Special Report

The Unknown Contributions of Brits in the American Civil War

Historian Amanda Foreman discusses how British citizens took part in the war between the Union and the Confederacy

Secretary of State William Seward, far right, with British Minister Lord Lyons, sitting third from right, and other international diplomats at Trenton Falls in New York. (National Archives)

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At the beginning of the war, cotton impacted the livelihoods of one in five Englishmen in some way. Everyone was worried that the cotton embargo would destroy Britain’s financial might. But it turned out that there was a huge cotton glut in 1860. There was too much cotton in England in warehouses, and it was bringing down the price of finished goods. So what the war did was rescue Britain from a serious industrial slump that was about to take place. For the first 18 months of the war, British merchants just used up the cotton that they had stored. Then, finally, when the cotton became scarce, truly, truly scarce midway through the war, there were other sources of cotton coming from India and Egypt. By then, Britain had become completely invested in the war because of the war economy. Guns, cannons, rifles, bullets, uniforms, steel plating of all kind, engines, everything that a war needs, Britain was able to export to the North and to the South. In fact, Britain’s economy grew during the Civil War. So just from a financial point of view, Britain was heavily invested industrially.

Second of all, Britain was heavily invested because of the bonds. Both the South and the North needed to sell bonds on the international market to raise money to fight the war. The British were the largest holder of these bonds.

Of course, what is interesting to us is not so much that, but what the British people were thinking and feeling. We know they felt a great deal because over 50,000 sailed from Britain to the U.S. to take part, to fight, to volunteer.

Can you talk about some of the capacities in which they served?

They served in all capacities. We have the famous actor-manager Charles Wyndham. If you go to London, Wyndham’s Theatre is one of the famous theaters on Drury Lane. But before he became the famous Charles Wyndham, he actually had trained to be a doctor. He wasn’t a very successful doctor. He was having difficulty keeping his patients in England as a young man. So when the war started he went out and he joined the federal army as a surgeon and accompanied Gen. [Nathaniel P.] Banks on his Red River campaign in Louisiana. He spent the first three years of the war as a surgeon until finally he went back in 1864.

The head of the Oxford Infirmary [in England] was a man called Charles Mayo. He also volunteers as a surgeon and became second in command of the medical corps in Vicksburg and was there for the fall of Vicksburg.

These are British soldiers who really played a prominent part in the military life of the war, who just resigned their positions and came over to fight. There is even an English Medal of Honor winner, Philip Baybutt. Sir John Fitzroy De Courcy, who later became Lord Kingsale, was the colonel of the 16th Ohio Volunteers. He was the colonel who captured the Cumberland Gap from the Confederacy. They all have their part to play. Then, of course, you have those on the Southern side, who are in some ways more characterful because it was harder to get to the South. They had to run the blockade. There was no bounty to lure them. They literally went there out of sheer idealism.

Henry Morton Stanley, a Welsh journalist and explorer of Africa best known for his search for Dr. Livingstone, served in the Civil War. How did he get involved?

He had come [to the United States] before the war. He was living in Arkansas, apprenticed to someone. He hadn’t actually had any intention of joining up, but he was shamed into joining when he was sent a package with women’s clothes inside of it—a southern way of giving him the white feather. So he joined the Dixie Grays. He took part in the Battle of Shiloh. He was captured and sent to Camp Douglas, one of the most notorious prison camps in the North, in Chicago. It had a terrible death rate.

He was dying, and he just decided that he wanted to live. He was a young man, and so he took the oath of loyalty and switched sides. Then he was shipped out to a northern hospital prior to being sent into the field. As he began to get better, he realized that he didn’t want to fight anymore. So he very quietly one day got dressed and walked out of the hospital and didn’t look back. That was in 1862. He went back to Wales, where he discovered his family didn’t want to know him. Then he went back to New York. He clerked for a judge for a while. He decided this wasn’t earning him enough money, so he joined the Northern navy as a ship’s writer and was present at the Battle of Wilmington at Fort Fisher, the last big naval battle in 1865. About three weeks after the Battle of Wilmington, he jumped ship with a friend.


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