|The American Civil War ended in England|
Next year it will be 150 years since the American Civil war started. England played a pivotal but often ignored role in the conflict, and Tom Sebrell explores the part played in particular by the cities of London and Liverpool, and outlines his plans to make the commemoration a focus for tourism
April 2011 will see the start of a four-year, 150th-anniversary observance of the American Civil War all across the United States, analysing its influences on numerous aspects of society, including politics, race, gender, the military, and, of course, how the historic event helped shape the country it is today. Such a commemoration ought not to surprise anyone – books on the American Civil War outsell all other subjects of history combined in the States. What will probably surprise most people, in both the United States and Great Britain, is that active steps are being taken in Liverpool and London to mark the event and analyse how it impacted their cities, and Britain as a whole. At the close of the war in 1865, however, very few on either side of the Atlantic would be surprised that future commemorations would involve British participation, as the war’s outcome was largely decided by Her Majesty’s Government’s decision not to intervene.
I am an American, born and bred in Virginia, but have lived in England since 2004 when I started work towards my PhD on Union and Confederate propaganda movements in Britain at Queen Mary, University of London. The project required four years of research in 37 archives in 18 cities and towns, all but two of them in England. During the experience, I learned that the war’s impact on Britain was much greater than historiography to date has stated, but also noticed that previous historians who have tackled the subject only consulted a small number of archives, some not looking beyond the British Library, National Archives, and Library of Congress. A more in-depth understanding of the matter requires far more exploration. Emancipation societies in Britain grew during the American Civil War, as did Anglo-Confederate groups springing up in numerous regions such as the Southern Independence Association and the Society for Promoting a Cessation of Hostilities in America. An extensive list of Parliamentarians partial to both sides also shows the impact of the conflict on Westminster, as well as their constituencies. Papers of these societies and influential individuals are scattered all over Britain, and are very significant towards our understanding of the subject.
Unfortunately, much of this saga has been forgotten in British History, but thankfully steps are being taken to correct this. In August 2009 I was called in for an informal meeting with two Liverpool City Councillors wishing to explore the idea of developing American Civil War tourism in their city. As an American, the idea was a no-brainer – Civil War tourism in the US is a very marketable business, with museums and battlefields significant to the subject regularly receiving thousands, if not over a million, tourists annually. Furthermore, with such a high percentage of Americans deeply interested in the subject who are constantly looking for more sites to visit, it is more than obvious that Liverpool would see a sharp increase in tourist numbers during the 2011-15 period. The following two days, I was interviewed by the city’s leading dailies, the Liverpool Daily Post and Liverpool Echo, and have written a slew of articles about the Sesquicentennial.
A few months later, I was contacted by the Lord Mayor’s office and during our subsequent meeting we outlined possible plans for Liverpool’s roles in the Sesquicentennial – a couple of guided walking tours in and near the city centre, a bus tour going into other areas such as Waterloo, Anfield, Wavertree, and Allerton. Indeed, there is no shortage of significant American Civil War sites in Liverpool. In Rumford Place, the Confederate ‘bankrollers’ and shipbuilders, Fraser, Trenholm & Co., were headquartered. Not having the means to construct a naval fleet in their own harbours owing to a severe lack of supplies, made worse because of the Union blockade, forced the South to look abroad to construct its navy.
This was more easily facilitated due to the fact that prior to the war, the Charleston, South Carolina-based company opened its Liverpool office to help facilitate the cotton trade. Once Southern secession commenced, however, the firm dramatically changed its operations to that of ‘blockade running’, taking British-made munitions and supplies to the Confederate armies. Fraser, Trenholm & Co. then began orchestrating the construction of some of the South’s most notorious naval ships, including the Alabama, Florida, and Shenandoah (the first two constructed in Birkenhead and Toxteth, respectively), with South Carolinian Charles K. Prioleau providing the finances and Georgian James Dunwoody Bulloch overseeing the actual operations.
Not everyone in Rumford Place was a Confederate supporter, however. Next door was C. E. Dixon, a Northern sympathiser. Just around the corner in Tower Buildings, Water Street, was the US Consulate. The Consul, Thomas H. Dudley of New Jersey, was the leader of Lincoln’s largest espionage network operated throughout the entire war – keeping a close eye on the construction of Confederate navy vessels, and preventing it when possible. Upstairs in the same building was where the ‘Southern Club’, which consisted of British and Southern citizens, frequently met.
