British industrialists armed pro-slavery Confederates in American Civil War – study

© Joe Raedle
Desperate to profit from soaring wartime cotton prices, the British establishment armed and funded the slave-owning Confederate south during the American Civil War (1861-1865), new research reveals.

Despite signing a neutrality agreement, which disallowed Britain from supporting either side in the war, a British industrialist and merchant class desperate to cash in on the conflict built Confederate warships in Liverpool. 

The story has now been told in full by University of Liverpool academic Joe Kelly in a piece on the Conversation website.

The research suggests that without British help the South would not have been able to mount an offensive, as it was otherwise subject to blockades by the Union which left it starved of cash and arms.

With industrial wealth concentrated in the northern states of America, the Confederates were forced to look across to the Atlantic to Liverpool’s industrialists, whose main interest was cotton grown in the Confederate states.

Merseyside merchants knew large profits awaited them if they could get through the blockade to purchase southern cotton, often providing arms in exchange,” Kelly wrote on Monday.

The war, which was responsible for immense suffering, also provided commercial opportunities for those with enough capital and ingenuity,” he added.

British shipbuilders heeded the Confederate call and constructed, among other ships, the Confederate vessel Alabama, which terrorized the Union navy for two years between 1862 and its sinking in 1864.

The Alabama sank 62 Union ships, bolstering the Confederate cause and leading to a series of legal actions by the Union government, which became known as the Alabama claims.The British government was eventually forced to ban any such shipbuilding in the face of Union outrage and paid out $15 million dollars in damages.

According to Kelly the case of the Alabama shows Britain’s commitment to neutrality was “easily undermined by individual desire for profit,” a phenomenon which is “all too familiar today,” he says.

Britain and its thriving arms industry continues to provide licenses for military equipment to controversial groups and nations today.

On Monday activists denounced a Home Office sponsored security fair, warning that Britain is selling tear gas and other crowd control tools to some of the world’s most oppressive regimes.

Among the governments invited to take part in the fair in Farnborough, Hampshire, 30 miles southwest of London, are Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Israel, United Arab Emirates (UAE), Egypt and Turkey.