The British Side With Lincoln And The North - in 1862, Lancashire mill workers, at great personal sacrifice, took a principled stand by refusing to touch raw cotton picked by US slaves.
On the other side of the Atlantic, President Lincoln’s Northern Union was waging war against a breakaway of southern states. Having already linked the south with the institution of slavery, Lincoln persuaded European importers that his blockade of slave picked cotton was a legitimate tool in defeating the Confederacy and restoring the union.
The South’s cotton, produced by slave labor, had fueled Britain’s industrialization—or, conversely, Britain’s industrialization had generated the “Cotton Kingdom” of the South, and with it a dramatic growth and expansion of slavery. In 1860 over 80 percent of Britain’s cotton came from the South of the US; and Britain was the recipient of the lion’s share of all Southern cotton production. Though “white gold” was not the only important American link to the British economy—
The Southern elite calculated that the Cotton Famine would propel the British toward diplomatic recognition and then war, and presumed that British workers would play a role in this by protesting mass unemployment. Indeed, the South itself imposed an embargo on cotton exports to accelerate this process. Early in the war a Southern leader told the London Times, “We have only to stop shipment of cotton for three months and a revolution will occur in England. Hundreds of thousands of your workers will starve without our cotton, and they will demand you break the blockade.”
On December 31, 1862, the day before the Emancipation Proclamation’s implementation, large meetings in support were held in Manchester and London. In 1863 British workers held 56 pro-Union meetings, according to historian Royden Harrison; meanwhile attempts by pro-Southern agents to organize competing meetings “invariably failed,” in the words of historian Philip Foner.
Many mill and shipping companies wanted the Royal Navy to smash the blockade, allowing the precious cotton back into Europe. In Liverpool, a city made wealthy by cotton imports, it was said that there were more Confederate flags flying along the banks of the Mersey than in Virginia.
With the ‘cotton famine’ now taking a firm grip even the Manchester Guardian instructed the mill hands that they were better off dropping their support for the embargo. However, at a noisy meeting at the Manchester Free Trade Hall in 1862, in a historic show of solidarity against slavery, the workers agreed to keep supporting Lincoln’s embargo.
Although an extraordinary gesture, the vote would be costly to the mill workers as more of them faced starvation and destitution.