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British role in Civil War
An English Rose in Georgia
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April is a significant month in the history of the Civil War. It began on April 12, 1861, (153 years ago) and is widely considered to have ended with Gen. Lee’s surrender on April 9, 1865.
As an English-born naturalized American citizen, I have always been a bit hesitant to comment on the U.S. Civil War.
This huge four-year struggle between North and South, according to, cost the lives of more than 620,000 people — around 2 percent of the U.S. population at the time, and is still an emotive subject for many Americans, almost 150 years after it ended.
However, I recently came across a fascinating book by an author of my generation who also has dual U.S./U.K. citizenship. Amanda Foreman’s “World on Fire: An Epic History of Two Nations Divided” made me realize that thousands of ordinary British people were heavily involved in the U.S. Civil War.
While the Revolutionary War established the U.S. as an independent nation, there were still two fundamental issues that remained unresolved.
Firstly, was the U.S. a single, indivisible nation with a sovereign national government or was it a looser confederation of individual sovereign states?
Secondly, would the U.S. continue to recognize slavery as a legitimate institution, despite this new country built upon a foundational premise that “all men are created equal”? Polarized opinion on these issues, and others, finally boiled over and resulted in the Civil War.
In the 1860s, the British government was determined that Britain should remain neutral in the conflict — which led to both southern Confederates and northern Federals accusing Britain of betrayal.
The Federals threatened to invade what was at that time the British protectorate of Canada, and the Confederates threatened to withhold cotton exports on which the growing British textile industry depended.
Nevertheless, in spite of the British government’s wishes, many British people were keen to join in the conflict because there were many British living in America at this time, slavery was a very emotive topic as it had been abolished in England in the 1833, and the livelihoods of many Brits depended on cotton imports from the USA.
According to Foreman, a number of Britain’s anti-slavery protestors and mercenaries joined with the North, while idealists who saw the southern states as brave underdogs fighting for independence joined with the Confederacy. British merchant ships regularly sailed from Liverpool in England to Charleston, Savannah and others, running past Federal blockades of southern ports.
These ships brought guns and supplies to the Confederates, who also commissioned warships from British shipyards.
The first major battle of the war, the Battle of Bull Run in July 1861, had regiments on both sides that were made up almost entirely of British volunteers. Two famous New York regiments were called the Irish Brigade (Ireland was under British rule at this time) and the New York Highlanders from Scotland.
Tens of thousands of British citizens fought and died voluntarily on both sides, but late in the war the British entered a heated argument with the U.S. government about the practice of tricking or abducting British tourists into the army (known as “crimping”).
The cruelty shown to those who tried to escape was extreme and many British were imprisoned. It took extensive lobbying by the British ambassador in Washington, but the U.S. State Department finally agreed to halt this treatment and many British prisoners were then released.
After the war, the U.S. had completely forgotten about the contribution of British volunteers to the North’s cause, and instead was furious with Britain. Washington wanted apologies and cash as reparations for the damage inflicted by Confederate warships that were built in Britain.
After seven years, the British government finally agreed to pay the US $15 million in damages, equal to about $240 million today.
The American Civil War took a huge toll on the country, both economically but especially in human terms — casualties were about the same as every other U.S. war combined. The conflict was the first to utilize the deadly technology of modern warfare: submarines, machine guns, aerial (balloon) surveillance, trains, trenches and land mines.
The fact that the nation was divided with brother sometimes fighting brother, particularly in the border states, makes the national scars and memories even more painful.
Abraham Lincoln used his post war speeches not to focus on Union victory, but instead to emphasize healing and reconciliation.
Four months after the end of the Civil War, he finished his legendary Gettysburg Address with “…. this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”
God bless America!

Francis grew up in London, England, and moved to Richmond Hill in 2009. She can be contacted at or

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