How Glasgow found itself at the centre of American Civil War

Glasgow was at the forefront of the American Civil War.
Glasgow was at the forefront of the American Civil War.

In 1863, President Abraham Lincoln spoke of “a new birth of freedom”.

The United States had been a war with itself for two years over the emancipation of slaves - and would be for two more - when he made this remark in the Gettysburg address.

Confederate Civil War re-enactors. Picture: John Moore/Getty Images

Confederate Civil War re-enactors. Picture: John Moore/Getty Images

At the same time, across the Atlantic, Glasgow was well on its way to becoming the ‘Second City of the Empire.’

An ever-expanding metropolis, it was an industrial powerhouse of shipbuilding, engineering, textiles, manufacturing and banking.

So how did Scotland’s largest city find itself embroiled in a brutal civil war on foreign shores, thousands of miles away?

READ MORE: Lost Glasgow: The Tobacco Lords

Shippng on the Clyde.

Shippng on the Clyde.

The answer lies in Glasgow’s industrial prowess.

Blockade runners

The Confederacy - originally made up of seven slave-holding southern states which broke away from the United States with a further four joining after hostilities broke out - relied heavily on agriculture to maintain its economy, particularly cotton grown on slave plantations.

Soon after civil war erupted, the Union - the anti-slavery northern states - conceived the Anaconda Plan in 1861; a blockade of southern shipping to effectively maintain a stranglehold on the Confederates.

A number of streets in Glasgow have links to the slave trade era.

A number of streets in Glasgow have links to the slave trade era.

In order to survive the war, the South needed to source supplies from Europe - and more importantly, fast ships to bring these much needed cargoes safely through the blockade. Agents for the rogue state quickly found them on the Clyde.

Looking for fuel-efficient vessels with shallow but spacious hulls for cargo and crews, which also boasted manoeuvrability and above all speed, they bought dozens of second-hand, Glasgow-built paddle steamers.

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

Designed to be powerful and carry hundreds of passengers, they were well suited to the task of outrunning ships in the Union navy.

'Scott's Great Snake'

'Scott's Great Snake'

It wasn’t long before shipbuilders in Glasgow realised that they were making a fortune selling on older ships, and soon began taking orders for new vessels with bespoke design changes.

Of course, new orders meant more jobs on the Clyde, but the stream of wealth now coming to the city sat uneasily with many Glaswegians.

A divided city

Public opinion was deeply divided over whether it was conscionable to support the Confederacy economically while siding with the anti-slavery Union in principle.

After all, Britain had made its overtures to abolish slavery nearly 60 years earlier, with William Wilberforce’s Slave Trade Act in 1807.

While this effectively dismantled the trading of slaves throughout the British Empire, it wasn’t until the 1833 Slavery Abolition Act that slavery was ultimately abolished.

Blockade runners.

Blockade runners.

That said, much of Britain’s prosperity relied heavily on cotton exports.

The battle to reconcile economic reality with anti-slavery sympathies was most keenly felt in Glasgow. Opinion continued to be divided throughout the course of the war.

As a city that once prospered on the proceeds of industries built on slave labour, such as sugar and tobacco, Glasgow had cultivated an ardent abolitionist movement.

Talks were held in Glasgow, with speakers such as escaped American slave and prominent abolitionist Frederick Douglass - who made several trips to Scotland - drawing thousands of attendees.

There were, however, vocal supporters of the Confederates, which ensured that fierce debate raged at public meetings in the city and in the press.

Edinburgh-born James Smith, who was living in Glasgow’s St Vincent Crescent in the 1860s, regularly wrote to newspapers in support of the South as well as hanging a Confederate flag from the window of his home for the duration of the conflict.

He emigrated with his family to the southern state of Mississippi, where he had started a business manufacturing stoves. He also became a close personal friend of Jefferson Davis, the man who would later become the President of the Confederacy and a renowned white supremacist.

Smith was forced to return to Scotland in 1853 after his wife became seriously ill, but his brother Robert remained behind and later became a colonel in the Confederate Army.

He was fatally wounded at the Battle of Mumfordville in Kentucky in 1862, leading a charge against Union forces.

Turning the tide

The blockade runners enjoyed considerable success outwitting the enemy, providing a vital lifeline to the South.

Shipping cannons, rifles and munitions on their inward journeys, the vessels then transported raw cotton and tobacco back to neutral ports in the Caribbean, to be shipped on to Liverpool or Glasgow as payment.

While 355 steamers ran aground making these journeys, over a thousand were captured by the enemy, with some eventually pressed into the Union’s service.

The CSS Advance, a Greenock-built steamer, made some 20 successful runs from the Caribbean to North Carolina before being captured trying to break out of Wilmington port. She was recommissioned - as were many of her peers - into the Union Navy, joining the blockaders off Wilmington in a reversed role.

The CSS Atlanta, a Govan-built ironclad ship, managed only one run before it ran aground, before being refloated to serve as a Union vessel.

Runs were made well into 1865, but by then the Confederacy was beset by a series of military setbacks. It eventually collapsed, with much of the infrastructure and economy in tatters.

The abolition of slavery was finally realised and four million slaves left plantations as free men and women.

Around 750,000 men had fallen on battlefields fighting to decide whether America’s founding principles of freedom for all truly did apply to everyone - and Glasgow’s contentious role in the Civil War has not been forgotten.