Historians reveal secrets of UK gun-running which lengthened the American civil war by two years

 

New historical and archaeological research is shining an embarrassing light on one of the darkest periods of British foreign policy.

Investigations by a leading Scottish maritime historian have succeeded, for the first time, in locating the main secret British headquarters of the American Civil War Confederate government’s transatlantic gun-running operation.

Other research, carried out over the past decade, has revealed the extraordinary extent to which substantial sections of Britain’s business elite were working with impunity to help the slave-owning southern states win the Civil War – despite the fact that Britain was officially neutral  and had outlawed slavery almost 30 years earlier.

What’s more, in the Bristol Channel, the remnants of one of the Confederate gun-runners – the 395 ton Matilda – has been tentatively identified on the seabed off the coast of the island of Lundy.

 

Three other confederate wrecks had already been identified in British waters – off the west coast of Scotland, off Liverpool and in the Bristol Channel.

In total some 200 vessels were purpose-built or upgraded on Clydeside, in Liverpool or in London for the Confederate states – and hundreds of thousands of guns (including heavy artillery) were manufactured in Birmingham, Newcastle and near London for the Confederate Army.

The entirely illegal, but tacitly British-Government-approved pro-Confederate gun-running operation is thought to have lengthened the American Civil War by up to two years – and to have therefore cost as many as 400,000 American lives.

“The identification of the Confederacy’s main secret gun-running headquarters should serve to highlight the role played by key elements of the British business elite in helping the slave-owning states in the American Civil War,” said maritime historian Dr Eric Graham of Edinburgh University.

“The clandestine headquarters was established just 32 miles by railway from Clydeside because it was the big shipbuilding magnates there who were being contracted to build or upgrade more than half of the two hundred vessels supplied to the Confederacy by UK shipyards.”

“It demonstrates that Britain’s neutrality was, in reality, a complete sham,” said Dr Graham, the author of a major book on the Civil War gun-runners, Clyde Built: The Blockade Runners of the American Civil War.

Bridge of Allan is located north of Stirling in Scotland Bridge of Allan is located north of Stirling in Scotland

The guns were shipped from Britain to the British crown colonies of Bermuda and the Bahamas on board commercial cargo vessels. But from Bermuda and the Bahamian port of Nassau, they were carried by 300 high-speed gun-running vessels - mainly shallow-draught paddle-steamers - two thirds of which had been purpose-built or adapted for the job in British shipyards.

Today none of these blockade runners survives above water – but of those that were wrecked or sunk, a number have been identified off the US and UK coasts.

Indeed, English Heritage has just turned one of the gun-runner wrecks, the 80m Iona 2, which sank in a storm off the island of Lundy in the Bristol Channel in 1864, into an underwater tourist attraction. An official scuba diving trail, complete with suitably waterproof guide books for use underwater, has been officially launched around the vessel – and its illicit "dark heritage" status will undoubtedly make it all the more intriguing.

“This dive trail - English Heritage's fifth underwater tourist trail for protected wrecks to open since 2009 – is an important historical reminder of a part that Britain played in the American Civil War,” said English Heritage maritime archaeologist Terry Newman. A leading UK archaeological consultancy, Wessex Archaeology, has been monitoring the condition of the wreck on behalf of English Heritage.

James Bulloch of the Confederate States Navy was one of the senior Confederate agents based in Bridge of Allan. He was the principal procurement agent in Europe for the Confederate Navy James Bulloch of the Confederate States Navy was one of the senior Confederate agents based in Bridge of Allan. He was the principal procurement agent in Europe for the Confederate Navy

Three other Confederate wrecks around Britain’s coastline are the Iona 1, which collided with another ship and sank in the Clyde in 1862, the Lellia, which went down in a storm off Liverpool with the loss of 47 lives in 1865, and the Matilda, which sank in dense fog in the Bristol Channel in 1864.

The newly discovered main secret UK headquarters of the blockade-busting operation was a still extant mansion in the quiet and secluded Stirlingshire village of Bridge of Allan. At any one time, it housed around 10 Confederate agents who held their planning meetings there – and used it as a base from which they could visit top shipbuilding magnates and others on Clydeside and "test drive" vessels to assess their speed.

They seem to have located their headquarters in the countryside so as to avoid the attentions of the various detective agencies which had been appointed by the US Federal government to track them down. However, their wish for rural anonymity did not prevent some of the southern  agents from wearing “big hats and smoking large cigars” –  key clues which, in early 1864, led the amateur sleuths of the anti-slavery Dundee Ladies’ Emancipation Society to realize who they were – and to inform the US consul in Dundee accordingly. After much pressure had been exerted by the US on the British Government, the exposure of the secret headquarters led a year later to the British preventing the export of a giant, potentially game-changing 130m armoured warship - and four other warships - to the Confederate Navy.

