Scotland’s Role in the American Civil War

Here’s a very interesting article on a little-known aspect of the Civil War — Scottish industrialists economic partnership with the Confederacy:

Article by Eric Graham in The Herald Scotland. April 10, 2011:

At 4.30am on April 12, 1861, 150 years ago, a Confederate shell burst over Fort Sumter, South Carolina, triggering a Civil War in which 650,000 people died, more than all of the casualties sustained in all of America’s subsequent wars.


While the crucial role of Scots in American history is well-known, what has been largely forgotten is the part Clyde shipbuilding played in this world-changing conflict. Its intervention was overwhelmingly on the side of the losers, the slave-owning South. This collective amnesia, like that which erased Scotland’s leading role in the Caribbean slave economy, may be deliberate.

Scots engineering and business ingenuity helped the Confederacy sustain the fight against Abraham Lincoln’s Union army for four blood-soaked years. At the same time, the massive profits earned from beating the blockade enriched Scots industrialists who reinvested profits to lift the Clydeside industry to ever-greater heights.

Only now are we learning the full extent to which Scotland’s global hegemony in marine engineering was boosted by an illicit – and by some lights shameful – collaboration between Scots industrialists and Southern merchants. More detail has come to light about how Glasgow became a hotbed of espionage, with agents of both American governments involved in cloak-and-dagger manoeuvres to disguise and discover the extent of illicit support for the South. So how did Scots turn American carnage into a golden opportunity?

At the start of the conflict, President Lincoln declared a naval blockade of the entire 1500 miles of the Confederate coastline, cutting off supplies to the rebels. In so doing he created a new market for the builders and owners of the fastest steam ships in the world.

While America tore itself apart, fortunes were made by the Clydeside shipbuilders and brokers building ships to beat the blockade. At the height of the boom in 1864 Warner Underwood, the US Consul in Glasgow, complained that an astonishing 27 Clyde yards were employing 25,000 men and boys building no less than 42 large runners.

The cash rewards for the Scots were phenomenal. It was calculated that the sum total spent on building and refitting blockade runners up to 1864 was £1.4 million (£140m in today’s money) – a third of which was pure, war-inflated profit.

Little wonder leading Clydeside firms such as Randolph & Elder expanded their business operations by acquiring large premises further down-river. Other big players included Barclay Curle & Co (Stobcross) Wiiliam Denny & Sons (Dumbarton) Robert Napier & Sons (Govan East) John Scott & Sons (Greenock) Alexander Stephen & Co (Kelvinhaugh) and James & George Thomson (Govan), forerunner of John Brown & Co. All in all, the Clyde-built runners accounted for a third of the vessels that ran the Union blockade, over half the British-built contingent. Their role in sustaining the Confederacy is now clear. The South had few of the industries needed to equip and support armies of half a million men. Acquiring modern (mainly British-made) rifled firearms and cannon was essential to sustain the war that might otherwise have ended in a quick victory for the larger armies of the North.

To finance the war, the Confederate Treasury issued highly preferential Cotton Bonds sold by their commissioners in Europe to fund the purchase of munitions and warships. These bonds were redeemable against cut-price cotton at the quaysides of Charleston and Wilmington. An extremely profitable “arms in/cotton out” blockade-running business quickly evolved. It was reckoned that during the boom years (1862 to 1864) two runs paid for the entire steamer.

The Scottish industrial economy only narrowly escaped the dire consequences of backing the wrong side. Dixie’s collapse in the spring of 1865 brought the full wrath of the re-United States upon Britain over the destruction caused by British subjects who exploited Foreign Secretary Lord John Russell’s lax interpretation of neutrality. This eventually took the form of two claims against Britain, a direct claim for damage done to US shipping by British-built Confederate commercial raiders, and an indirect claim for the entire cost of the war after the Battle of Gettysburg, plus 7% interest. Washington contended that the South was only able to prolong hostilities thanks to the blind eye that Britain turned to the arming of the South.

The Chancellor of the Exchequer, William Gladstone, calculated Britain would be liable for a staggering £8 billion – equivalent in today’s money to the cost of the 2008 UK bank bail-out – if the American claims were upheld. Half this sum, by a crude reckoning of vessels involved, could have been laid at the doorstep of the Clyde shipbuilders and their business associates. Scotland’s industrial rise would have been halted in its tracks.

At one stage the Americans threatened to seize Canada and the West Indies as compensation. But after much sabre-rattling – which sparked a mass European sell-off of US securities and a plunge in the dollar – they dropped the indirect claim. The British, for their part, were forced to accept liability for the direct claim and, after lodging counter-claims for damages to British shipping, in 1877 agreed to pay £7.5m in reparations.

Scotland’s readiness to forget the opportunistic part it played in the greatest conflict of the mid-19th century has meant a failure to appreciate the Civil War’s impact on development. On the negative side, the cotton-spinning industries in and around Glasgow, having been starved of cotton, never recovered.

But innovations like fuel-efficient high-pressure steam were accelerated by the promise of profit. Such technical advances, coupled with the greatly extended shipbuilding capacity – no fewer than 17 new-start yards opened during the conflict – allowed Clydeside to dominate the post-war market for long-haul steamers, spurred by the needs of carriers to the Empire and business opportunities in the Far East created by the opening of the Suez Canal. So the booming Glasgow of the 19th century, whose architectural legacy we enjoy today, owes more than a little to the part we played in the cataclysmic war between the states.




Leave a comment

Filed under Articles

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s