Perhaps the best surviving wartime Confederate interior architecture is in Abercromby Square at the former home of Fraser, Trenholm & Co.’s Charles Kuhn Prioleau. The Charlestonian, who had married Mary Elizabeth Wright of Allerton Hall shortly before war broke out in 1861, had Confederate and South Carolina symbols placed throughout his newly-constructed home – stars from the Bonnie Blue Flag, yellow jasmine, the palmetto tree (with a serpent wrapped at its base – a sign of defiance and war), crescent moons – in addition to ceiling paintings depicting Southern culture, and a circular ceiling image in the dining room of the Prioleaus surrounded by people yet to be identified. By nothing short of a miracle, busts of the couple are also still on display in the house affixed above archways. The building is of most important cultural significance and a gem of transatlantic history.
Also still-standing is the home of Liverpudlian-born George Thompson, the leader of the Emancipation Society, based in London and viciously pro-Union. Upland, US Consul Dudley’s home, also remains. Numerous Confederates decided not to return to the South after the war as they were uncertain of how they would be received by US authorities, and some prominent Southerners, including James Dunwoody Bulloch, are buried in Liverpool.
Most people are unaware of the fact that some of Liverpool’s most well-known historic sites are also significant to the American Civil War. St. George’s Hall is probably the grandest building in the city, yet hardly anyone is aware that Mary Elizabeth Prioleau, with the help of a large number of British and Southern women, hosted a five-day bazaar inside the Great Hall raising £17,000 to aid Confederate prisoners-of-war held in Northern camps. A majority of Civil War enthusiasts, including those in the United States, are unaware that the war actually ended in Liverpool on 6 November 1865 when the Confederate navy vessel Shenandoah surrendered to British authorities at what is now ‘The Pier’, seven months after Confederate General Robert E. Lee surrendered to his Union counterpart, Ulysses S. Grant, at Appomattox, Virginia, which is usually referred to as the end of the war. Of course, 12 years after the war Grant stayed at Liverpool’s Adelphi Hotel whilst touring Britain!
It came as no surprise to me that the Lord Mayor, after I had taken him to several of these sites, realised the potential American Civil War tourism has for his city’s economy, as well as to further develop Liverpool’s image as a good destination for tourism.
London’s tourism industry also sees the real potential the American Civil War has for luring even larger numbers of American visitors during the Sesquicentennial of 2011-15. In February, the London Development Agency contacted me to suggest I discuss the British capital’s Union and Confederate-related sites with Mary Rance of UKInbound, which represents and advises over 250 tourism operators in Britain. Shortly after we met in her office in the Strand and I told her of the unofficial three-hour ‘American Civil War Walking Tour’ I had pieced together a couple years ago for visitors from the States, and that the feedback was quite good – people are consistently in complete disbelief that so many crucial sites related to their Civil War are in London, and all have said it has altered their perception of the war as a whole. At tourism leaders’ recommendation, I have broken up the three-hour tour into three individual ones in Piccadilly/Mayfair, Marylebone, and City; and have developed a fourth in Belsize Park.
Whilst Liverpool’s American Civil War sites tend to emphasise issues of naval construction, blockade running, and espionage, London’s focus is on the other half of the story – diplomacy, propaganda, and agenda-driven Anglo-Union and Confederate social organisations. As is the case in Liverpool, London’s sites have remained largely unaltered since 1865. While the Fleet Street offices of the pro-Union (and often anti-British) propaganda newspaper, The London American, unfortunately was a casualty of late-Victorian urban renewal, and the headquarters of the London Emancipation Society (also situated in Fleet Street) was sadly destroyed in the Blitz, along with the Bunhill Row shops where the Confederate government’s stationery and postage stamps were printed, the rest of the city’s American Civil War sites can be seen by today’s tourists as they appeared during the war. This list includes, but is not limited to, the headquarters of the exclusively-British aristocratic Southern Independence Association, both wartime US embassies used by ambassador Charles Francis Adams (son and grandson of former Presidents John
Quincy Adams and John Adams), homes and offices of Confederate emissaries William Yancey and James Murray Mason (grandson of Founding Father George Mason, ‘Father of the Bill of Rights’), sites used for the Emancipation Society’s public speeches, the Confederate Commercial Agency, and much more.
Shortly after outlining the four tours, it was suggested I ‘test-run’ one of them, and shortly after I took a tourism leader on the Piccadilly/Mayfair stretch, and at the end of the hour he stated he was fully convinced that American Civil War tourism is more than marketable in London and that his company would organise and run the four walking tours regularly, with the aim of starting in Summer 2010.
