Scots and the American Civil War: So whose side were we on?

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One hundred and fifty years ago today, the American Civil War began. Scotland has a major effect on hostilities but, finds Stephen McGinty, we didn't always back the Unionist North

IN May, 1864 a young Glaswegian by the name of Bennet Graham Burley stared at the dark, dirty water rising up through a grille and flooding over the floor of his cell and considered his alternatives, neither of which were good.

He could remain in this dank, filthy cell in the Union prison on Pea Patch Island in the middle of the Delaware River until they got around to shooting him as a spy or shipped him off to one of the captured forts in Charleston harbour as a human shield against Confederate cannons. Or he could attempt to escape through the long and narrow sewage drains that flooded out into the river.

Incarceration had become a motif of his American adventure. The son of Robert Burley, who owned a tool-making factory in Glasgow, Bennet had been despatched across the Atlantic at the age of 22 in possession of his father's design for an underwater limpet mine. Unable to persuade anyone in Britain of the mine's commercial potential, Robert figured that America, then in the grip of a Civil War that pitted the Unionist north against a Confederacy of southern states would be more amenable.

Bennet chose to favour the South with the family invention, on the grounds that he had a better chance of being noticed. When he reached Richmond, he was arrested and locked up for the first time in Castle Thunder, a converted warehouse, but was released after John M Brooke, chief of the Confederate navy's Bureau of Ordnance and Hydrography, who was also an inventor, took a shine to his plans. When Bennet tested the mine on a Unionist ship, it failed to detonate, but the excitement of espionage was addictive, and soon the Glaswegian was carrying out a host of clandestine missions for the Confederates, until captured two years later planting torpedoes.

Back in the cell, Bennet, assisted by five fellow prisoners, prised open the grille, took a deep breath and squeezed into the flooded pipe. His fate? To that we shall return.

The subject of the Scots' involvement in the American Civil War is a fascinating, complicated story, which on this 150th anniversary of the day the first shots were fired deserves an airing. So, whose side was Scotland on during the four-year campaign that led to the deaths of 620,000 soldiers and the abolition of slavery? The fact that Edinburgh is the only city outside the United States to have a monument to Abraham Lincoln and the Civil War would lead to the swift conclusion that Scots sided with the Union North, but the evidence is that our greatest support, like the actions of Bennet Burley, favoured the South and the slave-owning classes.

As Amanda Foreman, author of A World On Fire, an epic new history of Britain's involvement in The American Civil War, explains: "For some Scots there was definitely a sense of kinship with the South. It was a smaller nation with an obvious identity and cultural heritage that was sitting uneasily within a larger cultural identity and heritage and was seeking independence, so it's not surprising that the Scots had a love for the Confederacy. It really was a mix. The Paisley workers were pretty much for the North, but all the dockworkers on the Clyde were all for the South – there was a huge divide. You could say that Glasgow was more pro-South and Edinburgh was pro-North and Scotland, as a whole, was probably like the rest of Britain, and was more pro-North at the beginning and then became pro-South during the middle and then went back to pro-North at the end. The Scots had an enormous impact on the American Civil War."

Scotland in the early 19th century was a hotbed of abolitionists. After achieving the eradication of slavery in the British Empire, they focused their fire on the United States where the country was divided between those states who permitted slavery, the majority in the South, and those in the North, were it had largely been abolished.

When the Free Church of Scotland split in 1843, it accepted funds from slave-owning Presbyterians in the American South to buy new property, which later led to a high-profile campaign for the funds to be sent back. The Ladies Emancipation Society of Edinburgh carved: "Send Back The Money" in giant letters into the turf by Salisbury Crags. The leading figures in the American emancipation movement viewed Scotland as their beachhead into Europe. When Frederick Douglass, the emancipationist and fugitive black slave, visited Edinburgh in April 1846 he was taken aback by the warmth of his reception, which was in comparison to the vitriol with which he had been treated by fellow passengers on his crossing. He wrote: "No insults to encounter here – no prejudice to encounter, but all is smooth – I am treated as a man and as an equal brother." Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of Uncle Tom's Cabin, was invited to Scotland by the New Glasgow Anti-Slavery Society in 1853, and embarked on a popular tour around the country speaking to packed halls.

However, the country was not always as enlightened as Douglass and Beecher Stowe might have hoped. One of the most popular forms of entertainment at the time was the forerunner of the "black and white minstrel" shows, and the Negro Monster Concert was to play successfully in Broughton Street, shortly after Douglass's departure.

Yet, when war broke out in America, the most important colour was not black nor white, but green. The blockade set up by the Unionist North against the ports of the South, brought a halt to the lucrative cotton trade between Scotland and the South. Mills shut down and thousands were thrown out of work. However, a new business began to thrive.

The shipyards on the River Clyde soon began to construct what became known as Blockade Runners, ships with reinforced decks and armour, designed to be equipped with cannons for use by the Confederate navy. Strictly speaking, Britain was neutral, taking no side in the conflict across the Atlantic. So as long as the official paperwork for each vessel said it was under construction for, say, China, what happened to it in the mid-Atlantic and which course it then took, was of no concern to the government.

By 1864, 27 shipyards on the River Clyde were working around the clock, employing 25,000 men in the construction of Blockade Runners. Around 3,000 Scots worked onboard the vessels, breaking Britain's law against subjects becoming involved in foreign wars, but for the captains it was a business too lucrative to ignore. Many were earning $3,000 per run, and those who made it through the blockade to Charleston with their holds laden with food and arms, were able to fill them up with bales of cotton which they then sold in Scotland for 30 times the purchase price.

"You had a cloak-and-dagger game going on between private detectives trying to follow all these confederate agents who were going around Scotland buying up ferries and ordering these warships, and the Clyde shipbuilders were making a fortune," says Eric J Graham, author of Clydebuilt: The Blockade Runners, Cruisers and Armoured Rams of the American Civil War.

He maintains that was it not for Scotland's involvement, the war would have ended two years earlier: "After the battle of Gettysburg and Lee's retreat into Virginia, the South had shot its bolt and would have quickly come to a negotiated settlement, but we resupplied them with Blockade Runners running in ammunition from British Bahamas, and so later the American government wanted compensation for those two years of extra carnage."

At the end of the war, America's initial calculation was that Britain owed her 8 billion.This was later reduced to 3.5 million, which the United Kingdom eventually paid in 1871.

A number of Scots thrived during the American Civil War. Alexander Gardener, from Paisley, moved to New York as a 24-year-old, and became a successful photographer, eventually being appointed the official photographer for the Union Army. Few, though, did as well as the Scots captains of the Blockade Runners. In Dunoon today, there stands the house built by David Leslie, who captained the steel-hulled Banshee II, and who had the outline of the ship marked out on his lawn in white stones.

And so what of the fate of Bennet Graham Burley? Six men in total squeezed down through the grille, only two of whom managed to make it through the 25-yard pipe and still have enough strength to fight the currents and reach the surface and a fresh breath of air. Burley was one of only two survivors. He was picked up by a sailing ship, persuaded the captain that he had capsized and was taken to Philadelphia, from where he headed north to Canada.

However, Burley was not one to avoid a fight and later returned to the field of battle. At the end of the war he was captured and stood trial, but when the first trial ended with a hung jury, he had another stroke of luck. A visitor presented him with an apple pie, in whose crust was concealed a file. After sawing through the bars, he escaped again and went on to become one of Britain's most celebrated foreign correspondents.