Thomas E. Sebrell II: The Charleston-Liverpool Civil War Connection

[Tom Sebrell received his B.A. and M.A. in History from the Virginia Military Institute and Virginia Tech, respectively, before starting work towards a Ph.D at Queen Mary, London.]

The Civil War has been heavily studied and written about, though few are aware of the fact that it was not strictly an American affair. Nor was Charleston’s role in the conflict.

Before the secession crisis began in 1860, strong ties existed between the Southern ports and Liverpool, England, owing to trade. “King Cotton” was a necessity not just to the South’s economy, but to northwest England, as well. Bales of the valuable product arrived at Liverpool by the shipload and were immediately transferred to the cotton manufacturing county of Lancashire. Needless to say, Liverpool’s shipping industry largely relied upon cotton, much of it coming from Charleston Harbor.

One of the chief firms supplying the product to England was Charlestonian George A. Trenholm’s John Fraser & Co. In 1854 the company set up a partnering firm in Liverpool to facilitate the trade more smoothly, and this branch was named Fraser, Trenholm & Co., headed by another Charlestonian – Charles Kuhn Prioleau.

Twenty-seven years old at the time of his being dispatched to England, the son of distinguished Judge Samuel Prioleau and Elizabeth Lynch Hamilton, the sister of former South Carolina Governor James Hamilton, he was immediately welcomed into the “Second City of the British Empire.” Indeed, Liverpool’s waterfront was dotted with grand buildings of the most exceptional “High Victorian” architecture and had some of the most prestigious social scenes in all of England. Aristocratic similarities also made ties between Great Britain and the American South seem natural.

It is no surprise that when newsarrived in England of the bombardment of Fort Sumter, that the British ruling classes favored the Confederacy, even though some in cabinet positions, such as Prime Minister Lord Palmerston and Foreign Secretary Lord John Russell, held these feelings in secret.

Pro-South sympathies in Liverpool, however, were anything but secret. The city’s Lord Mayor, Edward Lawrence, was openly in favor of the Confederates, as was William Brown, Chairman of the Bank of Liverpool. Nearly everyone involved with trade in that city wished for a Southern victory for economic reasons.

Members of Parliament representing Liverpool in London did not believe a reconstruction of the Union possible, including the viciously pro-Confederate Thomas Berry Horsfall. The town just opposite the River Mersey, Birkenhead, was the constituency of John Laird, owner of Lairds’ Shipbuilders. Not only did this parliamentarian join the Southern Independence Association during the war, but more importantly he oversaw the construction of some of the South’s most notorious warships, including the Alabama.

Shortly after the war commenced in April 1861, the U.S .Navy implemented the “Anaconda Plan,” blockading the entire Confederate coast to cripple the South’s economy and prevent munitions of war from getting to their ports. Although this strategy initially made sense militarily, it posed a major risk — crippling England’s shipping and cotton manufacturing economies could anger John Bull enough to cause Britain’s entry into the war on the Confederacy’s side.

It is not surprising that the blockade resulted in Liverpool’s becoming more blatantly pro-Confederate, and this gave the South the incentive of using that city as a shipbuilding ally. The situation also gave much for Charles Kuhn Prioleau, still based in Liverpool with Fraser, Trenholm & Co., to ponder. With trade severely obstructed, had his firm lost its raisôn étre?..

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