Other developments continue to spring up. Shortly after my earlier meeting with UKInbound, they forwarded details of the Sesquicentennial project to numerous tourism operators, and several immediately came forward asking to be responsible for orchestrating the tour packages. Also, the Museum of London has informally agreed that during the war’s Sesquicentennial of 2011-15 they would create a one-room exhibit detailing how the American conflict affected the city. I have discussed with the Lord Mayor about Liverpool doing the same at either the Merseyside Maritime Museum or Museum of Liverpool. Naturally, the Maritime Museum at Albert Dock would be an ideal location considering the International Slave Trade Museum, a closely-related topic, is in the same building and would prove a popular and relevant destination for American tourists, especially as the United States still lacks a museum dedicated to the history of the ‘peculiar institution’.
The next day I received an e-mail from Rob Wilkins, the director of audience development at the Weider History Group, a large publishing house based in the Washington, DC area. He had received a phone call from Cheryl Jackson shortly after my meeting with her, and now I was being summoned to another meeting. Joining us were the editors of Civil War Times and America’s Civil War, both very highly-subscribed-to magazines in the States. I was interrogated about Liverpool’s and London’s sites and what sorts of tours were in the works, and the unanimous decision was that they wished to promote it through regular advertising in their bi-monthly magazines. These historians and editors were stunned by the ‘new ground’ being broken in Civil War History, and realised that by not promoting it they might even be doing a disservice to the memory of the subject. Now they, too, were onboard, and the greatest form of advertising was secured.
Upon my return to London, meetings with tourism leaders continued. They were enthralled by the Weider History Group’s desire to become involved, and agreed with their recommendation (and Virginia’s, too) that the Liverpool and London projects join efforts in order to create one holiday package for American tourists to purchase, spending three days in each city visiting Civil War sites. The packages would, of course, also include bonuses such as hotels, theatre tickets, passes for The Beatles ‘Magical Mystery Tour’ – no American will want to go to Liverpool without seeing places significant to the Fab Four – and rail fare between Lime Street and Euston Stations. Combining the two Civil War initiatives into one package should sound logical to Liverpool as well – tourists will obviously prefer purchasing one single holiday package for the ‘American Civil War Experience in Britain’ rather than trying to make two separate ones coordinate with each other, which could possibly even result in fewer tourists coming from across the pond.
Of the tourism companies I have held discussions with, Discover Travel & Tours appeared to be best-positioned for the task, and so I have agreed to work with them on this project and to allow them to organise the tour packages and itineraries.
In spite of the promise of this project’s success, there is work left to be done before it comes to fruition. As with all initiatives, funds are required to ‘jump-start’ them. I am currently co-writing letters with the Lord Mayor of Liverpool in an attempt to procure funds from British and US-based businesses and historical societies. In London, Discover Travel & Tours and I are strategising how to procure funds for the early stages of the tours, and it is likely we will approach businesses for £10,000 with payback schemes.
The great potential for the American Civil War Sesquicentennial of 2011-15 in Britain is more than obvious. Perhaps most importantly, it is significant in the sense that it sheds light on a too-often ignored and important aspect of the war’s history. Furthermore, the American Civil War played a huge role in shaping Victorian and Transatlantic histories, and in that sense was a very British affair. Also, Americans too often forget that a leading factor in winning the War of Independence in 1783 was that the colonists’ succeeded in gaining intervention by the French. When the American Civil War broke out in 1861, the Confederates realised they would have to procure at least recognition of their independence from the United States by Europe, and they understood that Britain was the country most likely to take such a bold step. This resulted in the South sending numerous agents to London and Liverpool, and for Lincoln to organise a movement to prevent them from attaining their goal. With Britain’s decision to not intervene into the conflict, it is right to say that the war was largely lost in London. The many traces left behind by both parties are, by good fortune, still available for scholars and enthusiasts to see today, therefore allowing an easy resurrection an entire dimension of a most important piece of history largely forgotten. This makes the American Civil War Sesquicentennial of 2011-15 in Britain the most exciting project pertaining to the subject in years.
This project will also prove valuable in addressing the greater issue of Anglo-American relations. During the 1860s the construction of Confederate warships on the Mersey nearly set off a war between the United States and Great Britain. The two world wars, of course, brought the two nations perhaps permanently close, but the recent tensions with the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico and what many perceive as President Barack Obama’s ‘British bashing’ show that the ‘special relationship’ is still capable of being strained. Events such as these make analysing Britain’s near entry into the American Civil War even more necessary.
The American Civil War Experience are organising walking tours of Civil War related sites in London
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