly didn’t intervene.

The most notorious contribution made by Merseyside to the Confederacy was to its navy, non-existent at the start of the war and the scourge of the Union by its end. The ravages to Union shipping wrought by the Florida and the Alabama, both built on Merseyside, were devastating. Britain also supplied the Confederacy with huge quantities of small arms and ammunition.

MW   Did the famous Union blockades of Southern ports have much impact on the Atlantic cotton trade? How important was blockade-running as an activity?

JP   From a British perspective, blockade-running was of negligible importance. During the war, it accounted for less than 1% of the port of Liverpool’s trade. The cotton received in exchange for the armaments shipped to the South had almost nil impact on Britain’s cotton scarcity.

However, from a Confederate perspective, blockade-running was vital. Without the arms and supplies that the trade provided, the South could not have sustained the war.

MW   The only association most Americans have with Liverpool now is with the Beatles, but back in the day it had a reputation of siding with the South. Is that warranted?

JP   No; it was a lot more nuanced than that. There was a great deal of support for the Confederacy in Liverpool, but also a great deal of support for the Union. It must be remembered that three-quarters of Liverpool’s American trade pre-war was with the North and, during the war, virtually all of it. Liverpool had considerable vested interests in the Northern states.

Also, in terms of small arms and ammunition, Britain actually did more to supply the North than the South. In 1862, Liverpool sent almost 200,000 firearms and nearly 12 million percussion caps to New York. And, at the instigation of US Navy Secretary Gideon Welles, Laird Brothers – the Merseyside firm that built the Alabama – was approached to build warships for the Union and agreed to do so, although the ships were never built. This is detailed in the book, using new and original research.

The crucial difference was that, as the war went on, manufacturers in the Northern states converted to arms production, so the Union gradually became far less dependent on British arms than the Confederacy.

MW   And what happened at the end of the Civil War with the abolition of slavery? How did that impact the vital cotton trade?

JP   When the war ended, the freedmen urgently needed to find paid work. For most in the South, the only option was to continue growing cotton.

As a result, too much cotton was grown and prices tumbled. The dollar return of each acre under cotton cultivation reduced by 75 per cent between 1869 and 1896. This made it impossible for many cotton farmers to earn a living. It was not so much a failure of free labour as a catastrophic failure of the free market.

Over time, most of the South’s cotton farmers – both African American and white – incurred substantial debts and became dependent on the credit merchants. Collectively, the Southern states had a near monopoly of the supply of raw cotton to the world market. But, collectively, the South had no meaning. It existed only as an an assortment of desperately poor individuals, with no means of using their combined power to raise prices.

The simplest way of viewing the Southern cotton economy in the decades after the civil war is as a vast system of payday loans, with the difference that the payday came only once a year and was often insufficient to pay the loan.

MW   And how did the British cotton trade react to that situation?

JP   It didn’t. All it had ever cared about was obtaining a large volume of raw cotton at a low price. How this was achieved had been a matter of indifference under slavery, and it remained a matter of indifference after slavery.

Find out more about Jim Powell’s book Losing the Thread on our website.

Read all four posts in this series, or watch the video which these posts are based on below:

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