Liverpool and the American Civil War display and trail at Merseyside Maritime Museum

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It is protocol that U.S. presidents visit London ahead of travelling elsewhere in the UK. The commander-in-chief, more often than not, visits places such as Buckingham Palace and Downing Street on the diplomatic tourist trail, before venturing further afield – into the real heartlands of Britain, if you like.

Woodrow Wilson was the first American leader to travel to the UK as a guest of the Royal Family, in December 1918, and took much more in than just the capital; he boarded the royal train from London to visit his mother's birthplace and grandfather's church up in Carlisle. Dwight Eisenhower ventured even further north, visiting Ayrshire in 1959; after spending time at Chequers (the prime minister's residence in Buckinghamshire) and at Balmoral (the Queen's retreat in Aberdeenshire), the 34th President of the United States stayed at Culzean Castle in Scotland. More recent presidents have also opted to sample northern life: Jimmy Carter took a trip to Newcastle in 1977 for charity purposes while George W. Bush enjoyed a pub lunch in Tony Blair's constituency of Sedgefield in 2003.

There is no reason why, then, the Obamas' cannot experience what Liverpool has to offer during their planned state visit in May. Granted, a visit to Birmingham – dubbed Britain's second city – would be more apt given the Midlands city is twinned with Barack's adopted hometown of Chicago. Yet, a tour around what used to be the second city of empire is more appropriate as we consider the outbreak of the American Civil War 150 years on.

It is pretty incontrovertible to say today, as indeed many commentators do, that the U.S./UK relationship is no longer 'special': cold controversies (such as the Obama Administration openly questioning David Cameron’s strategy toward Libya) together with calm controversies (such as the President and First Lady not being invited to Prince William and Kate Middleton's wedding), undergird such thinking. A private viewing of the 'Liverpool and the American Civil War archive display' or a tour around the International Slavery Museum, however, would surely make for warmer relations.

This display of archive material, which can be found outside the Maritime Archives and Library on the second floor of the Merseyside Maritime Museum, is part of the museum's commemorations for the sesquicentennial. The 'Letterbook of Charles Prioleau, 1862-1865', containing as it does letters to Confederates in regards blockade running, is simply invaluable. The same could be said for the '"Alabama" discharge certificate'; the CSS Alabama caused mayhem, let us not forget, attacking most things Union on the high seas. (Captain Raphael Semmes' 1864 letter, also on display, documents this fact.) As impressive as Thomas Hennesey Lynam's 1861 letter to his brother in Ireland about fighting in the Confederate Army is, though, a letter by the hand of, say, Andrew Tucker Squarey would be far more fascinating. The same goes for the copy of a portrait of George A. Cobham Junior; as interesting a figure as the Liverpool-born, Union soldier is, a print of a photograph of A.T. Squarey would be far more valuable.

Mr. Squarey was a Salisbury-born, Liverpool based lawyer who was on the right side of history when it came to confining the war to the New World, but is all-but forgotten by it – relegated to the endnotes section. Squarey worked tirelessly for Thomas Haines Dudley, President Abraham Lincoln's consul at Liverpool, and compiled the damning affidavits which illuminated British complicity in the construction of the Alabama. Despite his failure to prevent her escape from its Mersey shipyard in 1862, Squarey laid the groundwork for the British enforcement of its Foreign Enlistment Act against the Laird Rams (CSS North Carolina and CSS Mississippi). What is more, though, his evidence played a key role in the Geneva Arbitration a decade later.

As an admirer of the 16th President, Barack Obama is sure to be interested in Lincoln's man's man in Liverpool. A legal man himself, President 44 would appreciate Squarey's role in the politico-legal battle and the fact that America received $15 million in damages from the British Government. The Huntington Library in California is home to the Thomas H. Dudley collection and, contained therein, is a relatively small but hugely significant group of letters from Squarey to Dudley. Any letter from the 19 held would have been a scoop and turned what is a pleasant display into a must-see collection. Whilst this omission is forgiveable, however, omitting an enlarged print of a photograph of Mr. Squarey is unforgiveable considering that the 1893 book he features in – Liverpool's Legion of Honour – is held in numerous libraries across Merseyside.

Given the limited amount of archival material on display, it might be an idea for Mr and Mrs Obama to follow the trail around the Merseyside Maritime Museum and International Slavery museum to see a larger quantity of exhibits relating to Liverpool’s role in the American Civil War.

In the Life at Sea gallery on the first floor, there is the story of the Emily St. Pierre, a Liverpool ship captured by the Union, and objects relating to its recapture by William Wilson. Assisted only by his cook and steward, Captain Wilson retook the ship back into Confederate hands and sailed her up the River Mersey. On display are a razor box and silver medal presented to Wilson and his steward, Matthew Montgomery.

On the second floor, in the Builders of Great Ships gallery, there is a large model of the Alabama and a small model of a Trotman patent anchor; the latter of which was purportedly constructed by A.H. Smith out of brass from the engine room of the Alabama in 1881. On display on the right-hand wall, in the Art and the Sea gallery, meanwhile, is a painting of blockade runner USS Banshee, and nearby are three ship models: two of side-wheel steamers (Colonel Lamb and Banshee); one of a small schooner (Hope).

As interesting as the above artefacts undoubtedly are, though, the President and First Lady will no doubt be eager to get to the third floor and the International Slavery Museum. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice visited the city in 2006 but was only able to view the modest scale Transatlantic Slavery gallery; the Obamas’, on the other hand, will be able to view the bigger picture across an entire floor. The Hunted Slaves, by Richard Ansdell, for instance, is a powerful indictment of the savage treatment which Black slaves suffered, and is well worth viewing. Yet it is the back-story of Ansdell’s 1861 work, and his donating it to the Lancashire Cotton Relief Committee (who raised £700 through a lottery and helped to relieve the suffering of mill workers), which makes a visit to the Legacies section almost obligatory.

If none of this tickles their fancy, there is much more to keep the Obamas’ occupied. The King’s dream was something of a nightmare for Liverpool tourist officials recently, granted, but Barry and Michelle may still want to visit, say, the city’s Philharmonic Hall. Since, let us not forget, while Martin Luther King did not write his 1963 speech on Adelphi Hotel notepaper, Brooklyn pastor Henry Ward Beecher did visit the Hope Street venue a century earlier and helped turn the diplomatic tide toward the North during the American Civil War.

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