Other research into the Confederate blockade-busting operation, currently being carried out by a Manchester-based historian, is revealing how the Confederate network extended over many different parts of Britain.

Researcher Gerald Hayes is piecing together the previously unstudied details of a complex of more than half a dozen blockade-busting companies based in Liverpool and London and their relationship with other Confederate sympathizers – including pro-Confederacy MPs at Westminster.

Britain was split down the middle in its attitude to the American Civil War. The left, many liberals and much of the working class was pro-US and anti-Confederate – mainly because of the South’s pro-slavery stance. But many Tories and much of the business sector were actively pro-Confederate, as there were considerable fortunes to be made from supplying guns, uniforms, medicines, textiles and even food to the south.

Geopolitically, the British government saw the USA as a growing challenge to its global domination – especially in terms of merchant marine carrying capacity. The British also feared US expansionism and potential US-originating threats to Canada and British colonies in the Caribbean.

“Economically Britain saw huge advantages in the break-up of the United States. It saw the American South as a source of raw cotton – and as a market for manufacturing goods, whereas it saw the North as an industrial competitor which sought to use protectionist policies to exclude Britain from American markets,” said Dr. Graham.  

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
ebooks
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Freight Forward Senior Operator

£22000 - £26000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This logistics firm are looking...

Recruitment Genius: Lead Marketing Specialist

£34500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A lead marketing specialist is required ...

Recruitment Genius: IT Support Technician - 2nd / 3rd Line

£26000 - £32000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An IT Support Technician is req...

Recruitment Genius: Folder Gluer Operator

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: There will be a number of exciting opportuniti...

Day In a Page

Seifeddine Rezgui: What motivated a shy student to kill 38 holidaymakers in Tunisia?

Making of a killer

What motivated a shy student to kill 38 holidaymakers in Tunisia?
UK Heatwave: Temperatures on the tube are going to exceed the legal limit for transporting cattle

Just when you thought your commute couldn't get any worse...

Heatwave will see temperatures on the Tube exceed legal limit for transporting cattle
Exclusive - The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Swapping Bucharest for London

The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

Meet the man who swapped Romania for the UK in a bid to provide for his family, only to discover that the home he left behind wasn't quite what it seemed
Cheaper energy on the way, but it's not all sunshine and rainbows

Cheaper energy on the way, but it's not all sunshine and rainbows

Solar power will help bring down electricity prices over the next five years, according to a new report. But it’s cheap imports of ‘dirty power’ that will lower them the most
Katy Perry prevented from buying California convent for $14.5m after nuns sell to local businesswoman instead

No grace of God for Katy Perry as sisters act to stop her buying convent

Archdiocese sues nuns who turned down star’s $14.5m because they don’t approve of her
Ajmer: The ancient Indian metropolis chosen to be a 'smart city' where residents would just be happy to have power and running water

Residents just want water and power in a city chosen to be a ‘smart’ metropolis

The Indian Government has launched an ambitious plan to transform 100 of its crumbling cities
Michael Fassbender in 'Macbeth': The Scottish play on film, from Welles to Cheggers

Something wicked?

Films of Macbeth don’t always end well - just ask Orson Welles... and Keith Chegwin
10 best sun creams for body

10 best sun creams for body

Make sure you’re protected from head to toe in the heatwave
Wimbledon 2015: Nick Bollettieri - Milos Raonic has ability to get to the top but he must learn to handle pressure in big games

Nick Bollettieri's Wimbledon files

Milos Raonic has ability to get to the top but he must learn to handle pressure in big games
Women's World Cup 2015: How England's semi-final success could do wonders for both sexes

There is more than a shiny trophy to be won by England’s World Cup women

The success of the decidedly non-famous females wearing the Three Lions could do wonders for a ‘man’s game’ riddled with cynicism and greed
How to stop an asteroid hitting Earth: Would people co-operate to face down a global peril?

How to stop an asteroid hitting Earth

Would people cooperate to face a global peril?
Just one day to find €1.6bn: Greece edges nearer euro exit

One day to find €1.6bn

Greece is edging inexorably towards an exit from the euro
New 'Iron Man' augmented reality technology could help surgeons and firefighters, say scientists

'Iron Man' augmented reality technology could become reality

Holographic projections would provide extra information on objects in a person's visual field in real time
Sugary drinks 'are killing 184,000 adults around the world every year'

Sugary drinks are killing 184,000 adults around the world every year

The drinks that should be eliminated from people's diets
Pride of Place: Historians map out untold LGBT histories of locations throughout UK

Historians map out untold LGBT histories

Public are being asked to help improve the map