British Prime Minister Lord Palmerston and his foreign secretary Earl John Russell saw the war as a chance to punish the upstart republic. Ignoring the high-minded claims that the United States was tainted by slavery, Palmerston and Russell pushed for Britain to join the war on the side of the slaveocratic Confederacy. In the autumn of 1861, Britain sent 11,000 troops across the Atlantic to Canada in preparation for a war.
Yet, when diplomatic manoeuvring by the North robbed Palmerston of his excuse for going to war, British shipyards set about arming the Confederacy with the warships it needed to break the Union’s blockade of the South.
In Britain, as the Manchester workers said, the whole of the establishment – parliament, the Lords, the Church of England and the press – was behind Davis and the Confederacy. Southern Clubs organised in Lancashire were tasked by the Confederacy with winning the support of the cotton workers for the slaveholders’ rebellion. Their thinking was that those cotton workers, many of whom were out of work, or on short hours, because of the shortage of raw cotton from America, could be used to put pressure on Britain to declare war on the side of the Confederacy. It proved to be a big mistake.
The Southern Clubs were led by Joseph Barker, a Chartist radical who had turned reactionary after a religious conversion in America, and Mortimer Grimshaw, a veteran of a bitter strike wave years earlier. Whatever their past, by 1860 they were both agents of the mill owners, sent in to break up strikes, and then employed by the Southern Clubs as Confederate agents in the cotton districts.
From the outset, Barker and Grimshaw’s campaign was a failure. Over the summer of 1862, they organised meetings across Lancashire, but were frequently challenged from the floor. Consequently, the resolutions put forward at these meetings were amended to support the Union instead of the Confederacy. Barker, Grimshaw and their supporters were chased out of many of these towns, with the triumphant workers newly committed to Lincoln’s cause, not Davis’s.
In particular, John Edwards and Edward Hooson looked to build on the Lancashire workers’ support for the Union and founded the Union Emancipation Society that autumn. However, they received no support from the long-established Anti-Slavery Society. Its leader, Lord Brougham, condemned Lincoln’s emancipation proclamation as ‘a measure of hostility to the whites… designed to produce a slave insurrection’; ‘the extermination of one race to liberate the other’.
Despite the hostility of the Anti-Slavery Society, the Union Emancipation Society went from strength to strength. In New York, the Union side was moved by the great sacrifice of the Lancashire cotton workers. They sent ships laden with supplies to help feed their working-class supporters in Britain. Abraham Lincoln wrote a letter to the ‘Working Classes of Lancashire’: ‘I cannot but regard your decisive utterances upon the question as an instance of sublime Christian heroism which has not been surpassed in any age or in any country.’ (19 January 1863)
Sensing the growing opposition of the country to war, the British government backed off from its clandestine support for the Confederacy.
Karl Marx, who had helped to build the meetings of the Emancipation Society in London, saw the campaign as decisive: ‘It was not the wisdom of the ruling classes but the heroic resistance to their criminal folly by the working classes of England that saved the west of Europe from plunging into an infamous crusade for the perpetuation and propagation of slavery on the other side of the Atlantic.’
Marx was not exaggerating. If the British had openly sided with the Confederacy in 1862 they would have won the support of France for the same policy, and could have swung the outcome of the war the other way.
Afterwards, the Liberal leader William Ewart Gladstone, who had shamefully supported the Confederacy, told the House of Commons that they owed the movement a great debt: ‘Could any man have believed that a conviction so still, so calm, so firm, so energetic, could have planted itself in the minds of [the labouring] population without becoming a known patent fact throughout the whole country? But we knew nothing of it. And yet when the day of trial came we saw that noble sympathy on their part with the people of the North.’
Building on their successes, workers fought for the vote, which the skilled among them won in 1867 – supported by Gladstone.
The role of the Lancashire Cotton workers in winning support for the Union was well known at the time, and celebrated not just in the memoirs and annals of the British workers’ movement, but also in the official histories of the United States. But at the height of the Cold War between the United States and Soviet Russia, historians set about covering up Lincoln’s debt to the workers’ movement and to Karl Marx. Revisionist historians, like Mary Ellison (author of Support for Secession), set about constructing a myth that in fact the workers were for the Confederacy – based on a one-sided reading of the record of Barker and Grimshaw’s campaign.
No doubt many were persuaded by their own prejudices that cotton workers could never look beyond their own immediate interests to fight for a larger cause. But today the evidence is plain for all to see. British workers fought alongside their American heroes to fight for freedom against slavery.
James Heartfield’s British Workers & the US Civil War is published by Reverspective.
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