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Really neutral?

The US Civil War battle of Fair Oaks
Did Britain's elite sympathise with the Confederate side in the US Civil War?

Tom Bateman
Today Programme

The American Civil War was one of the most fundamental events in shaping the United States we know today.

From 1861 to 1865 southern states that relied on slave labour fought the supposedly more progressive states of the north, who were led by President Abraham Lincoln.

Eleven states in the south had tried to break away from the United States to form the Confederate States of America.

By 1865 Lincoln's side had won the war, which cost more than 600,000 lives and put an end for good to slavery in America.

Britain remained officially neutral throughout the conflict, and many historians think the British actually favoured Lincoln over the course of the conflict.

Arklow House
Arklow House in London housed the Southern Independence Association

But now an American academic based in London is highlighting some of the more nuanced sympathies that existed during the war.

Dr Tom Sebrell from Queen Mary, University of London says that many people among the British aristocracy were sympathetic to the southern Confederate states.

"A lot of British people were concerned about how quickly the United States was growing.

"If the American nation is cut in half, that will preserve the future of the (British) Empire," he says, explaining the thinking of the time.

Dr Sebrell has started a tour of London, taking in a number of sights that help tell some of the untold stories of Britain's position in the conflict.

Intervention plan

It starts in the unlikely setting of a side street not far from Marble Arch in central London, just a few yards from a giant Odeon Cinema popular with tourists.

At numbers 1 and 2 Connaught Place is Arklow House, a formidable looking Regency period residential building.

It was owned by Sir Alexander Beresford Hope, a British author and Conservative politician.

"A lot of people don't know that he was the chairman of the London branch of the Southern Independence Association," says Dr Sebrell.

"What they wanted to do with the London Branch of the SIA was to push a bill through the Houses of Parliament in favour of intervening on behalf of the Confederacy."

The group tried from London to get the British government to side with the southern states. They failed.

Blue Plaque to US Civil War embassy
The Blue Plaque belies the anti-Union sentiments of many Britons

Despite Britain's official neutrality, Dr Sebrell thinks some people in the British aristocracy privately supported the break-up of the United States.

"A lot of them were just straight up un-American," he says.

"It was about the British economy and the future of the British Empire.

"This was the period of manifest destiny in which America is spreading across the north American continent and becoming stronger; stronger army, stronger navy."

He also says that parts of Britain were reliant on cotton imports produced using slave labour in the southern American states.

King Cotton

The cotton was shipped to Liverpool to be transported throughout Lancashire, and to parts of Cheshire.

Britain had outlawed slavery in her own colonies decades before, and much of British opinion was against slave labour.

The London tour also takes in the sites of two nineteenth century American 'embassies' that were based in the Marylebone area.

The larger of the two, just a few yards from Regents Park, is another Regency period building which has an English Heritage blue plaque devoted to Henry Adams, a unionist American academic who lived there.

Adams was a member of the Adams political dynasty. His great grandfather John Adams was one of the US Founding Fathers.

Dr Tom Sebrell
Dr Tom Sebrell: Many Britons were 'straight up un-American'

The younger Adams wrote about what it was like to be a unionist American in London at the time of the civil war.

Dr Sebrell explains: "Henry Adams says in one letter to his brother, 'we have friends here, but very few'."

But it seems any private backing of the losing side among Britons was quickly forgotten after the conflict.

"Britain took great steps to eradicate that history after the war," he says.

"The only blue plaque that's up is of a union site.

"You've got three statues of Abraham Lincoln in Britain.

"You've got one civil war statue - in Edinburgh - and it's to a union regiment.

"Tourists today who see these things are going to assume therefore (the British) were pro-north in the war. But of course if you go back to the 1860s, that was anything but the case."

Other historians will challenge the idea of heavy British pro-south sentiment, but Dr Sebrell wants people on his tour to see for themselves how strong sympathies may have existed for either side in the conflict.


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