Liverpool’s Role in the US Civil War

Liverpool in the 1860s

Unlike the rest of Britain, Liverpool’s population and economic status plummeted after World War Two. Go back 80 years further, though, and you have Britain’s second great metropolis, thriving off King Cotton and still benefitting hand-over-fist from the transatlantic slave trade. In modern terms, it would be a city of four million people, or nearly twice the size of Paris. A confident, arrogant world player grasping at city statehood.

Liverpool sucked money into its Cotton Exchange and banks directly from the trade winds and favourable currents from the new world. Traders got rich quick, but by 1863 something had stuck in the craw… those Damn Yankees. As a savage ground war ignited across the Eastern States of a still fledgling nation, the superior Union Navy blockaded all merchant traffic coming in and out of the South. Many leagues away in North-West England, a cotton drought set tempers boiling and the nouveau riche Illuminati of Liverpool rolled their stall out to scatter this blockade, by fair means and foul.

Britain’s official neutrality – Lincoln had explicitly warned the British Government against meddling – was flouted as the Confederate Navy was built, launched and crewed out of the city. Huge and notorious ironclad leviathans slipped out of the shipyard at Cammell Laird, steaming out into the Mersey bound for engagement. No expense was spared, and the South had been gifted the best technology of the day, with blockade runners like CSS Alabama and CSS Banshee becoming the scourge of the North. The Rebs suddenly had stock on water, and it came expressly from Liverpool.

Via deep-rooted trade connections, the city was deemed strategically essential to both sides in the war. The United States had long established a Consulate on Paradise Street, before the Confederacy – floated by local support – established its own base at Rumford Place and then Abercromby Square. A Cold War of espionage, legal challenges and sabotage began as agents (including a number of commissioned female agents) on both sides roamed the city and infiltrated the docks and ships.

Thomas Haines Dudley and James Dunwoody Bulloch

Two men infamously stood out in a growing ensemble American cast: Union Consul Thomas Haines Dudley, an erstwhile close aide of Lincoln who had a role in his election, and the formidable James Dunwoody Bulloch, Confederate Commander and Dudley’s counterpart at Rumford Place. Bulloch was the direct link in building the clandestine Navy, while Dudley challenged him in British courts and via his own network of agents who acted on the edge of local laws.

During the summer of 1863, in the run-up to Gettysburg, the pivotal battle stateside, Bulloch was succeeding in his charm offensive on the rich denizens of the city, via gentlemen’s clubs like the Athenaeum, which had a long association with slave traders. While anti-slavery campaigns were robust, former slavers had received vast sums in compensation and had reinvested their monies in the same dirty business, only at the import end of the supply chain. The CSS Alabama wreaked havoc on the blockade, and destroyed dozens of enemy vessels before finally succumbing at Cherbourg, more evidence that this war was fought on both sides of the ocean. 

The actions were not confined to the two senior rivals either. Key Lincoln assassination conspirator John Surratt hid out in the city for several months after the dirty deed, evading capture and extradition. Liverpool’s addiction to the vast wealth created by cotton drove the city’s fervent support of the Rebel Yell, and this included harbouring fugitives and spies like Surratt. Westminster did little to nothing in terms of disrupting this tryst, with rumours of collaborations between some senior politicians with investments tied up in Liverpool’s trading interests and the movement to back Richmond.

Irish Diaspora

An important backdrop to these events is that Liverpool’s dense population was swelled by the diaspora after the Great Irish Hunger in the 1840s, which meant that many of the commissioned agents and paid gangs originated from this generation of immigrants. Both sides in the war recruited vigorously in the city for their armies and navies. Irish fought on both sides and continued to build American cities as much as their labour built Liverpool. Ireland formed a bridge across the ocean, and Liverpool Irish were another essential link, taking up the lucrative but dirty work offered by Dudley and Bulloch at a time when any work was sought after. 

This nefarious cooperation of Liverpool and the Confederacy can be boiled down to an unerring truth; the American Civil War began with a shot fired from a giant gun built by a Duke Street ironmonger and ended in 1865 with the surrender of Liverpool-built CSS Shenandoah on the Mersey, with the last act of defiance coming with their acquiescing to the British rather than Union Navy.

After the War

Dunwoody Bulloch settled in the city after the war and is interred at Smithdown Road cemetery. Today, Liverpool redefines itself as a city of tolerance and as a proud, ancient melting pot with a strong urge towards social justice. City historians like Lawrence Westgaph and Malik Al Nasir have opened up long-closed archives that detail what happened before and after the war, particularly in terms of slavery, by following the money and proffering reparations for the middle passage Holocaust. Myths hang tight, and while the ideas behind the Confederacy maintain an allure to the alt-right in the US, the frequent appearance of a Confederate saltire on Bulloch’s resting place reminds us that maybe a few in Liverpool still wished that war had ended differently. The fundamental difference is that now they’re in a tiny minority.

About the Author

JP Maxwell is the author of the Civil War thriller “Water Street”. 

Set in Liverpool in 1863, the American Civil War comes to the British Empire’s second city and the world’s richest port. Confederate Commander Banastre X. Dunwoody has a plan to turn the conflict by securing advanced warships, but the U.S. Government is one step ahead of him. It seeks to sabotage his efforts through its covert agent – Harriet Dunwoody – Banastre’s pregnant wife.

Water Street